One way authors invite readers to engage in a story is to begin that story at a climactic moment. In other words, authors invite the reader to ‘jump right in’ to the action. This climactic plot structure has the advantage of ‘hooking’ readers immediately. Then, as the story goes on, the author adds in details about the characters, about what led to the story’s climax, and so on. It’s got some disadvantages, too. Readers don’t really get to know the characters well before a major incident happens. So, it can be hard to identify (or choose not to identify) with a character. It can also be tricky to keep the story moving if it’s started with a major plot event. Still, it can work well.
There are lots of examples of crime novels in which this happens. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins with the trial of Elinor Carlisle for the murder of Mary Gerrard. We don’t know who those two people really are at first, nor what, exactly, led to the murder. Soon enough, Christie fills in the gaps, starting with an anonymous letter in which someone alleges that Mary Gerrard is unduly influencing Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. The inference is, of course, that Elinor may want to look into the matter if she’s to be assured of her considerable inheritance. So, she and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman do just that, and pay a visit to Aunt Laura. Unexpectedly, Roddy is smitten with Mary, to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned, and there is evidence that Elinor is responsible. But is she the killer? The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, wants her name cleared, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Then, the story leads up to the trial, and we learn the truth about what happened to Mary.
Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn begins as Paul Bradley is driving his silver Peugeot in Edinburgh. He brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian and is hit from behind by a blue Honda. The Honda driver gets out and the men begin an argument. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and attacks Bradley. Mystery novelist Martin Canning happens to be nearby, and instinctively throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of obligation, Canning accompanies Bradley to a local hospital, and gets drawn into much more than he imagined. After detailing this climactic event, Atkinson begins to tell the different characters’ stories. We learn what they are like, how they happen to be at that place at that time, and what led to the crash. Then, we learn what happens after the crash, and how it impacts everyone involved.
There’s a sort of climactic plot structure in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). It starts as an unnamed character is involved in a desperate situation. We don’t yet know who that person is, nor how that person got into that situation. But the reader is invited right away to engage in the story and learn more. And very soon, Adler-Olsen starts to tell the rest of the story. Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting incident in which he was badly injured. One of his colleagues was left with paralysis, and another was killed. So, he’s taken some time off for recovery. A lot of people think he’s not ready to come back, though. He’s even more difficult than usual to work with, to the point that his colleagues don’t want to work with him any more. So, he’s placed in charge of a new department, ‘Department Q,’ that’s dedicated to investigating cases of ‘special interest’ (unsolved cases). It’s a strategy to placate members of the press and public who think the police aren’t doing enough to solve difficult cases. The first case Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. She disappeared during a ferry ride, and it was always believed she went overboard in a terrible accident. But there are hints that she may still be alive. If she is, she may not have much time left. So Mørck and Assad will have to work quickly. As the story goes on, Adler-Olsen shares more about the characters, and fills in the blanks, as the saying goes.
Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons also begins with a climactic event. The narrator, whose name is also Finn Bell, is precariously perched on a cliff, with every chance of going over it. He’s in a wheelchair, so there’s very little he can do. Then, Bell goes on to tell the story of how he got to where he is. He reached a crossroads in his life and needed some change. His marriage was over, and a car crash had left him in a wheelchair. Wanting to start all over again, he took a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. When he happened to learn about a mystery concerning the cottage’s former occupants, he got curious. Two people, a father and daughter, disappeared a year apart. Neither was found, and the mystery’s never been solved. Slowly, Bell tells the story of his interest in the mystery, the questions he starts asking, and the danger it all means for him. As he does, we learn more about his character and those of the other people involved in the story.
And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. As that novel begins, Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot/trunk of a car. He doesn’t know where he’s being taken, but he is utterly convinced he is going to be killed. We don’t know anything, really, about him other than his predicament. But, soon enough, Serong starts to tell the story. Darren and his brother, Wally, have both always loved cricket. They played backyard cricket as children in the Melbourne suburb where they grew up, and both showed talent for the game. As time went on, they developed in different ways, mostly because of their very different personalities. Wally is very driven and disciplined. He is determined to be the best and works very hard to achieve that. Darren, who is two years younger, has rare, once-in-generation talent. But he is far less disciplined. When he is at his best, he is absolutely superb. But he is inconsistent. As the two boys grow into men, they enter the world of professional cricket, and they find that that world isn’t what they imagined. It takes its toll on both, in different ways, and ends up with Darren being trussed up in the car. The reader is invited right away to engage in the story, because it ‘jumps right in’ to the action.
And that’s the thing about climactic plot structures. They involve the reader immediately. What are your thoughts about structures like that? If you’re a writer, do you use them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Van Halen song.