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