Monday, September 7, 2009

The Frame that Holds the Art

By Steve Weddle

Remember when you read “Heart of Darkness” and it opened with Marlow sitting on that boat with those old guys and how he started telling them that story of how he went up the river to find Marlon Brando?

And how about that book that was letters Robert Walton wrote to his sister about this weird doctor called “Frankenstein”?

And that book Washington Irving put together from that colorful guy called “Crayon” with all that stuff about Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle?
And how Hawthorne “found” those stories in an attic trunk? Or some fake dude Kierkegaard made up found fake letters some other fake person wrote to another fake person?

Since naming things helps to talk about them – and makes teaching easier – we call this gimmick, er, technique the “framing” device. Of course, since you’re so smart and good looking you already knew that.

This technique seems to work along that “willing suspension of disbelief” stuff in much the same way that a prologue-epilogue do.

Don’t tell anyone, but I just recently sculpted a prologue onto my current work in progress. Then I found out all the cool writers hate prologues. I felt like Ted Knight in that scene from “Caddyshack”--

Al Czervik: Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. What, when you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup, huh?
[looks at Judge Smails, who's wearing the same hat]
Al Czervik: Oh, it looks good on you though.

Yeah. That prologue. Does it ever look good? Does it make your book an embarrassment?

Most arguments against the prologue sound something like this: “Just make the first chapter better, slacker.” Um, yeah. Thanks. Is this really a problem of nomenclature? If we called the prologue the first chapter and moved on, would that work?

SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane opens with a prologue: “I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years.” The prologue is dated 1993, nearly half a century after the events in the book. The framing technique here is that old doctor is losing his memory to age and needs to get this story down before he forgets everything. Why? Because you need to know.

Why does Marlow tell his story to the men on the boat? Because they need to know, need to understand the darkness.

A good prologue isn’t just a cheat on the first chapter. A good prologue can frame the narrative, in the way that the prologues did in Greek drama. Here’s a story I’m gonna show you. This story I have to share.

A good prologue can match up with a solid epilogue.

Maybe sometimes a prologue is just parts of the opening that should be included in the first chapters. And maybe it doesn’t always fit, but when it does, it’s a perfect match, particularly to a good epilogue that pulls you back out of the story. Maybe sometimes it forms a solid frame that holds the story, much like the way Conrad used Marlow to tell the story. The part that holds the story together.

In that scene in “Caddyshack,” Al Czervik makes fun of the judge’s hat as the judge is walking behind some aisles of other pro shop junk. You know, maybe that hat was a perfect match to the judge’s shoes, one edge complementing the other.

Today's Question: Have you ever read or written a prologue that worked particularly well? Or didn't?


Jay Stringer said...

Good question.

It must be down to the writer and the story. If it's a story that needs the frame, and a writer that can make it work, go for it.

Your prologue works, and hooks in the reader. I persevered with one for a long time, but had to be honest with myself. My story didn't suit one, and my charachter hated it. It was only there to cover the fact that the first chapter sucked, and there was nothing in my prologue that couldn't be revealed more naturally later on.

Saying that, the manuscript does have a 'sorta prologue' there is a quick tease of something.

So I reckon folks should just be honest with themselves and go with what works. Whatever that may be.

Dana King said...

Agreed. I don't where the current prejudice against prologues came from. They can set the frame, as in HEART OF DARKNESS or SHUTTER ISLAND. They can also provide a glimpse into the period or a character that will allow something in Chapter One to make more sense right away, or to provide anticipation of how someone is going to respond to something.

They need to be used judiciously, but a prologue definitely does not serve the same function as Chapter One.

John McFetridge said...

I have a tough time with prologues. I just read Louis L'Amour's The Last of His Breed and it started with a prologue that was a kind of hook - but I was already committed to reading the book and I didn't need more of a hook, I just wanted the book to start.

I don't usually like those prologues in italics that show you things the narrator could never see or tell you things in a murky way like, "The man in the raincoat walked quickly away from subway," when we could just be told, "Max Smith walked away from the subway." Surely the writer knows who's doing the walking. It feels like trying too hard to make things mysterious.

Now, having said that, the Louis L'Amour prologue didn't stop me from reading the book and I can remember at least one Rebus novel that Ian Rankin started with a prologue and I read that book.

So, prologues can't stop me, no matter how hard they try ;)

Jay Stringer said...

Also worth mentioning that Russel's book THE GOOD SON has the very kind of prologue that I couldn't manage. His works a treat and adds suspence to the story.

The best Matt Scudder, too, was told using a framing device.

But it's always the bad examples that stick in my mind, the type that John has already outlined.