Saturday, November 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Creating Tension and Hooking Readers in a 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: One 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 7.

This week’s questions:

Does this beginning (prologue) capture your attention? Have I introduced enough tension to keep you reading?


Market/Genre: Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Bree roused Wednesday morning at six o’clock, her normal wake up time since having given birth four weeks earlier. Only this time it was different. The aim of the sun, filtering through the sheer curtains, was too bright. And the nightstand clock displayed one p.m. in neon green. She should had felt thankful that Todd or Lillian had let her rest this long, knowing how little she’d been sleeping since Benny was born.

The silence in the house felt weirdly exaggerated. Not that Bree could have explained the kind of quiet it was. It just felt wrong. Dread festered inside her. Usually, she’d Benny’s gurgling or cries. As insane as it sounded, Bree had a deathly fear that something would happen to Benny when she wasn’t in the room with him. He could smother in his blanket while sleeping, or cough and end up choking.

Bree frowned and pushed aside the covers, In an effort to get to her feet, her head made loops, her vision blurred. Nausea roiled in her stomach. She collapsed, landing on her knees. The floor was cold beneath her as she crawled slowly to the bathroom hoping she wouldn’t throw up before she got there. She wished Todd would bring her ginger ale, something her mother used to do when she was sick in bed as a child.

Where was Lillian?


Maybe she was in the kitchen preparing Benny’s formula. Bree fought to linger on that thought, to anchor it down.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Bree roused Wednesday morning at six o’clock, her normal wake up time since having given birth four weeks earlier. Only this time it was different. The aim of the sun, filtering through the sheer curtains, was too bright. And the nightstand clock displayed one p.m. in neon green. [She should had felt thankful that Todd or Lillian had let her rest this long, knowing how little she’d been sleeping since Benny was born.] This says what she should gave felt, but doesn't actually say how she does feel.

The silence in the house felt weirdly exaggerated. [Not that Bree could have explained the kind of quiet it was.] This feels odd here since there are two lines describing the kind of quiet It just felt wrong. Dread festered inside her. Usually, she’d [hear] Benny’s gurgling or cries. [As insane as it sounded, Bree had a deathly fear that something would happen to Benny when she wasn’t in the room with him.] Feels a little told He could smother in his blanket while sleeping, or cough and end up choking.

Bree frowned and pushed aside the covers, [In an effort] In her effort? Otherwise it sounds like her head is trying to get up to get to her feet, her head made loops, her vision blurred. Nausea roiled in her stomach. She collapsed, landing on her knees. The floor was cold beneath her as she crawled slowly to the bathroom [hoping she wouldn’t throw up before she got there. She wished Todd would bring her ginger ale, something her mother used to do when she was sick in bed as a child.] Feels a little distant

Where was Lillian?

Maybe she was in the kitchen preparing Benny’s formula. Bree fought to linger on that thought, to anchor it down.

The questions:

1. Does this beginning (prologue) capture your attention?


Not yet, because I'm not connecting to Bree as a character (common for me and omniscient narrators, so readers chime in here). It feels detached and I'm not getting a sense of who she is or how she feels, I'm just watching a new mom being a little panicky and sick. There are also not enough clues to suggest something is actually wrong. I'm told something is off and I should worry, but I'm not feeling it yet. If Lillian has the baby in another room, that's a perfectly logical reason for Bree not to hear him. There's a hint that maybe she was drugged, but it's not strong enough as is for me to be sure.

(Here's more on hooking the reader)

Let's look at little closer at what's keeping me at a distance here:
She should had felt thankful that Todd or Lillian had let her rest this long, knowing how little she’d been sleeping since Benny was born.
This doesn't say how she's feeling now, so I'm sure of her emotional state. It suggests she's not thankful, but I'm not seeing that from her, and I don't know what she's thinking. A woman who gets angry at her family letting her oversleep is different from the one who worries or is anxious about her baby. Also, is there a reason for her to worry at all? I'd imagine a new mom would be thrilled to get a little extra sleep, but she jumps right to panic and I don't know why. A quiet house just isn't reason enough. For all she knows, they took the baby to the park so she could sleep. This is my first look at who she is, and a little internal thought here would help me understand her and her situation better.
Not that Bree could have explained the kind of quiet it was.
This glosses over a very critical detail in this scene. Something is making Bree apprehensive. If she can't tell me, then I can't feel it with her. If I don't know what's going through her head, I can't imagine the things she's scared about. I like that she doesn't hear the baby, that's a good detail, but perhaps a few more clues and some internalization from Bree here would help show why something is indeed very wrong. There are benign and more likely reasons not to hear the baby.
As insane as it sounded, Bree had a deathly fear that something would happen to Benny when she wasn’t in the room with him.
I see why she's worried, but why should I as a reader worry? Isn't this normal for new moms? There's nothing to suggest her fears are grounded. Perhaps add some additional clues that show the wrongness of the situation and why she's right to feel this way.
In her effort to get to her feet, her head made loops, her vision blurred. Nausea roiled in her stomach. She collapsed, landing on her knees.
There's a slight suggestion here that she might have been drugged, but she never thinks being sick is unusual. She even thinks a calm thought about wanting ginger ale, so there's no reason for me to think there's anything wrong with her getting dizzy. But if she was drugged, and that's why she overslept, then she'd probably react to this in a different way. She'd at least wonder what was wrong with her. It's a good clue (if it is one), but it's a little too subtle right not without Bree's reaction to it.
hoping she wouldn’t throw up before she got there. She wished Todd would bring her ginger ale, something her mother used to do when she was sick in bed as a child.
If she's this sick and worried about her baby, it feels odd to have her thinking about what her mother did when she was little. It's a small thing, but the focus shifts away from what's wrong and offers a calming, sweet memory instead of something to turn up the tension.

(Here's more on internalization and third person)

2. Have I introduced enough tension to keep you reading?

Not yet (readers also chime in here) because I don't have enough context for what's happening or who these people are. I can assume Todd is the husband, but who is Lillian? This is a good example of how cover copy could change how someone reads this however. If I knew what the overall story was coming into this, I might feel differently about what's happening. I'd have a better sense of where it was headed. But on its own, there's nothing really going on at the moment to be worried about. I don't know Bree well enough to know if she's a reliable source of information (she does says her fears are insane), and she's not feeling well and overtired. Is this just a panicky mom or is there a problem? I can't tell yet.

(Here's more on adding tension)

I'd suggest a few tweaks to help readers connect to Bree more and show the tension.

Dramatize a little more: You might try adding some dialog and internalization to this so readers feel more in the moment and not watching it from the sidelines. Does Bree call out for her husband? If she's calling for him and there's no answer, that's a nice clue that something is wrong. Does she reach for the baby monitor and check it to see if it got turned off? Feels like her first priority is to figure out why she doesn't hear anything, and that's a logical first step. It also allows you to show things are working, so why is there no sound? Layering in small details to show Bree trying to get to her baby or find out why they let her sleep so long will help build tension if readers see that things are indeed off and troublesome.

(Here's more on dramatizing a scene)

Add a little more mood: Aside from a weird quiet, there's nothing to evoke fear or apprehension. You might look for details and words that bring out the emotion you're trying to create. Bright sunlight filters in, but what if it sliced through the curtains? Pierced her sleepy head? What if she feels like the sound has been smothered? While you don't want to overdo it, a few specific words can put "danger" in the reader's mind and give a sense that things are not right at all. Things that look normal slowly take on a sinister tone as the details pile up. How Bree reacts and what she thinks will be key here as well. If she doesn't find it odd, then readers will just assume that's normal for her and miss the clue.

(Here's more on creating a mood)

Overall, the situation has potential for tension and could make reader curious about what is going on and if the baby was in any danger. I'd suggest adding some personal thoughts from Bree and laying more clues to create a mood that's tense and fearful. I think that will help get this scene where you want it to go. It's not far off.

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. Janice, I appreciate your honest thoughts. I certainly will give this a second and third look. Seeing this through your eyes, it does make sense that I have to bring the reader closer to the character. Thanks again....:)

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  2. The distance I felt as the reader was one of the things that stood out most. Your suggestion to dramatize thigs a bit more would certainly address that and really make it something readers could dig into.
    Thanks to the writer who shared. As much as this may help you, others can gain knowledge as well.

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  3. As a mother, I did understand the feeling of dread that was being described here. With a newborn, waking up to a silent house is truly terrifying. I also understood the loudness of the silence, as it were. Most of my friends with kids have described a similar terror, so this works for me. What didn't work was the telling. Being told she woke up at 6am only to find out it wasn't, being told she was a new mother, begin told of her terror, I'd have liked this to be shown--perhaps through her waking up leisurely, stretching, then jumping upright in fear (here the reader would be intrigued and want to know why). Flying round the house looking for her baby (here is when we'd find out she was a new mother), perhaps thinking about the other day when she'd spend the whole day just watching the baby in case he forgot to breathe (here we'd get that she was an anxious new mother). I think this would help a lot with the urgency of the story. But I enjoyed this little excerpt, and I'd read on. Well done writer!

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