Breaking-down "Zoo" by James Patterson, Part One of the Prologue

"Zoo" is the first book in a bestselling series by James Patterson, there is also a graphic novel, and a television series. Obviously this has been a very popular story, and I would like to know more about why. So, let's start where it begins, with part one of the prologue.


Here is the prologue, then I am going to go through it with my thoughts.

PROLOGUE

IT'S ALL HAPPENING AT THE ZOO

ONE

LOS ANGELES ZOO
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA

LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Lost Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.

Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.

To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once - if you squinted, hard - it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.

By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot int he seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.

Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo's female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.

Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa's mate and the dominant male of the zoo's two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.

Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick's mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.

Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren't.

For lions as for other social animals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.

Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.

Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.

Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.

Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he's enormous - five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.

As you can see, it has a slow build (even though it is only 637 words) and has a good strong hook at the end.

PROLOGUE

It seems to me that a lot of book prologues aren't that good because they aren't treated like television teasers. Sometimes they are used to explain backstory or setting, but I think that if one is going to be included it should be exciting, like a television teaser, to draw someone into the rest of the story. I wrote an article about the teaser for the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. The show starts kind of slow to develop the motive of the character, but because of the crazy and very exciting teaser I was going to watch the entire first episode no matter what happened. "Zoo" has a three-part prologue, which I find curious.

IT'S ALL HAPPENING AT THE ZOO

ONE

LOS ANGELES ZOO
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA

I like just stating the place like this. If the location can be nicely revealed in the text, great; if it can't, then just do this.

LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Lost Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.

When I was young I would complete every book I started, even if I didn't like them. As I read more books I slowly started issuing judgment sooner and sooner. I would read half a book before saying it was boring, a few chapters before saying the character was unbelievable, a few paragraphs before saying that the style was confusing. Now, I give books that I randomly look at about 1 paragraph, maybe 2. If I have heard that the book is good, or I know I like the author, then maybe a few paragraphs. But, if they aren't getting to something interesting soon, I don't waste my time. If this wasn't by James Patterson and I wasn't trying to study it, I would have stopped reading after this paragraph.

Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.

They (James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge) are doing well at describing this crappy zoo.

To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once - if you squinted, hard - it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.

Lions in a crappy zoo enclosure. I don't feel good, I don't feel bad, I just feel like I could look at a picture and be done with it.

By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot in the seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.

Okay, something is happening. I like the phrase "plywood boulder." Are the lions going to kill something?

Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo's female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.

Okay, the lion is playing.

Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa's mate and the dominant male of the zoo's two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.

The last few weeks have seen a change in this lion, hopefully that means something interesting is going to happen soon.

Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick's mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.

Maybe something is going to happen with the ball? She is the submissive one, okay.

Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren't.

Here we go. How many paragraphs are we into this thing? The eighth paragraph has something interesting. If you cut the first seven paragraphs, does it hurt the story at all? I doubt it. This one, this one is interesting. What's amiss? What aren't the lions doing? I don't know, but I want to.

For lions as for other social animals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.

Okay, okay, I'm with you. They aren't being vocal, why? Is something wrong with them? What caused this? What will this cause? Who made it happen? I'm interested.

Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.

Okay, it has been building up for two weeks and now we are to the last point, you can't be quieter than silent. So, this must mean something, what? It's ominous.

Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.

They are going to eat the keeper. They have been getting less food or something, the keeper has been treating them badly or something, and now it's time for vengeance. They are going to attack him in about 10 seconds.

Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.

Yep, I already know, get on with it.

Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he's enormous - five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.

Oh man, now I have to read the next part to see what happens, which is that the lions attack, kill, and eat the keeper. I guess I have to keep reading to read something that I basically already know because this enticing and annoying little hook was thrown in here.

Overall, it seems like kind of a slow buildup just to get to that hook, and it kind of annoys me. If I was just reading this book for fun I would probably stop there (again). I don't think that I can write better, but as a reader, I wish that they would.

Seriously, what happens if we just put the good pieces in?

Here is how I would like to experience it as a reader.

LOS ANGELES ZOO
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA

Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren't.

For lions as for other social animals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.

Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.

Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.

Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.

Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he's enormous - five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.

I don't think that's worse, actually, I think that's better. Of course, no one would accept that even as a tiny chapter, but so what? Give me the attack in this chapter to give me some substance. I think these five paragraphs are excellent and I would definitely keep reading this story. I wish I could write at this level. That is what I am working on.

You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com where you will find more of my articles on breaking-down and building-up stories.

Popular posts from this blog

Experiments in Story

Why I'm Reading Four Novels At the Same Time (plus one non-fiction book)

The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 3 of ?