Friday, 30 October 2009

the problem with prologues, as illustrated by the tv show sanctuary

I enjoy a lot of science fiction and fantasy TV shows: Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Darker And Edgier spinoff Torchwood, Supernatural, Flash Forward and Dollhouse, to name but a few. So I popped the pilot episode of Sanctuary on with high hopes.

I’d like those fifteen minutes of my life back, please.

(SPOILERS for Sanctuary 1x01.)

  1. Our pilot opens with a woman facing off against a prostitute-killing vampire in 1880s Whitechapel, the inference being that he’s Jack the Ripper, in a scene apparently ripped directly from Angel. As far as I could tell, these characters disappear and the storyline is never brought up again.
  2. Giant time, location and scene change. Present-day cops burst into a murder scene and find a kid hiding under a bed. The kid bursts out tentacles and eats them or something. All these characters drop off the radar.
  3. Another time, location and scene change. In a hospital, a delusional criminal is being interrogated about the murdered bodies of a bunch of people he claims he didn’t kill ...

At this point, I’m fifteen minutes in, and I hit the exit button of disgust.

When I start watching a pilot (or open a book to the first page), I’m ready to get excited. Give me something -- a compelling character, a unique voice, conflict that gets my heart racing -- and I’ll keep turning pages.

But if you don’t give me time and incentive to engage, and you rip me out of that scene and stick me in another and expect me to try and engage with that scene too, and then you rip me out of that scene ... then I’m done.

And that’s my problem with prologues. You get one shot at hooking me as a reader. It’s a fair shot: I’ll keep turning pages to give you time to get into your stride. But if you can’t hook me with your opening scene, throwing a scene change at me doesn’t help. And if you did hook me with your opening scene -- shoving me into another, completely different scene, often with no continuity of character or plot at all? Also doesn’t help.

Honourable exceptions to my prologue hate include Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. This prologue is so snappy and pacy and caustic, I loved it instantly: I counted down the days until I could rush out and buy the novel, which I also loved. So they can work. You just need to be brilliant like Scott Lynch.

1 comment:

  1. Do you watch Lost? If not, this won't make much sense, but... the first episode is simply the plane landing on the island and all the characters trying to figure out how to survive. 5 seasons later, regular watchers know all about the HUGE amounts of backstory, interwoven stories, myths, mysteries, and prologue-type material that is part of the show.

    They could have started off the show by telling us the myth of the island, or showing us some backstory, but instead they let the viewers discover new things as they went along. The result is the most tantalizing show I've ever watched. So yeah - I totally get what you mean :)