Mark Terry

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Where To Start

July 2, 2009
Typically, we're taught in life to start at the beginning and proceed to the end. Which isn't necessarily a good idea in fiction. Not that you want to start at the end and go backwards, although from time to time a writer will try that. Or use some sort of framing device or a prologue, etc.

So, without giving too much away, I'm reading a couple chapters of a thriller novel by an accomplished novelist friend of mine who shall remain unnamed (Erica), and I'm pondering (not powdering) the first chapter. Because it's good. Very good, probably.

But it starts with description, moves on to character development, and then gets going with a nice surprise, action, twist toward the end.


I'm thinking: this is a hell of a way to start a thriller.

Or is it?

I'm biased, because I like to start my novels pretty much in the middle of something very dramatic. Here's the first couple paragraphs of a novel I'm probably going to write next.

Grozny, Chechnya

The Russian agent, Pyotr Sidorov, was dying and he knew it. He barely made it back to one of the UAZ Patriots his team had come in, stumbling in the dark over uneven, potholed concrete. Should have brought a fucking Vodnik, he thought through his pain, referring to the Russian Army’s version of the Humvee. He flung open the driver-side door with the last of his strength and tumbled behind the wheel.

Behind him the warehouse burned. All dead, he thought, and fumbled with the keys to the Patriot. Glancing down in the gloom, he saw that the hand clenched against his gut was scarlet with blood. The pain was immense, unlike anything he had experienced. It seemed to stretch onto infinity, some bizarre, unending sensation that took away all other sensations. How the hell did I make it this far?

* * *

Granted, not all novels, thriller or otherwise, need to start in the middle of something filled with action. It's my preference that they do. Maybe I'm ADD. And I think there are a lot of good reasons to set the stage and develop your character before setting him on fire (for instance). But I also think readers, especially readers that don't know your work, need to be able to pick up the book at the bookstore on the basis of the title and cover, look at the first couple sentences, and either be drawn in by the story or by your voice. Maybe I just don't trust readers, which is a topic for a different time, I think.

So should She-Who-I'm-Not-Naming (Erica) change her first chapter? Well, I'm not sure. I would probably recommend a prologue. Given the nature of the book, she should check out, for instance, James Rollins' latest, The Doomsday Key, to see how he starts it--with an historical prologue; or some of David Morrell's novels like The Fifth Profession or The Brotherhood of the Rose.

Or not. Because I read it, after all, and was surprised and drawn in by the end of the chapter, if not earlier. I was entranced by the idea of a person being killed by a pack of wild dogs, which struck me as being a potential prologue, rather than a brief mention.

It depends. The technique of starting in the middle of things is called in media res, and it works very well, although some readers want to be seduced into a story rather than thrust into it. Maybe I'm just a guy who wants to get over the foreplay and onto the, er, main event. That said, scene setting can be important, and if there's a weakness in my books (not "if" actually) it's related to scene-setting and characterization. How you do it, when you do it, those are all complicated decisions.

What do you think?


Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Impossible to say, given I haven't read it, LOL. Unrelated, but I rather like the prologues in the thriller genre. I've read almost all of them in the store, even though I haven't read even 1% of the books, probably. One about a pack of wild dogs killing someone is definitely original and attention-grabbing, LOL!

7:23 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hear that, E? Pack of wild dogs eating someone--thumb's up.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

LOL! I HAD a prologue. Then cut it because I thought it gave away too much. Hmmm . . . (and it is not the prologue you are suggesting).

Great food for thought. GREAT. It's interesting, because I cut the prologue in order to set it up and have that twist. And I know my strong suit is characters. My strong suit ISN'T usually scene setting, but I know there are a lot of thriller writers who do the global conspiracy thing and make sure you gain a sense of the cities involved.

The even trickier thing . . . is for every place I could open in, I gain something and I lose something.

What I want to achieve, bottom line, is a page turner . . . the pacing. I was hoping the air of mystery over it would make readers patient enough with it . . .

You have given me fresh angst. Thanks for that. ;-)

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Your beginning was certainly intriguing. I'm not so sure how the book begins matters that much. I don't know. How many books are purchased on the basis of the potential buyer reading the first few lines? And once a reader has shelled out a few bucks he or she is going to persevere for a few pages I'd guess.

There are many different ways to intrigue the reader, and not just action. Although we've definitely started some of our books with action.

As to prologues...we use them. But no matter what you call it, that's the part of the book that needs to be read first so I'm don't think a prologue is that immune from having to grab the reader's attention. To a degree perhaps. The reader might realize that it constitutes necessary background to be got through.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Wild dogs shredding human flesh works for me!

8:15 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'll have more thoughts, but there's a nice variety of thoughts here. So much so that it'll probably drive you nuts. Ah, the joys of writing.

6:14 AM  
Blogger Frank Marcopolos said...

It depends, of course, but I always go with my gut, in the end. But I'm probably more like you and err on the side of characterization and scene-setting.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

I generally don't like prologues in a thriller but there are always exceptions. I liked Da Vinci Code and it had a prologue.

I'm reading "The Eight" right now and it's an odd mixture of historical and modern and somehow managed to draw you into the story.

5:25 PM  

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