Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Violent prologues

The Reader by Derek Kinzett
Fashionable thrillers of the 2000s have an editor-driven trope: the violent prologue, involving someone dying horribly, killed by an unseen villain or a villain who appears only peripherally as a figure of evil in the rest of the book. I find it a pain in the ass, frankly.
It seems to have been brought into the mainstream by the Scandinavians. You know the kind of thing -

Nothing for two thousand miles but snow. The only light: a blood-red seeping of lamplight from the windows of a wooden hovel. If someone is screaming, no one is around to hear.
If you could go inside, you would see a child, strapped to a bed stolen last year from the Ásgeir Haraldssen Hospital for Unfortunate Mites. She is unconscious, yet one wrist still strains at the bindings made from antique Rolex straps. Blood falls slowly and sinks into the ice. Below, somewhere deep below, the ice fish sense the scent of cooling human corpuscles…
Editors love this kind of thing. "That's it, bring the reader into the story with a bang," they say, rubbing their hands. "A good strong opening. Involve the reader. Get the heart pumping."
Yet some of the most wonderful book openings in the world, that drag the reader in by the hair of the head and make it impossible to put the book down, have no violence at all. Looky:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran. (George Orwell: 1984)
Or the opening of The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick's dystopian multiple-parallel-futures novel, set (mainly) in the Japanese-run San Francisco of a world in which Japan has conquered and occupied the United States in World War II:

For a week Mr. R. Childan had been anxiously watching the mail. But the valuable shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived. As he opened up his store on Friday morning and saw only letters on the floor by the mail slot he thought, I'm going to have an angry customer.
Pouring himself a cup of instant tea from the five-cent wall dispenser he got a broom and began to sweep; soon he had the front of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. ready for the day, all spick and span with the cash register full of change, a fresh vase of marigolds, and the radio playing background music. Outdoors along the sidewalk businessmen hurried toward their offices along Montgomery Street. Far off, a cable car passed; Childan halted to watch it with pleasure. Women in their long colorful silk dresses . . . he watched them, too. Then the phone rang. He turned to answer it.
"Yes," a familiar voice said to his answer. Childan's heart sank. "This is Mr. Tagomi. Did my Civil War recruiting poster arrive yet, sir? Please recall; you promised it sometime last week." The fussy, brisk voice, barely polite, barely keeping the code. "Did I not give you a deposit, sir, Mr. Childan, with that stipulation? This is to be a gift, you see. I explained that. A client."
"Extensive inquiries," Childan began, "which I've had made at my own expense, Mr. Tagomi, sir, regarding the promised parcel, which you realize originates outside of this region and is therefore-"
Or what about the opening of Marian Keyes' first book, Rachel's Holiday?

They said I was a drug addict. I found that hard to come to terms with. I was a middle-class, convent-educated girl whose drug use was strictly recreational. And surely drug addicts were thinner?

You want to write an opening that your reader can't put down? Bring the reader straight into your protagonist's life. Slap the protagonist with the central problem of his or her story. Now you've got your reader. Keep talking.