Nonfictional techniques tracked:
-Prologues lay out the entire narrative, and its purpose
-Hooking the reader with a scene that reflects the dynamic critical to the larger story you’re telling (Schulman)
-Communicating the effect of your story on the reader through concrete detail (Schulman)
-Mixing tonal registers to make a point about the variety of audiences your story is relevant to (Johnson)
-Using multiple points of view (imperatives in particular) to make the narrative suspenseful (Johnson)
-Including the story of how you became interested in the larger story you’re telling (Johnson)
Polar opposites when it comes to the power that their subjects’ wield, the prologues of Mat Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York and Daniel Schulman’s Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty prove, among other things, that you do not have to be powerful to be influential. Their two prologues differ not only in their power dynamic (content) but in the way they present it (structure). Johnson’s prologue provides us an overview of what’s to come, while Schulman’s provides a microcosm of it before the overview.
The point of the prologue is to clarify for the reader the story that the book’s going to tell them, and in fact, to tell them, in abbreviated form, the entire story the book will lay out. That is, it is the purpose of the prologue to lay out the book’s purpose, and summarizing the book’s narrative arc usually helps achieve this clarification of purpose. From Johnson’s title, you might infer his purpose is to tell the story of a particular slave uprising, but after reading the prologue, you’ll know his purpose is also to present this uprising not as a failure, as it might objectively seem, but as a success, while also making clear to the reader the relevance of this historical story to modern readers. Schulman’s purpose is to tell us about the Koch brothers, but the prologue lays out more nuanced goals of telling the story of the forces that shaped them into some of the most influential figures in the country.
One of the major differences that becomes apparent upon initially reading these two prologues is that one begins in scene, the other a sort of summary. I would venture to assert that the majority of prologues would–and that you yourself should–do the former. Schulman begins his Koch brothers saga squarely in a scene:
Morris eased the pickup truck to the side of the road. The wide, busy thoroughfares of 1950s Wichita, Kansas, were just five miles southwest, but here on the largely undeveloped outskirts of the city, near the Koch family’s 160-acre property, the landscape consisted of little more than an expanse of flat, sun-bleached fields, etched here and there by dusty rural byways. The retired Marine, rangy and middle-aged, climbed out of the truck holding two sets of scuffed leather boxing gloves.
We begin not just with a scene but with a thematically relevant image–a blank landscape for the brothers to mold, etch their stories on. The scene will go on to show us David and Bill boxing to resolve a childhood argument. Schulman begins with this moment because it is a microcosm of the dynamic he’s telling the story of (brothers at odds), so it provides him a convenient springboard to launch into description of the characters. He has shown us what they are like, and now that we’ve seen them in action, giving us the sense that we know them at least somewhat, he can tell us some things about them, things we’ll be able to process because we have something concrete to attach them to: we’ve been shown an example of it.
Note that in fiction, a scene that merely characterizes and thematizes is usually not enough to justify its presence—Schulman’s opening scene, this particular fight, would have to be proven more consequential. Whatever they were fighting over here would come into play later, would be shown to cause something directly (like if this were a fight in which Bill broke David’s nose and someone stopped at the sight of all the blood and the someone ended up becoming a close family friend who wound up changing their lives in other ways…). But in nonfiction, the themes in a scene matter more than it being directly critical to the narrative.
Schulman’s purpose is two-fold: to communicate the extent of the Kochs’ influence and to tell the story of how and why they wield their influence in the way that they do. (Sibling rivalry almost determined the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.) Schulman doesn’t declare his purpose at the outset, though. He gives us a scene that shows us exactly why they’ll wield their power the way they do—we just don’t realize that’s what it’s showing yet. Schulman also immerses us gradually in the amount of influence the Kochs have over us:
Koch Idustries’ products touch everyone’s lives—from the gas in our tanks to the steak on our forks and the fertilizer that helps our crops grow, and from the drywall, windowpanes, and carpets in our homes and offices to the Brawny paper towels and Dixie cups we keep in the pantry.
Each of these objects is a concrete, tangible measure of their influence. Later, he’ll reveal the amount of influence they’ve had on politics. Schulman is developing two themes: the large and unknown impact they’ve had on our lives, and how strife is at the source of it. This influence in the form of their products we use is just a stand-in for the much larger influence it’s really Schulman’s purpose to portray.
Johnson is able to get away with not using the dramatic hook of a scene to pull the reader in because of a unique tonal approach in which he employs the imperative. He piques our interest by issuing a warning. Tension is raised even though nothing has officially “happened.” While he doesn’t start out in scene, he does place abstract generalizations within scenes themselves (things we’re told that we can process because we’ve been shown an example of it), as in the scene where the slaves have started the fire that unleashes the rebellion where Johnson couches a powerful observation:
In fire was equality. Few men had the ability to build something in this world, but all had the power to destroy in it.
Furthermore, his use of the imperative allows him to subtly manipulate the position of the reader. At the beginning, the imperatives are addressing a clearly white audience, instructing them not to fear Africans:
BEWARE THE AFRICANS, Koromantines and Pawpaws of the Akan-Asante, kidnapped from West African shores and brought to the ocean’s other side.
But this imperative address that is to the colonists at the beginning (“Beware, colonists, for now it is your dying time.”) quickly switches to address the Africans:
The Africans knew to listen to the Earth, not dominate it. Shake off your freeze and come alive.
It continues to address to the black rebels instead of the whites who might fear them:
North, go north, just run.
The reader initially being in the position of power (though notably one in which it’s warned it should be afraid) then switching so quickly to its opposite might thematically reinforce how quickly a power balance can shift. It definitely reinforces the power of narrative to place the reader in a perspective opposite to the one he’s accustomed to, to consider a view from someone else’s eyes. We’re put in the position of considering what it’s like to be in power but afraid, then what it’s like to be subjugated and hunted.
Johnson’s use of the imperative is also set up to eventually enable you to feel directly involved in the action, once the battle starts in the second act:
Wait till they get closer, wait till they get closer, then pull the trigger.
Johnson also uses a strategy of making historical material palatable by inserting his own personal interest in the material into the narrative. He does this via brief italicized sections (three total) that break from the third- and second-person account (the imperatives would count as second) of the uprising he’s describing to give us another narrative, a first-person account of a teacher in a GED classroom that is, incidentally, in the same area the uprising took place, who has a student pose a question:
“If you was sent back in time, and was a slave, would you kill yourself?”
This is precisely the question it’s the book’s purpose to explore (as phrased later in the prologue, is it better “to choose to live the half-life prescribed to them or to choose not to live at all”?). The narrator has provided us with the origin point of the project, promoting intimacy with the reader. By threading this present-day narrative in with an historical one, he also makes a point about history’s effect on the present and our continued need to be mindful of history. These first-person paragraphs also neatly divide the historical narrative into three acts: in the first act, the preparation for the rebellion, in the second act, the rebellion itself (the fire) and being forced to flee. In the third act, the remaining rebels kill themselves, a victory of dignity in defeat, and we then see the extremity of white retaliation.
In the prologue Johnson also reframes our understanding of the revolt itself:
To call the Slave Revolt of 1712 a failure is to assume that these enslaved ever had a chance at success. Nothing could come of it, other than the act itself.
But the act was important. The act was worth enough.
It is his purpose to show what has been perceived as a failure was actually a success on its own terms—the purpose of the revolt was not to free all slaves, but merely to act freely and assert their personhood. (This revision of perspective feels similar to the thought experiment John Jeremiah Sullivan asks us to perform in “Michael”—what if Michael Jackson never really molested children, what if his love for them was pure and it was society that twisted that pure love into something demented?)
The italicized sections also come to provide a powerful metaphor for the subject material, for the thesis it’s his purpose to prove:
This cat, he didn’t like that, he didn’t like being dismissed. He said, “You don’t know me, you don’t know what I’m capable of.”
The slaves shouldn’t be dismissed because their uprising was a “failure” according to our definition. It should be examined, because there’s still plenty to learn from it. Because there’s another important question this story is relevant to: what does it mean to be “the descendant of the slaves that chose to live”? Johnson’s use of slang threaded in with the ornate old-world eighteenth-century language also reinforces the relevance of this historical material to modern considerations.