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?