How To Tell a Great Story: Lessons Learned from The Prisoner by B.A. Paris

May 14, 2023

By Cris Burks

The Prisoner by B.A. Paris is a masterclass in crafting an engaging thriller that pulls the reader in from the first page. Paris’ approach of starting with action instead of building a backstory is a bold move, and it pays off in spades, creating an immediate sense of urgency that hooks the reader and never lets go.

Here are some of the most important lessons we can take away from this captivating novel.

Lesson 1: It all starts with the first line.

What first lines of books do you remember? For me, there are at least three:

“The house is green,” from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, immediately caught my attention because it was so seemingly understated yet full of rich symbolism. It gave me a sense of something familiar yet unsettling and made me want to know more about what the green house represented.

“Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick, is another famous opening line I remember because of its directness and simplicity. It felt like an invitation from the narrator himself to join him on his journey and was a great insight into Ishmael’s character from the beginning.

“My mother died today or maybe yesterday,” from The Stranger by Albert Camus, is a powerful opening line that sets the dark and brooding tone of the rest of the book. The ambiguity of the phrasing leaves the reader with a sense of unease and introduces the central theme of existentialism explored throughout the novel.

Overall, I think the authors’ choice of words, structure, and tone make the openings stand out and memorable. They draw the reader in and set the stage for what’s to come.

The opening line of The Prisoner plunges the reader into a tense and shocking moment: “I sense the shift of air beneath my nose a millisecond before something-thick sticky tape-is clamped over my mouth, silencing the scream that would have ripped from me.” This line creates an intense feeling of vulnerability and fear, setting the tone for the rest of the book. Furthermore, it grabs the reader’s attention, making them want to know what is happening and what will happen to the protagonist.

Paris’ use of language is visceral and impactful. Sensory detail makes the scene more vivid, heightening the reader’s sense of being there. In addition, the religious metaphor of “a scream that would have ripped from me” adds an element of seriousness that prepares the reader for the coming events.

The overall effect of the first line is to create a sense of intrigue and tension that draws the reader in and makes them want to read more. However, with that said, the story’s first line pales in comparison to the abrupt second line, “My eyes snap open.” These words jolt the reader with immediacy and panic that will persist throughout the story. This sudden shift from complete darkness and silence to utter chaos and panic hooks the reader further and compels them to keep reading.

Lesson 2: Pull your reader directly into your story.

There are a few things that make The Prisoner stand out. First, there is no build-up, no backstory. Instead, the story starts with action. The lack of backstory might seem like a drawback, but it adds to the mystery and intrigue. The reader is left wondering about the protagonist’s past and motivations, which creates a sense of anticipation and makes the twists and turns even more satisfying.

One of the worst books I’ve read (and yes, it was by a beloved author) spent too much time on the past. I don’t know if it got better after the third page. Although I gave it a thumbs down, it became a best-seller, but I think it was because of name recognition.

Back to Paris. She waits until we are fully invested in the story before she dives into the protagonist’s past. The trips down memory lane are brief pauses, respites from the terror Amelie faces.

Lesson 3: Employ abrupt changes of pace.

The pacing in “The Prisoner” is excellent, with just the right amount of action, suspense, and plot twists to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. What sets this book apart is how Paris creates a sense of urgency and tension throughout the story. You’ll frantically flip pages, eager to discover what happens next. Everything plays out like a perfectly orchestrated symphony, with each plot point building upon the last until the story reaches a crescendo that will leave you reeling. The writing style is clear and concise, with evocative descriptions that bring the story to life in the reader’s mind.

Lesson 4: There is nothing new under the sun.

Take a tried and proven method and shape it into something different. There are many examples of old plots reworked: Romeo and Juliet revisited in The West Side Story or Peter Pan  reimagined in Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

As a former reader of Harlequin Romances, I know their earlier formulas. Paris uses Harlequin’s old format of a poor girl, a billionaire, and a marriage of convenience. Fortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Instead, she twists this storyline into something fresh.

Lesson 5: Remember the importance of character development.

Develop characters so readers can differentiate them by personality, purpose, and storyline. Earlier, I said Paris doesn’t waste time with backstories. However, without solid backstories, the story falls flat in places.

The other characters surrounding Amelie, her husband, her friends, and her kidnappers, without solid backstories, lack development and recognizable traits. I wanted more from them, more personality, more why. Her husband, while cruel, lack the depth and backstory that could make him a memorable villain. The main takeaway here is to make sure your characters are fleshed out.

Final Conclusion

From the first line, the plot is thrilling and unpredictable, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. The sense of urgency and intensity continues until chapter 22. Overall, The Prisoner is an engaging book that sometimes renders you breathless. If you’re a fan of thrillers, then this is an absolute must-read. 

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