Sunday, August 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Prologue Working?

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: Four 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 30. 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:

This is from the prologue to my contemporary fantasy. It's meant to hint at how Angie's stories are going to linger with Mark, while the incident he's about to glimpse here will stir up a lot of trouble for them when they're grown up.

Does this give the right balance of building a connection with Mark and keeping the reader going to get to the "glimpse" ahead?


Market/Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

NOTE: There's also a revised snippet about the girl athlete wish the missing coach for those curious to see how the author reworked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

He could almost see the bulldozers in the twilight. Huge roaring things grinding through the snow—and how they would have stopped, just stopped, at the edge of the park’s little wood. Mark Petrie stared at where they would have been, images just waiting for him run up and kick out at them, like some hero who could knock them right into the clouds.

He was nine now, too cool to play that. At least without Angie here telling the story.

But, if she couldn’t come here again—

He kept his eyes on the treeline, remembering. She said they really had broken down here, back in her grandfather’s time. And they’d never tried to wipe out the park again. . . He shivered, a chill deeper and more exciting than just the wind blowing through his thin wool cap.

Shouts rang out behind him. The three kids were still crowding the air between them with snowballs and gotcha! laughs, and Mark thought of jumping in—more fun than going past them up the little hill and trying to beg a turn on another kid’s sled. Over in the pool of lights by the picnic table, his uncle and aunt were still yelling at their friends, more of that “politics” stuff. Mark’s stomach rumbled, but he knew better than to ask when they’d start home.

Instead he tried to picture the bulldozers again, where they would have lain so mysteriously stalled out, a lifetime before he was born. He puffed out a breath and ran at them, his eyes on the old canvas satchel he’d left at the base of the first tree. Play that I run past the monsters, grab the “bag of top-secret computer disks” and get it to “far-off Sha Ta Ruath”—

“Stop there!”

My Thoughts in Purple:

He could almost see the bulldozers in the twilight. Huge roaring things grinding through the snow—and how they would have stopped, just stopped, at the edge of the park’s little wood. Mark Petrie stared at where they would have been, images just waiting for him run up and kick out at them, like some hero who could knock them right into the clouds.

He was nine now, too cool to play that. [At least without Angie here telling the story.] Not sure what he means. Without here there to tell his story?

But, if she couldn’t come here again—

He kept his eyes on the treeline, [remembering]. between this and the "he was nine now," I'm not sure when I am. Is this a nine year old experiencing this or an older man remembering a time when he was nine? She said [they really had broken down here] I don't understand, so I'm struggling a bit to make sense of what's going on, back in her grandfather’s time. And they’d never tried to wipe out the park again. . . He shivered, a chill deeper and more exciting than just the wind blowing through his thin wool cap. So far in this opening I'm very confused about what is going on and when it's happening.

Shouts rang out behind him. [The three kids] he refers to them as if we already know who they are but this is the first time they're mentioned were still crowding the air between them with snowballs and gotcha! laughs, and Mark thought of jumping in—[more fun than going past them up the little hill and trying to beg a turn on another kid’s sled.] I'm not sure what this has to do with the bulldozers Over in the pool of lights by the picnic table, his uncle and aunt were still yelling at their friends, more of that “politics” stuff. Mark’s stomach rumbled, but he knew better than to ask when they’d start home.

[Instead he tried to picture the bulldozers again] So the bulldozers weren't real? , where they would have lain so mysteriously stalled out, a lifetime before he was born. He puffed out a breath and ran at them, his eyes on the old canvas satchel he’d left at the base of the first tree. Play that I run past the monsters, grab the bag of top-secret computer disks” and get it to “far-off Sha Ta Ruath”

“Stop there!”

The questions:

Does this give the right balance of building a connection with Mark and keeping the reader going to get to the "glimpse" ahead?

For me, no, because I'm confused about what's going on and unable to ground myself in this scene. There are quite a few time clues here that all point in different directions, so I'm not sure when I am or what's happening. "He was nine now" "remembering" "back in her grandfather's time" "a lifetime before he was born." I can't tell if this is an adult remembering a time in his childhood or if this is a scene from his childhood where he's thinking about the past. I'm also not sure what the scene's about overall. It feels like it's about the park, but then everything yanks me away from the park. I'm not sure what to focus on or what's important because so many things are going on that point me in different directions.

(Here's more on narrative focus)

It starts off as if he's there in the winter twilight trying to see bulldozers, possibly about to tear down some trees and destroy a park, and he wants to stop that. He wants to save the park so Angie can come there again (which is great, as that hooked me right away and I wanted to see what he'd do about that). Then things get confusing, and he talks about the past, switches to boys laughing and playing, then a family picnic and I don't know what's going on. All the opening clues that helped me set the scene weren't real, but I didn't know that until I saw that as the reality of the book established in my head already. I thought Mark was watching bulldozers in a park. All the reader knows when they come into your book is what's on the page, so make sure you give them enough details to correctly understand when and where they are and what's going on at that moment.

(Here's more on writing your opening scene)

I think this is trying to do too much setup and isn't getting to the story yet (a common issue with prologues). There's no problem to solve or mystery to figure out, and this entire opening looks like it's about to become overshadowed by whatever is about to happen. It's dropping in moments that will be important later to the story, but without the ramp up of that story and those characters, there's no reason yet to care about this bit of Mark's past. Also, is knowing this situation first adding to the tension and mystery of the later story or will it steal it because readers will know the reasons for things? When that later trouble happens, will readers think "Oh, it's because of what they saw as kids" and the mystery is suddenly gone? You don't want to rob the tension from your story by revealing the answers first thing.

(Here's more on prologues)

You could try a few options here:

1. If you feel the prologue is necessary to the story, perhaps have Mark (and maybe Angie if that fits) actually playing "bulldozers in the park" or her telling him the story instead of him remembering it. That puts the action up front and gets the idea that Angie's stories affect their lives. Whatever happens can pull him away from his playing and unfold as you want it to.

2. If the goal of this scene is to show how Angie's stories linger, and an incident from his part will have future ramifications, perhaps cut the prologue and start with Mark facing an issue in the "present day" and letting him think about one of Angie's stories as it relates to his problem. Show that even as an adult, he thinks about her stories and they have an effect on him (if that is indeed the case). If the "glimpse of trouble" is part of the inciting event, maybe the book starts right before that trouble occurs. If not, then perhaps a problem that eventually leads Mark to that.

If remembering Angie's stories is part of Mark's personality, then just show that in the present day of the novel. Let it be part of his character however it affects him. For example, perhaps he sees a bulldozer on his way to work and this reminds him of Angie's stories, and that somehow relates to whatever issue he might be facing at that moment.

Overall, and knowing nothing more than what's said in this snippet, my instincts say you don't need this prologue. When the author describes the scene by saying it's meant to hint and glimpse a future event, that's a red flag it's unnecessary setup. These types of scenes typically delay when the actual story starts and often steal the mystery from that later event. I'd suggest starting when the story starts, and letting Mark think about these things when they're relevant to the scene.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Many thanks. I'll be working on clarifying the timeframes here. Especially, I'll be trimming this to shift the focus to the part of the scene that was coming up, where we start to see the consequences of Angie's stories. I was thinking that a prologue that ran this long was breaking too many of my own rules as it was.

    Thanks again for taking the time with this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Most welcome, good luck with the revisions!

      Delete