Saturday, February 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Sci Fi 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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Submissions currently in the queue: Five 

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This week’s question:

Does this opening work on, not just a basic level, but also create enough intrigue and mystery to drive people to read on?

Market/Genre: YA science fiction/thriller


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is a prologue, introducing us to our driving antagonist and setting in motion events that will take effect in the early chapters.

The ship cut an icy path through space, its jagged angles stained red by the bleeding glow of the system’s sun.

Deep within the belly of this armored beast, a set of emerald eyes sparked with meticulous thought.

The owner of these emeralds, a man by the name Sephtis Baak, sat buried behind rolling hills of stacked folders. Each hill told a different part of the same story. Reports, suspects, witnesses, photographs and a tightly woven web of connections. All of that and more were packed into thousands of pages lain haphazardly across the conference table.

Sephtis hadn’t seen so many hardcopies in his life, no one used them anymore. Well, that was what he thought until this problem was piled atop him like dirt on a coffin. Obviously he had underestimated the resolve of his enemies.

Taking another puff on the tightly rolled cigar resting between his fingers, Sephtis eyed the file lying across his lap. There were a thousand other folders he could be looking at right now, like all the ones with photos taken inside his own home by strangers. But his job wasn’t to dwell over what had already happened. His job was to get to those who had done it, so the board had corpses to spit on.

“This is everything they had?” Sephtis’ voice lacked the natural bass of most organic beings, despite him being a flesh and bone human. Where standard human voices held natural flow and depth, his held only mechanic grind and synthetic buzz.

“Everything the men could scavenge out of that degenerative rat’s nest” hissed a frail man sitting across the table, before he violently cast aside a mound of files. The contents exploded into the air with a swirling of chaos, pages mixing about along their dive to the floor.

“You have allowed these mongrels the pleasure of their inane games long enough!” the man squawked, pushing his chest deep into the table and pointing a long, crooked finger at Sephtis “They need to be dealt with. Just like the swine they are.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

The ship cut an icy path through space,[its jagged angles stained red by the bleeding glow of the system’s sun. ] Nice image

Deep within the belly of this armored beast, a set of emerald eyes sparked with meticulous thought.

The owner of these emeralds, a man by the name Sephtis Baak, sat buried behind rolling hills of stacked folders. Each hill told a different part of the same story. Reports, suspects, witnesses, photographs and a tightly woven web of connections. All of that and more were packed into thousands of pages lain haphazardly across the conference table.

Sephtis hadn’t seen so many hardcopies in his life, no one used them anymore. [Well, that was what he thought until this problem was piled atop him like dirt on a coffin.] This feels a little explanatory and stuck in, though I like the imagery. [Obviously he had underestimated the resolve of his enemies.] Nice, and it makes me curious who those enemies are and why they're drowning him in paperwork 

[Taking another puff on the tightly rolled cigar resting between his fingers,] Could cut to pick up the pace Sephtis eyed the file lying across his lap. [There were a thousand other folders he could be looking at right now, like all the ones with photos taken inside his own home by strangers. ] I like the idea here that he's connected to this, but this sentence feels a little explanatory But his job wasn’t to dwell over what had already happened. His job was to get to those who had done it, so the board had corpses to spit on.

[“This is everything they had?”] This doesn't feel like the right thing to say, as it suggests it's not enough information when it looks like there's too much. Perhaps something that sheds light on what's going on instead? Sephtis’ voice lacked the natural bass of most organic beings, despite him being a flesh and bone human. Where standard human voices held natural flow and depth, his held only mechanic grind and synthetic buzz. There's a lot of description and explanation overall, so the pace is dragging some.

“Everything the men could scavenge out of [that degenerative rat’s nest”] I don't know what this means. A little context would help me follow along hissed a frail man sitting across the table, [before he violently cast aside a mound of files. The contents exploded into the air with a swirling of chaos, pages mixing about along their dive to the floor. ] Don't think you need. Could cut to pick up the pace

“You have allowed these mongrels the pleasure of their inane games long enough!” [the man squawked] who says this? The frail man or someone new? I'm confused about how many people are here, I'm also confused about what he's talking about [pushing his chest deep into the table and pointing a long, crooked finger at Sephtis] Could cut to pick up the pace “They need to be dealt with. Just like the swine they are.”

The question:

1. Does this opening work on, not just a basic level, but also create enough intrigue and mystery to drive people to read on?


It's not grabbing me yet (readers chime in here), but I do see potential. Septhis appears to be in charge of solving some kind of crime. He was probably a victim of it (I suspect his family). I get a small sense that maybe (it's not clear) he wants to focus on his own past, but he's dedicated to his job and will apprehend this criminal for his bosses. And someone doesn't want him to solve it and is playing games.

What I'm unclear on, it what they're talking about in this scene. I don't know who they got the files from, why paper files are used, why these people are mongrels and disliked. I'm not sure how many people are in the room (two or three?) or their relationship to Sephtis. I also don't know what the crime was, though that could be part of the mystery. I'm a little confused about the setting and when and where this takes place.

I'd suggest adding more context to what's going on so readers can keep up. For example, we don't need to know the details of the crime, but knowing it was a murder, or a theft or some detail, would give us a sense of what the stakes are. Knowing who the mongrels are would also help, as they talk about them like readers ought to know who they're referring to.

You might consider adding a little more about the world as well. Sephtis is human, but not fully? Is he part mechanical (I don't know what his voice means on a bigger scale)? Taking the time to say he's human suggests there are non-humans there as well, so I wonder about the other people in the room. Is this in the future or an advanced race who's dealing with modern day Earth? (the paper files and "mongrels" hints at this). I'm struggling too much to figure out what all this means instead of being swept away in the story.

(Here's more on describing your story world)

I'd also suggest a light trim of some of the extra stage direction. The pacing feels a little slow with so much description, and that's making things drag a bit.

(Here's more on stage direction)

It could just be me (readers chime in here), but I found the modern details like the paper files and the cigar didn't fit the high-tech space setting. I didn't understand why there would even be paper files in this world, so that distracted me from what was going on in the scene.

This is a prologue that sets up what the antagonist is doing, so it's always good to ask: How important is it for readers to know this information before they start the novel? Do they need to know Sephtis is the one after the protagonist?

If this prologue is meant to hint at and circumvent what's actually going on (which the vagueness of the details here suggest that's possible), then there's a good chance the prologue will just confuse an annoy readers. There's not enough real information to let them know what's going on, and what they read won't make sense until they learn more about the story.

If that's the case, I'd suggest cutting the prologue. If not, and readers do need to know this information before they meet the protagonist, then perhaps be more clear about what that vital information is.

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

Overall, there's some nice imagery and interesting things here, but my instincts say you probably don't need a prologue. This feels like setup and teasing hints, not information that's going to change how readers read the first chapter (use your best judgment here, since I obviously don't know the whole story and only see this snippet). If there's a twist here, such as the mongrels are regular Earth humans, consider why it's being teased now and not something discovered later. Does this draw too much attention to something that would be a cool reveal? Basically, ask why is this prologue here? If it's a tease, you're probably better off cutting it. If it's vital information, keep and clarify it.

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. I agree with most of your thoughts, Janice. However, I went a different way with the ‘this is everything…” line. To me, that emphasized the drowning in useless detail with no pertinent info—which the whole “hills” of paperwork line brought to life for me. (I suppose it could be considered beating a dead horse, however.) And unlike you, I liked the implications of the “tightly rolled cigar.”

    To me, while the imagry is great, as an opening it didn’t satisfy me and I suspect your comments about whether it’s needed are the cause.

    Thanks to you and brave author!

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  2. Regarding modern vs. sci-fi, the "piled atop him like dirt on a coffin" line stuck out. Similes are a great way to throw in world-building in a natural way, and to characterize. Would that imagery really occur to Sephtis when looking at the folders?

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