Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Only the Beginning, Only Just the Start*

An interesting comment exchange with Maxine at Petrona got me thinking about the ways crime fiction authors “hook” their readers. Most crime fiction fans want a reason – right from the start – to keep turning pages. So the beginning of a novel is a very important part of the story (not that the rest of it doesn’t matter, of course). One popular way to “hook” readers is to start a novel with a prologue. Prologues are used in a couple of ways, any of which can work well. One way authors use prologues is to “hook” the reader with the description of a murder or the discovery of a body. Many crime fiction fans like their novels to “get to the good stuff” right away, so this kind of prologue can be very effective if it’s done well. Another way that authors use prologues is to give some important backstory that will figure in the novel. That, too, can be effective if the prologue is written well.

For all that prologues can add to a novel, they can also take away from a novel’s effectiveness. Prologues can be jarring if, for instance, they take place at a very different time from the rest of the novel and it’s not made clear. They can also easily become too cliché. But they are an interesting and sometimes very appropriate way for an author to get the reader interested in the rest of the story.

Some of Agatha Christie’s novels feature prologues. For instance, Sad Cypress begins with a prologue in which Elinor Carlisle is asked by a judge to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of murdering Mary Gerrard. The Council for the Crown then begins to outline the case against her. His description brings back memories to Elinor of the events that led to her trial. Elinor Carilsle is the niece of wealthy Laura Welman. When “Aunt Laura” suffers a stroke, Elinor and her fiancé Roderick “Roddy” Welman travel to Hunterbury, the Welman’s home in the town of Maidenford. They’re also motivated by an anonymous letter Elinor has received that hints that someone is trying to ingratiate herself with Aunt Laura so as to inherit her fortune. When Elinor and Roddy arrive at Hunterbury, they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Roddy is soon completely infatuated with Mary, and Elinor breaks off her engagement with Roddy when she finds this out. Then one afternoon, Mary is poisoned. It’s not long before Elinor is arrested for the crime; she had two motives, and she prepared the last meal that Mary ate. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared at any cost; he’s fallen in love with her and wants her acquitted. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. Interestingly, this book ends where it begins: at the trial of Elinor Carlisle. In the end, Poirot is able to provide evidence that convinces the jury of the identity of the real killer.

Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) also begins with a prologue. In that prologue, Major Porter, retired from service in India, is in the Coronoation Club, reading a newspaper story about the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade. He mentions that Cloade had very recently married a young widow named Rosaleen Underhay, and that Rosaleen will be a rich woman. Then, Porter goes on to say that he knew Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay. Apparently, the marriage wasn’t successful, and Underhay agreed to give his wife a divorce. Then, according to Porter, Underhay hinted that if word of his death was made public, Rosaleen would be a widow and entitled to his money, and that he might make a new life under the name of Enoch Arden. Hercule Poirot is the only person in the club who pays attention to this story, and he remembers it. Almost two years go by; then one day, Poirot gets a visit from Gordon Cloade’s sister-in-law, who says that she wants Poirot to investigate to find out whether Robert Underhay is still alive. Remembering what Major Porter said, Poirot gets curious about the Cloade family. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden visits Wamsley Vale, and hints that he knows that Robert Underhay is still alive. Not many days later, he’s suddenly killed. Gordon Cloade’s nephew, Rowley Cloade, visits Poirot and asks him to help find out the truth about this stranger and his death. Poirot is now too intrigued to resist, and he begins to get involved in the case. In this novel, the prologue gives interesting backstory about Rosaleen Underhay Cloade, and tells the story of how she met her husbands.

Liza Marklund’s The Bomber uses a prologue to build suspense and to tell the story of the murder that’s at the center of this novel. In the prologue, we meet a woman whom we later find out is Christina Furhage, head of the committee that is organizing the Stockholm Olympics. We follow her as she leaves her office, gets a very upsetting telephone call, and then heads to Victoria Stadium, where the Olympic Games will be held. She enters the stadium, and is killed. In fact the first sentence of the prologue prepares the reader:

“The woman who was about to die stepped warily out of the doorway and glanced quickly about her.”

The novel soon switches to the perspective of Annika Bengtzon, a journalist for the Stockholm newspaper Kvällspressen. She gets an early morning call that Victoria Stadium has been bombed. At first, it’s assumed that the bombing is the work of terrorists, and the police try to find out which group might have been responsible. Soon, though, Bengtzon figures out that the bombing was used to cover up a more personal motive for Christina Furhage’s death and that of Stefan Bjurling, who was also killed in the blast. As she finds out more about each victim’s personal life, Bengtzon also discovers what the real motive for the killings was, and who the bomber really is.

There’s also a prologue in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. Landscaper Warren Howe is working on a job one day. He sees that he’s being watched, and says,

“I thought you were dead.”

The other person then tells Howe that they have to talk, and that he (Howe) can’t have what he wants. Howe refuses to listen and in fact, rudely brushes his visitor off. The tension builds when Howe also brushes off the fact that his visitor has grabbed one of his tools, a well-sharpened scythe. Howe discovers too late that he should have paid attention when he’s murdered with his own tool.

The action in the novel then moves forward ten years. We find out that Howe’s killer was never caught, although his wife Tina was suspected. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty, so DCI Hannah Scarlett and her recently-formed Cold Case Review team re-open the case. As they examine Howe’s life and those of the other people in Howe’s Lake District village, they find out that more than one person had a motive for murder.

The same is true in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take. That novel’s prologue takes place in 1944, when a young girl is lured to an underground hiding place and trapped there by someone she thought she trusted. The end of the prologue sees the child alone in the underground hole:

“Maybe someone would come to get her. Surely the person at the window would save her. Please, please, please. She didn’t want to stay her any more.”

The novel then moves to the present day, when Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Jónas Júlíusson, who owns a very upscale resort and spa. He believes that the grounds of the spa and the land nearby are haunted, and he wants to sue the former owners of the land because they didn’t inform him of the fact. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is interested in the fee she could earn. Besides, a trip to a spa sounds very tempting. So she agrees to take the case and travels to the spa. Soon after her arrival, the grim discovery is made of the body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, an architect staying at the same spa. When Jónas Júlíusson is accused of killing her, Thóra agrees to represent him. She begins to investigate the murder and the talk about the land being haunted. As she learns more about the history of the area, Thóra also discovers the connection between Birna’s death and the long-ago disappearance of the little girl described in the prologue.

My own current work in progress, the third in my Joel Williams series, also has a prologue. This prologue describes a murder that’s at first thought to be a terrible accident. Two years later, the death is re-discovered, you might say, and it becomes clear that the victim was deliberately killed.

These are just a few of the many crime fiction novels that start with a prologue. What’s your view of prologues? Do you prefer them? Dislike them? If you do like them, what kind of prologues do you like? If you’re an author, do you write prologues?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chicago’s Beginnings.

33 comments:

  1. I don't mind prologues as long as they don't give me too much information. A combination of prologue and front flap can sometimes reveal too much, or even all of the plot.

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  2. Norman - That's a well-taken point. When a prologue (especially with front flap) give the reader too much information, that can ruin the rest of the book. I don't like that, either.

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  3. Some prologues are true masterpieces. At this point it just come to my mind the prologue of Don Quixote. Few people even in Spain have ever read it and it is a masterpice by its own.

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  4. I have written a prologue in all of my Sam Shephard novels. The reason for this is that because my novels are written in the first person, the prologue is my only opportunity in the book to offer a different perspective, whether it be that of the victim, or the perpetrator. It gives the reader an insight and a different voice before the main body of the work which is in Sam's voice. For my work, they are essential.

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  5. Talking about hooks, when I first wrote The Sholes Key a long time ago, I sent it off to a professional editor who sent it back with one big flaw - no hook! You see, Sophia and Theo were both detectives and she said its been done. So, I put it away for awhile until the idea of MI5 came to me... but hook is important and important from the beginning. I don't mind prologues as long as they're relevant.
    CD

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  6. José Ignacio - You know, that is a very interesting point. Prologues in and of themselves can be beautifully written pieces in and of themselves. I have to confess, I haven't read Don Quixote in a very long time. I will have to return to that and savour the prologue...


    Vanda - I was hoping very much that you would comment, because I wanted to get your viewpoint, since you do use prologues. It makes a lot of sense, since you use first person for your novels. That way, readers get a chance to get a broader point of view. Really interesting, and yes, I can certainly see why for you, a prologue is crucial.

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  7. Clarissa - That's a very good point; some kind of "hook" is essential. In your case, the MI5 "hook" works quite well with The Sholes Key. Other "hooks" work with other kinds of mysteries.

    You're right, too, about the importance of relevance. If a prologue isn't relevant, it can distract the reader and maybe even be off-putting. As with anything else in a good mystery novel, it's all about the story. Anything that contributes to the story can be helpful. If it takes away from the story, that's a different matter.

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  8. I've heard some agents on panels say they hate prologues, but I've never understood why that would be true. I don't have a strong feeling about prologues either way. Some are very effective. I had a prologue in a first draft of one manuscript, but ended up moving it to the end of the book. It didn't belong at the front of the book because it gave away too much of the story.

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  9. Patricia - You know, I've heard the same thing - that agents and publishers hate prologues. I've also heard that they can be very successful. I agree with you that some can really be effective if they add to the story and if they aren't long (I admit I'm not much of a one for very long prologues). It's interesting that you found that your prologue gave too much away at first; I think that's always a big question when it comes to prologues: how much does one say?

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  10. Despite the opinion of some editors and agents, there are two valid reasons for having a prologue. One is to provide back story without resorting to flashbacks and similar devices. The other is to provide a hook.
    They've been used since the historic beginning of the novel and are generally brief, so I see no sensible reason for not reading one.

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  11. John - You outline very clearly some solid arguments for using a prologue if it's appropriate for a story. They really have been used for a long time, and when they're done effectively and serve the purpose of a novel (i.e. not just to have one), they really can be useful.

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  12. I think prologues can work well, although sometimes it can seem that some authors just use them because it's become a style to do so. But a lot of authors use them well (Vanda included - I still think the prologue to her debut OVERKILL is one of the best, most gut-wrenching openings I've read of any crime novel in the past few years).

    Mark Billingham also uses prologues well, amongst others.

    Speaking of attention-grabbing openings, how about this (a classic NZ literature opening line): "The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."

    It's the first line of THE SCARECROW, a classic piece of NZ literature by Ronald Hugh Morrieson -who wrote gothic, dark thrillers.

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  13. If the prologue is short and to the point, I think it usually adds to the story. However, if the prologue is quite lengthy I think most readers skip it completely. I'm currently listening to James Patterson's DON'T BLINK. It starts with a prologue of a murder in New York and then the story opens in Africa so he has the reader already wondering how these two things will fit together.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  14. Craig - I think you put your finger on the most important point: the purpose of the prologue. As you say, if an author uses a prologue because s/he is "supposed to," then the prologue really takes away from the book. On the other hand, when an author uses the prologue well, as Vanda does, then it can be an absolutely riveting way to start a story.

    And thanks very much for sharing that opening line of The Scarecrow. You've whetted my appetite :-).



    Mason - Oh, that is so true! A prologue that goes on too long can really drag down a book and yes, a reader is just as likely as not to give up and not bother. This can leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth, so to speak. On the other hand, if a prologue gets to the point and really contributes to the story, that's a different matter.

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  15. I always love a good prologue. And by good, I mean a prologue which is set in a different time or place or populated by different people, not a chapter 0 masquerading as a prologue.
    Yours are great examples.

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  16. Rayna - You put that very well: a prologue that is not a cleverly-disguised Chapter 0. What a terrific way to describe a prologue that isn't necessary. And you make a well-taken point, too: a prologue that really serves a purpose can really add to a novel. A thinly-disguised Chapter 0 usually does not.

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  17. I quite like a prologue that keeps me wondering about what links it to the main story. Sometimes I forget all about it and then half-way through the book something happens and I'll have that "ooh, that's what that was about" moment. Sometimes I have it in the back of my mind all the way along and actively look for clues to its meaning. I enjoy both experiences. I think it's a good device in the author's stable of tools to hook us readers in - I think I just mixed three metaphors which must be a new record for me :) - and if the author is good at their job the prologue will be a positive addition to the novel.

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  18. The book I've just finished, NECESSARY AS BLOOD by Deborah Crombie, had quite a long prologue which described the events 3 months before the start of chapter 1 when the murder victim's wife disappeared. The fact that it was a prologue emphasised the passage of time between it and the main action of the investigation. What annoyed me about it was that it was entirely in italics which I find much more difficult to read

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  19. Bernadette - I'm impressed with your mixing of metaphors :-). I've never done three at once. And I agree with you that a prologue can get a reader very much intrigued, either to the reader looking for clues, or to figure out how it links to the main story. The main point - and I think you put this quite well- is that the author does her or his job well and make sure the prologue fits the story, etc...



    Kerrie - I know what you mean about prologues in italics. I haven't read every Deborach Crombie, so I don't know if she does that in each novel, but she does in some of them. For instance, the prologue to Now May You Weep is like that. The prologue takes place quite a long time before the main story and it's connected to the main plot. But it is written in italics, and that can be hard to read.

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  20. I don't mind a prologue if it turns out to be relevant or is part of the novel in some way (eg to describe an event that took place at a different time to the main book). However, I think too many novels these days use the prologue almost as a pitch to the publisher! Often they seem simply to be a dramatic, violent or otherwise shocking element from the book, lifted out and put at the start, as if it will encourage people to read on. That does not work for me.

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  21. Maxine - Oh, you put that so very well! Prologues are sometimes used to "sell" a publisher or agent, and those kinds of prologues often take away from a novel. But that goes back to an overall point about a well-written crime fiction novel. When a book is well-written, everything in it has a purpose and fits together. That includes a prologue if there is one. Anything that takes away from that smooth fitting together of the pieces of the puzzle also takes away from the book.

    It's funny, when I read your point about using a prologue as a "showcase" for shocking parts of a book, I was thinking of badly-made movie trailers, where people are supposed to be keen to see a movie because all of the shocking elements are tossed together. That doesn't work either, for the same reason.

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  22. Agree with Uriah: as long as not too much information. Also, as you point out: they have to fit.

    Personally, I'd rather just make the action part of the body of the book and force myself to jump around, making it work. A prologue seems like an "out" for the writer. Even an afterthought at times.

    Great question!

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

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  23. Michele - Thanks :-). And thanks for your viewpoint as an author. I agree that sometimes, prologues can turn into an "out" for the author (I think you express that quite well), and I'm sure there are authors who use them that way.

    And yes, Norman is right: a prologue that gives too much information really takes away from a story and can spoil the experience. So does one that goes on too long.

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  24. That's very interestin, Margot! I discussed this with a professor at Oxford Brookes, who didn't like prologues AT ALL. I understood why, though. It had something to do about the detective not seeing everything the reader did, as he didn't experience the prologue like the readers did. I think, genereally, that prologues work better in the movies than in books...

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  25. Alexandra - Thank you :-) You (and the professor) are right that very often, prologues show the reader things that the detective doesn't see. As Vanda points out (see above), that can be very valuable for giving the reader a different perspective, or simply information the reader needs to understand the plot. On the other hand, if it's not done well, a prologue can be jarring.

    You know, I hadn't thought of prologues in movies, but you've got a point; they can work quite well there, and are sometimes integrated better in films than in books.

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  26. Back when I was writing murder nights as fundraising tools for theatre companies, I learned quickly that people want either a dead body or the knowledge of who's about to hit the floor early in the proceedings. To satisfy this need, I've a short scene at the beginning where the body is found. Then the story goes back to the beginning of the event - everyone getting their invitations (or not, for some) to the house party. Time then continues on and through the actual murder and the investigation that ensues.

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  27. Elspeth - I think you're absolutely right that many readers like it when there's a body (or strong foreshadowing) very early in the novel. When a prologue is well-written, it can serve that purpose very, very well. And the more I find out about your novel, the more eager I am to find out who the victim is and how Claudio Rossi solves the crime. It sounds like you've got an effective start to your novel.

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  28. Oh gosh...I'm a real fan of prologues. I can see why editors frequently don't like them, and feel lucky to get away with having my last couple of books have one in them! To me it just helps to plunge a reader into a story--especially if it alludes to a body.

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  29. Elizabeth - I'm so glad you commented! I wanted to hear your thoughts, since you do use prologues, and yours really do fit neatly into your novels. When a prologue is well-written, so that it helps get the reader involved in the story, it can be a very useful tool. I think your prologues, for instance, work well because they give the reader a solid sense of foreshadowing as well as get the reader involved.

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  30. I do like prologues if they open a lot of questions. I have used one in my Danish manuscript, but I don´t think they suit my cosy mysteries with Rhapsody and Primrose.

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  31. Dorte - That's a well-taken point. Prologues that raise questions can get the reader involved in a story. And you're right that prologues don't suit every novel. I think that's where the author's skill and judgement come in. The author has to weigh whether a prologue helps or hinders the story.

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  32. My hook is voice. If the voice is right, I will follow it to the most prosaic places.

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  33. Patti - No doubt about it: voice matters. If the voice is all wrong, there goes the novel. Even if there is a great prologue, that doesn't matter if the voice isn't genuine.

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