Saturday, November 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Prologue Work?

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: One (UPDATE: Seven now)

This week’s question:
I've had enough conflicting advice about PROLOGUES to fill a bucket.

My prologue sets up events that will threaten the main character later in this Mid-Grade novel, and seems to be the best way to get this information across succinctly. But I've been told publishers don't like them and readers don't bother to read them.

My questions is: Have I included enough information about the conflicts ahead, and about the main character to make the prologue work as it should?

It's in Third-person omniscient POV, and chapter 1 is 1st person POV (the main character's voice, Kate McAlpine). The full prologue is 490 words.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
‘Please welcome our final entrant this evening. From Maddock’s Home for Abandoned Children ... Miss Katharine McAlpine!’

In the shadows at the back of the Bellbird town hall, Mr Roger Scrimshaw leaned his portly figure against the wall. As the curtains parted and a young girl stood frozen in the spotlight, he nodded with satisfaction.

Since the Great Depression had spread from the city to the bush, talent scouting along the dusty roads had been worth a bag of nothing. But maybe the dice would roll his way this time. With her high-cheekbones, her dark, luminous eyes and her long, braided hair as shiny as a new copper penny, the girl was striking rather than just pretty – perhaps striking enough to fetch a good price from a Sydney music hall. Would her voice be as good as Matron Maddock claimed?

The contestant took a deep breath and unclenched her hands. When her voice soared to the rafters, strong and perfect in pitch and melody, Scrimshaw grinned. The ballad of lost love and Irish fairs was difficult to execute, especially for one so young. Matron was right! The girl had the voice of an angel.

A bulky, white-haired woman in a dark, formless dress extracted herself from a seat in the front row and waddled down the aisle to stand beside Scrimshaw. He observed how the stage lights reflecting on her metal-rimmed glasses hid her eyes.

‘When do I get my money?’ Matron Maddock’s voice sliced through the applause as the girl skipped from the stage.

My Thoughts in Purple:
‘Please welcome our final entrant this evening. From Maddock’s Home for Abandoned Children ... Miss Katharine McAlpine!’

In the shadows at the back of the Bellbird town hall, Mr Roger Scrimshaw leaned his portly figure against the wall. As the curtains parted and a young girl stood frozen in the spotlight, he nodded with satisfaction.

[Since the Great Depression had spread from the city to the bush,] This was the only bit that jumped out at me. Everything else is solid and in the POV’s head, but this felt just a tad infodumpy. I'd suggest reworking to get rid of the "since" part of it talent scouting along the dusty roads had been worth a bag of nothing. But maybe the dice would roll his way this time. With her high-cheekbones, her dark, luminous eyes and her long, braided hair as shiny as a new copper penny, the girl was striking rather than just pretty – perhaps striking enough to fetch a good price from a Sydney music hall. Would her voice be as good as Matron Maddock claimed?

The contestant took a deep breath and unclenched her hands. When her voice soared to the rafters, strong and perfect in pitch and melody, Scrimshaw grinned. The ballad of lost love and Irish fairs was difficult to execute, especially for one so young. Matron was right! The girl had the voice of an angel.

A bulky, white-haired woman in a dark, formless dress extracted herself from a seat in the front row and waddled down the aisle to stand beside Scrimshaw. He observed how the stage lights reflecting on her metal-rimmed glasses hid her eyes.

‘When do I get my money?’ Matron Maddock’s voice sliced through the applause as the girl skipped from the stage.

The question:
Have I included enough information about the conflicts ahead, and about the main character to make the prologue work as it should?

I love the easy ones. I feel that this guy is up to no good. I don’t know if he plans to kidnap her or try to con her, or even go about this legitimately, but something feels amiss. You said the prologue is short, which I think will also work in your favor. The voice is good, the sense of foreboding is good, and I’m curious as to exactly what he’s going to do here. I don’t know if you clarify that before the prologue is over, but I hope not! That question is what hooks me. Does “fetching a good price” mean he’s going to sell her or is that a finder’s fee? I wanna know!

But let’s look at the pieces individually:

The Conflicts
As I said, he’s up to no good, so I do see conflict here. I’m worried about the girl and just what he has planned. I want to know what he plans to do. How this plays out is very likely going to be what the book is about. I can see where the story is going even if I don’t know the details. So yes to this.

The Main Character
All I know is that she sings and she’s pretty, so no, I don’t know much about her. However, I don’t think I need to know much about her, because it’s Scrimshaw’s scene. My focus isn’t on her at all, but on him and what he’s up to. And if the goal is to make me worry and wonder, you’ve done that.

As for prologues in general…
Prologues are disliked by so many because they’re often done badly. They’re too long, filled with backstory and setup, and don’t feel connected to the story. This one reminds me of a prologue that worked that agent Kristin Nelson talked about for Brooke Taylor’s book, Undone. It hits a lot of the same key points. It also reminds me of the little asides from Roland Smith’s I.Q. series, where we got to see the bad guys from time to time. Both examples worked, and I think this does the same for you. Readers, what do you think? Yay or nay on this prologue?

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

15 comments:

  1. Yay or nay? You're tempting me to go into a Bad Horse singing telegram here! :)

    I like this prologue. It doesn't feel info-dumping which is where Prologues run into danger, so (despite the temptation to tell the world that `bad horse still says nay') I'd say this works for me.

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  2. This prologue works for me! I feel the tension and wonder what this guy is up to.
    I think where prologues run into problems is when they are disconnected from the action/characters in the main part of the novel. But from what you've described this one seems to incorporate the same characters with action that is important to the developing plot.
    Good luck!

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  3. I'm hooked! This definitely works for me - it makes me sympathetic toward the main character, and I want to know more about what's happening to her.

    I don't have a problem with prologues in general as long as they draw me into the story the way this one did.

    I agree with the comment about the Great Depression. If it's MG, the readers have probably never even heard of it, so it probably needs more fleshing out if it's key to the story.

    If the conditions of the Great Depression can be described by "showing" later instead of "telling" now, the second part of that sentence could even stand alone in the prologue: "Talent scouting along the dusty roads had been worth a bag of nothing."

    This may sound odd, but the only thing that jarred me in the whole excerpt was "Mr Roger Scrimshaw". Why "Mr"? Just curious. :-)

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  4. This prologue definitely works. You have me hooked and wanting to know what else is going to happen.

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  5. It works well, and I like the Dickens flavor of the talent scout waiting in the wings of a theater.

    For two suggestions, I'd have the singer start off hesitant and then raise her voice and then nail a difficult part. The way it reads, the drama isn't heightened as much as it could be - just instant success.

    And you might get rid of the Matron, since I don't see (at least in this part) how she adds anything. The scout could simply be there by chance, which would heighten the feeling of discovery.

    In the end, though, I don't see why this section needs to be a prologue. Since it's such an important moment for the main character, it might be best to show it from her point of view, getting us on her side with her worries and then the performance and then the talent scout appearing.

    Either way, it definitely sounds interesting.

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  6. Yea for me, definitely. Good, solid writing, not too much description that gets in the way of the storytelling, a potential villain that, like you said, is probably up to no good... My heart is already breaking for the hardships waiting in poor Katharine's future. Oh, you know what did it for me? The fact that she skipped off the stage--such light-hearted innocence there.

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  7. I would say yay to this prologue for all the reasons Janice listed. Well done!

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  8. Thank you, Janice and everyone for your comments - great suggestions for improving on my prologue! You've raised a few questions I will deal with to make it tighter too.
    Janice, I appreciate having the chance to be your 'lab rat/dissecting frog' (?)today. :)

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  9. Janice, I really enjoy reading your blog and this is a really helpful segment.

    As Sheryl knows, I'm a fan of Kate McAlpine's already:) I totally agreed with your comment about 'Since the great depression...' Think this takes the reader out of the story so it needs to be reworded.

    Good luck, Sheryl:)

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  10. I definitely like the prologue. I agree about the slight info-dump, but that's a minor quibble.

    I may not be completely objective, since I ignored the generalizations about prologues and included one in my own novel -- but I really do think it works. (Caveat: of course, we don't have the transition from prologue to first chapter to look at.)

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  11. It works well for me and I'm hooked - and only you, Sheryl (and probably Dee) know what's in store for the characters and the need for each inclusion in this prologue. We each have our personal tolerance levels for info-dump, and you can never please everyone all the time, no matter what you write. Editors from different publishers would probably suggest different changes. I have just received a paid critique from a well known agent for the first 500 words of my YA in progress. One comment was 'Don't start with dialogue'.

    With best wishes to all

    Peter

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  12. Works for me. Like Janice and others, I feel that Scrimshaw is up to no good and want to know more. Of course the fact it is about someone who sings immediately interests me too.
    www.daleharcombe.com

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  13. Thank you again, everyone. Your comments much appreciated!
    best wishes
    Sheryl

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  14. A nitpicky but important detail: You say "since the Great Depression had spread from the city to the bush," but in fact, the Great Depression started in the country and spread east to the cities. At least that's how it happened in America (not sure about the rest of the world). For the farmers, the Midwest, etc., the Great Depression had already been happening for years before the stock market crash.

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  15. Hi Laura W, yes, in Australia (where this story is set) the Great Depression spread out from the cities to the country - many people on the land did much better than those living without jobs in the cities as they had land on which to grow food.
    Fascinating part of history, not that I was there, mind you! :)

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