Saturday, November 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Hooks and POV in an Epic Fantasy 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: Eight (+ two resubmits)  

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 18, 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 question:

Does it have a hook? If so, how strong is it, do I need to "hook it up"? If not, is there any part in this excerpt that could work as a hook? What little you know of the POV character, is it likable? Is internalization and/or interior monologue well employed? I realize I am telling more than showing, aren't I? However, there are times I don't see the telling very clearly. Could you help me with that?


Market/Genre: Epic Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: this prologue features the "bad guys" as they meet to start the war. The POV character is one of the bad guys in this case, and he's off to meet his Master.

Nothing in the starred sky could indicate the series of extraordinary events that were bound to occur. As the world slept, unaware of its impending doom, the battle prophesied since the dawn of civilization was secretly brewing. It was the Great War between Good and Evil.

It was the fourth night with new moon, and the sky was dark and calm, cloudless. Stars twinkled thousands of lightyears away, young and newborn and old and fading alike, oblivious to the little abandoned route in the middle of nowhere. Along it walked three figures, with their black coats moving and rustling with the howling wind and their heads covered.

The three hooded strangers were walking towards the same direction, one after the other. At that moment, and despite the many reasons, he would not dare think they were all heading for the same location: a large clearing surrounded by countless trees, the perfect place for a secret meeting, hidden from curious stares, intruders, passers-by and even eavesdroppers. He can never be too wary, he thought.

And I must be like him; I must trust no one. Always alert. He closed his eyes, trying to hear the steps behind them, trying to find who his pursuers were. He had been walking for more than an hour, or at least he thought he had, and they had been behind him since then, careful to stay close enough so that he would stay within reach. In a night like this, darkness swallowed everything around.

But are they following me, or we’re bound to the same destination? It was likely, but was it probable? His Master had called him unexpectedly, when he started to lose faith; and if he had been summoned, why could the others not be coming as well? After all, they were part of the future; they were in charge of the Remodeling, of guiding humanity through its brightest and hardest path. He yearned for the moment he would be worshiped, even feared by some. Now, that moment could very well be coming. Finally.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Nothing in the starred sky could indicate the series of extraordinary events that were bound to occur. As the world slept, unaware of its impending doom, the battle prophesied since the dawn of civilization was secretly brewing. It was the Great War between Good and Evil.

It was the fourth night with new moon, and the sky was dark and calm, cloudless. Stars twinkled thousands of lightyears away, young and newborn and old and fading alike, oblivious to the little abandoned route in the middle of nowhere. Along it walked three figures, with their black coats moving and rustling with the howling wind and their heads covered.

[The three hooded strangers [were walking] perhaps walked towards the same direction, one after the other. At that moment, and despite the many reasons, [he] who is this? would not dare think they were all heading for the same location:] The two references in a row to the direction feels a little awkward a large clearing surrounded by countless trees, the perfect place for a secret meeting, hidden from curious stares, intruders, passers-by and even eavesdroppers. [He can never be too wary, he thought.] Who's "he?" I found this paragraph confusing

[And I must be like him; I must trust no one. Always alert.] Who is this? There's no sense of a character yet so this is confusing He closed his eyes, trying to hear the steps behind them, trying to find who his pursuers were. He had been walking for more than an hour, or at least he thought he had, and they had been behind him since then, careful to stay close enough so that he would stay within reach. In a night like this, darkness swallowed everything around.

[But are they following me, or we’re bound to the same destination? It was likely, but was it probable?] I'm not sure if he's referring to other people or the three people on the road. I thought they were all together, but now I'm not sure [His Master had called him unexpectedly, when he started to lose faith;] This feels a little told because it's explaining why he's there and if he had been summoned, why could the others not be coming as well? [After all, they were part of the future; they were in charge of the Remodeling, of guiding humanity through its brightest and hardest path.] A little tell-ish. This could be something he thinks, but it has a small info-dump vibe He yearned for the moment he would be worshiped, even feared by some. Now, that moment could very well be coming. Finally.

The questions:

1. Does it have a hook? If so, how strong is it, do I need to "hook it up"? If not, is there any part in this excerpt that could work as a hook?

Shadowy figures headed to a secret meeting that doesn't bode well for humanity is interesting, and could be a good hook, but it's also such a staple in epic fantasy that there's nothing new about it to grab readers. They've seen this before. It might be more interesting to have a bad guy secret meeting someplace readers haven't seen before, like a sunny beach or the last place you'd expect to find an evil cabal. Perhaps twist the trope and do something unexpected with what's common and known.

(More on adding twists to a familiar plot here)

I find the being summoned for lack of faith a bit more intriguing, as that's a person with a problem I can connect to as a reader. It makes me wonder: If he's losing faith, will he still go along with this plan? Will this classic dark meeting not go as expected?

2. What little you know of the POV character, is it likable?
No, because he wants to be worshipped and feared, which isn't very nice. But I do find his concern over why he's being summoned compelling, so I'm intrigued, even if I don't like this character. But I don't dislike him either. I haven't seen enough to make me care one away or the other really. (readers chime in here) since this is a prologue and he has no name, it signals this isn't a character I as a reader needs to worry about. It's all setup. (a common problem with prologues)

Not every character has to be likable, especially if they're a bad guy. Interesting and compelling, yes, but not likable. There as aspects of that here so far, but I'm not getting a solid sense of who he is beyond the classic fantasy villain type.

You might consider adding what makes him different and get a sense of that personality in. Why is the focus on this one bad guy out of the three? What makes him special? Let readers see that.

(More on ways to develop an antagonist here)

3. Is internalization and/or interior monologue well employed?
I was a little confused when it shifted to the character's perspective. It starts off in a strong omniscient third, then it shifts to a limited third feel, but I'm not sure whose head I'm in or why.

For example:
The three hooded strangers were walking towards the same direction, one after the other. This is still the outside narrator telling the tale. The narrator is not part of this trio.

At that moment, and despite the many reasons, he would not dare think they were all heading for the same location: a large clearing surrounded by countless trees, the perfect place for a secret meeting, hidden from curious stares, intruders, passers-by and even eavesdroppers. Here is shifts closer, and I don't know who "he" is since no character has been presented yet and no name is given. The first line still feels like a omniscient narrator, then when "he" is mentioned it feels more like this is the character and I'm in his POV now, though he describes things he couldn't possibly know. I feel ungrounded.
He can never be too wary, he thought. Here it's clearly this character's thought, but the two "he" make it even more confusing. Is he talking about himself? Is this the outside narrator telling readers this person is thinking he can never been too careful? If so, then the internalization isn't working, because people don't think of themselves in the third person. It would be "you" or "one" for the common phrase. "One can never be too wary" or You could never be too wary.

(More on internalization here)

However, the next line is clearly in the head of this character and I'm in his POV. But then he says things that make me question everything up until this point. I thought I was watching three figures trek together through the darkness to a meeting. But the closer I get to this particular character, the more I think they're not actually together and are all traveling separately. He thinks he's being followed because the others are going where he's going. But it starts off like they're travelling together, and he refers to others as if he knows they're there, so I'm confused about who is doing what where.

I'd suggest clarifying what's going on, and deciding where you want the narrative distance to be. The larger overview zooming in on the single person isn't quite working for me. Though if you wanted that feel you could make it work. Just be clear from the start that these people are travelling separately and that the focus shifts from overhead to this person. Giving him a name or some designation would help, as then it would be clear that the omniscient narrator had zeroed in on this person, not a faceless "he."

(More on narrative distance vs telling here)

4. I realize I am telling more than showing, aren't I? However, there are times I don't see the telling very clearly. Could you help me with that?
There's actually very little telling in this. It has an omniscient narrator, which often gives the text a told feel due to its narrative distance. It feels told because someone outside the characters are actually telling the story. But this is the nature of an omniscient narrator.

(More on omniscient points of view here)

The telling parts pop in when the story shifts even further away and it reads like the author stopping the story to explain something to the reader. Anything that feels like explanation so the reader "gets it" is often telling.

(More on telling red flags here)

For example:
His Master had called him unexpectedly, when he started to lose faith; This explains. If he knows this, he wouldn't think about it in this fashion. If he doesn't know this, then he'd never think it at all because he doesn't know it. If this was still the outside narrator, then it would probably be phrased from that perspective, such as "An unexpected addition joined the trip, a soul whose faith had diminished." or the like. The reason why would be part of the overall story, not centered on this particular character. It would be told from the narrator's perspective, not the character.

After all, they were part of the future; they were in charge of the Remodeling, of guiding humanity through its brightest and hardest path. This feels borderline, because at this moment this person might be thinking about what the ultimate plan is. But it feels a little distant, more information about the situation that how this person feels about his role in it. It's not quite personal enough to be his thought.

(More on POV here)

He yearned for the moment he would be worshiped, even feared by some. Now, that moment could very well be coming. Finally. This feels a little closer to him, because he's saying he wants to be worshiped and that day was almost there. The "finally" pushes it over to be his thought, and he feels that this has taken a long time to arrive. It has personal judgment from the character. He thinks this took too long and he wants it now.
Overall, the omniscient narrator in the first two paragraphs works for an epic fantasy prologue. It fits the genre and readers are accustomed to it. You could stay omniscient and tweak the rest to stay outside the head of this character and tell his story from afar, or you could shift it all to his perspective and make it all more personal to him. Or start far and zoom in. It's your call on where you want the narrative distance to be.

One thing that does strike me though, is that it feels like this is purposefully trying not to name the character, and that sets off red flags for me. I don't know if that's the case here, but if it is, it's keeping information secret about who this person is so readers will be surprised later. This often backfires, because without a clear character, readers aren't hooked because they know a nameless person isn't worth worrying about. It's just a tease that tells them nothing and doesn't do anything to move the story, so it's just something to get past to get to the real story.

If the goal here is to lay groundwork for a future betrayal or reveal, then it already tells readers someone they know (or you'd have named them here) is a bad guy, so they pay more attention to the clues and often figure it out long before the author wants them to, which can spoil the story. If it's important enough to see this scene, then it's probably important enough to know who the person is. If that knowledge hurts the overall book, then perhaps rethink this scene. It might not be necessary.

(More on deciding if you need a prologue here)

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.

7 comments:

  1. Regarding the unnamed character, it occurred to me that if he is indeed someone set to betray the MC later in the story, it could be an interesting use of irony to reveal his name now, so that when he reenters the story later, the reader has a little inside knowledge about his actions. That may not work for your story, but it would be a nice way to subvert the 'ooh, who's the bad guy?' game.

    I'd be very interested if the POV character was actually the MC; the fact that he's losing faith and that he's involved with the Remodeling intrigues me. "Remodeling"...vague on what that is, but it sounds like a fascinating, high-minded type of villainy.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Rachel. Thank you for your insight!
      About the naming and that, I've posted the problem I faced when writing this, so please be welcome to read it and let me know any opinion you might have!
      About the "traitor", just so you know, I plan on introducing a character who's gonna betray them, but I will let the reader know who the traitor is since the very beginning, as I find it more interesting and not many writers have done that! :)
      And about the vagueness. I know how vague some things are, but I couldn't start off the prologue with a 2000-word explanation of what's going on and who these people are (remember it's a fantasy), so I am revealing things gradually, so the reader doesn't (hopefully) feel overwhelmed by all the info! So, sorry for the vagueness, but remember this is only the first 250 words of a 2500-word prologue in an over 50.000-word novel (not sure how long, but it'll probably be much longer)...
      So, thank you for your time and your opinion, I really appreciate it!

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    2. Hi LNMor,

      Hmm, that's an interesting conundrum! My first thought was simply to use it as a name, but the first use at least could look like an accidental capitalization. Perhaps if he addresses himself first in thought ("Not too fast, One,", he thought to himself...something like that) and then the narrative continues referring to him as One, it may be a little easier for the reader to catch on.

      I misphrased myself! Being vague on Remodeling isn't a bad thing; I have guesses as to what you mean by that, but this early in the game, I definitely don't need to know. I suspect they'll try to overhaul humanity/creation to fit their own ideals, but I'm not sure. I'd keep reading to find out what Remodeling really is and whether I'm right.

      And for the record, losing one's name is an interesting concept. Need a beta reader? ;)

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    3. That's a great idea! Now i can solve that little problem I had! Thanks a lot!!
      Your suspicions are most accurate! I has something to do with an overhauling of humanity, but I hope the twist I thought of makes it interesting!
      I would love to have you as one of my beta readers! :)

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    4. Email is my favorite way to communicate; if that works for you, it's roy(dot)rachelc(at)gmail.com

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  2. Well, first of all, thanks a lot for taking the time to go through it and give me your thoughts and suggestions on it! I know how much time and work is on this! So thanks!
    About the naming problem, I'll try to explain, to see if you have any suggestion: It's not that I don't WANT to name him so that I have that mystery to solve later on, it's simply that the character doesn't HAVE a name (When they join this "organization", they "lose" their names and they start being called simply by a number). In this case, as my character is kinda the most important member after his Master, he's called "One". When I started writing, I didn't like naming him "One" since the very beginning, as in my opinion it didn't make much sense, so I avoided naming him until he meets his Master and his Master addresses him as "One". As of that moment, I started calling him "One" myself. Of course, I could have made the wrong choice. If you have any thoughts on it, please let me know!
    I am well aware this is simply a WIP, it's not even a draft, so there are hundreds of things to change and improve, so once again, thanks for the time! :)

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