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Saturday, July 22

Real Life Diagnostics: The Pitfalls of Starting with a Dream

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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 12.

This week’s questions (and a little more background than usual):

The story is a fantasy follows the lives of 2 women - Alyena (the ancestor) and Dena (in the present) who discover they can control dreams. I have started with Alyena, as to bring her in after would feel disjointed (though Dena is the pre-dominant character). Alyena is vital to the story - I have tried deleting her, or starting with Dena, but it doesn't work!

Originally the story started with Alyena and her family travelling, a lot further back in the story, but I have changed it to try to start with more action. Alyena wakes from this dream to find the caravan under attack and her Uncle killed at the reins to complete a short prologue. I can't start beyond the dream, as it is integral to the story later and the fight scene feeds into the dream as she is waking. I have changed the start several times (having a brooding feeling in the woods, starting with the attacker lying in wait), but none of it was right so I have come back to starting with just the dream.

I am aware that the first few lines are the hook. Is this beginning enough of a hook, or is it too placid? How important is it to start in the action? (should I go back to the original start where there is no fighting and try to find a hook there?). Also, the book is essentially about dreaming, but I am aware that agents aren't keen on the dream sequence start. Can I get away with it in this instance (bearing in mind the theme) or is that a reason to start elsewhere? (Chapter 2 begins with Dena dreaming as well).


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Alyena was dreaming. In some distant place, her caravan swayed, the smell of wood rising up from sun-warmed planks, mingling with the scent of lavender and drying herbs above her. Somewhere out of reach, the steady rhythm of hooves beat in time to the quiet clicking of her grandmother's knitting needles. Alyena tried to wake, hovering at the edge of the abyss, but the dream tugged at her. She slipped down into the darkness… to glide over a patchwork of fields and trees on a raptor’s silent wings. Below her a grey road snaked through the countryside. The world was silent.

Her skin tingled. Somewhere, the sound of knitting needles stilled.

She flew on, following the currents of air that crossed the sky in invisible paths, gliding downwards in lazy spirals. The bird she possessed homed in on something far below, its heart beat increasing as it gathered power and prepared to dive, its eyes fixed on the ground, wings folding...but Alyena had no time for the hunt. She drew her gaze higher instead, scanning the infinite countryside.

Fields stretched as far as she could see, interspersed with small coppices and hedgerows tangled into gnarled fortress walls. Structures punctuated the greenery, but the crumbling dry stone had long since lost its battle for dominance. A strange sense of wrongness pervaded. At first Alyena couldn’t grasp what it was. Time held its breath, waiting. The sun warmed feathered wings for a moment and everything was at peace.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Alyena was dreaming.] Although I like that you let readers know right away, this also tells me that probably nothing I’m about to read is real or matters to the plot In some distant place, her caravan swayed, the smell of wood rising up from sun-warmed planks, mingling with the scent of lavender and drying herbs above her. Somewhere out of reach, the steady rhythm of hooves beat in time to the quiet clicking of her grandmother's knitting needles. Alyena tried to wake, hovering at the edge of the abyss, but the dream tugged at her. She slipped down into the darkness… to glide over a patchwork of fields and trees on a raptor’s silent wings. Below her a grey road snaked through the countryside. The world was silent.

[Her skin tingled. Somewhere, the sound of knitting needles stilled.] I like the sense of apprehension here

She flew on, following the currents of air that crossed the sky in invisible paths, gliding downwards in lazy spirals. [The bird she possessed] so she’s in a bird or dreaming she’s is a bird? homed in on something far below, its heart beat increasing as it gathered power and prepared to dive, its eyes fixed on the ground, wings folding...but [Alyena had no time for the hunt.] This makes me feel like she’s doing something here on purpose and this isn’t “just” a dream, but that goal isn’t clear enough yet to draw me in She drew her gaze higher instead, scanning the infinite countryside.

Fields stretched as far as she could see, interspersed with small coppices and hedgerows tangled into gnarled fortress walls. Structures punctuated the greenery, but the crumbling dry stone had long since lost its battle for dominance. A strange sense of wrongness pervaded. At first Alyena couldn’t grasp what it was. Time held its breath, waiting. The sun warmed feathered wings for a moment and everything was at peace.

The questions:

1. I am aware that the first few lines are the hook. Is this beginning enough of a hook, or is it too placid?


The first few lines are a hook. You have several opportunities to hook in the opening scene, from the first line, the first page, to the first chapter. Typically, you get up to a few pages to grab a reader. Some might read more, others less, depending on how intrigued they were by the cover copy or query letter in the case of an agent or editor. So yes, those first few lines are important, but you also want to look at the entire scene as a whole.

For me, this opening page is too placid (readers chime in). I like the sense of setting, and there are some nice lines here and there that pique my interest, but knowing this is a dream in a prologue triggers all of my preconceived reader notions that this is all setup and I’m not to the real story yet (right or wrong as those notions may be). That said, had the cover copy hooked me, I’d read through this until I got to “the start of the story.”

And that’s the problem with both prologues and dreams—the reader knows they rarely matter to what’s going on more than as an informative setup. This novel in particular has a greater challenge than most, because the book is about dreaming. Ignoring that fact wouldn’t be true to the novel.

(Here’s more on hooking the reader in three easy steps)

2. How important is it to start in the action? (should I go back to the original start where there is no fighting and try to find a hook there?).

Critical, but action isn’t what most people think it is. Fighting is not action. A character in the middle of trying to accomplish something is action. Action is just “something in the process of happening” and that can be pretty much anything. As long as the character isn’t sitting around thinking or musing to themselves philosophically, it’s usually action.

They key to starting with action, is to have something going on that makes the reader curious to see how it turns out, or get the answer to the question that scene poses. Right now, there’s no question I have as a reader. Alyena is dreaming, so until she wakes up and does something, this dream doesn’t matter to me, because dreams carry no weight unless readers are told otherwise.

I think the challenge here is to find an opening that intrigues the reader and still establishes that it’s about dreaming. At one point, there was a line that suggested Alyena had a goal of some type—she didn’t have time to dive for prey. This made me wonder if this dream was more than a dream. Her “possessing” the bird versus just dreaming she was a bird also gave that impression. If she has control over her dreams and is dreaming for a purpose, that changes the nature of this scene. It shifts from background to a character with a goal, and goals drive scenes. This offers me as a reader something to wonder about and an answer I want to know. I don’t know if this is true for the story or not, but it would be one way to make what’s going on more than just a dream.

(Here’s more on why “start with the action” messes up so many writers)

3. The book is essentially about dreaming, but I am aware that agents aren't keen on the dream sequence start. Can I get away with it in this instance (bearing in mind the theme) or is that a reason to start elsewhere? (Chapter 2 begins with Dena dreaming as well).

The reason they aren't is that dreams typically don’t matter to the story, they dump unnecessary backstory, or they mean something only after you’ve already read the story. It’s hard to do a dream opening well. But any agent who asks for this manuscript is going to know it’s about dreaming, so that works in your favor. They can’t really fault you for opening with a dream if the book is all about dreams.

However…I doubt the book is only about dreams. The dreams likely play a role in the greater conflict, and that’s what the plot actually follows. So what is that conflict? What is the problem of this novel that is resolved through the use of the dreams? That’s what you might want to focus on. It’s not the dreams, it’s how the protagonist uses the dreams to resolve the conflict.

I’d suggest taking a step back and thinking about what the book is about. If Dena is the main character, starting somewhere else could be jarring to readers, as they’d expect the first person they see to be the protagonist (unless this is made clear on the cover copy, of course). What is the problem she faces in the beginning of the story?

Starting with two dreams in a row is an extra challenge, but if those dreams are clearly connected and they do more than just show “dreams” without any real meaning or forward story drive, you could make it work. It’ll likely be difficult, because you’ll have to make readers care about whatever these women are dreaming about and why. I think if readers understand there’s more than just dreams going on, and can see the larger issues and problems, it could be enough to pique their interest.

But if the dreams are basically snippets of the past that show random events without context, you’ll likely lose readers. They won’t care or have any reason to care about the dreams because the dreams won’t matter. They’ll be backstory, not part of the plot or any questions they want to see answered.

Basically, even in a dream, the scene still needs to do everything a good opening scene does. That would turn it from infodump dream to action sequence.

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

Overall, if you can find a way to make the dreams relevant to the scene’s conflict or problem in a way that anyone reading the book for the first time will understand (you know the story, so you see more than anyone else would), it could work. The dreams will be more than just infodumps. They’ll be a means to solve a problem or accomplish a task. They might even be the obstacle of a goal, if the dreams are affecting Alyena or Dena and making it harder for them to do whatever they need to do in their scenes. As long as they do more than just set the scene or provide setup.

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.

7 comments:

  1. Like Janice said, the story probably isn't "about dreams." I expect it's about the bandits and the other adventures the two women have, and everything they go through learning to use dreams as a tool for that.

    One way to get away from the sense that it's "just-a-dream" might be to not start *in* a dream but with characters talking about dreams and wondering ominously/hopefully if they could be partly real. It could be some key knowledge they have "from a dream," or a fear they're being attacked in dreams, or about how to improve their dream-control, or a dozen other ways. That might be a stronger first impression than the dream itself: readers expect dreams not to matter, but that also makes us curious about the right tease that maybe they do after all. You already have a little of this by opening with her knowing she was dreaming, so you're trying to confront the issue.

    You might look at some of the things horror writers have written. Not because you need to use their tone or any of their genre's rules, but to see how many ways there are to hint to a reader and build interest in something the reader can't understand yet. You do really have good description here, so you might get a lot of use out of thinking of different narrative twists to apply it to.

    Part of this might be deciding when not to put events in regular sequence. You take your time building mood here before the attack starts, but that means your description has to do all the work of keeping the reader hooked. Think about how many ways writers have condensed and rearranged pieces of a story:
    We rode through the wood... the bandits attacked.
    Or, The bandits attacked (and I knew the wood wasn't safe).
    Or, The bandits had taken everything (I can't stop seeing their leader's sneer).

    Or a thousand other combinations about why she's in the bandits' path and what happens after it, and everything besides bandits. Especially, I'd be careful with starting with the fight itself: Janice's "don't start with the action" piece was the one that taught me how that makes a first impression too crowded with dodging for survival to show us *who* is dodging and the specific reasons to care that they survive. You start with buildup to the bandits, but are you sure that's the best element of your story to highlight first, or the best order to go through it in? Any scene can use some thought about this, but a first chapter (or prologue-chapter combination) wants to be the best it can.

    Dreams are an incredibly subtle, promising subject for a story. If you use a fraction of the ways they can get under our skin, and keep bringing the scope and the descriptive power in this sample, this looks like a doozie.

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    1. Thank you so much! Your suggestion for starting with the characters talking about the dream was where I started originally, but I wasn't sure it was 'active' enough...now I will go back and have another look at it. Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such positive and constructive feedback!

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  2. I agree with Janice's main point-- that the difficulty with dreams is that we readers believe their content doesn't matter to the story. They may reveal something about a character, but until we care about that character, we won't care much about her dreams. I'd like to know from the beginning what Alyena wants. You have a line early on that intrigued me: "Alyena tried to wake, hovering at the edge of the abyss, but the dream tugged at her." I wanted to know if she was a lucid dreamer, and if so, why she wanted to wake up. What's going on in the outside world? Does she need to attend to something or is she trying to wake from the dream for a different reason? The content of the dream doesn't matter to me so much at this point, unless dream content somehow bleeds into the real world.

    It sounds like this story is going to involve some fascinating world building. I love the premise! Best of luck.

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    1. Really good points - thank you so much!

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  3. This is just a thought, but perhaps you can makethe "dream" action simply by starting with:

    Aleyna entered the dream world. In the now, her caravan swayed, the smell of wood rising up from sun-warmed planks, mingling with the scent of lavender and drying herbs above her...


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  4. I think Ollamha is on to something... I like the premise, and a lot of the opening works - clarifying that this dream IS important to the story would probably be enough to reel me in, if I was looking at this in the store.

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  5. Thank you so much for the critique and everyone that took the time to comment. It has all been really helpful and useful! I have felt really stuck with this, knowing something wasn't quite right, but not knowing why or how to fix it. Now I have ideas and plenty of food for thought that has inspired me to look at it with fresh eyes! Thank you so much!

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