First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Leaving Time

This week, in our examination of first pages of best-selling novels, we’re taking a look at a best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult called Leaving Time (2015). While this novel is categorized as a thriller, it’s really more Women’s Fiction.

We’re using my first-page checklist to go through each author’s first page to see why and how it effectively draws the reader quickly into the story. While novels don’t have to have every one of these checklist elements on the first page, usually the more they do have, the stronger the opening.

Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. She has great characters, terrific themes and motifs, and usually gets right into action in her opening scenes, setting up her premise with characters in the middle of a difficult situation.

A terrific example of another powerful intro is found in My Sister’s Keeper, another of Picoult’s many runaway best sellers. As with Leaving Time, she starts off with a prologue (when you have time, read it by looking inside the book here on Amazon). And since prologues have been the topic of debate for years, before we look at this particular prologue, I want to talk a little about this structure.

To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Many of my clients ask me whether their book should begin with a prologue. Some have heard that prologues “are bad.” Or “Agents hate them.” Or “Prologues are for amateurs.” Granted, a prologue written for the wrong reasons reveals amateur writing. But prologues that are skillfully crafted can not only set up the novel’s premise effectively, it can also be a terrific way to grab a reader by creating mystery and tension quickly.

There are no rules about prologue length, but they are often short. With fantasy, though, you might find a lengthy prologue showing an important scene playing out centuries before the novel’s present story starts.

More often than not, though, a prologue isn’t necessary, and the information presented in it could just as easily (and maybe in an even better way) be revealed through the main story’s characters’ dialogue and thoughts.

Frame Structure Using Prologues

But the issue usually isn’t whether the prologue is necessary or not. More likely it’s about style and setup. A prologue can dramatically set the stage for your story in a wonderful way. There are many types of prologues. One I particularly like, for effect, is a frame structure that starts a novel off with a key scene that comes later in the book. I’ve used this a number of times in my own novels, and I love when it’s done in movies.

The scene chosen is usually part of the climax or close to it. It might show the moments right before a murderer is identified or the key event in the novel occurs. It could be a part of a scene in which the protagonist has to make the hardest decision of her life. Whatever the genre, usually this kind of prologue hints at what is to come, enticing the reader into the story. It’s akin to a good movie trailer (“good,” meaning it doesn’t give away the whole plot, as some awful movie trailers do).

Prologues can be useful if you need to impart key information that cannot be revealed in your novel’s present story. For instance, you might need to show something that happened years earlier that sets the stage for your story that the characters never learn about and can’t ever know. That isn’t a common situation though, and what we see in beginning novels is a huge info dump in a prologue telling what happened before the “real” story starts. This is information the author thinks the reader must know before she begins reading. But the truth is, the reader doesn’t need to know any of it.

If you’re not sure whether your book needs or could use a prologue, it might help to thumb through a bunch of best sellers in your genre and find and read some prologues. See how long they are, what info they convey, and if you feel they’re effective in drawing you in and making you want to read further. And most importantly, see what they don’t tell you, how they leave you wondering.

So let’s take a look, now, at Picoult’s prologue (first page) and see what works and what doesn’t.

 

Prologue

Jenna

Some people used to believe that there was an elephant graveyard—a place that sick and old elephants would travel to to die. They’d slip away from their herds and would lumber across the dusty landscape, like the titans we read about in seventh grade in Greek Mythology. Legend said the spot was in Saudi Arabia; that it was the source of a supernatural force; that it contained a book of spells to bring about world peace.

Explorers who went in search of the graveyard would follow dying elephants for weeks, only to realize they’d been led in circles. Some of these voyagers disappeared completely. Some could not remember what they had seen, and not a single explorer who claimed to have found the graveyard could ever locate it again.

Here’s why: The elephant graveyard is a myth.

True, researchers have found groups of elephants that died in the same vicinity, many over a short period of time. My mother, Alice, would have said there’s a perfectly logical reason for a mass burial site: a group of elephants who died all at once due to lack of food or water; a slaughter by ivory hunters. It’s even possible that the strong winds in Africa could blow a scattering of bones into a concentrated pile. Jenna, she would have told me, there’s an explanation for everything you see.

There is plenty of information about elephants and death that is not fable but instead cold, hard science. My mother would have been able to tell me that, too. We would have sat, shoulder to shoulder, beneath the massive oak where Maura liked to shade herself, watching the elephant pick up acorns with her trunk and pitch them. My mother would rate each toss like an Olympic judge. 8.5 . . . 7.9. Ooh! A Perfect 10.

Maybe I would have listened. But maybe, too, I would have just closed my eyes. Maybe I would have tried to memorize the smell of bug spray on my mother’s skin, or the way she absentmindedly braided my hair, tying it off on the end with a stalk of green grass.

Maybe the whole time I would have been wishing there really was an elephant graveyard, except not just for elephants. Because then I’d be able to find her.

Why This Works

In true Jodi Picoult style, she sets up her story in a creative and compelling way. She gets to the heart of her premise here, just as she does in her other novels with prologues. Readers will wonder, what’s up with the elephants? And that’s key to the plot, as Jenna’s mother disappeared from an elephant sanctuary when Jenna was three.

Let’s go through my first-page checklist and see what elements Picoult has included and in what way.

Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader—The hook comes at the end of the prologue. The reader will want to know what happened—did the mother die? What happened to her? What do the elephants have to do with the story? Why so much talk of death? Although the actual hook doesn’t come until the end, the facts and information about elephants also draws the reader in as does the voice of the protagonist. She is a character we’re drawn to—someone whose story we’re compelled to discover.

Introduction of main character in first few lines: Though the narrative is written in first person, the reader isn’t introduced to the protagonist until the end of the fourth paragraph. There we’re given her name and understand she is the one telling the story. But again, her voice is compelling, so although we may not know who is telling this story, we want to get to know her.

Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): Jenna, the protagonist, has lost her mother.

A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: The protagonist speaks of a seemingly familiar setting from the past. She hints at the place, making the reader curious. Where would they be that they’re sitting and watching an elephant named Maura?

A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: The death of her mother. As Jenna remembers facts about the elephants, separating myth from science, she is also remembering her mother—the tone the author’s created is wistful, perhaps even one of grief. The author shows this beautifully through the narrative. We aren’t told her mother died, but we’re led to believe that’s the case. We aren’t told Jenna is grieving, but her reflections make it seem so. Picoult is a master of foreshadowing, and the prologue includes snippets of information that foretell what’s to come. For example, this line gives the reader, without them knowing it, a map for the story: “Jenna, she would have told me, there’s an explanation for everything you see.” 

A hint at character’s immediate intentions: The last line makes the reader wonder if Jenna intends to find her mother, desires to find her, yet it seems clear that she’s dead. The author does a great job of leaving the reader hanging, hungry for more information.

A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear: Yes—Jenna’s desire for her mother, perhaps to find her mother or go back to a time before she lost her mother, is evident.

Unique voice/writing style: Beautifully written, rich with researched facts, layered, intriguing character—fans of Jodi Picoult would recognize these characteristics of her writing in this prologue.

Setting the tone for the book: Definitely. The tone is clear in the prologue and the reader would assume it represents the remainder of the story. 

A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation:

Hint of character’s initial plot goal: Motivation and plot goal are one, it seems: find her mother. The conundrum: the mother is dead, isn’t she?

A course of action/decision implied. Introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: Not evident in the prologue, yet we know it’s coming.

Good pacing; jump right into present action. No backstory: The prologue shows the character reflecting on the past, yet at the same time we’re in the middle of the “action” as she remembers her mother and thinks about her.

  • One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: Vulnerable because of her loss, yet she isn’t running from it—instead she’s reliving it, or reliving what it might have been. Her reflections hint at strength.
  • One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity: The whole prologue is mysterious and raises curiosity. We’re dropped into a scene we want developed, but we’re yanked back out before our questions are answered. A strong prologue.
  • One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes the book different/stand out: The facts, research done, makes this prologue both fascinating and unique.
  • Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No real dialogue—just snippets of imagined conversation. But those snippets give us a sense of the character’s voices.
  • A hint at theme: Death and loss. The theme is clear.

What Could Have Been Better

Overall, this is marvelous trademark Picoult style. But I did have some problems with the overall concept here. I love the prologue centering on the elephant facts, and of course they’re important to the premise, so they provide a great motif to work with right off the start.

In this prologue we get a sense of Jenna, but not enough for my tastes. The last line hints at her desire or wish that she could find her mother. What doesn’t work to me, though, are these things:

In the book description, we read Jenna was three when her mother went missing. A three-year-old isn’t going to have much memory of her mother at all. She may have been told much about her mother by others so that she would be able to assume or guess how her mother might have acted in that situation, what she might have said. But I get more the sense that she’s imagining what her mother might have been like.

However, that isn’t what’s coming across. The way Picoult words it, Jenna seems to know her mother very well, and that’s just not possible. In other words, if she is going to state so confidently her mother would have “said this” and “done that,” I would like to know where she gets that information from. And I don’t think she would remember much at that age about an elephant named Maura tossing acorns, but maybe.

I would have preferred picking up on that sense of losshow she imagined her mother thinking and saying all this but isn’t sure because she couldn’t know. I’d prefer the hint of losing her mother at so young an age, of Jenna feeling robbed of those kinds of memories and that depth of knowledge of this mother who has been missing for most of her life.

I found the hypothetical time with her mother a bit confusing. What age is she picturing herself there? Why would she think that maybe she would have memorized her mother’s actions or wish that back then she believed in elephant graveyards? That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s now when she’s wishing these things. Not back in that hypothetical time and situation.

It seems clear she’s really trying to say, basically, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have paid attention to those little details, so I could have remembered my mother better.” And that would make sense. But it doesn’t work to say that if she had wished there was a graveyard like that for humans (it’s too wordy, too, saying “. . . wishing there really was an elephant graveyard, except not just for elephants), that would have ensured she could find her mother. Is she saying “If there were one mass graveyard for humans, like with elephants, I would have been able to find it and locate my (presumed dead) mother”? Regardless, it’s confusing. Just wishing she believed does not make it true. So she would not have been able to find her mother. I’m sure I’ve confused you by now, as well.

And is this what she really wants right now? Again, it would help to know her age, or how many years later she is thinking about this. Her voice sounds young (not adult) by the sentence structure and wording. Personally, I’d like a stronger hint at her need. Is she just musing about her mother? I don’t get any sense of loss or longing, and I’d like some.

On more of an editing note, I’d take out the line about Saudi Arabia. The point she’s making is about the graveyard being a myth, not about where it might be located. It could be cut back a bit at the start to get quicker into her thoughts about her mother.

What about you? Did you enjoy this prologue and feel it set up the novel well? Did you have any trouble with the hypothetical situation with her mother? What did you like or dislike about this opening?

4 Responses to “First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Leaving Time”

  1. Kwei Quartey February 3, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    At first read, this prologue seemed quite ordinary to me and about as lumbering as the elephants Picoult describes. I wonder whether ” . . . a place that sick and old elephants would travel to to die” would have been better as ” . . . a place where sick and old elephants would travel to die,” avoiding the close repetition of “to.” On second and third read, the prologue grew on me somewhat. However if I had picked up the novel and read the prologue, I doubt I would be especially compelled to read on.

    It could be this is not my favorite genre–I prefer murder mysteries–or it could be that the “finding my mother” quest has been done so often and I wasn’t that much urged to embark upon this one.

  2. PA De Voe February 3, 2016 at 8:40 am #

    I absolutely loved this prologue and the last line completely took me in–emotionally (a jolt in now I realized she was in the midst of a grief she’d never gotten over) and intellectually (in the sense that my curiosity was aroused and I want to read what Jenna was up to that made her think of these things now).

    I also liked the elephant analogy. I haven’t yet read the novel, but using the elephants also made me think of their close social (family) ties and their apparent grief when one of their own dies. Not to mention our (myth?) of their memory. I would be looking for these themes in the following story.

    On the other hand, I agree with you on the age thing. When she said she was 3 years old when her mother went missing, I also thought that an average 3 year old wouldn’t remember things in such detail.

    The mention of Saudi Arabia didn’t bother me. I thought it strengthened the sense of the story’s physical geography.

    BTW, I continue to enjoy all of your insightful blogs.

  3. P.D. Workman February 3, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

    Have you read the whole book? There is a reason for those things you found to be discordant or unbelievable. I won’t say what it is and spoil the final plot twist for everyone.

    And for the previous commentator: it is, at its heart, a murder mystery.

    An excellent book! I posted a teaser from it here: http://pdworkman.com/excerpt-from-jodi-picoults-leaving-time/

  4. Jeanne Lombardo February 4, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Just love these analyses of first pages/prologues. I always learn a lot. I immediately honed in on the problem of memory too, that a small child could not possibly remember such details. But I found the prologue evocative. Will check out P.D. Workman’s link. Thanks!

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