First Page Critique: A Primer
On Prologs and Wavering POV

By PJ Parrish

Hello crime dogs! Today’s offering from one of our brave contributors doesn’t have a title but it does have things to teach us.  Thank you, writer, for letting us share your work. My comments follow and I hope you will all weigh in.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing.

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.”

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window.

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.

The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled out.

She hugged herself as chilly air flooded the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears.

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence.

_________________________

Back to me again. I’m guessing that a lot of you are way ahead of me on this one, because if you are regular here, you are well-versed in the gospel according to James et al about picking a point of view and staying with it to establish that vital reader-writer bond. So what is the main issue with this opening? (Forget the prologue. We’ll deal with that in a second. Focus for now on the main action between the two lovers).

It has no point of view. Well, actually it has three, count ’em, three. (Four if you count the prologue). The opening graph is omniscient POV with the writer hovering above the car and TELLING us what is happening below in the car. And we have these two lines:  “Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.”

Lots of problems here, right? First, omniscient POV is quaint. It was a mainstay of 19th century fiction and rears its grizzled head in some modern literary stuff. But it doesn’t work in today’s crime genre where there is an expectation of creating a bond between character and reader quickly and cleanly.  And then there’s that hoary device of “Little did they know what awaited them…” These victims can’t know what they don’t know. They can’t SEE the cedar trees or the slinking man. They can’t know death is coming for them.

You don’t need this false foreshadowing, dear writer.  Use your power of description to create a mood of impending horror, doom, intrigue, whatever you’re trying for here. But don’t TELL us death is coming. SHOW US. Make us feel it. You really need more description in this opening, not just to establish where we are but to make us feel a mounting sense of suspense.  I don’t know why some writers stint on description in their openings. Maybe they feel it will slow things down? It doesn’t if it is evocative and fuels the intrigue.  (Tip to writer: Go read Poe’s essay on the unity of effect.)

But omniscient POV isn’t the only issue here.  After that, the writer moves into the man’s POV as he hears a sound and feels the rocking. And after he exits the car, we slide into the woman’s POV as she hugs herself and cries out Jerome’s name.  This is called head-hopping. This is not good.  Why? Because we don’t know whose story this is.  I suspect what we are getting with this opening scene is a set-up and these two die. The next chapter might be the true protag then dealing with the aftermath, be it a cop, detective or someone who then has to begin facing the challenge and conflict of whatever this story is about.

And that leads us to yet another issue I have with this opening. It isn’t very fresh. Outside of the terrifying lovers-at-the-lake scene in Zodiac, this scenario is a cliche. Such set-ups are so corny that they were lampooned in a 1999 movie called Lover’s Lane. (“There’s no such thing as safe sex!”).  And how many of us growing up heard the “true” story about the hook-handed mental patient escapee who murdered teens making out in the woods but one couple didn’t realize they had narrowly escaped doom until they got home and saw…wait for it…a hook hanging off the car door!  But I digress…

In today’s sophisticated and crowded crime fiction market, you can’t get attention with old chestnut plots, especially about serial killers. Maybe there is a way to make a lover’s lane murderer feel fresh but I wouldn’t want to try it. It is true that crime fiction is dependent on formula and there are only so many variations on plots. But I have to go back to something I heard an agent say once about how she is always looking for freshness within the formula: Say something unique or say something uniquely.

Some other quibbles here: I really really really don’t like prologues. Why? Because nine times out of ten, they are just throat-clearing, or evidence that the writer has not figured out how to grab the reader legitimately so he/she tacks on a preamble teaser. (Caveat, I have seen good prologues that really work, so I am not blindly biased, just burned by bad examples).  I am not sure what this prologue is trying to do.  Is it introducing the protag Barry Marshall? If so, I’m not intrigued.  I’d rather meet Barry the detective on the job, maybe looking at the bloody hook hanging on the car door. (Just kidding!)  If Marshall is the protag, find a way, dear writer, to SHOW HIM in action at what James here calls a critical moment of disruption.  Don’t let our first encounter with your hero be a paragraph of navel-gazing. Yes, I get that Marshall is damaged in some way — what he learned was “crippling” — but get your story moving first and then let us learn about Marshall’s damage through the action of the story. Don’t TELL us he is in pain — SHOW us. How? Via his reactions to the case, via his interactions with other characters, via his own arc over the story, via his thoughts as they relate to the ongoing action.  This is what I meant in my comments about point of view: Your job as a writer is to make us feel Marshall as a human being and bond with him.

But…

Here’s the thing like about this submission — the potential implied in the protagonist.  I am somewhat intrigued by Marshall by this teaser. I have a feeling that he’s an interesting protag with a powerful story to tell. Something happened to this man to leave scars.  That’s always good.  But it is your job, writer, to pull us deep into his soul and make us care about his journey. Because it’s never about the dead. It’s about the living.

And while we’re talking about Marshall — is this story in first person or third? If I were you, I’d pick one and stick with it.  Switching between first and third can be very effective but you really have to be in control of your craft to pull it off.  Don’t juggle with chain saws until you’ve mastered bowling pins.

That’s it for general comments. Here’s my Track Changes edits if you want more.

PROLOGUE
BARRY MARSHALL  If you have a chapter from his POV find a way to insert his name into the text.  Even Sue Grafton, who starts out nearly every story with “My name is Kinsey Millhone…”  finds a way to make this feel graceful.
I’ve been a police detective for six years. One thing this job teaches you is that nobody is really what they pretend to be. It’s a lesson you learn over and over — and that changes you. With this case, the learning was crippling. I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but that would be a lie…

Chapter 1
TEMPLE LAKE PA
Temple, Texas

Friday, March 6th, 4:10 P.M.  Why do you need this time/place tag? One of my pet peeves is the overuse of this device because it usually indicated the writer can’t figure out a graceful way to integrate this info into the narrative flow. And are we in Pennsylvania or Texas? 

The mint-green Mini Cooper sat in the parking lot about fifty feet from the shoreline of Lake Belton. Inside the car, the young couple kissed and fondled each other. Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.  Get out of the way of your story, writer.

The young man pulled back when he heard someone whistling a tune. His arm slid off her. His head cocked to one side, listening.

“What is it?” Her brow furrowed as she brushed a tendril of hair off her forehead.

“Shhh.” He held up a finger. “Listen.”

He wiped the condensation off the driver’s side window using his sleeve. A glance outside. Nothing. Missed opportunity to show us the surroundings, just a little. You can use this moment to even tell us where we are…He had been coming to Belton Lake since he was ten, the year his family had moved to Texas. It had always been a place of barbecues and tubing until he grew older and realized its shadowed pine coves were the best places in the little town of Temple to bring girls to make out.  Now, as he looked out into the window, the trees moving in the wind, seemed to be alive. (That’s bad but you get the idea!)

“I don’t hear anything,” she whispered.

A few moments of dead silence this doesn’t cut it as suspense. passed, broken only by the faint whirring of an outboard motor in the distance.

“Humph.” He shrugged. “Thought I heard somebody whistling.”

“C’mere,” she said, pulling his head over to her. “I got something that’ll make you whistle.” Can you find a way to insert her name?

The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Put this in his sensibilities. Slow at first, then faster.

“Who’s doing that?” the driver asked. The driver? He’s not driving. He looked out his side window, then hers, as if he could actually see anything through the steamed-up window. There’s a slight problem here. It’s 4 in the afternoon. The sun is probably nice and bright, starting to come in at a slant. No way could he not see anything, even with steamy windows.  Change the scene to night?

The rocking stopped.

He twisted his body to look out the rear window, but it was no clearer than the others.
The rocking started again.

“Okay, that’s it.” He pushed open the door and crawled got out.

She hugged herself Rut-Roh…POV whiplash. as chilly air flooded what time of year is it? I was thinking summer but it’s chilly at 4 p.m.? the inside of the car.

He yelled, “What the hell, man?”

A loud grunt, followed by a thud. The car shook for a split second.

The young woman’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the driver’s seat and peered out the open door.

“Jerome?”

A couple of seconds passed. A gurgling sound reached her ears. She heard…

She shouted his name louder. “Jerome?”

Dead silence. This is a cliche. Too many others before you have used it so it is devalued as an attempt to inject suspense.  It is just silence.  And if you have made the scene creepy enough, by building in tension with good description (you’re too spare on that account!) you don’t need this. 

5+
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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Primer
On Prologs and Wavering POV

  1. Wonderful critique.

    Imagine you’re in a car with your girlfriend enjoying preliminaries, completely shielded from the outside world’s snooping eyes by condensation. Would you stop just because you heard someone whistle? Unless this is a forbidden or clandestine relationship, or unless they’ve been tailed before or his senses have already been riled up, I see no reason for a young man who’s about to have sex to overreact in this manner.

    It’s mid afternoon, a parking lot, i. e., it’s not, at least potentially, a deserted place. Passers by, other couples, are to be expected.

    He would, however, recoil when “The back end of the car began rocking up and down. Slow at first, then faster.”

    I’m probably guilty of lewdness, but I misread this passage as iconic sexual imagery. Maybe the killer is a fundamentalist religious person who’s taken on the duty to punish raunchy teenagers. I’m reminded of David Fincher’s truly exceptional Seven.

    It’d be an interesting angle.

    • Ohhh…Seven. One of my favorites. Absolutely horrifying. And what an ending. Thanks for the input this morning.

    • I’m late to the game, but I also had the same “If this car’s rockin’, don’t bother knockin'” thought.

      But a pet peeve here.

      The back end of the car BEGAN ROCKING . . .

      The word “began” almost always be killed. It is pure tell.

      “The back end of the car rocked up and down. Slow at first, then faster”

  2. “Maybe there is a way to make a lover’s lane murderer feel fresh but I wouldn’t want to try it.”

    There’s a challenge I almost can’t turn down, PJ. But since I finally outgrew adolescence (about three years ago), I can now better resist double-dares.

    Many of PJ’s comments strike me as “right on.” As I read this first page, a lot of things bothered me, including the weak prologue and the weak language. But I wasn’t bothered by the “point-of-view issue,” at least not until I pulled out my rule book and it flopped open to “hopping, head-” (right after “hophead”–but that’s another story).

    I guess I would hold out for the possibility of a good use of third-person omniscient POV here, particularly since both characters will soon be dead.
    —-
    “Mmmm,” murmured Jane, Dick’s tongue in her ear. Her hand slid down to his belt buckle. The windows were fogged, separating their back seat from any outside world. Just the slight moaning of the wind in the bare trees.

    Dick’s guided her fingers as she loosened his belt. She had just started on the button when Dick jerked back.

    “What was that?” he whispered. “I heard someone whistling.”

    They froze like children hiding under the table from their mother.

    “Nothing,” said Jane, confidence in her voice. Her hand shook a little as it slide inside his pants.

    The back end of the car started bouncing, up and down, gently at first. Then harder and harder. They unclinched. Dick quietly buckled his belt. The rocking stopped. Dick wiped the fog off the back window and peered out. Just blackness accompanied by the softly moaning wind.

    The rocking started again. They should have been able to see whoever it was through the back window.

    “I’ll fix that bastard!”

    “No, Dick. Let’s just get out of here.”

    Dick yanked the door handle, slammed the door wide open, and scrambled around to the back.

    • I like what you did with this idea, Eric. There is good tension in your dialogue and you’ve managed to build up a little empathy for the soon-dead couple. (ie, they feel like real people, esp since Dick is a little feisty!). And while this is, technically, omniscient POV, it feels more involving. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Thanks!

  3. Very thorough critique, PJ. I was stopped cold by the Pennsylvania/Texas confusion at the top. Also, when the rocking started, the proper course of action for anyone with a brain is to drive away, not get out of the car. This is reminiscent of the clanking sounds in the basement of an old house and the teenager HAS to go down and see what it is.

  4. Brilliant analysis, PJ, and thoroughly agree with you about prologues. I know they’re wrong, but I can’t resist writing them for my books. They start out all moody and serious and overwritten. Once I get the prologue out of my system, I start writing the novel.

  5. Wonderful analysis by PJ. Not much to add. Just a few thoughts.

    I actually like a well-done Prologue. But this… isn’t a Prologue (by the way, my Grammerly spell check spells it as: prolog, which I haven’t seen in context to what we’re discussing). A Prologue is usually a full scene or chapter, something that throws out a puzzle or a promise that is clarified later. It’s a form of hook. What’s offered here is a three sentence glimpse of the story’s theme. It is way more about the author/narrator than the characters, the plot or anything else, and thus, feels contrived and misplaced.

    The ensuing scene actually plays more like a true Prologue, in that it poses a who/what/why question that creates a framework for all that will follow (or, one would hope). But as written it doesn’t work, PJ is right about all of the reasons why.

    That said, there is certain’y enough competent sentence-making here to not send this writer home after the first tryout. But there is much to learn beyond sentence-making. This chapter is really a common misstep among some new writers, who seem to be imitating the art of scene writing as they have consumed it as a reader, but they miss the form, function, nuance and the subtleties that separate professionals from the charging masses. Everything required to encounter and begin to harness all that information is out there. But to sit down and “just write” isn’t the way to elevate to where the bar resides, as this proves. Action and intention need to pair with knowledge and awareness before that happens.

  6. The Prologue, as the writer calls it, did grab me a bit, but the change in POV and the cliched situation (can’t do accents) both threw me, and I didn’t really want to read any more.

    Definitely, the story needs to start somewhere else, probably when the protag is at the murder scene, but that’s a bit cliched, too, although it’s easier to make it work.

    If the writer learns more about story structure, this could be a fun read.

  7. I have time for a few quick comments, brave writer:

    ♥ To learn about how to use point of view, read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Check out the index for point of view, and read all of the associated pages. Also, do the exercises.

    ♥ According to fiction editor Beth Hill, a prologue “can consist of a few lines or be as long as a chapter (though if you’re going to write a chapter, consider making it a real chapter rather than a prologue).” Read Beth’s article entitled “Pros and Cons of Prologue” for guidance. You can pull up the article using any of the major search engines. Let me know if you have trouble finding it.

    ♥ “Neither of them saw the man slink toward their car from behind the stand of cedar trees. Nor did they know death was coming with him.”

    Telling the reader what’s going to happen in advance kills the suspense. The idea is to slowly build the sense of dread. Young lovers may already be anxious about getting caught, and you can use this to heighten the tension. Flesh out the characters and setting. You want characters and setting to be unique. The setting might be rather normal except for one unusual detail. Create a steadily escalating sense of foreboding. Like PJ mentioned, if you want to use a “lover’s lane” setting, you’ve got to do something to make it very different from stuff that’s been done before.

    Keep writing, brave writer! I’m sending positive thoughts your way.

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