Saturday, April 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Prologue Hook You?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Nine

This week’s questions:

1. This opening is part of the Prologue, which makes most readers cringe. However my goal was to introduce an event that occurred before dawn (and the man responsible for what happens in Woodburn), which the main characters aren’t aware of yet. Have exhibited Dr. Obium’s determination for what he’s about to do?

2. Does this opening keep the reader interested long enough to want to know what he does next?

3. Is there too much description slowing down the action?

Market/Genre: Young Adult 


NOTE: Revised text at the bottom

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:


Background for context: The story is about two teens who navigate between classmates rivaling for access to a portal, which lies inside Woodburn Mall’s lobby waterfall.

Oka’ Hashi Obium regrets his decision to walk to the laboratory. His black trench and Western boots are nearly soaked through, and he feels his white ponytail bob in the air behind him.

Rosy bolts shoot across the dreary sky and flash white before they flicker away, the heavens weeping on the traffic forming along Columbus Avenue in downtown Chicago. A strong gust blasts the bottom of his coat open, and rain quickly showers his jeans. He holds his Stetson near the band of tail feathers and, from underneath the rim, sees the dilapidated building ahead.

No one checks the property for another two weeks. He plods through a deep tarn in a cracked sidewalk and reaches a barred fence outside (the once profitable) Tomahawk Space Station Realties, owned by the conglomerate TTI—prior to Tomahawk Technologies & Innovation’s termination of its TSSR program, he’d worked as a janitor and copied the keys.

He fishes in his pocket for them, inserts the code-encrypted peg into an electronic keypad, and the security system beeps; he whips the gate open, zips through and closes it securely behind him. Rubber cables are sprawled over the ground like weed dragged from a tar pit; he steps over them, then proceeds past tripod lanterns lighting the premises and toward an attached building at the rear of the complex.

His tribe had long lobbied for ending TSSR’s viral development of smart estates, homes, and commercial properties with supercomputer and DNA interface. However they could not undo the damage to most local Native American monuments. Government-contracted expansions had nearly depleted the area’s natural resources by a third of the state’s reserve.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Oka’ Hashi Obium regrets his decision to walk to the laboratory. His black trench and Western boots are nearly soaked through, and [he feels] This struck me as an odd world choice. Why does it matter that he feels his hair bob vs it just bobbing? his white ponytail bob in the air behind him.

[Rosy bolts shoot across the dreary sky and flash white before they flicker away,] Is this lightning? I wasn't sure what rosy bolts were the heavens weeping on the traffic forming along Columbus Avenue in downtown Chicago. A strong [gust] of wind? blasts the bottom of his coat open, and rain quickly showers his jeans. He holds his Stetson near the band of tail feathers and, from underneath the rim, [sees the dilapidated building ahead.] This tells readers he sees it, it doesn't show him just seeing it. So far this opening is all description from a very distant POV. Nothing is happening yet to draw readers in

No one checks the property for another two weeks. He plods through a deep [tarn] I don't know what a tarn is in a cracked sidewalk and reaches a barred fence outside [(the once profitable) ] Why the parenthesis? Tomahawk Space Station Realties, owned by the conglomerate TTI—[prior to Tomahawk Technologies & Innovation’s termination of its TSSR program, he’d worked as a janitor and copied the keys.] Feels infodumpy. Is it important to know he worked there?

He fishes in his pocket for them, inserts the code-encrypted peg into an electronic keypad, and the security system beeps; he whips the gate open, zips through and closes it securely behind him. Rubber cables are sprawled over the ground like weed dragged from a tar pit; he steps over them, then proceeds past tripod lanterns lighting the premises and toward an attached building at the rear of the complex. This is a lot of words to say he went inside.

His tribe had long lobbied for ending TSSR’s viral development of smart estates, homes, and commercial properties with supercomputer and DNA interface. However they could not undo the damage to most local Native American monuments. Government-contracted expansions had nearly depleted the area’s natural resources by a third of the state’s reserve. Feels a bit infodumpy. Also, it reads like I should know what this all means, but I don't know the world yet so it's a little confusing. Nothing so far has been science fictiony, but this suggests tech we don't have yet.

The questions:

1. This opening is part of the Prologue, which makes most readers cringe. However my goal was to introduce an event that occurred before dawn (and the man responsible for what happens in Woodburn), which the main characters aren’t aware of yet. Have exhibited Dr. Obium’s determination for what he’s about to do?

Not yet, because the focus is mostly on the descriptions and not on his goal. I suspect he's going to steal or sabotage something, but he never says or thinks about what he's going to do. And the reasons stated are impersonal, almost clinical, so they don't feel like motive. He's mad at the TTI people and the government, but it's too vague to mean anything.

(More on showing character motivation)

2. Does this opening keep the reader interested long enough to want to know what he does next?
No. The distant omniscient present tense narrator kept me from connecting to the character or seeing a problem. (Readers chime in here since POV style is a personal taste) I'm watching a man go into a building, but I don't know who the man is, what the building is (from a larger goal perspective) or what the plan is. There's no sense of stakes to make me worry. I'll know from the cover copy that this isn't my protagonist, so I know it's not anything I have to really pay attention to because it's just set up.

And that's where I think the real issue with this type of prologue lies. They feel like a "this is something I'm telling you about so you know something the characters don't" type of prologue scene. It doesn't feel like part of the actual story that I should invest myself in. What happens here doesn't seem to matter, just the results of it will affect the characters once I meet them. Because of that I'm not drawn in.

(More on deciding whether to kill or keep a prologue)

3. Is there too much description slowing down the action?
Yes. It took an entire paragraph to say he walked into a building. The focus in on describing every step of everything the character does instead of who he is and why he's doing this. Or what he's doing in a larger goal-driving way. The details described are also not details that move the story. All of that contributes to a slow pace and the sense that nothing is happening. Two things you definitely don't want in your opening.

(More on description and making it work for the story)

I'd suggest cutting the prologue. From your brief description of the story, the man and the reason this event happens in the town don't seem to be important to the plot. I'd guess whatever he does here is what creates the portal the characters will be fighting over, but I don't think readers need to know who made it. And if they do from a plot standpoint later, then telling them right away steals the mystery anyway. I'd imagine you'd want readers to wonder how this happened and who was behind this event to help hook them in the story. If all this is is, "this is what happened so you know" then it's just setup and backstory and does nothing to serve your plot.

(More on using backstory here)

If you feel this is critical to the story, then I'd suggest focusing on what you want the reader to feel about this scene. Is it meant to be ominous? Creepy? Foreboding? What emotion do you want to evoke in the reader by the end of this that puts them in the right emotional state to start the story? What story question do you want them asking? What do you want them to take away from this? Give this character a clear goal that makes the reader want to know what he's up to. Hint at why it's important to the overall story if you can.

One rule of thumb I've always found helpful, is that if you describe a scene (especially a prologue) in a way that says "the reader needs to know this to get something in the story" that's a huge red flag to cut it. It's backstory and infodump and not necessary. Odds are you're worried the reasons for something in the story aren't clear enough, so you want to make sure readers get it. You're much better off editing the story itself to make those areas clear, or trusting that the reader will indeed get it. You don't have to hit them over the head with things, they pick up on the clues you leave behind.

Also remember that wondering about information is a good way to keep them reading. If you explain things too much, there's nothing left to discover, and discovery is a critical part of hooking a reader. For example, maybe you want readers to wonder what happened at this place, and that's part of the draw as the characters figure it out as well. If the characters are trying to figure it out and readers already know it, why should they keep reading? There's no mystery.

You can always ask a couple of beta readers to read it with or without the prologue and see which one hooks them more. Just find readers who don't know the story so they can get the actual reader experience from the text. If they know the story going in, they can't be objective.

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.

Revised Text:

My question now is does this opening keep the reader interested to want to know what happens next?

[Shadows, headlights, and windshields obscured by rippling water and waving wipers…no one should notice him at all.] I'm not sure why this is in italics. It doesn't feel like a thought. Oka’ Hashi’s jeans and black trench are nearly soaked through, and his white ponytail bobs in a strong wind. He holds his Stetson tight and peers ahead at a dilapidated building, which was once a profitable business owned by Tomahawk Technologies & Innovation. This is a good spot for an internal thought. How does he feel about whatever he's about to do, or about TT&I?

He reaches a fence and opens it [with a key he duplicated when employed there.] This explains, so it feels a bit told and lessens the mystery Farther along he gains entry to an annex, the control room, and as he opens the door the smell of musty, wet concrete hits him. The space brightens with the glow of several Tomahawk Traccho3D monitors frozen on login screens. If the building is abandoned, why is there power and active computers? Oka Hashi peels off his coat, sets it on a chair, and then hums a First Nations’ folksong as he moves behind the [mainframes.] Mainframes are typically kept in very cold rooms, so this doesn't feel accurate. He heads for a door [leading to the vacant employee lounge he’s set up with cameras. ] Explaining here as well. Let readers wonder what he's doing.

Inside the makeshift laboratory is a remaining locker, desk and chair, [and the metaphorical elephant in the room] I don't know what this means, and it's an odd statement so it jumps out and stops the story—an ivory chamber shaped like an igloo. He changes into spare clothes from the locker, [avoiding conduction of any unwanted currents during the experiment,] I don't understand how this fits with him changing clothes. then places his hat inside. Lastly he takes out a square metal case, sits behind one of three workstations, and boots [a Tomahawk Traccho—the highest capacity PC in existence, with 1000twz (tracchowazobytes) of memory. ] Does this matter to the reader? Do they need to know the exact specs or just that he boots up the computer?

The monitor blinks on and flashes a prompt, and Oka’ Hashi inserts a USB stick. A purple beam pans left and right along the screen, processing the data, and after a few seconds he types on a holographic keyboard the words, Okchamali Oka, blue water.

It's getting better, but I'm still not drawn into it yet because it's all description and no character. I'd suggest adding some internalization from Oka'Hashi so readers get a feel for who he is and why he's there. Is her nervous? Angry? What does he hope to find? What thoughts are going through his head as he breaks in? What he does isn't compelling because I don't know enough about him or what he's trying to do to care. Make him care to make me care.

It's clear you know exactly what happens, but it all reads as if the author is describing someone from afar. There's no sense that I'm in Oka'Hashi's head or even privy to his thoughts and emotions. That detachment makes it hard to connect with him, because none of this feels important. It's just random things happening to tell me something, not a character I should get to know and connect with.

Are readers supposed to connect with him? If not, you might consider cutting this scene and opening with the protagonist as they discover/deal with whatever Oka'Hashi is doing here. This is one of the challenges of prologues, sadly. They often only mean something after the book has been read.
 

6 comments:

  1. As a reader I lost interest because there are just too many details and I need to read a few times, or read slowly to visualize what's going on. My suggestion is to eliminate this introduction and weave the details in the story line, here and there. You can introduce the event from past in the storyline via a flash back, or via a conversation where Oka tells someone about his past. Let me add that I don't read sci-fi novels, so my views are biased. Readers who love sci-fi novel might appreciate all the details. Best wishes with your novel.

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  2. I like some mystery in my science fiction, but would also prefer to be inside this Tomahawk place by the end of the second paragraph.If there's action along with purposeful meaning, you would have me hooked.

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  3. By the end of what's provided, as a reader, I only know that a guy is going in a building where he used to be a janitor. I'm not sure this is where the author wants the reader. I'm guessing this is a sample of the prologue and there's more to it so that by the end of the whole prologue the reader will experience something to connect with this character.

    As it stands, there's lots of info but not much to connect with.

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  4. I've used prologues, so I'm one of those who isn't biased against them. :)

    However, as Angela mentioned in the comment above, at the end of the page, all we know is that a former janitor, who might be disgruntled (although this part is all very jumbled and confusing), is using copied keys to enter a building. That's not enough to pull a reader in.

    Personally, I'd step back and ask myself what I wanted to get across in the first page. A bit a tone/mood (slightly noir-ish? skulking about?), a bit of worldbuilding (futuristic where all is not rosy?), and then a character with a goal and a problem.

    The details right now are too deep into all those elements. If everything is modified and described, then readers get overwhelmed and don't know where to focus.

    Every detail we include screams, "pay attention to me--I'm important." And here, we have details about trench coat, boots, ponytail, rain, bolts, flash, flicker, more rain, traffic, etc., etc. Is the ponytail important? Are the boots important? Are the bolts important? Right now, I feel like I'm being led by a tour guide shouting, "look here, no here, over here." Hello, whiplash. :)

    I'd cut all details that weren't absolutely needed for understanding. The weather can be used for setting a tone/mood AND for getting deeper POV about how "conveniently, that meant no one was around to see him entering the building." But only a couple of details are needed to create that "bad weather" impression.

    I'd also scale back on the confusing backstory of the last paragraph and the play-by-play of action before that. We don't need all the details of what this company has been doing, only hints of it being a problem, and we don't need whips, zips, and closes securely to be told he opened and closed a gate.

    If something is important, the POV can make us feel like part of the action by sharing why. "He whips the gate open and closes it behind him..." Then I'd use some voicey way here to share his fears of being caught or desire to shut the bracing wind outside or whatever makes him determined to move quickly and ensure the gate is secure.

    So... I could see this prologue being "needed" as the inciting incident for everything that happens later, and I'm not against using prologues for that purpose. :) But we need less bogging-down-type details and more hints (start with hints, and build up to details later--otherwise we could have confusion, like about the Native American stuff) about the goal and conflict.

    Good luck with your writing and I hope this helps!

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  5. Do we need to see him getting inside, or can you start later as he is doing whatever he is there to do? That should clean up some elements that are slowing you down.

    Also - and this is nitpicking - a ponytail will not "bob" in the rain. It will glue itself to your neck and clothes in an unpleasant way.

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  6. For me, I'd have liked to see this start inside the lab. There's nothing that seems critical in his approach here, and too much infodump for my taste.

    Specific to the questions:

    1. I don't know what Dr. O's intention is, so I don't know if his resolve to do it is sufficiently exhibited.

    2. Almost. The writing isn't quite there for me - the little details, like the fact that a wet ponytail won't do much but lay there like a dead rat glued to the nape of your neck aren't there, and there's too much backstory in the first paragraphs.

    In a story like this, I'd much rather initially engage with a character in action, leaving the reason behind the action to be drawn out in later pages.

    That said, I'm an adult reader, and maybe this much is necessary for the YA market. But I don't think so - teens are smart!

    3. For me, it's not the too much description, it's the backstory. I liked the grounding details in paragraphs 2 and 4.

    The question, though, is what is the important description? What's going to move the story along? The details in paragraph 3 seemed to ground the story nicely, I'd have no idea what to expect inside the front door over a space station development center, but loose wires and lanterns probably aren't it - these details really engaged my imagination and got me wondering what was going on there.

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