Saturday, November 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Grounding Readers in a Quiet Prologue

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 it 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: Ten (+ two resubmits) Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 11 so there's a bit of a wait for submission feedback. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware.

This week’s questions:

Is this opening too slow? Is there enough to hook you, or do I need to increase the tension? Is the dialogue natural and the characters real? Do you feel grounded or confused? What kind of questions do you have that might keep you reading?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy 


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the beginning of a prologue. It takes place right before the protagonist gets kidnapped. Unfortunately, I know all too well the general attitude toward prologues. But I do want to keep this quiet scene because of the crucial character interaction, so I'd appreciate any and all kind of feedback on how to make this work.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved her father very much.
How she hated him for it.

“I have time for one story,” her mother said. She was dressed in an eel-black suit, her phone in her breast pocket, ready to vibrate and whisk her away at a moment’s notice. “Two, if my secretary drove off the bridge and hasn’t called yet.”

“Nothing about waterfalls,” Misha said, feeling toasty under a blanket of goose feathers. She’d hate to go to the bathroom now. “No tidal waves, either.”

“Sure,” her mother said. She picked the one picture book that had the ocean on the cover. But Misha grudgingly forgave her because it was The Blind Man’s Daughter, her favorite, one her aunt had read to her many times.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved her blind father very much.” Her mother paused. “She would have done anything in the world for him.”

Every story came with a bad guy and in this folktale, it was the Dragon King, causing trouble for the merchants who wanted to sail to China. He thrashed his golden scaly body under the ocean, sinking ship after ship. It was an epic tantrum.

“So he’s like that dragon in the news.” Misha caught her mother’s strange look. “Your nemesis.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” her mother said, with a wry smile.

“It means someone you have to stop.”

The smile remained, with an edge. “That big old dragon isn’t the true antagonist. It’s the humans controlling him.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved her father very much.
How she hated him for it
.] Very intriguing. I'm curious why.

“I have time for one story,” her mother said. She was dressed in an eel-black suit, her phone in her breast pocket, ready to vibrate and whisk her away at a moment’s notice. [“Two, if my secretary drove off the bridge and hasn’t called yet.”] This feels like a joke, but Misha never reacts to it so it falls a bit flat. Perhaps have her say something that hints more at the (guessing here after reading the whole snippet) superhero nature?

“Nothing about waterfalls,” Misha said, feeling toasty under a blanket of goose feathers. She’d hate to go to the bathroom now. “No tidal waves, either.” Funny. I like her already. 

“Sure,” her mother said. She picked the one picture book that had the ocean on the cover. But Misha grudgingly forgave her because it was The Blind Man’s Daughter, her favorite, [one her aunt had read to her many times.] Interesting detail. Does this mean the aunt usually reads her stories and Mom is never around? Is it special that Mom is there?

“Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved her blind father very much.” [Her mother paused.] Not sure why she pauses here, and you could cut to tighten up. Feels like there are too many tags so far “She would have done anything in the world for him.”

Every story came with a bad guy and in this folktale, it was the Dragon King, causing trouble for the merchants who wanted to sail to China. He thrashed his golden scaly body under the ocean, sinking ship after ship. [It was an epic tantrum.] Cute. I wanted a little more internalization from her here to help show her understanding about what Mom does. She connects this story to Mom, so what does she think about her mother's job or role?

“So he’s like that dragon in the news.” [Misha caught her mother’s strange look.] Does Mom not know she knows? This could be a spot to raise tension if she's trying to keep Misha from knowing what she does “Your nemesis.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” [her mother said, with a wry smile.] Don't think you need the tag, or flesh it out to show more of how Mom feels about Misha knowing this? Feels either too little or too much depending on what it's trying to convey

“It means someone you have to stop.” Good spot for some internalization about her understanding of Mom's job

The smile remained, with an edge. “That big old dragon isn’t the true antagonist. It’s the humans controlling him.”

The questions:

1. Is this opening too slow?

A teeny bit because I'm not sure where it's going. The opening lines about the father hooked me, but then they didn't relate to the text itself. It's not a father/daughter scene, it's a mother/daughter scene. My interest piques again when she mentions the nemesis, because I suspect Mom's suit is more like a super suit and she's a superhero.

Odds are anyone going into this will know what Mom does from the cover copy, but what does grab me here is the contrast between superhero (or whatever Mom is) parent reading a bedtime story to her daughter. Mom is a "regular person," though I suspect she's far from regular. I'd suggest a few more details that take advantage of that contrast and make it clearer what's going on here. There are hints of what she does, but I'm only guessing and could be wrong.

You might consider adding a goal to help add drive and conflict. The aunt line was interesting and suggested a larger issue, so I wonder if maybe Misha is trying to get Mom to stay longer and read more stories because she doesn't get to see her as much as she'd like. That could work to help drive the scene and hook readers sooner.

(More on pacing here)

2. Is there enough to hook you, or do I need to increase the tension?
There's no tension or conflict right now. The situation is catching my attention, but nothing is actually happening yet. There's a potential for tension if Mom doesn't want her to know what she does and Misha is asking questions, but that might not work with the story. There's also the line about the aunt, which suggests Mom isn't around much. That could be another possible spot for conflict. Does Misha resent Mom's absence? Is she proud but still wants her mother?

If Misha gets kidnapped soon after this, perhaps drop a few hints of something not being right to let readers worry something is about to happen. Misha might not even be aware of it, but readers will pick up on the clues and what they mean. And Mom's reactions can work in the subtext that something is off here.

(More on increasing tension here)

3. Is the dialogue natural and the characters real?
I don't quite feel that they're talking to each other, even though they are (readers chime in here as this might just be me). I think that's because there's little internalization or reaction to what the other is saying. Both make jokes, but neither reacts to them. There are pauses, but no reason for it and it's not remarked upon. I just don't feel like they're clicking, even though I like the dialog and what's being said.

I'd suggest a few words here and there to show the connection between these two more. I don't think it needs much, but more evidence of them talking to each other than just saying lines.

The characters don't feel real to me yet because I'm not in Misha's head enough to understand how she feels. I love the water/bathroom paragraph and that makes me like her, and more of that personality would be nice to see. I'd also like to know how much of Mom's world (and thus the setting) she understands. It feels more like setup right now, so I know by the time I see Misha as a protagonist she will change and not be this person anymore. It's tough to connect to her knowing that. But I do like her.

(More on dialog here)

4. Do you feel grounded or confused?
I'm not sure what's going on, though I suspect it's more than it looks. Cover copy will fix a lot of that, as it would setup the story before readers got to this part. But based solely on this snippet, I don't feel grounded yet. This is YA fantasy, yet it starts with a small girl in a modern setting getting read a bedtime story, which doesn't fit "YA fantasy" for me. So I'm looking for clues that let me know how this story is fantasy and how it works. The suit and the nemesis line are clues, but it's not really enough for me to understand what's going on here yet.

Misha is a great vehicle to get this information across. She's the reader's guide and what she knows will help them understand and get to know this world. A few details would be enough at this stage to pique interest and set a baseline understanding of how this world works. For example, I'm just guessing Mom is a superhero based on two clues, but I could be totally wrong there and all my assumptions about this snippet would also be wrong.

(More on grounding the reader in the world here)

5. What kind of questions do you have that might keep you reading?
What's the deal with Mom? Where is this going?

Overall, there's a lot here I like, and I'd read on to see where this went, but the curiosity of what Mom is and if I'm right about her being a superhero is all that's hooking me so far. It's feels like setup, which is the biggest problem with prologues. I think if the contrast of the mother/hero and family dynamics was played up more, I'd be drawn in quicker, because that's a fun situation. It's playful and cute and would hook readers in the quieter way you're going for. Then later, when the kidnapping happens, readers will really care because they've seen this sweet family dynamic. And they know Mom will kick into superhero gear and want to see what happens there.

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.

8 comments:

  1. I agree with Janice that some internalization from Misha would help get a feel for her and the importance of this interaction between the two of them. The tidbit that intrigues me and I'd want to read more about is the dragon in the news. And here's my concern, knowing this is a prologue, I could be very disappointed at the direction your story actually takes. I don't know what's important here.

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  2. Hello brave volunteer, I didn't see the genre until after I read and so I have to say I didn't realize it was a fantasy until I started reading Janice's comments. Eel-black suit - I pictured a business suit in eel black (like a print or something), not a catsuit or . . . ? The word dragon popped out, but then I figured this was a little girl, and little kids talk about dragons as if they were real all the time. Up tension simply by including a few lines of inner monologue, even just one in this short section, so there's a conflict b/t what she wants and what the mother wants. Looks really promising, and great spot-on comments, Janice. :)

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  3. I don't mind a quiet prologue, and I liked the general idea of this one. My comments are at the level of the nitty gritty, which may be helpful or may not be ...

    "She was dressed in an eel-black suit, her phone in her breast pocket, ready to vibrate and whisk her away at a moment’s notice. [if you remove the comma after pocket you don't risk the reader getting a sense that it's the mother who is ready to vibrate!] “Two, if my secretary drove off the bridge and hasn’t called yet.” [may I suggest "two stories"? With just "two" coming immediately after "a moment's notice" a reader might stumble a little on what she is referring to.]

    I liked the eel-black suit, I assume it is symbolic. On the other hand, I am left wondering if the dragon in the news is a real dragon or a figurative one!

    I didn't mind the dialogue tags, they worked well for me.

    I liked this beginning and wish I could keep reading. Good luck! :-)

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  4. I would definitely keep reading.

    I was intrigued by how cool/distant the relationship between mother and daughter was, and I wanted to know why the mother found her work more important than her daughter, whether the dragon was real or metaphorical, what the mother's job actually was (she seemed to have a hard edge to her), who the girl's caretaker was.

    I liked how they were speaking to each other but not really hearing each other. It wasn't a familiar sort of interaction, even though they were both trying.

    “Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved her blind father very much.” [Her mother paused.] “She would have done anything in the world for him.”-- It seems to me like this pause says that the first line the mother read meant something to her outside of the story.

    I'm hooked. :)

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  5. I love prologues, but I agree, the father hooked me, but didn't hear any more...

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  6. Thanks, Janice, for a thorough critique. You're right that I was relying too much on the cover copy to ground the readers, especially the deal with the mother. I'll try to think of a way to smoothly incorporate more internalization.

    Another idea is to simply cut out the summary of and reactions to the folktale, so I can reach the conflict faster (a phone rings, Mom is whisked away because of her "job"). The folktale does reappear later in the novel. Any thoughts?

    And a big thank you to the readers who chimed in! I'm glad someone saw what I was trying to accomplish with the dialogue. That was my attempt at conveying a mother who is not at all used to talking with her own daughter, given how she makes jokes and observations that would usually fly over a child's head. Not sure if I entirely succeeded, though.

    Man, 250 words is hard.

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    Replies
    1. If the folktale plays a later role, having it there could provide a nice layer to the story. Those connections and call backs really help tie a novel together.

      I totally missed the unsure mother aspect, though I did catch something was off. That's a great conflict, so tweaking that's a good idea.

      I guess it depends on what you want to accomplish with the opening. If you want to show the awkward relationship between these two, perhaps nudge everything in that direction. Let the POV be confused about what Mom is doing so readers can see there's a disconnect between these two.

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  7. Besides the smart stuff that's been said I can say I liked it and hope you continue.

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