Saturday, 8 January 2011
The Cold Open
When I learnt this phrase, I was immediately intrigued by it. The cold open is the jargon TV guys use to describe the immediate immersion of the viewer in a short sequence of film that occurs pre-credits. Here's an example of a good one:
A cracker, no? A fabulous piece of writing – and Soderbergh’s framing of the scene, with the disembodied voices of the parole board emerging from the audience, is splendid.
It got me thinking about the virtues of the cold open in film versus the prologue in writing.
I’ve given this some thought – post-Christmas malaise does this to a guy – and it strikes me that the two aren’t as immediately comparable as you might think. Beyond the obvious; that cold opens belong to film because the medium uses opening credits in a way written narrative doesn’t, there are, it seems to me, at least two other clear distinguishing features.
Could it be that most cold opens more commonly operate within a conventional chronological timeline, for example? The Ocean’s Eleven clip features Danny Ocean’s release from prison, an event that is necessary to begin the rest of the story. Prologues, by nature, don’t do this because if they did – duh – they’d just be chapter one. Instead, writers tend towards a prologue that has a more tangential relationship with the rest of the plot; an event preceding the main plot by a number of years, for example, an action sequence lifted from the middle of a plot which allows the writer to employ flashback, or commonly the end of the story attached to the start.
And this raises, I think, another interesting difference between the cold open and the prologue. The cold open, certainly in this case, is designed to ally the watcher with the protagonist – “I like this guy; I’m on his side for the story to come” – often by pitting them against exaggerated stereotypes; the faceless authority figures off-screen in this case ("She already left me once - I don't think she'd do it again just for kicks"). In a prologue, on the other hand, does a writer have more freedom to confuse and challenge? To use a range of entirely unfamiliar and unexplained characters, events and locations?
Maybe. A surfeit of turkey sandwiches might have addled my brain, but as I look again at the first couple of thousand words of my WIP (see ‘Lost Property’, below), I still don’t know whether what I’ve got there is a prologue, a cold open, or just... Chapter One.
I’ll post it next time, perhaps, and someone might be kind enough to tell me.