Part two of our series on Elmore Leonard’s rules… At last, it’s time for that in-depth discussion of prologues you’ve always wanted!
2. Avoid prologues
Elmore says: “Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.””
Leonard is best known for writing thrillers and, understandably, he doesn’t want to waste time getting to the plot. This falls into the same category of rule as ‘never open a book with the weather’: both rules are telling you, the writer, to just get on with it. Who could possibly be interested in a ponderous, slow-moving, ‘literary’ sort of novel, the sort of novel that might conceivably have ‘a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword’? Well, me…
Five good reasons to ignore him:
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’
Far from slowing the plot down with backstory, prologues can provide a great opportunity to begin in medias res, summarising the main events of the novel immediately. The author gambles that if we’re told the effect, we’ll want to know the cause. In the first sentence of the prologue to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, we’re told about a murder that will be central to the plot; in the second paragraph, we find out the identity of the murderer(s). At this point, most readers will realise that The Secret History isn’t likely to be a detective novel —instead, it becomes an examination of group dynamics, power and freedom from power, and even the idea of fate.
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
‘In order that the circumstances may be clearly understood, I must revert for a moment to the period before the assault, and to the stories current in our camp of the treasure in jewels and gold stored up in the Palace of Seringapatam.’
Prologues are of, a course, a useful device for bridging gaps in time. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone opens with a four-chapter prologue, ‘The Siege of Seringapatam’, set almost fifty years before the rest of the novel. The reader is plunged into a scene involving the siege of Tippoo Sultan’s palace, the murder of several Indian guards, and the theft of a priceless diamond which may or may not be cursed (‘The dying Indian sank to his knees, pointed to the dagger in Herncastle’s hand, and said, in his native language–“The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!”’) before being returned to England, where the diamond has been ‘lost’. As with The Secret History, opening with (arguably) the novel’s most dramatic event is a calculated gamble to capture the reader’s interest early on.
William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew
‘Your honour’s players, heating your amendment,
Are come to play a pleasant comedy…’
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a prologue: it’s an ‘induction.’ The Taming of the Shrew opens with a neat metadramatic trick: in one of Shakespeare’s few contemporary scenes, the inebriated Christopher Sly passes out near an alehouse, and comes to dressed as a lord. Sly’s induction is part of an elaborate plot concocted by a (real) lord returning from a hunt, and culminates in Sly being entertained by a troupe of players, who perform The Taming of the Shrew. Sly’s story is never resolved, and the induction scene has been cut from many modern performances, but Shakespeare’s trick of turning the characters into the audience seems centuries ahead of its time and is a useful rebuttal to claims that ‘Postmodernism’ is a twentieth-century invention.
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
‘ I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me…’
And then there are prologues which take up entire novels… Laurence Sterne’s circumlocutory masterpiece Tristram Shandy opens with an account of Tristram’s conception and never manages to get more than a few years beyond his birth: Tristram revels in digressions, meandering anecdotes and lengthy accounts of episodes which any other narrator would dismiss as trivial. In some ways, Tristram Shandy is the opposite of a prologue: where a prologue takes key events and condenses them into a few pages, Sterne’s novel takes relatively minor events and dilutes them into a magnum opus of 9 volumes. Sterne is one of those remarkably original writers who plagiarised shamelessly from every source he could get hold of: Tristram Shandy is essentially six-hundred pages of backstory, but it’s a classic.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane…’
If you’re looking for ‘a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword’, Vladimir Nabokov seems like the author to read. (The fictional) John Ray Jr.’s earnest introduction to Lolita would be a decent place to start, but Pale Fire trumps it with a commentary following a thousand-line poem that comes after a foreword. The ostensibly dull opening (‘Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade… during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, USA’) is spectacularly Leonard-proof, the poem tears up the rule book, and Charles Kinbote’s commentary burns the pieces.