How to Begin a Thriller

Are you writing or reading a thriller?
Either way, openings are a problem

Who Needs a Prologue?

You are an intelligent reader. You go straight to Chapter One  –  easily with a hard copy, more tricky using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’. Or, you might be looking at a prologue of some kind. Sometimes it’s called ‘Prologue’ but not necessarily. It can be a letter, a document, an entry from a diary, whatever.

Readers seem to have all kinds of attitudes to prologues. My guess is that about 50% of readers dislike them to some degree. For a detailed discussion I recommend Anne Allen’s post here and the comments.

Prologues are common in certain genres, especially thrillers. When I meet them I am prone to shouting, “Oh no, not the old prologue cliché!”

What about you? If you are a reader do you shout, “Oh no, not the old opening cliché again!”? If you are a writer, striving for the perfect and engaging hook, you will certainly look at your draft and say, “Oh no! I’ve fallen for the old opening cliché, yet again!”

How to Avoid the Cliché

The best thing to do is to look at an original model for the contemporary thriller. We should pick a writer who has been successful. Surely we can learn from studying a popular thriller how to begin in a way that avoids that kind of response?

How to Write That First Sentence in a Thriller

Immediacy

If anyone provided the model for the modern thriller, it was surely this man:-

Image of Ian Fleming, model for the modern thriller

A great thriller writer

“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.” Ian Fleming, From Russia with Love.

What was the first thing you noticed? For me, it was the immediacy of the scene. So then I thought about how he achieved the effect.

That single sentence is the whole of the first paragraph. The final word, “dead”, brings a sudden halt to the thought, and hence the paragraph. This is certainly a trick used by a lot of writers today. Unfortunately, if they are anything like me, they will nevertheless find it difficult to match Fleming’s sentence. Why is that?

At least the first four paragraphs continue with that remarkable immediacy, yet they are written in the past tense. Contemporary authors sometimes resort to the present tense to try to achieve that same effect. (Often they can be found using the present tense in a prologue.)

Well, perhaps the first thing you noticed was something different?

Prose Style and the Thriller

Fleming has been called sexist, racist and a snob. He was certainly a snob but he was also a great stylist. So perhaps you noticed first the wonderful rhythm of the sentence? I don’t mean anything technical:  what I mean is, Ian Fleming had an ear for the rhythms of language.

To analyse his sentence we don’t need to know anything about analytical tools. I think we can get by with the old, “ti-ta-ti-ta“, can’t we? Use ‘ta‘ for the stress.

I get something like this:

ti (The)  ta (na-)  ti (ked)  ta (man)  ti (who)  ta (lay)  ta (splayed)  ta (out)  ta (on)  ta (his)

ta (face)  ti (be-)  ta (side)  ti (the)  ta (swimm-)  ti (ing)  ta (pool)  ta (might)  ta (have)  ta (been)    TA (DEAD)

Wow! Did you get the same? The man’s got the rhythm! And the final staccato group of  ta impels the line on to the end-stopping word, ‘DEAD’.

They said he was sexist, sadistic and a snob, but did he have yet another vice?

OK, I hear you: actually the first thing you saw was the lack of commas.

This is the trickiest part. Commas form an important element of writer’s style, yet they are often changed by editors and in revisions. Fleming made frequent revisions to his typewritten drafts, he had editors, and corrections were made in revised copies. What to say then about commas in the opening paragraphs of a thriller?

If I had a First Edition I would check inside, because what’s worrying is that the original cover showed the title as, “From Russia, with Love.” Was the comma inserted by the designer, Richard Chopping, or did Fleming share the vice of the comma after all?

In the copies I have looked at, commas are sparse. I have found few differences in any of the editions that I have seen. (For a full analysis, to be fully confident, I would need to see the typescript in The Lilly Library Archives on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington.  I hope that one day I’ll get there. Until then I’ll have to wait for you to report.)

A contemporary thriller author (or her editor), obsessing about commas as we all do now, would have inserted two additions to that first sentence: the first she would place after ‘man’ and a second after ‘pool’. Immediately immediacy would be dead in the water of the swimming pool.

This is a key reason why some of our contemporary authors of this kind of thriller share with current historians the vice of the beginning written in the present tense: they can only introduce a sense of excitement by using the present tense. They can’t resist the powerful urge to use too many commas. A comma after every clause introduces breathing, slowing the reading, slowing the action.

Yes, we all know about the panda who (which or that) eats, leaves and shoots. Sure, we need to pay careful attention to sense and comma use.

We know about ambiguity and the misplaced comma.  I try to avoid ambiguity if I can but it’s hard.

The biggest debate here is about the Oxford comma. Quite frankly, the debate is risible. Just look at this summing up of the arguments each side gives for either requiring the serial comma on pain of rejection by their publishing house, or for despising those who use it. I love it that the first reason given justifying its use is exactly the same as  that for rejecting it: the dictates of convention. Either laugh or cry.

For the rest of it, in the main, the use of commas is a matter of effect and of art.

Attention to Detail and Brand Names

In the next few paragraphs Ian Fleming maintains that immediacy of the first sentence by showing the scene in detailed descriptions.The blue and green dragon-fly that hovered a few inches above the base of the man’s spine, “had been attracted the golden shimmer of the June sunshine on the ridge of fine blond hairs above the coccyx.”

The man’s effects are enumerated, including a well-used Dunhill lighter, an oval gold cigarette case, “with the wavy ridges and discreet turquoise button that means Fabergé”, and “a bulky gold wristwatch on a well-used brown crocodile strap. It was a Girard-Perragaux model designed for people who like gadgets, and it had a sweep second-hand and two little windows in the face to tell the day of the month, and the month, and the phase of the moon.”

Interestingly, the particular brand name of the watch was suggested by Fleming’s Jonathan Cape agent, William Plomer. Nevertheless, Fleming intended to use a brand name: he had left a blank in the typescript ready for a name to be inserted later.

I like his repetition of “and” in a single sentence. I like lots of use of “and” in the right places and I don’t mind finding it at the beginning of a sentence to conjoin two sentences. That is one of the reasons it is called a conjunction. My only query would be to ask Fleming about the repetition of “well-used”.

I suspect that Fleming was the first to make use of brand names in this way. You might know of a predecessor. In any case, he has been influential in making the practice common in the thriller.

Perfection

All the actions in these opening paragraphs are complete. They are perfected, not continuous.  “As he was…” constructions do not appear.

The modalities are consistent within paragraphs: “He might have been drowned…” and “Even the the little pile of objects in the grass beside his head might have been his personal effects…”

By contrast, the prologue in a new thriller I read recently  –  though the thriller as a whole was very successful and not bad in a way  –  was an Eton mess. “Might”, “could have” “should have” and “would have” jostled against “was to”, “would be” and “had been”.

Goldeneye

Thriller Writer

Ian Fleming’s House in Jamaica

No prologue then, yet the opening paragraphs act as a prefiguring of the planned attack on Bond which will take place much later in the novel.

What I shall do now is try to put  these techniques learned from Fleming into the opening paragraphs of a new thriller. The idea will be to take just five minutes to prepare. After that I shall write  as quickly as I can, to see if the tricks listed above will work without the days of effort that I normally put into an opening.

I really am going to bash it straight out, without any crafting. Promise.

The Man With the Golden Eye (A Thriller)

The half-naked man did not know that he was already dying.

He carried a harpoon, the six-inch blade flashing in the fierce Jamaican sun. He buried the metal point in the fine golden sand, picked a Rolex watch from a beach towel and fastened the strap around his wrist. He had two hours left before nightfall. Two hours in which to kill James Bond.

The  thigh-length Catalinas bathing trunks hung loosely, supported round his muscular waist by a narrow belt, its bronze buckle glinting as he picked up the striped towel and slung it round his shoulders. He stepped into open-toed leather sandals. He retrieved the harpoon and began to climb through the beach grass and up the steps to the villa perched on the cliff above, whistling tunelessly to himself. He was feeling calm and determined. It was too late to turn back.

The Oyster Rolex was ticking. Now Bond was also dying.

Over To You

Yes, you are right, I’m no Ian Fleming.

I agree, Fleming would not have used “as he picked up” in his opening paragraphs. This “as he…” business is a contemporary construction in thriller writing. It slows the action down.

“…round his wrist” would be quicker in thought than “…around his wrist.”

I can’t apologise for the fact that my use of brand names is dodgy. Other than what I have learnt from reading Fleming, I don’t know much about the life of a rich man in Jamaica in the 1950s. In fact, as a mere contemporary author, financially I can’t pay much attention to the branding of goods today. “Rolex” is obvious, but what model and strap? Did they have Catalinas swimming trunks then? Would they have called them “trunks”? I guessed at “bathing trunks” rather than “swimming trunks”. What kind of grasses grew in Jamaica at Goldeneye? I don’t know. These are all the kind of thing an author has to check now, probably because of Fleming.

My story clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that Ian Fleming was already dying. From Russia with Love was published in 1957  and he died in 1964. (He had heart disease, was drinking too much alcohol, and smoked heavily.) I don’t know whether he was at Goldeneye when he decided to kill off James Bond.

Do not mock, it’s your turn now. You know the rules: 5 minutes preparation. Can you write the perfect opening to your thriller? While I wait for you to finish, I’m off to re-read From Russia with Love, to learn from Fleming, one of the best thriller writers ever to have put fingers to the keys of a typewriter.

Robert Blanchett

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