Thrillers, Genres, and Prologues

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book doctor 2015by Bobbie Christmas

Q: When writing a thriller, should I begin the first chapter of the story with action from the protagonist or antagonist (villain), or does it matter what character I start with?

A: The protagonist (main character, the one who wants something or wants to do something) and the antagonist (the person or thing that attempts to stop the protagonist from getting what he or she wants, also known as the villain) are the two most important characters in any book, but no absolute rule dictates which point of view should begin the first chapter. It seems to me, however, that if you want readers to empathize with the protagonist, it’s better to begin with that character. Remember that the first person mentioned in a scene should be the point-of-view character for that scene.

Q: I understand what “genre fiction” is, but I keep coming across the terms “literary fiction,” “popular fiction,” and “mainstream fiction” used in opposition to genre as well as to one another. What exactly is meant by these three terms?

A: In literary fiction the story is usually character driven and the language is artistic and often elevated. Literary fiction may have more narrative, more descriptions, than genre fiction. I have joked and said the difference between literary fiction and mainstream fiction is that literary fiction wins awards, whereas mainstream sells.

Mainstream fiction has broader reader interest than literary fiction and is not genre specific. Sometimes it is easiest described as fiction that does not fit into a genre, unlike the breakdown in the next category.

Genre fiction is the current term for what used to be called popular fiction. Genre fiction is formulaic and appeals to a specific audience. Genre fiction includes fantasy, historical, horror, humor, romance, sci-fi, and western. Mystery, suspense, and thrillers are also genre fiction and can include crime, courtroom drama, detective, police procedural, legal thrillers, and other thrillers.

Chances are good that if you cannot classify the genre of what you’re writing, you can get away with calling it mainstream, unless it’s too far out, in which case you might call it experimental, or as some say, typing. Save it in a drawer and start a book that will fit into a marketable category, if you hope to sell your fiction.

Q: What genre is typically the bestselling?

A: First, you are thinking correctly to think in terms of genre, because books that fit into a specific genre tend to sell better than literary works, short-story collections, or poetry. Genre novels drive the publishing industry.

As for what sells best, the information changes often, but according to Simba Information (a division of Market Research Group), a recent report had horror in first place for the most sales. Second in sales figures was the science fiction/fantasy genre. Next came religious/inspirational books, and after that came crime/mystery books. Last in line but still one of the top-selling genres was romance/erotica. It should come as no surprise that many movies have come from those top-selling genres as well, and sadly most authors make more money by selling a book to the movie industry than by selling the book to consumers.

Don’t worry about what’s selling, though. Write what you love, and you will write what you know best. Several people have been credited with being the originator of the saying, “Write the book you want to read.” I won’t take credit for it, but it sums up the best way to choose the genre you should probably write.

Q: I recently read a prologue in a thriller, and chapter one coordinated with the prologue’s description of a plane crash. My prologue has nothing to do with my chapter one, though. My prologue reappears at the crisis point, and the same scene is repeated later in the book. Can I use a prologue in that way?

A: By its very nature, a prologue involves a scene that takes place before the main action of a novel begins. For that reason, readers will assume the prologue took place before chapter one. Extracting a scene to use as a prologue and then repeating it later may confuse and bore readers. What will they think when they come across it again, later in the novel? Worse, if readers assume the prologue is a typical prologue, and the prologue scene took place before the story began, they will get the timeline confused. Never confuse readers.

Creative writing does not have immutable rules and regulations, though. You can try anything you want, but many people more astute than I will tell you to stick with the intention of a prologue. Remember the etymology of the word prologue. It comprises two elements: pro-, meaning “before” and logos, meaning “discourse or speech.”


Note to Readers: Write In Style, Bobbie Christmas’s book on how to use any computer to improve your writing, is available in either printed or e-book versions.


Send your questions to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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