Pet Peeve of the Moment

prefaceUsually I try to make my expositions on annoyances a bit more analytical and open-minded than this, but I’ve got my rant on, and it’s directed at chapter prefaces. You know, those quotes that start every chapter. Usually they’re famous literary quotes, but I’ve also seen fictional journal excerpts, fairy tales, made-up quotes from characters in the book, fashion tips, recipes, and song lyrics.

I hardly ever read them. I find them jarring and they break the flow of narration — especially when the chapter breaks in the middle of a scene. The hero makes a shocking statement– how will the heroine react?! She– oh, wait, first we have to read a few lines that some 18th century poet wrote, that in a vague way reflect the content of the coming chapter. Then we get to continue on with a tense and dynamic scene, but the bubble is burst, I’ve been distracted, and the tension built in breaking chapters at that moment is wasted.

Rarely are they truly effective. Most of the time I forget the quote moments after I read it, so any significance it is supposed to impart is lost. What is even more frustrating is when important information is imparted in these little segments, because I just assume it’s not important and skip it. In Julie Garwood’s Fire and Ice, each chapter began with a journal entry by a biologist about his observations in Alaska — something that in the beginning had very, very little to do with the apparent plot. But if you hadn’t read them from the beginning, you would have been totally lost as you approached the climax.

One author that I think uses prefaces effectively is Nora Roberts (and her alter-ego J. D. Robb). The key is that she uses them sparingly — one or two significant quotes in the beginning, or maybe to precede a section of the book rather than every single chapter. She also chooses good, interesting quotes that are relevant and appropriate and frame the story well; unlike one historical I read recently that used quotes of all sorts, including Bob Hope — a jarring source for a book set more than a hundred years before he was famous.

So I ask, authors, to use prefaces sparingly. Don’t go overboard. Really, you’re not doing yourself or your story any good by starting every single chapter with a passage or lyric or line from a poem. You get much more bang for your buck, so to speak, if you just choose one or two rather than dozens.

 - Jane Granville

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26 Responses to “Pet Peeve of the Moment”

  1. AAR Lynn says:

    Hmm…I think I’d have to debate you on this one. I actually love the opening quotes and little snippets that one can find at the opening of chapters. For instance, I can’t imagine the Lady Whistledown books without them. Sometimes there are uses of quotes that don’t do a whole lot for me, but in general, I like the atmosphere they add to a book.

  2. Dabney says:

    I love the way Julia Quinn uses them. I just reviewed a Suzanne Enoch book, set on a ship, where she uses old sailing ditties at the start of each chapter. The lyrics of the ditties throw light on what will happen in that chapter. I thought that was pretty cool.

  3. Katja says:

    Yes, I like at least some of them as well. In the Elizabeth Hoyt novels the fairy tale bits are actually almost like an extra book for free.
    And I second (or third) the opinion about Julia Quinn’s chapter prefaces, I really love most of them.

  4. AAR Sandy says:

    I typically like when they are snippets from characters in the book, but I agree with you, Jane, on general quotes form poems or the like.

  5. Tee says:

    Totally agree with you, Jane, especially on the Whisteldown books. As I was reading your blog, that is the series that popped right into my mind. If the author insists, perhaps one quote prior to the first chapter, then be done with it. I’m a quote-loving person, so I’ll read them for possible use in the future. I don’t think I ever found one yet in a romance fiction book that I felt needed to be jotted down for posterity. So, ignoring them has become more commonplace for me now, especially if they preface every chapter.

  6. LinnieGayl says:

    I usually ignore them, with a few exceptions. I loved the ones in the Whistledown books, and also just adored the Daphne the Bunny ones in SEP’s This Heart of Mine….made me wish the Daphne books really existed.

  7. Michele says:

    I generally like the opening quotes or snippets of poetry. In particular, I loved the way Deanna Raybourn used them in the Lady Julia Grey series. The lines from Shakespeare were appropriate for the setting and added to the drama in the first few novels, and I really liked the switch to the Tagore poetry in the last novel. I did struggle with the Elizabeth Hoyt fairy tale snippets, though. They distracted me from the plot. I would have preferred to read the entire fairy tale as a preface.

  8. Dabney says:

    The Daphne the Bunny books are my favorite ever. I especially love it when Molly forgets to write for kids and suddenly Benny is being lured by foreign bunnies!

  9. Tamara Hogan says:

    My editor made me bag ‘em – and yeah, she was right. ;-)

  10. GrowlyCub says:

    I’ve seen them used lately in an apparent attempt to cut word count. They contain condensed, but essential, character and plot developments and it drives me insane. At least one book read like it was an early draft that needed those chapter ‘quotes’ fleshed out. Really annoying!

  11. Corinna says:

    Add me to the list of those who enjoy the chapter prefaces. Well, usually, anyway. I’m not so big on preachy-type quotes from famous people, but I like things such as snippets of diary pages, old letters, newspapers, etc. I find it adds to the ambiance and realism of a story.

  12. Cindy says:

    If the quotes, etc. don’t really add to my reading enjoyment, I don’t get too upset about it – they’re generally about 2 seconds of reading time, right? I can give up 2 seconds a chapter.

  13. KMont says:

    I think this may be the first time I’ve ever commented here, but I just had to say that I 100% agree! I find them to be very distracting and rarely do I read them either. The only book/series I can remember in recent reading that they did work well with the chapters the preceded were Singh’s Psy/Changeling books. In fact, those particular character/journal/whatever quotes contained good, clear info pertinent to the stories. But normally, they’re a nuisance in most other books I’ve read.

  14. Johanna Jochum says:

    I love them personally. I think it adds to the books especially it it pertains to the chapter! I like snippets of letters or lines of poetry and Shakespearian quotes.

  15. Jane AAR says:

    Not going to lie, I’m surprised so many people love them!
    Regarding the Lady Whistledown snippets — while I largely enjoyed them (this is one of the cases where they actually added to the story), what did bug me is that the timing didn’t work. Several chapters would take place over the course of a day, and each would be — presumably– from a different issue of the gossip paper. Nit-picky, I know, but when I notice that stuff it bugs the hell out of me.

    Several of you mentioned the fairy tales in Elizabeth Hoyt’s books, and how much you enjoy them… this is where I’m going to disagree. I love EH; I think she’s one of the most talented writers working. But when reading Notorious Pleasures, some of the fairy tale snippets totally broke the tension and pulled me right out of the story. @Michele — I really liked the idea of a preface over fragments before chapters. I would have enjoyed that much more, and gotten far more out of the fairy tale that way.

  16. Tess V says:

    I like them sometimes, it depends on the story and how well they tie in. For example, I am reading Whisper Falls, Toni Blake’s new book and I feel like she did a great job with the quotes (mainly from Jane Eyre). They were short, to the point, and relevant.

    However, I do agree, I don’t like when authors use the entire first page of the chapter for a preface!!!

  17. Trish says:

    I don’t usually like them, but I very much enjoyed the “excerpts” from Molly’s Daphne children’s book series that opened each chapter of This Little Heart of Mine.

  18. LizM says:

    I usually like quotes. They are often fun, and almost always add to my enjoyment of the book.

  19. Sharon says:

    I think that with writing in general, and I say this more from an academic than a fictional perspective, some writers have the skills to use prefaces to great effect while others do not. So, I would have to put this particular literary device into context of how skilled a writer is with using these. I nearly used them with my doctoral dissertation and then later removed them as I did not feel that they were adding significantly to my own writing. However, with romance writing, I’ve always enjoyed Judith Ivory’s use of them and have felt they contributed well to her themes. As others have mentioned, This Heart of Mine uses them brilliantly!

  20. Carrie says:

    I generally skim over them, but rarely feel they add anything to the experience. Those little quotes are irritating, mostly.

  21. jebe says:

    I loved the Daphne quotes in THOM, but there was one book, maybe As You Desire, that had letters at the beginning of chapters and that really bogged me down. I know a lot of other readers loved those exchanges, but I felt distracted by them.

    For the most part, I’m with you, Jane, not a big fan of the prefaces.

  22. Rebecca says:

    I love the quotes and enjoyed them in many of the books already listed.

  23. Sorry. I enjoy them. Sometimes I recognise them which is nice, but it’s almost nicer when I don’t, because it sends me hunting for something new. I enjoy reading poetry, often, even when I don’t have a clue what the poet means, the rhythms and shapes of the words are enough. Usually with quotes at the start of chapters, it’s very clear what the poet and author are getting at, but that’s fine, too. Nope. Love ‘em. And I always read them.

  24. Sandy C. says:

    Jane, I’m on your side. I usually skip those quotes at the beginning of every chapter, sometimes to my detriment! I don’t read by chapters, I gobble up an entire book in one or two sittings, so it’s frustrating to see that break in continuity.

  25. Pamela M says:

    I enjoy them, for the most part, if they add to the story. As already mentioned, SEP did this delightfully with quotes from Daphne’s children’s books in THOM enhancing what was to come in each chapter. One of my favorites is Julia Quinn’s use of letter snippets prefacing each chapter in “When He Was Wicked” during the four years the hero was in India. Brief, well done snippets characterizing the h/h relationship during that period of time. Some of my favorite parts of that book.

  26. Debra says:

    Ok, I love them in Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, especially in Nine Coaches Waiting. But in other books, they mostly annoy me.