Saturday, November 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Would This Prologue Make You Read On?

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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

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This week’s question:

This is my prologue for an online serial http://burtabreu.wordpress.com I notice in the site stats that a large amount of people (of the small amount reading) only read as far as the prologue so I would like a review to see what might be lacking to help me better hook the readers. 


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Thunder boomed through the hull as the ship struggled up the wave, its prow canted sharply skyward. Dark clouds, flickering with unseen lightning, pressed heavily on the sea and sleet rattled against the decks in a steady torrent of sound. The vessel shuddered and groaned as chunks of ice split against the wedge-shaped bow sending water and glass-like shards flying down the length of the ship.

Despite the violence of the storm, the white wood of the enormous ship was largely unmarked, save for some slowly healing gouges climbing the forward face of the ship. A large horn, with metal caps on bell and mouthpiece, was mounted horizontally about halfway between the bow and stern. A few steps behind it an oilskin wrapped shape began to move.

The glaze ice coating the water-proof cloth cracked and was quickly whipped away by the storm as the old man nestled within shifted in his seat. He observed the furious effects of the Felwind and sensed the Wanderer’s passage above the clouds at the nexus of the storm. His thoughts churned like the sea, full of the passage of years and the uncertain path laid before him. I was called and set apart against these very days, yet the years passed and I hoped they would not come. He considered the twin cargoes of despair and hope riding in the bowels of the ship, and reluctantly turned his head to gaze at the huge malformed tentacle pinned to the deck by Natan’s spear.

So much suffering and death… he sighed, the heart-weary sigh of one with an impossible burden, and pulled the coverings tighter. At least I can prepare them. And with that he settled into the dark, assaulted by wind and ice and savage seas, just another flickering shadow on the racing ship.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Thunder boomed through the hull as the ship struggled up the wave, its prow canted sharply skyward. Dark clouds, flickering with unseen lightning, pressed heavily on the sea and sleet rattled against the decks in a steady torrent of sound. The vessel shuddered and groaned as chunks of ice split against the wedge-shaped bow sending water and glass-like shards flying down the length of the ship. Since this first paragraph is all description, you might consider adding thoughts or dialogue from a person next to draw readers into a character and something going on

Despite the violence of the storm, the white wood of the enormous ship was largely unmarked, save for some slowly healing gouges climbing the forward face of the ship. A large horn, with metal caps on bell and mouthpiece, was mounted horizontally about halfway between the bow and stern. There’s really no new information here about the story, just more description, so the pace is dragging [A few steps behind it an oilskin wrapped shape began to move.] This detail is interesting, but it’s getting a little lost in all the description

The glaze ice coating the water-proof cloth cracked and was quickly whipped away by the storm as [the old man nestled within shifted in his seat.] So this is what moved? It seemed more ominous, so this feels like a let down [He observed the furious effects of the Felwind and sensed the Wanderer’s passage above the clouds at the nexus of the storm.] Feels detached, so even though there’s a character now, I don’t feel any connection to him His thoughts churned like the sea, full of the passage of years and the uncertain path laid before him. [I was called and set apart against these very days, yet the years passed and I hoped they would not come.] I feel like this ought to carry weight, but it’s coming across as a “vague foreshadow of doom” thought that tells me nothing about the story to come [He considered the twin cargoes of despair and hope] but how? What is he thinking about? riding in the bowels of the ship, and reluctantly turned his head to gaze at the [huge malformed tentacle] Does this mean the ship had been attacked? It’s a neat detail, but there’s not enough context for me to know what it means pinned to the deck by Natan’s spear.

So much suffering and death… he sighed, the heart-weary sigh of one with an impossible burden, and pulled the coverings tighter. [At least I can prepare them.] Is he talking about the pair in the hold? And with that he settled into the dark, assaulted by wind and ice and savage seas, just another flickering shadow on the racing ship.

The question:

1. What might be lacking to help me better hook the readers?


Right now, this has many common prologue issues. It’s more description and mood than story, it doesn’t offer a character with a problem, and it’s too vague to understand what’s going on or why it matters. It’s a scene that tells readers nothing about the story or what they’re about to read. It also doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the opening chapter that (I assume, by my quick peek at the link) shows the protagonist.

The opening chapter of this book follows a different character in a different location, so I wonder if you need the prologue at all. What does this prologue gain you? Why is it critical for readers to see this moment of the story? Would this information work better if the protagonist learned of it later when the information was relevant to the plot?

(Here’s more on diagnosing if you need a prologue or not)

One reason why so many people advise against prologues, is that they often mean something only to the person who wrote it, or to those who’ve already read the book. The goal is to setup a mystery, but the prologue doesn’t actually offer enough details to hook readers and make them curious about that mystery. In the rare cases where they do, the mystery is often immediately dropped as the story picks up in the first chapter with other characters. Essentially, the story starts over and has to re-hook the reader.

This prologue has that feel. I suspect the story will actually focus on the first chapter character, and the ship and the twins will enter his life in some way shortly. Maybe it’s a shipwreck, maybe it’s a bit of wreckage, or maybe it’s a story of something that happened years ago. I’ve no way of knowing, because the prologue doesn’t set the scene enough to know how it connects to the next chapter. Is it the same day or a thousand years before? There’s no way to know yet.

The prologue could also potentially steal some of the story’s tension. If the protagonist is going to encounter the ship and/or the twins, and readers already know a little about them, that offers one less mystery for them to unravel.

To hook readers, I’d actually advise dropping the prologue and adding a cover copy page to your serial instead. I think providing a blurb and tease what the novel is about will help readers understand what they’re about to read and provide some context for the story. As is, the prologue comes across as a dark, distant, and moody tale of an old sailor facing a dire event, but the opening chapter is a boy helping his father. The tone feels very different. I also don’t know who this novel is aimed at—teens or adults.

If you feel the prologue needs to stay, I’d suggest finding a way to let it establish the mystery of the plot a little better. How might you tie it into the protagonist so the connection is clear? Perhaps the old man can share more of his thoughts about the twins and where they’re going, or a slightly larger sense of the overall problem could be hinted at. You don’t need to give the plot away, but a sense that there’s a specific problem with stakes that someone is going to have to deal with is enough. Show a character acting in some way to solve a problem, even if it’s just the old man trying to weather the storm and protect his cargo.

Be wary of vague generic statements, though. Fantasy is full of portents and omens and “dark things coming,” so none of these details mean anything to readers anymore. It’s a scene they’ve seen hundreds of times before, which is why they skip these types of prologues so often. They know the prologue doesn’t matter and the story actually starts with chapter one. So either make the prologue matter by showing information they need (and are intrigued by) or cut it so you can get right to the story and hook them there.

Whichever way you choose, remember that an opening scene (be in chapter one or a prologue) has to accomplish several things to hook a reader. 1. Offer them a compelling character, with a compelling problem, and a mystery to solve with questions that need answers. 2. Offer an amazing narrative voice with a compelling character that makes them want to hang out with this person even if nothing is actually happening yet.

(Here’s more on crafting a strong opening scene)

Overall, I’d recommend cutting the prologue and starting with the story and see how it goes. You already know it’s not drawing readers in, and dropping it is the easiest fix. If the low numbers continue, you can look for other culprits.

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.

24 comments:

  1. Hi Janice,

    Thank you very much! This is useful information and the comments illuminated bits I didn't even consider problems.


    I'll rework the prologue based on your feedback, and consider ditching it all together if it doesn't shape up.

    I won't say I 'decided' to use the prologue for a reason - as a pantser it just sort of 'came out' - but the book starts slow and the old man's ship doesn't appear in the harbor until a few chapters later. My thought, after-the-fact (of writing it), is that it let people know that something big is coming.

    In any case I take your points. It gives me some specific to attack and I can't wait for a bit of writing time. :)

    All the best.

    Burt

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  2. I thinking totally opposite of Jan. I was intrigued by your prologue. I would explain the person giving the thoughts a little more. I think you need to change this sentence so it reads better: "A large horn, with metal caps on bell and mouthpiece, was mounted horizontally about halfway between the bow and stern."

    I have read that some prologues are from the POV that's different than what is most prevalent in the story so the reader feels as if s/he's looking in on the story (like looking through a doorway) before stepping in to it.

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    1. I've taken it offline for now. Based on stats many people never got past that page. I'll continue to work on it to see if I can get it to fit. I have done some rewrites and have edited out some of the more cumbersome bits including refining the bit you mentioned. Thanks very much Glynis.

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  3. First, was it thunder, as in thunder and lightning, or thunderous sounds echoing through the ship from the pounding of the waves? Second, unseen lightning is unseen, not flickering. Torrent of sound, in the context of your story, is redundant. Just say torrent. In the first line, instead of "the ship", insert the ship's name. Give the reader something to get his brain around other than a white ship battling the sea and the storm - which are actually one and the same thing here.
    BTW, there is no nautical term: prow. The pointy end of a ship is the bow.
    The description of some kind of horn is confusing. Like is it the only thing on the deck or is it atop a cabin or wheelhouse? How big? A foghorn? Why not introduce it by having the man blow it for whatever reason, rather than simply state its presence?
    Seems like this may be science fiction. Felwind? A Wanderer above the clouds? You should tip off your reader in the first sentence or two that we're in a make-believe world.
    Your second paragraph is unnecessary (except for the suggestion of something alive). Just more sea and sky that adds nothing.
    In sum, I agree with Janice: prologues are often skipped over. Follow the advice that newbie authors have been told for decades -- Start your book with the beginning of the story. Backstory doesn't belong in a prologue. Weave it in later!

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    1. Thanks for your comments John. I doing some rewrites and you pointed out a lot of problems I can fix.

      The story will be cross genre I guess a typical fantasy setting in many ways but a scifi enemy will be introduced as the big world shaking event later. I wanted to start to hint at these elements here so when I do reveal it later it sort of makes sense.

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  4. When I edit a book with a prologue, my first question to the author is: Is there no way this material can be included within the body of the book?

    I agree with and appreciate all the points Janice brought forward here and urge this author to follow her leads.

    It can be tough to let go of these explanatory bits that tend to make up a poor prologue; however, as you search for the appropriate spot to incorporate them into the story you may discover that they already exist.

    If you have a bold character in a bold situation that is essential to the story, but cannot be incorporated, you may have a workable prologue. Check out the links Janice provided to sleuth out such potential.

    I don't agree that it's a problem to hook the reader twice. Personally, I don't mind reading a good prologue and don't feel tricked or let down, as I know it's a prologue. My expectations are appropriate, knowing that the story will begin in earnest with chapter 1. A good prologue can whet my reading appetite and urge me forward into the book.

    Obviously, if I enjoy the bold confrontations possible in a god prologue, I will be bored by a prologue filled with overly descriptive passages and vague characters -- or material that does nothing to propel me into chapter 1.

    In the end, Janice's first question is what needs to drive you: What do you gain?

    Thanks to the author for being willing to go on the block.

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    1. Thanks for your points Maria. The way the story is structured so far, I think I need the prologue but I am doing some rewriting and soul searching. As I worked through the comments I realized that there was another problem - the prologue hints at big events but when it actually arrives in the harbor the revealing of those events is slow so it lets the air out of the balloon. I'm mulling it over now, and started working on a timeline of sorts in Excel now that I have a big picture idea of where the story is heading.

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    2. Foreshadowing is good, but it can also lead to an "anticlimax." Be careful how you do it. Also, if your book is a slow burn, make sure you hook readers not only with the opening line, but also with the end of each chapter. Cliff-hanger chapter endings keep the pages turning and readers up all night, which is exactly what you want ;)

      Make sure you're also not "filling" the chapters with unnecessary info. When authors tell me their books are slow to start, alarm bells ring. Think about bringing the action forward. Is there any reason it "needs" to start where it's starting? Or is this just something you've written in the spur of the moment?
      There is nothing wrong with pantsing or a third person omniscient style, you just need to keep the reader engaged as they are more distant from the story with this style or "voice."
      Read more books that start with prologues and see whether you think they should be in there or whether the story needs them altogether.

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    3. Thanks anon. Great tips and information. The diagnostics by Janice and follow-up comments have been immensely helpful and enlightening.

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  5. sigh....and no, it isn't a 'god' prologue... I blame the puppy gnawing on my elbow.

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    1. Haha... ok. I was thinking 'here's another mysterious term I have to look up.' I'm glad I didn't run with it and beginning using it 'Well in my god prologue..." ;)

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  6. My gut reaction is...one better like and/or know something about ships and sailing to keep reading. Moby Dick revisited? As Janice mentions, too much description (especially about "boat" terms I'm not familiar with) and not giving enough hint of the conflict. I would not continue reading this as a serial if this were the opener. Sorry.

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    1. Thanks anon. I really appreciate knowing this.

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  7. I agree with all the above... especially the extended descriptions & unfamiliar terms. (I'm guilty of a lot of descriptions myself.) After the first paragraph, I'd probably start skipping, then eventually go straight to chapter 1. If that was more of the same, I'd probably put the book back. But the implications seem intriguing because I'd wonder what happened that brought the story to this point?
    Gale

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    1. I'm back 'cause I had to look up a name I forgot. A good example of a prologue... at least in a movie is "Miss Congeniality". It showed something that happened to a little girl that affected the way she is now & made for what I thought was a good story. And what's with that speared tentacle on your ship? Other good hints are in your prologue but hidden in all that description. Those are my 2 cents.
      Gale

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    2. Thanks anon2. I really appreciate it. My first version I used the word 'scrimshaw' to describe the carvings on the horn, and after explaining it to several people someone said "why not just say carving?" I think I like words too much and will need to review with that in mind.

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    3. Thanks anon1. I really appreciate the food for thought and example. New versions have trimmed the verbiage a bit but there is a lot more than that to think of based on the review and comments everyone provided. Much appreciated.

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    4. The reason's prologues work in film is because the movie is visual. The action is taking place in front of the viewers eyes and there is also no title that say's "Prologue", so most people would assume this is the start of the movie.
      For some reason it doesn't translate that well into written form, which is why prologues are frowned upon and considered amateur.

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    5. reason* sorry lol

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    6. Thanks anon. Feedback appreciated.

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  8. Nicely written overall, but obviously not doing its job, so I would trash it. However, if you intend to keep the prologue, can you make it more personal? Let the storm serve a dual purpose and tell us something about the old man a swell as set the scene and mood. Ice shards flying past the old man, not just along the deck. His hand running along the gouges, giving me a sense of familiarity or rumination, not just an omniscient detail. Lightning flickers over his head, which mirrors his thoughts or shows me he is unaffected or whatever. Then I start to care about this old man and his cargo and his mission. Also an alarming number of adjectives and adverbs in so short a passage. Thank-you for presenting your work. Brave of you

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  9. Thanks Joanne. I appreciate the suggestions, especially about the old man. One of the things I am considering is trying other POV's - here and throughout the book. I guess I grew up reading a lot of omniscient POV books, and my writing is just growing out of my reading experience right now. I have a lot to learn and to try. Thanks again.

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  10. It depends on the book, but it also depends on the reader. For people that love descriptive world building, this would hook them in. For others (like myself), we tend to get bogged-down with flowery, word-weighty paragraphs, so are quickly turned off.
    I believe prologues and backstory are best threaded through your story in more active forms - for example; dialogue or reminiscing -- reminiscing in small, well-done scenes without too much filtering.
    Another issue of prologue is they are often "filtering" the story, as they tend to be written third person, omniscient, which leads to "distance."
    This is how your prologue felt.
    Your prologue had a lot of action in it, so if you must keep it, I would ditch some of the over wordy description and close the distance between narrator and reader, for example; third person, present or past tense, focusing on the character.
    I myself am a pantser, and started my own WIP with a prologue, which was first person, present tense (coming from my protag's past) to match the voice in the story. I ended up ditching it as a prologue and had it open my first chapter.
    Why?
    Because a prologue is a false hook, even if it relates directly to the plot. Some readers wont even read your book, story, blog, ect, if it contains a prologue. So as much as you love it, feel you need it, cant live without it, what you really want is you readers to read your story -- your whole story -- without feeling jipped that they invested ten/twenty minutes of there time reading a prologue that doesn't relate to one piece of writing until two thirds into the book.

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  11. Thanks anon. I appreciate your comments and observations. Word diet is being enforced offline while I tinker with it. Prologue has been benched for now but I will be useful for me to experiment with it and test the other suggestions as an exercise if nothing else. I may post a refined 'best effort' here again at some point.

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