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Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing: Avoid Prologues

October 29, 2013
Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

If you ever want a quick reminder of the recently departed Elmore Leonard’s genius, it’s always worth revisiting his 10 Rules of Writing. The most oft quoted rule is the closing one, which Leonard said, ‘sums up the 10’. Put simply: ‘Try to leave out the part the readers tend to skip’. But for this post I want to look at rule 2, Avoid Prologues:

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

I can’t fault Leonard’s argument. and you can see how it connects to his own work. In his best novels 52 Pickup (1974) and Killshot (1989) there is no real mystery. Instead, Leonard presents a series of bizarre, violent and loosely connected events. Who needs a prologue for that? However, let’s look at two examples of prologues in a crime novel, one written long before Leonard set down his rules of writing. Firstly, True Confessions (1977), John Gregory Dunne’s novel loosely based on the Black Dahlia case. The novel begins with the heading ‘NOW’ and contains the first-person prologue of retired detective Tom Spellacy. The prologue, as its title states, is set in the present day, and Spellacy is musing on the discovery of the corpse of Lois Fazenda, dubbed the ‘Virgin Tramp’ in the novel. Fazenda is Dunne’s stand-in for Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia:

Anyway, when I got there, Crotty was bending over the second half of Lois Fazenda. The top half. She was naked as a jaybird, both halves. There was no blood. Not a drop. Anywhere. Just this pale green body cut in two. It was too much for Bingo. He took one look at the top half and spilled his breakfast all over her titties, which is a good way to mess up a few clues. Not that it bothered Crotty. “You don’t often see a pair of titties nice as that,” was all he said. Respect for the dead, Crotty always used to say, was bullshit. Dead is dead.

This sets the tone for the dark, grisly humour which runs throughout the book. The next section is titled ‘THEN’, and is a third-person narrative set in the late 1940s. This forms the bulk of the novel and covers Spellacy’s original investigation. The epilogue reverts back to the ‘NOW’ heading, and Spellacy’s first-person voice. Dunne’s NOW/THEN present day/past setting of the novel is an example, I believe, of a prologue that works really well in a crime novel. Although strictly speaking it may not be a prologue at all. The first ‘NOW’ section covers twenty-four pages and is split over six chapters. A prologue always precedes the first chapter therefore just postponing the inevitable in Leonard’s view. However, the ‘THEN’ section also begins as chapter one. Also, this longer section is essentially the backstory to the present day Tom Spellacy we meet in the prologue and epilogue, reversing Leonards’ claim that ‘a prologue in a novel is backstory’.

Dunne’s use of prologue and epilogue is referenced in James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover (2009). The novel was Ellroy’s long awaited conclusion to the Underworld USA trilogy and was billed as covering American history from 1968 to 1972. The first two volumes of the trilogy, American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001), covered 1958-1963 and 1963-1968 respectively. I’m sure more than a few Ellroy readers would have been surprised when they opened up the novel to find the heading ‘THEN’ followed by the first scene, an armed robbery written in the first-person, set in 1964. This is followed by the heading ‘NOW’, the first-person narration of Don ‘Crutch’ Crutchfield set in the present-day, then we cut to ‘THEN’ again (confused yet?) and things commence in 1968, the main five year time span of the novel, and back in third-person. We end with ‘NOW’ and we’re back with Crutchfield in the present day, oh and did I mention there’s an epigraph before the first ‘THEN’?

By and large I think Ellroy just about gets away with his rather complicated tribute to John Gregory Dunne, but you can see he’s veering dangerously close to what Leonard talked about when he said avoid, ‘a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword’. If you’re going to break the rules of the master, do it well.

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