Before we get to Mistake Number Five, (or is it Number Six? Thriller Guy has lost count) which will be about Endings, perhaps TG should address an equally important element in the writing of a thriller: Beginnings.
There is a Publishing Law these days that says that all thrillers shall have a Prologue that consists of a single or multi page chunk of the upcoming thriller that consists of a Very Exciting Scene or snippet of a scene that will reoccur at some point in the main body of the story. The point of these prologues is to grab the interest of the casual browser who, popular publishing wisdom dictates, picks up a book because it has an intriguing cover or title, flips to the first page and reads a few lines. If you can grab him/her with those first lines, you can snag a buyer. To test this theory go to a bookstore, (remember those?) pick up a thriller, any thriller, and there’s your Exciting Prologue. (Why is TG using so many Capital Letters today? Who knows, perhaps it’s because it’s a grey rainy day and the world needs a little ersatz excitement.)
The thing is, it was not always thus. 20, 25 years ago, a book might have a prologue, but most didn’t. And back then the prologue’s function was more to set the scene rather than excerpting a chunk for exploitation purposes. Thriller Guy remembers, back in the dawn of time, when these prologues first began to come into fashion. (TG has written about this in the past, but he knows that most of you don’t read the old posts.) TG’s writer pal, Bill Garrison, dubbed these prologues our “Frazetta Covers.” Frank Frazetta was an extremely popular illustrator who worked mainly on Science Fiction and Fantasy books. When you saw a book with a Frazetta coverit was almost impossible to not pick up and take a closer look. We realized that if we were ever lucky enough to have a book actually published, no publisher was going to spring for a real Frank Frazetta illustration, so our trick was to write a prologue that, if we could get the browser to actually pick up our book, would imitate a fabulous cover, only in prose form. Evidently lots of other folks had the same idea, if not for the same reasons. So, the exciting prologue was born and went on to rule the industry.
But now it’s time for it to die. Like many popular, even effective ideas, these prologues, at least to Thriller Guy, have become tired at best, silly and even annoying at worst. TG’s impulse, when he opens a book and one is forced upon him, is to think Don’t try to trick me, I’ll decide if the book is exciting.
There are two types of these prologues, the ones that simply excerpt or rephrase a section that will appear later in the book, and the ones that features an old monk or maybe a native, someone from early history, who, usually, is trying to save a Mysterious Artifact from invading hoards of savages or conquistadors or aliens who are bent on destroying every member of whatever civilization they are invading. Discovering and keeping possession of this artifact in modern times becomes the main plot point of the ensuing thriller. Both of these prologues are quickly forgotten. TG’s point is, why not just work harder on the first sentence, paragraph or page of the book? Make that exciting, compelling or intriguing enough to engage the reader and skip the phony attempt to fire up a pulse in the browser. Think it can’t be done? Well, it’s difficult, that’s for sure, but writers need to spend the time and effort on the actual writing of thrillers, not just shooting (and TG uses that word advisedly) for excitement. It’s amazing what a finely-crafted first sentence can do. Here are ten first sentences that when TG reads them, after having read them many times over the years, he finds his pulse rate elevating, not because he knows there are going to be explosions and excitement coming his way, but because the books themselves are going to be wonderful. Two blog entries ago, TG suggested that when he reads the title of the Bond Book, Live and Let Die, he immediately hears the first few bars in the theme song for the movie In his mind. The words evoke that auditory memory. When TG reads these first sentences they evoke an intellectual memory of the wonders that follow.
Pretend you’re browsing. Could you put these books back on the shelf after reading these first lines?
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)
OK, you probably noticed that the newest of these books was written 25 years ago and the oldest more than a hundred. And they’re not thrillers. In another post TG will give you some newer excellent first lines, but for now here’s the lesson: none of these books burned up the potential of their openings by trying to whip up misplaced enthusiasm with an out-of-sequence scene, just because it is supposedly more exciting that whatever first words are going to begin the story.
TG is well aware that this lone blog entry will not in any way stop what has now become a Hallowed Tradition. And he doesn’t even recommend that writers even try to thwart the practice, as it probably will just piss off publishers and editors and writers certainly don’t need to do that. But why not try to come up with that great first sentence? If you pull it off, then see if you can just dump the stupid prologue. Just because we’re thriller writers doesn’t mean that we can’t write well. Sometimes it takes work, hard work. Make the reader want to buy the book from the very first line.
Note: TG has read all of the books whose first lines are above. All of them are wonderful in their own way. TG always says that one has to read within the genre to know what has been done and can be done. Reading outside the genre gives a writer a taste of the great, wide, universe of possibilities. Grow. Stretch. Experience the rest of the world.