The blog Daily Writing Tips recently published Three reasons to ditch your novel’s prologue. It contains much wisdom.
The following extract was part of the pitch that got School’s Out commissioned, and it stayed in the book ‘til very late in the day, but I eventually decided to cut it. My editor was a bit wary of that, but I convinced him. It was fun to write, and helped me establish the tone, but it was the only part of the book not written in the first person by Lee, so it felt out of place.
I felt the eventual opening was much stronger because it established the ‘voice’ of Lee, his age, the setting of the book, and his attitude to authority all within the first few lines.
Three months ago
When the anti-psychotics finally ran out, Alex began to wonder if rescuing his brother from the asylum had been the wisest move. After all, delusional psychopaths with messiah complexes do not make for the easiest of flat mates. By the time the knife made an appearance he was pretty confident that he had made a serious mistake.
‘Dave, what’s the knife for, mate?’
No response. Just the scary eyes, the fixed stare and the knife.
‘Dave? Do you, um, want to talk about it?’
Eyes. Stare. Very big knife.
Alex considered his options. He’d seen his brother in the grip of an episode only once, years ago, before he’d been sectioned. It hadn’t been pretty.
Since the murders Dave had been resident at a secure facility just up the road. There, on a daily diet of drugs and group therapy, he’d reverted to the good-natured older brother Alex had always worshipped. He’d seemed so normal again that it had been easy to write the episode off as an isolated incident, just one very bad day from which Dave had long since recovered.
As long as Alex didn’t think about the dead girls then he could pretend everything was fine.
So when the world began to die and Alex realised that Dave would be left alone and helpless, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to go and rescue him from the chaotic, corpse-strewn asylum. He’d plundered the medical facility for the necessary drugs, and supplemented his stock by scavenging local hospitals and chemists. But the supply had run out three days ago, and only then had he paused to consider what he’d do if Dave had a relapse.
Now, confronted by the knife, he finally realised the scale of his error, and he began, ever so slightly at first, to panic.
Dave stood silent in the kitchen, eyes wide, knuckles white as he gripped the carving knife handle tightly, staring at his brother with his head cocked slightly to one side like a curious puppy. There was no expression on his face, no chilling psychopath smile, no deranged leer or snarl of fury. This lack of expression was what scared Alex most of all.
‘Dave? Are you all right, mate? Is everything okay?’
Alex had two choices. He could unload the bags of scavenged food on the kitchen table and make small talk as if nothing was happening, hope that normal behaviour would snap Dave out of his reverie, or he could bolt and hope that Dave didn’t come after him. Neither option appealed.
Dave mumbled something.
‘Sorry Dave, what was that?’
Dave mumbled again, and Alex craned forward, trying to make out the words.
Slowly, menacingly, ever so carefully enunciating his words, Dave replied: ‘I said, how was the Shopkeeper’s fez?’
He dropped the bags to the floor, spun in the doorway and sprinted down the hall to the front door. He reckoned he had about a three metre lead on Dave. Thank God he’d left the front door open. He sped out the door and turned left down the covered walkway that ran along the front of this floor of the block of flats, heading for the stairs. He reached the top of the stairwell before he realised Dave wasn’t behind him.
He stopped to catch his breath, bent over, hands on his knees, gaze fixed on the front door to their flat, hanging open halfway along the walkway. Maybe Dave wouldn’t come after him. Maybe he’d misread the situation. Maybe…
Dave walked slowly out of the door and turned to face his brother. The knife was still in his hand. They stood there, staring at each other for what felt like an eternity. And then Dave started running.
Alex pelted down the stairs three at a time, but he knew he was in big trouble. He didn’t fancy his chances of making it to the street. Dave had always been the leaner of the two, faster, more agile.
Dave caught up with Alex as he reached the second floor. Alex felt his brother barrel into him from behind and what felt like a fist punching him hard in the kidneys. Before he could even register what was happening he was over the railings, weightless and falling.
The impact knocked all the breath out of him but somehow it felt soft, as if he’d jumped onto a feather bed rather than fallen twenty feet onto a hard concrete forecourt. He lay there immobile, knowing that his death was imminent but too concussed to really care.
He saw his brother emerge from the stairwell and walk slowly over to him.
He saw his brother crouch down beside him, felt him stroking his hair.
He saw his brother reach down and dabble his hand in the pooling blood and smear it across his face.
As his vision faded away, the last thing Alex heard was his beloved, blood-soaked brother mumbling to himself, over and over.
‘Safe now. Safe now. Safe now.’