Saturday, December 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Do Intro Prologues Work?

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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: Five

This week’s question:
This is a short prologue from my work in progress. Does it make you keep reading?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The flames leapt upward, greedily devouring the floor. Oil buckets catch and burst into even more flames. That precious, heavenly fabric of which I made my life is burning, burning, burning into nothing. Only hours before I had stitched it into fine white shirtwaists fit for a fairytale. Now all around the center of my world is slipping away to ash. Will I? Peering through the hazy smoke I know that I alone cannot answer the question.

Suddenly, a scream jolts me out of my trance-like state. I whip my head around and see Eve, my dearest friend, being burned before my very eyes. Another scream fills the smoky air. Only when I shut my mouth do I realize that it is mine. I scramble to help her, stamping out the flames that had been inching up her skirt. Eve throws her arms around me but her eyes are still riddled with fear.

Over in a corner, Cora, whom I had chatted with at lunch only two hours before, was praying the rosary as flames crept even closer to her crouched form. Then I realized it. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris would forever have the blood of their shirtwaist girls on their hands. If only they could have agreed to the union’s conditions. If only our precious strike hadn’t failed. All those months of cold and hunger, wasted just to die in a fire started by the hands of a careless cutter. If only, if only, if only. But I couldn’t stop to wish now. No, there was too much at stake. My life, the lives of my fellow workers…

My name is Clara Peters, New York socialite turned shirtwaist girl. My name is Clara Peters, and my life could be so much longer. My name is Clara Peters, and this is my story.

My Thoughts in Purple:
The flames leapt upward, greedily devouring the floor. Oil buckets catch and burst into even more flames. [That precious, heavenly fabric of which I made my life is burning, burning, burning into nothing.] That the narrator is concerned about the fabric and not her own life is intriguing, since it’s unexpected Only hours before I had stitched it into fine white shirtwaists fit for a fairytale. Now all around the center of my world is slipping away to ash. Will I? [Peering through the hazy smoke I know that I alone cannot answer the question.] The detached tone in this pulls me out of the narrative a bit. She seems too self aware considering the situation.

[Suddenly, a scream jolts me out of my trance-like state.] Considering how often prologues actually do start with someone in a trace, I’m not sure if what’s happening is real or a vision of hers. Though this might be clear if you read the cover blurb I whip my head around and see Eve, my dearest friend, being burned before my very eyes. Another scream fills the smoky air. [Only when I shut my mouth do I realize that it is mine.] Again, the detached “watching myself” tone pulls me out here I scramble to help her, stamping out the flames that had been [inching up her skirt.] This makes it seem like Eve only have a little fire on her, but earlier it said she was “being burned before my eyes,” which suggested she was engulfed in flames. Eve throws her arms around me but her eyes are still riddled with fear.

Over in a corner, Cora, whom I had chatted with at lunch only two hours before, was praying the rosary as flames crept even closer to her crouched form. [Then I realized it. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris would forever have the blood of their shirtwaist girls on their hands.] This feels a little out of the blue since I don’t know who any of these characters are so far. It's also a strange thing to think about considering she's about to be burned to death.  If only they could have agreed to the union’s conditions. If only our precious strike hadn’t failed. All those months of cold and hunger, wasted just to die in a fire started by the hands of a careless cutter. If only, if only, if only. But I couldn’t stop to wish now. No, there was too much at stake. My life, the lives of my fellow workers…

[My name is Clara Peters, New York socialite turned shirtwaist girl. My name is Clara Peters, and my life could be so much longer. My name is Clara Peters, and this is my story.] This tells me she survives, and that this is all told in retrospective. While tastes vary, knowing the first person narrator is telling the story form the future lessens the tension of the story for me, because I know they don’t die no matter how dire their circumstances seem. I don’t think you need this para.

The question:
Does it make you keep reading?

The prologue is short, which is a plus, and it’s nicely written, but there a few things that kept me from engaging in the story. They’re not enough to make me stop reading, but if things didn’t change in the next page or two, I don’t know if I’d continue. (This is the danger of prologues)

There’s a lot of great action, but I have no character I care about to make me worry, so I have no emotional attachment to the story. The couple of detached lines added to this feeling. I’d suggest adding a little more internalization and characterization for Clara to make me care about her during this fire. Let me see she’s a good person so I hope she makes it out of this. Or let me see something intriguing about her or the situation to hook me.

One danger with an opening like this is that it’s like turning on the TV In the middle of an action scene where you know nothing about the movie or the characters. It’s all just stuff happening and you don’t know what any of it means. Being caught in a fire is a scary situation and makes for a great scene if the reader cares about the people caught in that fire.

There are also five characters introduced or mentioned in a little over 300 words, which is too many to connect to in so short a space. They’re just names to me, so again, I don’t care what happens to them. Clara does care about Eve, so there’s a little there to show me A) Clara is worth saving here, and B) maybe Eve is too if Clara cares about her. That might be an area you develop to flesh out the emotional layer of this scene. Show the friendships and who these girls are so can fear for their lives.

Lastly, there’s no hook (another danger with this type of prologue). I don’t know where the story is going from this or what the problem is Clara has to solve (though it is possible to know that from the cover blurb going in, but there’s nothing here to hook in and of itself). This could be the end of her story or the event that sets her on her path of it. From a story standpoint, why should a reader invest in Clara’s story? What about this prologue says “spend time with Clara?” There’s a hint of it where she realizes the owners of the store are at fault, but it’s not a strong enough story question yet to make me wonder about it. Depending on what the story is about, this could be an area to further develop as well.

You might try asking yourself a few questions:
1. What is the point of this prologue? If it’s just to show “what happened” so the reader gets the story going forward, odds are you’re relying on backstory and infodump to hook the reader, which rarely works. If this is the end of Clara’s story, and it starts with “One week earlier” or the like, you risk killing all your tension because the reader knows what’s going to happen.

2. What do you want readers to take away from this scene? If there’s a reason to start here, you might try looking for ways to better illustrate that reason. If it’s the start of the story and Clara takes action based on this, perhaps show her making that choice in the prologue. Is this about her making the owners of the store pay for this? A story of how she puts her life back after this event? What about this scene sets the tone and expectations for the book? What tone and expectations do you want to set?

3. If you cut this prologue, would it change the story? Most prologues can go. If you started your story at chapter one, how would it read? If it’s important to know she was part of this fire, it’s easy to slip that into the narrator in the opening chapter. Maybe she’s scarred and someone notices, or she sees an open flame and remembers a bit (not a lot) about what happened to her and why that’s driving her. You might try a few test readers with both versions and see which one grabs attention better.

Gang, what do you think?

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) and I encourage you 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.

11 comments:

  1. It's really hard to comment without seeing what chapter one is, but it did seem to me that this was the end of the story, and we were going to read about a socialite's fall. I think these kinds of see-the-end prologues can add a lot of tension -- we'll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop as she goes about, unknowing -- but these prologues *can* also signal a problem of a slow, unexciting beginning that needs something injected into it to make it interesting. So, if you're worried the first chapters are boring, I'd revise until they don't feel that way, then see if you still like the prologue.

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  2. I think one difficulty is that this prologue is all visual. Some heat and smells would go a long way toward making me feel like I'm in the middle of the fire. Maybe using other senses would make the heroine seem less detached.

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  3. I agree that Clara feels very detached here. She is so calm, and I guess I would expect that more if she were already safe -- like if she were outside watching the building burn, these types of thoughts might go through her mind.

    This prologue wouldn't stop me from reading further -- though I don't feel much for Clara yet, there's something about the writing that makes me want to give the author more of a chance. Thank you very much for sharing your prologue!

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  4. As mentioned above, whether or not the prologue works for me depends on the first chapter. Personally, I shy away from opening with an action scene because I don't care about anyone yet, as you pointed out. If the prologue turns out to be the end of the story, I put the book down.

    Judging this prologue on it's own, I'd keep reading. :)

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  5. I agree with what Chicory said - we have all visuals and no emotion. I want to feel the fear of being trapped in a sweatshop with no way to escape. I want to feel the anger she has at the bosses for putting their lives at risk.

    A good way to portray anger is through short, curt sentences. Short sentences move the action along and can show a lot of character. They also have the advantage of showing panic and fear. I like what you have but it doesn't capture how being trapped in a fire feels, it doesn't pull me in.

    The line of "my live could have been so much longer" makes me think that she might have died as a result. I'd keep reading to see if that was true. But if after reading the first chapter I realized the prologue was in fact the end, I'd lose interest.

    Thanks so much for sharing. I think you have a good story line here. Good job!

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  6. Two things might make me stop reading. The first is the way the prologue jumps between past and present tense: The flames "leapt," the oil buckets "catch," screams
    "jolt," Cora "was praying." This bumping around suggests lack of authorial control.

    Second, for an action scene, there's a lot of musing. The whole reflection about the union seems unrealistic to me. I would imagine someone thinking, "Those bastards! Now they're killing us!" while running and beating against the door. The "if only" sequence suggests a degree of leisurely thinking unlikely in someone terrified by approaching flames.

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  7. I agree with Penny. Also I'd like to know, be grounded better, in the time period. My first thought was a sweatshop in Dickensian London but when I read socialite and union I thought modern day. Am I right?

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  8. For those who are curious: the contextual clues make me assume that this is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Fire ). I'm also guessing that Clara dies in the fire ("my life could be [could have been] so much longer"), so this is the end of the story, not the beginning. I could be wrong, though.

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  9. Oh, great Siri. Thanks. Will look it up immediately if not only for the wonderful and bizarre name.

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  10. Some really great comments here that I agree with. I also got the detached feeling. And slow-mo kinda vibe. She talks to long and precise for this situation. And she had "chatted" earlier at lunch. This seems anachronistic. WE chat at lunch. But before unions and such, there were few employers who did lunch breaks. From my understanding, workers had two meals a day, before and after work. And in many places at that time, any mid-day meal was called dinner, after the agricultural tradition, even after people moved to the city. Just a few details that you might want to check.

    Good luck, I love stories from that time period!

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  11. Took me a while to figure out that it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. At first it seemed like a retelling of the Six Swans, weirdly enough, and then I thought it was either in the distant future or the Civil war, because of that statement about the union. It was good, but I've read a novel of the Triangle fire called Ashes of Roses, which was incredibly good and incredibly sad.

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