(Watch this essay as a video on YouTube.)
I’m researching the openings of successful novels to learn how to write the all-important first chapter of my own book.
This is the second part of my look at writing prologues. In the first part, I looked at A Game of Thrones, and here I’ll focus on The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
The prologue of The Book Thief uses an impressionistic approach to give us glimpses of the novel’s story. It also builds the novel’s unique narrative voice in a way that doesn’t interfere with the core storytelling.
Summary of prologue
The Book Thief is a novel about death. I mean, not just about people dying. We’ll get to that. It’s about Death with a capital D, the Grim Reaper, and Death’s unique, haunted view of human existence. That might sound a bit abstract, and maybe it is, and maybe that’s why the novel needs a prologue: it teaches us Death’s unusual point of view.
Death doesn’t only retrieve souls, but also collects moments. They’re snapshots of lives. In Death’s narration, senses intermingle, like “the sound of the smell.” Inanimate objects come alive, like, “The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs.” Brutal facts take on a magical quality, like bomber aircraft being described as “human hiding in the clouds.”
In addition to that, Death also recalls memories via colours. The colour of a sky, cheeks on a face, an iris, an eclipse. It’s almost as if memories are dyed with colours — maybe a wordplay on the homonym of dye and die.
Death remembers three colours tied to a girl called “the book thief.” We aren’t yet properly introduced this book thief. However, we’re offered glimpses of three colours that stain her life.
A snowy white death by a train.
A smoky black death in a crashed fighter plane.
A burning red death in a bloody street.
White, black, and red combine into the flag of the Nazi party. Finally, we understand this novel is about Death remembering the deadliest conflict in human history through the perspective of a single girl.
There are even moments when the story is interrupted by the narrator’s blunt announcements, like news bulletins interrupting a broadcast. It reinforces the idea that, just as death interrupts the flow of life, Death interrupts the flow of the story. But intrusion and interruption don’t imply ill intent. As Death says, “I am not malicious. I am a result.”
We always return to that cordial, philosophical narrator, and Death ends the prologue with an invitation. “If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.”
What the prologue doesn’t do is give us a plot hook or an inciting incident. There’s curiosity around why a book thief would be our way into such a traumatic period of history.
But beyond that, the prologue’s first-person narration does the same thing the narrator does in a story like Life of Pi (which I explored in this essay). It creates intimacy with the reader by drawing them close to a unique point of view.
We get to accompany Death through the events of World War II. We get to see Death’s perspective on humanity, and maybe through that we’ll gain wisdom about these events.
Introducing the narrator
It’s actually refreshing to talk about the events of an opening without worrying about spoiling the story. The Book Thief’s prologue doesn’t have anything resembling plot. There aren’t any scenes. A scene is a situation where a character tries to achieve something but encounters an obstacle.
No, this prologue is more of a mood board, a colour palette.
In the rest of The Book Thief, there are routine interruptions by the narrator, but otherwise it’s a straight chronological retelling of the life of the title character.
We intersect three times with the events of the prologue to learn about the three symbolic colours. But there’s a whole life and character arc between those intersections. The prologue doesn’t set up or spoil any of that.
In my essay on A Game of Thrones, I talked about the concept of dramatic irony. In The Book Thief, we do know a bit about the future of the story, but we don’t know more than the characters. There’s a looming sense of anxiety around the war and the protagonist’s experience of it. But that’s different than the anxiety in A Game of Thrones around the return of the Others. Here, Death is trying to convey, to our limited mortal minds, its ability to see multiple points of time at once.
What Death has trouble with is making sense of those events. So the novel is about how, thanks to the book thief, Death drew meaning out of trauma. We, too, will make sense of these events as the novel progresses. But for now, we only have the broadest sense of the novel’s tone, style, theme and setting.
Ideally, tone, style, theme and setting weave seamlessly into every chapter you write. That’s especially true of a first chapter. Chapter 1 is always a great place to introduce a main character and conflict. But trying to do that and introduce this distinct narrator might have been too messy. So, taking a step back from the story, and isolating the narrator in a prologue, allows for more clarity. That then allows readers to focus their undivided attention on the protagonist in Chapter 1.
It’s such a tricky thing to hook a reader, and even tricker to do that outside of the main story. You have to be sure a prologue isn’t a self-indulgent attachment to as something that doesn’t properly serve the story. I know I did that with prologues in the past. But the prologues of The Book Thief and A Game of Thrones both bring something essential to the construction of those novels. So I hope this two-part series on prologues has taught you something about writing essential, strong prologues for your stories. If so, I’d love to hear how. Leave a response or Applause. Follow me to be notified when I explore the openings of other novels, and drop by my YouTube channel to see this essay as a video.