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Saturday, March 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This 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 we 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: Four


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 28.

This week’s questions:

I'm taking the plunge and sending you the first page of my Prologue for your critique. With respect to our previous correspondence regarding Prologues, I fear that maybe all your red flag warnings apply. However, because of the 26-year time lapse, I don't see how I can bring this into the main body of the novel without interrupting with extensive back-story and flashbacks. So, my questions (based on your four Prologue triggers) would be:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Would you continue reading?

3. Would you stay with the story if you knew this narrator is not the main POV character but nevertheless an important character who helps drive the plot?

4. Would you invest your time and energy reading a prologue knowing the actual story takes place 26 years and a generation later?

5. What, if any, are your expectations from this opening?


Market/Genre: Mainstream fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Twice during my life, I caused the death of someone I loved. The first happened twenty-six years ago, in the fall of 1948.

The day coincided, I remember, with the arrival of a massive flock of migrating white storks. In their hundreds of thousands, these magnificent creatures soared above me in a ballet of grace, style and beauty. With legs stretched out like arrows from a hunter’s bow, with wide black-tipped wings dipping and swaying, they drifted and circled and crisscrossed the stark blue sky with that rhythm and harmony so intrinsic to nature. Every October, I watch them gather over the Beth Shean Valley on their seasonal flight from the heartland of Europe to the plains of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a sight which enchants and excites me to the core.

But I digress.

Much as I thrill to the sight of these graceful birds, much as they warm my heart and stir my soul, I had no time to waste, no time stand and dream. Tu B’Shvat, the Year of New Trees, had long since passed but I still had many more holes to dig, many more date trees to plant and in general, do what I emigrated to Palestine for—to work the land and make the desert bloom.

When at long last the sun dropped behind Mount Gilboa and the workday drew to a close, I gather up my tools and stumble to the waiting tractor. My muscles ache, my head throbs and my palms bleed with fresh new blisters. But worst of all are the crippling cramps I recognize as the early signs of another miscarriage.

My Thoughts in Purple:


Twice during my life, I caused the death of someone I loved. The first happened twenty-six years ago, in the fall of 1948. This is an intriguing opening line and does draw me in. It also makes me think the story is going to be about, or related to, the second death.

The day coincided, [I remember,] This paired with the opening makes this feel more like a retrospective framing technique than an actual prologue with the arrival of a massive flock of migrating white storks. In their hundreds of thousands, these magnificent creatures [soared] since she’s describing a memory, this should probably be “had soared” above me in a ballet of grace, style and beauty. With legs stretched out like arrows from a hunter’s bow, with wide black-tipped wings dipping and swaying, [they] they had drifted and circled and crisscrossed the stark blue sky with that rhythm and harmony so intrinsic to nature. Every October, [I watch] I’d watch them gather over the Beth Shean Valley on their seasonal flight from the heartland of Europe to the plains of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a sight which [enchants and excites] this is present tense, which feels off, unless she’s talking about it still exciting her even now. Perhaps changes to “still enchants and excites” or "always enchanted..." me to the core.

[But I digress.] This brings us back to present day (at least, as far as we know), so I assume she’s either going to talk about present day stuff or continue with her story.

Much as [I thrill] since this is present tense again, I assume this is present day and not the memory of the first death. So I’m a little uncertain about what the chronology is. If this is still the past, use past tense to the sight of these graceful birds, much as they [warm my heart and stir] use past tense my soul, I had no time to waste, no time stand and dream. Tu B’Shvat, the Year of New Trees, had long since passed but I still had many more holes to dig, many more date trees to plant and in general, do what I emigrated to Palestine for—to work the land and make the desert bloom. I suspect this is all in the past, and we’ve shifted back in time now. But the transition to get here is a little shaky and unclear

When at long last the sun dropped behind Mount Gilboa and the workday drew to a close, I [gather] gathered up my tools and [stumble] stumbled to the waiting tractor. My muscles [ache] ached, my head [throbs] throbbed and my palms [bleed] bled with fresh new blisters. But worst of all [are] were the crippling cramps I [recognize] recognized as the early signs of another miscarriage.

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?

Yes (readers chime in). It poses an intriguing mystery right off the bat with two deaths of loved ones, and establishes the narrator in a dangerous place loaded with inherent conflict (Palestine, 1948). There’s personal trauma as well, with “another” miscarriage, that suggest a lot of turmoil in this person’s life. It’s a quiet opening, but it’s packed full of story questions and potential problems.

What does throw me a bit, is the tense shifting, because it makes it hard for me to know when I am. It starts retrospectively, so I assume “present day” for this story is 1974, and we’re reminiscing on a memory from 1948. Then is starts using present tense, which triggers to me as a reader that we’re back in 1974 and “present day,” except I don’t think we are. Using past tense while still in 1948 would fix that, though you might consider a slightly stronger transition to make it clear the story has shifted to 1948 and plans to stay there a while (I’m assuming, otherwise why start here?).

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

2. Would you continue reading?

I would. The “caused two deaths” hook has me curious, and I can see things are going to happen with her miscarriage. She’s also a likable character so far. Despite causing folks to die, she’s in a dangerous place while pregnant, trying to bring life to a desert.

3. Would you stay with the story if you knew this narrator is not the main POV character but nevertheless an important character who helps drive the plot?

This is tough to answer, because I don’t know the whole setup. Since it’s first person, it starts off with an intimate narrator for me to bond with, and the “I” means I don’t have a name to go with it. So it might not be clear to me from the start that this isn’t my protagonist. Everything about it says “this is your protagonist.”

If the cover copy clearly shows that my narrator is someone else, I’m likely going to wonder why I need to start here in this fashion. If I connect with and emotionally invest in this character, I might be reluctant to start all over with a new person. They’re going to have to have a stronger hook and story that what’s here, otherwise I’m very likely going to feel like I just started a different, less interesting story and feel abandoned as a reader for this story.

But anything can work if done well, and readers might not have any trouble transitioning if they feel a strong connection to the next generation and see that connection.

I would, however, suggest making this third person instead of first if your actual protagonist is someone else and this character exist in the book during. I think the shift from intimate narrator to non-POV character will be quite jarring to readers and make it harder for them to make the character switch.

(Here’s more on keeping or killing your prologue)

4. Would you invest your time and energy reading a prologue knowing the actual story takes place 26 years and a generation later?

If it hooked me, and I found it interesting to read, yes. If it didn’t, and I knew it didn’t really matter to the rest of the story, no (readers chime in here).

However, I don’t feel this is a prologue. It’s retrospective, so it feels more like a framing device to tell a story about the past. This is someone telling a story after the fact, looking back at her life and remembering key moments in it. A prologue shows events from the past as if readers were there.

If this character is not the protagonist or narrator for the rest of the book, I’d suggest not using the framing device, but actually make it a true prologue. Right now, I expect this to be my protagonist and the story to be about her life, but I know that’s not where it’s going. If this was third person and written as a scene from the past, then I’d know it was outside the regular narrative.

(Here’s more on making prologues work for you)

5. What, if any, are your expectations from this opening?

I’d expect this to be my protagonist and for the story to start with her in Palestine in 1948 and move to the present day. It’s going to be about those two deaths, and how they’re connected or have affected her life and life choices. It feels literary or general fiction to me, with more focus on the personal character journey than a plot puzzle to solve.

Overall, I think you feel very strongly that this story needs a prologue and needs this information to open it. If that’s what your instincts are telling you, then trust them. You know your story best, and you can always cut it if it turns out beta readers and agents/editors don’t feel it’s needed later. Your actual narrator will have to start his or her own story fresh either way, with all the things a good beginning needs to have. Whether it’s chapter one or not, it’s the start of that story, so it’ll be an “opening” regardless.

I would suggest shifting the prologue to third person past tense and drop the retrospective nature. I think the retrospective first person sets up the wrong expectations for the story and would be much more jarring to readers than a non-POV character prologue would be.

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.

About the Critiquer
 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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5 comments:

  1. I'd make your prolog and nice dialog between characters, bringing in the emotions to make it strong. Weave your backstory into your current one through either dialog, inner thoughts, or comparison.

    "I digress" is very cliche. Keep working on it!

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  2. I was definitely hooked. I like the "voice" very much, and the tantalizing bits of info keep me hooked. I agree with Janice that the changes in tense are extremely confusing and need to be addressed. Not sure that third person would have quite the impact, but how to resolve the issue of our belief that this is the protagonist I don't know.
    Nice beginning though.

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  3. This certainly has a literary feel. It mixes beauty, grit, and a moment in history in powerful ways, and adding the "two deaths" and the mention of miscarriages promises some direct drama to come. And literary and general fiction are the genres that do have room for an opening like this, this far removed from what you hint is the real story.

    (In anything else, an opening like this would pretty much have to use a method like the real protagonist reading/hearing this in the present, in a context that instantly made it clear why this backstory is important to that protagonist now.)

    I'd agree with Janice, this could remove the first-person and the retrospective style to make it clearer it isn't the protagonist. Or possibly it could open with a line like "My mother used to say..." to make its real context as clear as possible.

    Part of making it less retrospective might be changing the second paragraph. Even in literary fiction, I don't think you want that big a block of description starting on line 3, when it isn't clearly pointing toward the character or events that move the story along. You might give the birds more context of the character trying to work despite their distraction, or how she takes them as symbolism contrasted to what she does or feels. When the character calls it a digression, she's capturing what the reader may already be feeling, and not in a good way.

    --Though I may be wrong about that paragraph. You might ask your literary readers if they enjoy opening imagery so much they don't mind it "digressing," or even admitting it so openly. Genre changes everything.

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  4. I was definitely drawn into the story, wanting to know more. Good insights, Janice!

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  5. Many thanks. I'll be working on clarifying the timeframes here. Especially, I'll be trimming this to shift the focus to the part of the scene that was coming up, where we start to see the consequences of Angie's stories. I was thinking that a prologue that ran this long was breaking too many of my own rules as it was.

    Thanks again for taking the time with this.

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