Saturday, June 28

Real Life Diagnostics: A Prologue From a First-Time Writer

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: Three (+ one resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 19. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does this prologue work? Does it sound kind of poetic? Does it make you want to read more?


Special Note: This is a brave first-time writer putting work out there, so please bear that in mind while commenting on this piece.

Market/Genre: Mystery/Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Shadows can exist without Light
Light cannot exist without Shadows
It's an eternal Fight
Light leads to Fate
Shadows lead to Hate
There are two Paths
Light is Destiny
Shadows is Greed
Both coexist to Exist
One will die Off
Can you decide Which?
Light Into Shadows
Or Shadows Into Light
Which do you Chose?
- King of the AfterLife

After Dylan finished reading the letter he threw it on his desk and sat on his bed. He didn't know what to think of this. So, he picked up the envelope that contained the letter within it and examined it. He then heard a voice saying something he could not comprehend. He fell through the floor, into a pitch black tunnel with only visions of his life. He blacked out only to awaken to light, now the letter made sense. He now knew his path, shadow into light.

He woke up and thought, weird dream. But what he doesn't know is thus isn't a dream, but a vision of a long quest to save a corrupt world. This is the story of Shadows into Light.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Shadows can exist without Light
Light cannot exist without Shadows
It's an eternal Fight
Light leads to Fate
Shadows lead to Hate
There are two Paths
Light is Destiny
Shadows is Greed
Both coexist to Exist
One will die Off
Can you decide Which?
Light Into Shadows
Or Shadows Into Light
Which do you Chose?
- King of the AfterLife

After Dylan finished reading the letter he threw it on his desk and sat on his bed. He didn't know what to think of this. So, he picked up the envelope that contained the letter within it and examined it. [He then heard a voice saying something he could not comprehend.] Think about ways you can describe this more so it feels like Dylan hearing it [He fell through the floor, into a pitch black tunnel with only visions of his life.] This is a nice summary of what happens, but think about what Dylan is going through here and what he experiences He blacked out only to awaken to light, [now the letter made sense.] Odds are Dylan is pretty freaked out by what just happened and not so calm and rational about it. [He now knew his path, shadow into light.] Think about what Dylan might think about or struggle with to get to this understanding.

He woke up and thought, weird dream. [But what he doesn't know is thus isn't a dream, but a vision of a long quest to save a corrupt world. This is the story of Shadows into Light.] This is all the author breaking in to explain things to the reader. Let them figure this out by reading the story.

The questions:

1. Does this prologue work?


Not yet, because it's explaining the situation to the reader without really letting them know what's going on. It starts with a poem that is cryptic and mysterious (which can be good to pique reader interest), and shows Dylan being unsure of what to think about the letter. This is a good start on its own, because something strange has happened to Dylan and readers might also be curious about what the letter is and what it means.

Then events get confusing with strange voices and floors dropping out and vague references to things happening without a lot of detail for readers to really understand it. Then it explains how this was all a dream and gives a general summary of what the story is going to be about from author's perspective, which pulls readers out of the story and gives away what the book is about. This is actually a very common problem with prologues even for people who have been writing a while. It's all tell and no show, which is another common issue and one of the tougher things to "get" in writing.

(Here's more on writing prologues)

Instead of explaining things to the reader, try thinking about this same scene from Dylan's perspective, his point of view (POV). What is he thinking about? What is he feeling? Where did the letter even come from? Dylan might think it's a dream, but if it's really a vision and this is actually happening to him, then you want readers to feel like they're there with Dylan as he has this experience.

For example, he hears a voice but can't understand it. Why not? Is it speaking a different language? Too soft? Muffled? There are all kinds of ways to not comprehend something, and you want to make sure readers are seeing what you imagine. What does Dylan actually hear? And how does he feel about it? Does it make him curious? Scare him?

Next he falls through the floor and has visions of his life. As the author, you no doubt know what this looks like and what parts of his life he's seeing, but readers don't know those things. They don't know anything at all about Dylan, so they can't really imagine what he's going through here. Try imagining how Dylan would feel in this situation so you can describe that to readers. How does falling through the floor feel? Is there a drop like an elevator? Is it slow? Fast? Does he feel wind rush by or nothing at all? This must be a scary thing to experience, so how does Dylan feel while it's happening? What is he thinking about during all this?

(Here's more on internalization)

Then he goes through the tunnel, which could be a really cool moment. What does the tunnel look like? How do the visions from his life appear? What aspects of his life does he see? Are they important to the overall story or just random images? Since this is the first thing you're showing readers, I'd guess these moment have greater meaning and might tie into his quest.

Next, he regains consciousness and everything makes sense to him and he knows his path. But readers still don't know what any of this means, and instead of being curious, they'll likely feel lost. You also lose a chance to make readers curious by giving them a question they want to see answered--why did Dylan have this vision and what does it mean? If you tell them right away, there's no reason for them to read the story. Try instead to show that this is important and Dylan needs to do this, but leave some mystery to it to draw readers in.

It ends with Dylan waking up and it all being a dream, then the author explains that it's not really a dream but a vision and what it means. This pulls readers out of the story and tells them the point before they even start the book. Whenever you feel the urge to explain--stop and try to find a way to show it so readers can guess that without you having to say it outright.

(Here's more on point of view and how it can help with descriptions)

As a new writer, I'd suggest working on point of view to get a solid sense of how to tell a story (or better yet, show) from a character's perspective. POV is the most useful tool in a writer's toolbox, and once you understand it, you'll avoid most of the common writing problems new writers face. It'll let you show a scene, not tell it, make it easier to see what needs to be described and what you can skip, and naturally lets you show how that character is feeling and what they're thinking as the story unfolds. It helps put you in the head of the character so you'll know what they want (their goal) and what they're afraid might happen to them if they fail (the stakes). Once you feel you have a grasp on POV, try rewriting this scene from Dylan's perspective.

(Here are some point of view basics)

You might also try thinking about what you want your scenes to accomplish. A big part of writing is giving the reader small bites of the story and teasing them to read all the way through. If you give too much away too fast, there's no reason to keep reading. Try thinking about the different steps Dylan will have to take on this quest, and focusing on each part as it builds toward saving the world. This first step might be that he has a vision (which he thinks is a dream) and then he tries to figure out what it all means. Then as he's trying to do that, another piece of the plot happens and he takes the next step. The more steps he takes, the more clear the story (and mystery) becomes to the reader.

(Here's more on the basic goal-conflict-stakes structure)

2. Does it sound kind of poetic?

The poem does. If you wanted the rest of the text to sound more poetic, just think about what words or phrases would give that poetic feel. How you describe things could give that same feeling. Reading it out loud can help here, and you'll be able to hear the rhythm of the words and how they sound.

3. Does it make you want to read more?

Not yet, because I haven't seen much of the story so far. There's potential here, with Dylan being pulled into a strange quest by mysterious forces, but I don't have enough to hook me yet. But if you cut out the explanations and show the scene unfolding (with what Dylan sees and how he feels) then I'd be more drawn in. I'd be curious about the visions and what was happening to Dylan. I think once the scene is dramatized more, it will make readers want to read on.

(Here's more on hooking readers)

Overall, I think this is a great start for a new writer. It does open with something happening and a goal for Dylan to pursue, which gets the story moving. The poem is filled with conflicts and I can easily see those conflicts being things Dylan will face during this quest. Now it's just a matter of developing the writing skills to better share what's in the writer's head and make this story come alive for readers.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with the diagnostic completely. This is an excellent first start, but it does need revision to make me connect with the story.

    Now, keeping in mind this is my opinion and no one else may feel the same, I would be more drawn in if I had some sort of setting to visualize. If I saw Dylan in his room (is it a dorm room?) and saw him opening the letter, I would be immediately engaged. Who doesn't want to see what's inside an envelope? This would also give me an anchor in "normality", so when strange things start happening, I can recognize them as strange and feel more connection with Dylan's experiences.

    Another concern I have is this is labeled as a prologue. If revisions pull me into this story and get me hooked on Dylan and his problems, is the novel going to then take me off in a completely different direction in chapter one? Or is this a prologue only because it's backstory on how Dylan got started on his "long quest to save a corrupt world"? If it's either, I would suggest cutting the prologue altogether and starting right off with the story. Important details from this can be woven into the story itself.

    Good luck and happy writing!

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  2. It's really brave of you to show a first story like this. Congratulations! Janice gives great advice. I learn a lot from her, always. :)

    Since this is a first story, I have a bit of advice of my own- something that worked for me when I was starting out. (You can ignore it if you want to. What works for me may not work for other people.) When I was starting, I didn't worry too much about revising until I had a whole rough draft. In fact, one way I kept myself going was by saying things like `wow, I have twenty pages! I've never written that much. Let's see if I can beat my own record and hit forty pages!' So many writing skills are learned just by writing that when you get to the end of the story, you'll be much better equipped to make edits on your prologue. Hang in there and keep writing. :)

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  3. I agree with Chicory. Don't stop writing and come back to all the advice later. I can see you have strong ideas and they will work when you learn more and revise. Write on!

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  4. Ah, yes, Chicory and Harry have it right. I was assuming this talented new writer had finished this story/novel. If it's not complete, finish it first. Then revise. You'd be surprised by how much you learn about writing just by finishing a project.

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