Saturday, December 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Short 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 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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Should my story even have a prologue? Is this an effective enticement for a reader?

2. If so, what would a reader expect from the story it introduces (aside from a sweater element)?

3. Is the prose too pretty? Does it detract from the substance? (The novel’s narration is pretty at times—and funny—but it’s altogether less compressed.)


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

My father was a knitter of sweaters. One of my earliest memories is of holding the skeins of yarn while he wound balls out of them, like a long static game of cat’s cradle I would’ve found boring if anyone else asked me to perform the task. Because, for us, knitting was a sort of spiritual connection. I’d forgotten that during the decades I didn’t knit. I remember the otherworldly look that would take possession of my father’s face when he knitted, an expression he wore at no other time in my experience. He remarked upon the same kind of transformation in me, which is how, he said, he knew I was a true knitter. I’m sure dad’s concentration or meditative state—whatever you’d call the phenomenon—is what made him such a master knitter, his sweaters far transcending mere craftsmanship, elevating his products to pure, if practical, art forms.

Not many of my father’s artworks survived to the present day, sad to say. No matter how precious, sweaters are vulnerable creations, especially those that outlive their creators. A casual sweater is easily left behind, depending on the temperature and what distracts the wearer as she’s collecting her things to go. So sweaters are a frequently lost item. Heirloom sweaters can even skip a generation like other relics, forgotten by living family members in a dust-covered attic trunk. However, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a long-lost sweater just when you need it the most.

Because life’s a crapshoot, you never can tell what will happen. A sweater just might change your whole life. This is the story of how my discovery of a sweater altered not only the course of my life, but also my entire past.

My Thoughts in Purple:

My father was a knitter of sweaters. One of my earliest memories is of holding the skeins of yarn while he wound balls out of them, like a long static game of cat’s cradle I would’ve found boring if anyone else asked me to perform the task. [Because,] could cut to tighten for us, knitting was a [sort of] could cut to strengthen spiritual connection. I’d forgotten that during the decades I didn’t knit. I remember the otherworldly look that would take possession of my father’s face when he knitted, an expression he wore at no other time in my experience. He remarked upon the same kind of transformation in me, which is how, he said, he knew I was a true knitter. I’m sure dad’s concentration or meditative state—whatever you’d call the phenomenon—is what made him such a master knitter, his sweaters far transcending mere craftsmanship, elevating his products to pure, if practical, art forms.

Not many of my father’s artworks survived to the present day, sad to say. No matter how precious, sweaters are vulnerable creations, especially those that outlive their creators. A casual sweater is easily left behind, depending on the temperature and what distracts the wearer as she’s collecting her things to go. [So sweaters are a frequently lost item.] don’t need, as this is clear from the examples Heirloom sweaters can even skip a generation like other relics, forgotten by living family members in a dust-covered attic trunk. However, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a long-lost sweater just when you need it the most.

Because life’s a crapshoot, you never can tell what will happen. A sweater just might change your whole life. [This is the story of how my discovery of a sweater altered not only the course of my life, but also my entire past.] don’t need, as we're likely about to see all this happen

The questions:

Note: The submitter sent all 1500 words of this prologue, but I pulled out the small section I felt answered her questions best and pointed her in the right direction.

1. Should my story even have a prologue? Is this an effective enticement for a reader?

This is tough call without knowing more about the book, but in general, no, most stories do not need a prologue. Prologues typically don’t start with the right elements for a strong opening (something interesting going onto draw readers in), and spend more time explaining how the story we’re about to read came to be.

Your full original prologue did not feel necessary, but these three paragraphs near the end caught my attention. I like how the narrator is reminiscing about her father and the knitting, comparing sweaters almost to people. Since a sweater changes her life, jumping off with this memory and reflection feels like it could be an interesting metaphoric introduction to her current problem.

It gives us a sense of who she is, what she values, shows her voice, and the melancholy nature of it feels like someone remembering something that will help them face something they’re currently struggling with. Whatever is going on in her life has made her think about this moment and the knitting life of her father, and that carries weight for her at this moment in time. It’s a quiet hook, but I find it compelling (readers chime in here). I’d like to know what’s going on in her life that makes her think about this.

I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I think it’s worth tweaking to see if there’s a way to start your story with these paragraphs and skip the prologue.

(Here’s more on determining whether to keep or kill a prologue)

2. If so, what would a reader expect from the story it introduces (aside from a sweater element)?

I read this as a metaphor for her life (readers especially chime in here, since everyone takes away something different). Knitting suggests drawing things together or repairing, and since she did it with her father, a familiar bind as well. I’d guess her life is about to come unraveled, like a sweater with a loose thread. Since she mentions her past, I’d guess that what she thought or believed growing up isn’t the truth and this changes how she sees herself and the world.

Not knowing the genre, I’d guess that this is a literary novel that tells the story of a woman who’s life falls apart, and she has to unravel the truth of her path to knit together her future and be happy. I have no idea of any details that might have, but based solely on this snippet, it has that feel for me.

If this is totally off base, that’s a good indication this isn’t a good start to your novel (grin). If I’m on target, then this smaller snippet is working well.

(Here’s more on reader expectations)

3. Is the prose too pretty? Does it detract from the substance? (The novel’s narration is pretty at times—and funny—but it’s altogether less compressed.)

It’s more literary for my personal taste, but I think it works for the narrator and fits the reflective, character-journey hints of the coming story. I didn’t see anything that was overwritten or trying too hard to “be fancy.”

(Here’s more on writing purple prose)

Overall, I think the full prologue is too much and focuses on things readers aren’t likely to care about (sweaters). But sweaters as a metaphor for the narrator’s life work well, and a smaller bit is just enough to create a nice introductory mood.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. I'm with Janice, prologues are usually a slow, unsatisfying way to make that beyond-critical opening. Not always, and literary works might be the one place where this approach is still expected, but it ought to be a hard-thought decision.

    If this is still the right tone for your opening, you might reduce it to one paragraph (and start or end it with that hook of "this is the story of how a sweater...") and then go straight into the scene where the crucial first change happens.

    Also, you could use your other sweater-musings at other moments between the story, once it's begun.
    * The narrator might stop to think about them at slow moments at the start of a new scene. (Mostly at those points, when you're free to ease into the scene the way you want.)
    * You could make mini-scenes of a paragraph or two where you explored knitting metaphors in places where they'd contrast well with what had just happened or is about to. If they're limited size and separated by a line of asterisks from the events, you'd make it clear they were for ongoing contrast with the story.
    * You could use knitting thoughts as opening quotes for your chapters. If the narrator keeps a diary, or writes a blog or a book about knitting (or admires someone else's), these would be easy to explain as excerpts from those.
    * Shorter form of the above: you could use knitting metaphors as chapter titles.

    If sweaters, knitting, and related memories are that important a part of your story, you could look for ways like that to work them through it but keep them contrasted with the storyline.

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  2. 1. This is definitely literary. Literary lets you get away with many things, so a prologue is ok. Especially when you have a voice, a nice one. Not many people can make an activity like knitting sound interesting, but you managed to do it, congrats for that.
    2. I expect a literary novel. So, a lot of flashbacks and internalization.
    3. It is pretty, and funny, but that's very good. I wouldn't change a thing, not even those Janice pointed. It's your voice, and it's fine.

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  3. Yeah, I'd call this literary. I can't comment on the rest of what constituted the prologue, but I loved the voice in the three paragraphs Janice shared. Those three paragraphs could serve as a one-page chapter one or the first scene in chapter one. There's so much heart there I'd be pulled in. I WAS pulled in. So often those who share here are struggling to find their writing voice. For these three paragraphs, at least, you've found yours. You might change the last sentence, abandoning the "This the story..." for a similar line that doesn't use those words, but instead hints at where you're going. "One sweater altered the course of my life..." In your voice, of course. Well done!

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