Saturday, January 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Short Story Prologue Work?

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

1. Prologues are frowned upon, I realize. Does this one look as if it will serve the story well?

2. Does not identifying the "bossman" by name create intrigue, or seem like a corny device?

3. What about having the prologue be mostly dialog? That seems to work for me, but I'm not sure what others might think.


Market/Genre: Short story

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the third in my Sharon Williams Foncesa Short Stories series. Sharon is an unconventional CIA agent, who gets great results, but who is constantly suspected of crossing the line to illegal methods, and thus is dogged by CIA leadership. This sample is the first third of what is essentially a prolog. After that an agent assigned to investigate Sharon Fonseca, and the action and results of his investigations will be the story. I start this one with a prolog because the last two went right into action, and I wanted to mix it up a little, and not let the series become too predictable. I anticipate the completed story will run 6,000 words. The story is set in 1982, which is alluded to by mentioning the Soviets in this sample, and is narrowed down for the reader during the investigations that follow.

“Sergio Brusci is dead.”

“Really? How?”

“Yesterday evening. On a train in Switzerland.”

“Some boy scout decide to do his good deed for the day?”

Snickers came from the six men along the sides of the conference room. The man at the head of the table managed a smile, then looked at the man to his left.

“Is your group responsible for this, Norton?”

“No sir,” Norton replied. “We had no order to eliminate Brusci, and I don’t have any freelancers. None of my assets would do that without an order. What more can you tell us about it?”

“It seems Brusci finished his work in Florence, and the Soviets recalled him. We received that information last Saturday through the usual Kremlin channel.” Whatever this channel was, he didn’t reveal it to even this trusted group of key men. “We figured he’d try to get out sometime this week via Vienna into Czechoslovakia. Maybe that’s why he was on that train: Florence to Milan, Milan to Lucerne, Lucerne to Vienna.”

He paused, letting those words hang for some time. The team had learned that silence from the bossman was never a good thing, and usually came before he broke big news, not after. Everyone waited for what he would say next.

“However, it seems we did have an agent in Florence in the last few days: Sharon Fonseca.”

This brought mixed reaction from the others at the table. A gasp, a sharply drawn breath, eyes widened. The man at the head of the table again waited. This time he didn’t seem to have anything to say. He seemed to be waiting for one of his men to continue the conversation. Norton did, after ten seconds had ticked away.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“Sergio Brusci is dead.”

“Really? How?”

“Yesterday evening. On a train in Switzerland.”

“Some boy scout decide to do his good deed for the day?”

Snickers came from the six men along the sides of the conference room. The man at the head of the table managed a smile, then looked at the man to his left.
] Since this is part of a series it might be clear to readers, but I have no idea who these people are or what's going on, so I'm feeling a little lost so far.

[“Is your group responsible for this, Norton?”] Since this is the first name spoken, I assume this is my protagonist

“No sir,” Norton replied. “We had no order to eliminate Brusci, and I don’t have any freelancers. None of my assets would do that without an order. What more can you tell us about it?”

“It seems Brusci finished his work in Florence, and the Soviets recalled him. We received that information last Saturday through the usual Kremlin channel.” [Whatever this channel was, he didn’t reveal it to even this trusted group of key men.] This feels a little distant to be Norton, so now I'm rethinking who the POV is here. “We figured he’d try to get out sometime this week via Vienna into Czechoslovakia. Maybe that’s why he was on that train: Florence to Milan, Milan to Lucerne, Lucerne to Vienna.”

He paused, letting those words hang for some time. The team had learned that silence from the bossman was never a good thing, and usually came before he broke big news, not after. Everyone waited for what he would say next. Now I see that this is a third omniscient POV, and I'm wondering who the protagonist is.

[“However, it seems we did have an agent in Florence in the last few days: Sharon Fonseca.”] Does this mean they think she killed him? I'm not sure about that. And if so, why is that bad? They mentioned killing him as being a good deed earlier.

This brought mixed reaction from the others at the table. A gasp, a sharply drawn breath, eyes widened. The man at the head of the table again waited. This time he didn’t seem to have anything to say. He seemed to be waiting for one of his men to continue the conversation. Norton did, after ten seconds had ticked away.

The questions:

1. Prologues are frowned upon, I realize. Does this one look as if it will serve the story well?


This is a tough question since I don't know anything about the story. As is, I'm feeling lost since I don't "know" this is a prologue. (Clearly I know because the writer told me, but coming into this as a fresh reader there's nothing to suggest this isn't the start of the story). It's nameless and faceless characters in a blank room discussing the death of someone I don't know, nor do I know the meaning of that death. I think it's going to depend on what the rest of the story is about.

Assuming Sharon is the protagonist, if she's being investigated, then wondering who is investigating her and why could be a strong hook to drive the story. If readers know why from the start, there's no mystery. If this is the case, I'd say cut the prologue.

If Sharon did do it, then the mystery and hook could come from wondering why and seeing if she got caught. Knowing someone is trying to prove she killed the man could work to help build tension, and this prologue could create some dramatic irony for the story. In this case, you might consider something to show this is a prologue, such as "Langley, three days ago" or the like. Let readers know right away this is outside the normal timeframe of the story.

If Sharon isn't the protagonist, and the story focuses on the investigator pursuing her, then this sets up what the story problem is. If so, the prologue could work, though in that case it feels more like the start of the story and not a prologue at all. Since Norton is the only other name mentioned, I'd guess he's the investigator? Perhaps make it a little clearer if he's the protagonist in this snippet.

(Here's more on deciding if you should keep or kill a prologue)

2. Does not identifying the "bossman" by name create intrigue, or seem like a corny device?

I liked it. It had a fun voice and added a little levity to balance the darker nature of the scene (readers chime in here).

3. What about having the prologue be mostly dialog? That seems to work for me, but I'm not sure what others might think.

It's not working for me (readers chime in here, too) because I have no context for what's going on. I think if I knew these characters and how this fit into the larger story world of this series, I might be able to follow along just fine. Though a little hint of who the first speakers are would be nice, especially if one of them is the protagonist.

I think that a lot of it is going to come down to how much the reader knows coming into this. If these are known characters in the Fonseca story world, and readers know where they meet and can bring additional context and understanding to this scene, it could work. As a reader knowing nothing at all about the story or series, I did feel lost and couldn't even identify who the protagonist was. Sharon actually feels like the antagonist here (and I assume since it's her series she's the hero).

(Here's more on providing context to a scene)

Overall, I suspect this is a scene that works if you already know what's going on, but is too vague if you don't. I think it has a better chance of working if Norton is the protagonist and the story follows him vs it switching to Sharon. It really comes down to: do you think knowing this information first makes the story better, or will it make the story more predictable and kill any mystery?

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.

6 comments:

  1. I liked the dialogue as dialogue, but I have to agree that some setting details might help.

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  2. The best place for prologues is in a series. Unless the story takes place immediately after the last story ended and prologue is a good way to catch the reader up.

    I do like the bit here, but need more setting too.

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  3. Thanks, Janice, for the good comments on my story. I'm going to take all comments to heart and carefully consider them. Thanks also to Chicory and Southpaw for the comments.

    The word limits of the blog somewhat constrained me. Just two paragraphs after this sample I get to the setting page: a conference room in CIA headquarters in London. I'll have to look at moving it closer, perhaps after the first two or three spoken parts.

    The protagonist for this story is the investigator, who is introduced at the end of the 600 word prologue, then the rest of the story is from his POV. This is the way the first two stories in the series were, and how I'm thinking about doing it for all of them. The first story was out of order, showing Fonseca in the current era, retired, but still suspected of doing operations and not following procedures. The second goes back to the height of her career, and several stories will follow consecutively. I'm thinking of doing some flashbacks, however, to the time when she was an "unconventional agent in training".

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    Replies
    1. Most welcome, and glad it helped. I know, it's hard sometimes to really judge a piece when it's so small, but I wouldn't be able to do these every week if they were longer.

      If the investigator is the protagonist, then this could work fine as the opening scene.

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  4. I'm in favor of establishing setting and PoV as soon as possible. For example, at least one sentence like "Norton took a seat in the corner of the conference room" or some sort of internalization that establishes the setting like "The coffee was always cold at the director's meetings." Then you can jump into dialogue.

    I also second Janice's recommendation about "Langley, three days ago." This allows you to establish something that the reader needs to know but your PoV character would have no reason to think about.

    Without any context as to who is saying what and where a scene is taking place, I'm going to be asking myself those questions rather than thinking about the content of the dialogue.

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    Replies
    1. Peter:

      Thanks for the comments. Very helpful.

      Delete