Nancy: Justified (and Why That Prologue You Love Probably Isn’t)

Justified_2010_IntertitleI’ve spent the past month not getting very far on my own story, so instead of spending a post talking about my progress (dismal), I thought I’d talk about someone else’s story. Justified is a TV series based on an Elmore Leonard short story called Fire in the Hole. And when I’ve come home late at night, too tired to work on my own WIP or even to make much of a dent in my overflowing TBR pile, I’ve been able to satisfy my craving for good story by binge-watching this series (available through Amazon Prime, in case you’re interested in checking it out for yourself). I’ve been enjoying the writing on this series so much, I thought I’d spend some time here talking about the craft behind it.

First, the disclaimers. I haven’t read Leonard’s short story, and I don’t plan to do so until I’ve finished watching all six seasons of the series (I’ve watched the first three so far). Leonard was involved with the series, which I love because it means they’ve kept a lot of his original vision in the story, and the head writer/show runner Graham Yost has made a concerted effort to keep close to that writer’s voice. But I’ve heard there are differences, as there should be, because TV and books are different media. For purposes of these blog discussions, I’m going to stick to the TV series, and in fact am going to focus on the first season, because there’s so much good story-telling juice there. But there will be spoilers! If this is on your future watch list (I highly recommend that it should be) and you can’t stand knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time, you’ll want to avert your eyes a few paragraphs from here.

The first thing I want to discuss about Justified is the way the series opens, the first scene in the very first episode. But before I talk about what I think the writers got right about that scene, I’m going to return to a somewhat controversial topic among the 8 Ladies: the prologue in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. A few of the Ladies love that prologue, love what they learn about Dain from that opening, and feel they ‘attach’ to the hero because of it. I am not in that camp. I didn’t need to know about his childhood to attach to Dain. I’ve met Jessica – shrewd, smart, capable Jessica – and when she finds Dain intriguing and attractive, albeit disturbing,  I trust her enough to feel the same way.

Warning: LoS Spoilers ahead. Dain himself continues to show that as bad a Lord of Scoundrels - Loretta Chaseboy as he is, he still has his own moral code and a heart of gold, of a sort. He’s not out to destroy Bertie, Jessica’s brother, just for the hell of it. In his eyes, Bertie is not living up to the moral code of the day. If Bertie can’t keep up with drinking and whoring and still meet his obligations to his family, then Bertie deserves whatever he gets because of that failure of character. We also learn that Dain is deeply protective of anyone for whom he is responsible. He’s so terrified of hurting Jessica, he postpones consummating his own marriage.

I don’t need a prologue to establish that Dain’s had a troubled past. As a reader, I bring enough perspective to the story to recognize that someone so self-destructive had something go very, very wrong in his childhood. Psychology 101 here. And I also don’t need to see him hurting as a child to know he has a sensitive, needy side. That comes across very clearly in his scenes with Jess. But the unnecessary nature of the prologue isn’t the only thing that makes me unhappy it’s there. It’s also the fact that by its oversharing nature, the prologue undercuts one of the most powerful scenes in the book, the scene when Dain finally reveals the horror of his childhood to Jess. If we as readers would have been able to suss out that he’s had some kind of childhood trauma without knowing the details from the very beginning, the emotional impact of that scene would have tripled (at least for me).

As you can tell, I’m just not a prologue kind of girl. Even when a story depends upon the deep, dark past of one of its characters (and I would argue that every story, to some extent, depends on this very human condition of childhood pain), prologues aren’t the only way to do it. Justified is, at its core, a story of ‘you can’t go home again’. The writers had lots of choices about how to open the series. They could have shown protagonist Raylan Givens returning ‘home’, driving down Kentucky back roads, maybe even while voices from the distant past whisper in his ear. We’ve all seen that done. Or they could have started with a tragic incident from childhood, or with the traumatic event from his young adulthood that we don’t know until season 3 precipitated his leaving Kentucky in the first place. We’ve seen those approaches to story-telling as well. Instead, the writers chose to start in situ, with the character where he is in the here and now of the story. Then they put him into action and we watch the dominoes start falling.

Warning: Justified spoilers ahead. The first time we see protagonist Raylan Givens, in the first seconds of the first scene of the first episode, he’s in tan suit and cowboy boots. But it’s his accessories that really matter: his US Marshal’s star, his gun, and his white cowboy hat (off-white; so much symbolism there – we’ll discuss this more in later posts!). As much as this could be a marshal from Wyatt Earp’s day walking into a saloon, instead it’s a modern-day man walking through an outdoor cafe in Miami, finally sitting down across from a gangster eating his lunch. Within minutes we’ve learned these two met long ago and the marshal warned the gangster their next meeting wouldn’t be pleasant. We also learn they met again the day before in Miami, and the marshal gave the gangster 24 hours to get out of town. After some more back and forth, the gangster pulls a gun on the marshal, but our hero is faster and pulls his own gun and shoots the gangster. It’s a kill shot: quick, precise, and merciless.

So what do we know about our hero just from this first scene? Bringing our own cultural references to bear (John Wayne and Gary Cooper, anyone?), we recognize the ’24 hours to get out of Dodge’ reference, the gunslinger bad guy, the marshal who comes to town to clean up the streets in the Wild, Wild West. Despite the modern-day, chic city locale, we recognize and immediately assign a moral code to our protagonist, based on the references built into the imagery and dialogue of the scene. But wait, there’s more!

In the next scene, the press descends after the very public shooting, and Givens’s boss lectures him on the bad optics of the situation, despite the fact that the shooting was justified (get it? ;-)), and tells him he’s reassigned to Kentucky. Givens tells his boss he just got out of Kentucky and doesn’t want to go back, but his boss gives Givens no choice. To keep his marshal’s star, he’s going to have to go home again. Now we know the value of that star to him – he’ll go back to the one place he never wanted to see again to keep it –  and we see that his choices in the first scene have set his course, for better or, as he suspects, for worse. (And this is not the last time the choices from the first scene will haunt Givens; there’s going to be hell to pay on so many fronts for pulling the trigger in that Miami cafe. We’ll get back to that in a later post.)

Another really telling detail about our hero emerges when he’s back in Kentucky, in his home county of Harlan,  hunting down a bad guy who, once upon a time, was his friend. The bad guy, Boyd Crowder, is yin to Givens’s yang, and these two characters and the actors who play them have such chemistry, we’ll need an entire blog post just to discuss them. But for analyzing the way the writers are filling out our protagonist’s life story for us, it’s important to note that in the midst of their banter, during which Givens’s has the upper hand, Crowder drops in a seemingly innocent question. “Have you seen your daddy since you’ve been back?”

This simple question tips the balance of their conversation and throws our hero off his game, revealing to us that there’s something dark and foreboding in that father/son relationship. No need for a prologue or flashback to show it. Just a simple line of dialogue and our hero’s complex and unexpected reaction to it. In the last scene of the episode, after more gun fights and near-death experiences, Givens is having a discussion with his ex-wife, whose presence in Kentucky is another reason he didn’t want to return. Their affection for each other, though, is obvious, and is underscored by the fact that he’s come to see her after the recent ‘justified shootings’ he’s committed have given him pause. He tells her he’s never thought of himself as an angry man before now, but recent events have him questioning it. She tells him that, although he hides it well from the world, he’s the angriest man she’s ever known. Fade to black.

By the end of the first episode, we know our hero is complex, troubled, and living by an admirable but antiquated moral code that is likely to get him into serious trouble in the future. We know there’s bad blood with his father, a lot of criminal elements (like his former friend) in his past, and an ex-wife he can’t quite get over. We’ve already started building the story of his past in the back woods of Kentucky in our minds, without the need for a prologue or even a flashback to do it.

Now it’s your turn to jump in and tell me why my lack of love for the LoS prologue is so misguided. Or to share your favorite book/movie/TV series opening. What made it special to you? How did it reveal character and what did it teach you about the story protagonist (or antagonist)?

17 thoughts on “Nancy: Justified (and Why That Prologue You Love Probably Isn’t)

  1. Love the sound of Justified, Nancy. I’m really bad at watching stories rather than reading them – I often buy DVDs and then they sit on the shelf unopened – but I might have to investigate this one.

    I’m with you on the LoS prologue. For me, the book would have been more powerful if Dain’s backstory was woven into the narrative, but I see romances by very savvy authors that open with a prologue or other tell-y setup, so I wonder if it’s something that readers have come to expect. I prefer to take the story on trust and fill in the gaps as events unfold, but I’m starting to appreciate that not everyone feels that way.

    • You’re right about not everyone feeling that way about prologues, and if someone has read a lot of stories with prologues and loved them, there certainly might be a reader expectation. Luckily for us as writers, there are lots of different kinds of readers :-).

      On a completely unrelated note, did you stay up late your time watching Murray Vs. Anderson in the US Open? They are playing some amazing tennis. I won’t give away any spoilers in case you DVRed it, but it’s been a great match!

      • How did you guess, Nancy? Yes, fantastic match. I stayed up late to watch, and one of my best tennis-loving friends is in NY (she goes every day for the whole two weeks) so I get bonus courtside insight, too. The tennis was great, but I’m glad I wasn’t sitting, let alone playing, out there in the heat.

        • I love the idea of going to the Open, but for me, crowds+heat don’t mix well, so I’m better off watching from the comfort of my air-conditioned house. But what a great night of tennis! Federer and Isner were amazing at holding their service games. It’s always great to watch well-matched opponents play!

  2. My husband’s family is from Leslie County, which borders Harlan County, and my mother’s is from nearby Rockcastle County, so we watched this serires avidly at our house. For me, Season two’s Mags Bennett is one of the most fascinating and complex villains in television history. She reminds me of Medea from ancient Greek tragedy. And you’re right–the secret that’s reavealed at the end of Season 3 is like a punch to the gut.

    And, I love, love, love Boyd Crowder. I love his brashness, I love his Shakespearean/KJV diction, I love his constant failure and equally constant ability to formulate a new plan that pushes things to the next level Absolutely everything you could wish for in an antagonist.

    What were we talking about? Oh, yeah–prologues. Don’t love ’em. I think they’re a cheap way of telling when you should be showing. It made me crazy every time a judge in a contest referred to the first chapter in Demons Don’t as a prologue. It would only be a prologue if Belial weren’t the protagonist. Since he is, it’s the inciting incident.

    • I never did understand why some people wanted to label your first chapter a prologue, as it has the inciting incident.

      I’m so glad to hear there’s another Justified fan here. The actor playing Mags did an amazing job, but really, the whole cast is wonderful, and they have great chemistry. No matter which characters are in a scene, I love watching them interact (but Olyphant/Goggins playing Crowder/Givens are my favorite pair). Since your relatives are from that part of the country, I have to ask you, do they get the accent right?

    • Mags Bennet was a great character, and Margo Martindale did a fabulous job with it. That was the best villain, I think, although all the seasons have been spectacular. I just love this show.

      Yeah, prologues. Not my thing, either.

  3. I haven’t watched Justified so I’ll have to hold off on that part of the post for the time-being. As for books/movies/TV shows that I’ve enjoyed or gone back to, that would be the ones that had characters I liked and engaged with and wanted to know more about. Whether they start in the middle of the action or do a slower start with back-story or a prologue, I don’t really care, as long as I feel some kind of connection that makes me want to keep reading/watching. That’s one of the reasons I really liked the LoS prologue. It grounded me in the story and left me wanting to know what was going to happen to Dain and how he was going to get his happily-ever-after.

    Interesting to note, I’ve made it through almost a dozen of the books I brought back from RWA and the majority of them have had prologues. In many of the stories, there was no need for the prologue – from a craft or a character attachment stand point – but for a couple of them, I found they enhanced my reading experience. Yes, the authors could have worked the information into the story in other ways, but I don’t know that it would necessarily have resulted in a stronger story.

    • Prologues are very much the catnip for lots of readers, obviously. It’s really interesting that so many of the recent books you picked up have them. I haven’t noticed a greater number of them, but maybe that’s because I self-select out of the books that have them? Although I think I’m more likely just to skip the prologue and read chapter 1 to see if I like it than to dismiss the book wholesale.

    • Elizabeth, I want to know why the prologues that worked for you worked. Could you expand? (Either here or in a post?) What kind of information should be presented to the reader front and center? Or maybe, could be presented . . . .

      • Michaeline – I’ll give an example of 2 prologues – one that worked and one that did not (both by the same author).

        The prologue that did *not* work was (fortunately) very brief and basically gave a summary of an important event that was key to the story. It also served to introduce a number of characters in the story, possibly done as a way to quickly get new readers up to speed (this book is part of a series). All of what was accomplished could have been done within the course of the story and it would have worked better for me that way (and been more engaging). It was actually kind of a distracting start to the story for me.

        The prologue that *did* work (although ironically the book itself did not) provided background / context for the heroine’s tendency to create imaginary boyfriends. I liked being introduced to the character that way and it set the tone and context for the story for me really well. Had the story started with “Chapter 1” without that initial information, it wouldn’t have been quite the same story.

        Sorry if that doesn’t help much. I’m pretty sure the why / why not for prologues varies a lot from reader to reader. As I writer, I’d say if it feels right to you, for your story, to have one, then write one. You’re never going to please everyone, so it may be best to focus on writing your story the way you think it needs to be told.

  4. I decided to skip the part about Justified, just in case I find myself with copious (six seasons!) free time, LOL. What’s very very interesting is that the normal pattern is to take a book (which generally takes six to eight hours to read) and fit it into a two or three hour movie. In this case, it’s a short story — by Leonard Elmore, king of sleek prose, yet! — expanded into six seasons. Wow. Has Justified got a lot of gore and bloodiness? Elmore lets me imagine just as much gore as I can handle (I’ve read only two of his books, I think. He’s not blacklisted in my brain, so he must have been good). But TV? TV isn’t so good at that. I just finished the first season of Sleepy Hollow with my husband, and circular story-telling combined with not enough funniness and romance has us searching for a new show to share. Justified might be it.

    I didn’t particularly like the prologue in Lord of Scoundrels, either. I don’t like identifying with a character who is going through inescapable misery. And to tell the truth, I never really got behind Dain as a character. What made the book for me was Jessica. Maybe (MAYBE) the misery of the Lord of Scoundrels provided such a contrast that I was very relieved and happy to see Jessica, a girl with her head on her shoulders. She was a very good fixer, and that’s where I got my satisfaction in the book. (And it was lot of satisfaction, because I like LoS very much, and wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to most readers.)

    Last month, I did read a prologue that worked very, very well. Willa Cather had a short prologue in My Antonia that really worked for me. As a Nebraskan, it sucked me into the inner circle, and brought back my own memories of the prairie state. But even more important, it established a certain narrative distance. Toni goes through inescapable misery, but handles it, and gets a happy ending (I think it’s happy — it could have been much, much worse). But we don’t see this memory through her eyes, but rather through an observer who is looking back through time. That’s a double-distancing that makes the book more like an informative gossip with a neighbor (lots of life lessons are told and heard through a good gossip), rather than one of those “oh, woe, I have had a terrible life, and that’s why I’m not a lovable character now, but you should accept me out of pity, anyway.”

    I do recognize that the LoS prologue works for a lot of readers. Some people want things spelled out, and they want to know, “This really is a nice character, or there are really Reasons.” Kind of worries me, personally, because I don’t tend to cater to that crowd. Either my characters are all too nice (no conflict, no stakes), or they are mean or whatever, and I only reveal the reasons if they have something to do with the now of the story. Sigh . . . . That crowd has a lot of spending money, and they deserve books that signal a happy ending right from the beginning.

    • Re: the gore and bloodiness, I don’t feel like they go over the top in showing it. There are shootings and lots of realistic blood spatter, and fights where people occasionally lose teeth. But I’m not a fan of gore, and this one doesn’t bother me.

      I’ve had My Antonia on my ‘for consideration’ list, but I’m definitely not up for a really depressing story right now. I might get to it when I’m less stressed and feeling more able to cope with it, because I’ve heard good things about that book. It’s interesting that there’s a feeling of ‘double distancing’ with the prologue. I don’t normally like that much distance between the characters and me, but I could see it would have its uses as you’ve described.

      • If/When you read it, I’d like to know what you think. I’m partly a Bohemian from Nebraska, and great-grandma Duskova may have known the people involved in the book, so I’m already invested in the book. I didn’t think it was a tear-jerker at all. Good, hearty folks living their lives and overcoming daily and life-long hardships. More of character study, really.

        (-: I may not be reading it at the “proper” level, though.

  5. Pingback: Nancy: Justified Part 3: My Enemy, Myself | Eight Ladies Writing

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