Hi everyone. I am brand new to the forum, but I thought I might as well get some opinions before I go much farther in my writing. This is the END of the Prologue (A real cliff hanger )for my book which I am currently calling "Leagend of Rathleacloon". The book is about a twelve year old boy and takes place in Ireland and a fantasy(ish) world populated by Irish myths. Probably Middle Grade... but it may end up being too dark (I am mean to my characters) so we'll see.
quote: Cautiously he crept to the edge of the grassy cliff top, laying down so that he could peer over the side. For a moment all he knew was the dizzying height of sheer vertical cliffs below him, then the tumbling white foam which formed a border around the cliffs like a lace collar on one of his auntís Sunday dresses. Then he saw her. Shimmering white skin and the flashing silver of her tail. She was laying on her back staring up at him as he lay on his stomach staring down at her. Her green hair was loose floating in the waves, the color matching that of the sea surrounding it, and crowned with a scarlet cap made of feathers. She was so lovely, even from this distance, that his breath caught twice in his throat before he could breathe again. He wondered what she was doing, he wondered if she was real, he thought she smiled up at him and then he felt the ground give beneath him.
I need help with just about everything. POV, narration, descriptive elements, sentence structure ... have at it!
Note from Kathleen:
Since this is supposed to be a last 13 lines, instead of a first 13 lines (you see, it still has to be limited to 13 lines), I cut off the beginning so you'd still have your cliff-hanger.
OK there's a lot to work on here, but let's start with the nature of this scene. This is a good example of what we call an "in media res" opening -- a story that begins with the protagonist in the middle of the action dealing with some problem.
I should warn you that some people *hate* in media res openings, although I personally think that the problem is badly done in media res openings.
The challenge of an in media res opening is that the reader doesn't know what's going on. It's important to give the reader something to grab hold of. For example, suppose we start with a young girl nervously walking down a darkened street, with shadowy figure following her. We don't know right away what she's doing there; we certainly don't know who the shadowy figures are and why they're following her, but we can immediately *picture* the scene, and understand at least part of why she is nervous -- anyone would be.
That *picturing* part is important. You don't want the reader to stumble along in a fog, or worse yet imagine details that he later has to retract. The linguist Stephen Pinker calls sentences that do this "garden path" sentences, because they mislead the reader down the garden path.
quote:The face dove under the waves and a flash of light was seen before the apparition disappeared. It appeared again, rising out of the water, closer and closer with each dive until Lorcan could no longer see it over the edge of the cliff.
Until I came to "over the edge of the cliff", I'd been picturing the point of view (POV) character swimming. You'd led me down the garden path!
See how tricky in media res openings are? The whole point is to get the reader curious, but you can't leave him totally mystified. It's true in any kind of an opening that there are things that the reader doesn't know, and even things he may be aware of not knowing. But he needs to grasp some things about the situation immediately.
Pay particular attention to how the POV character is situated relative to what he is observing. Is he above it or below it? Is it near or far? Beware of readers making the wrong guess about these things and having to retract it.
One thing you might try is feeding someone a sentence at a time of your opening, and then asking them what they're picturing. Eventually you should have an inner editor which does this for you, but you have to develop an intuitive awareness of how a picture will be building up in the reader's mind.
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The first clause starts off strong but wanders into unnecessary passive voice, "was seen."
Overall, this opening develops setting and dramatic complication introductions but not so much character. The mermaid is the central dramatic complication of this opening that causes Lorcan to act. The "cliffhanger" builds complication. I think those are strong features, though a cliffhanger, literal or figurative, gives me pause.
When I've taught writing, I've cautioned against text walls: long passages of text with no paragraph breaks. Text walls alienate readers, more so younger readers. They also signal underdeveloped creative writing and mechanical style skills.
A prologue, prescriptively, is a prefatory portion of a narrative that expresses content necessary to understand the main action. Prologues express in a narrator voice, hence introducing the narrator and narrative point of view of the whole. Those are the two functions prologues fulfill.
Prologues are widely deprecated in convention-based genre, like fantasy. The issue is many writers use them to undramatically summarize and explain backstory. A submission package with an opening labeled prologue up front will likely get a quick pass and rejection from a screening reader.
However, this "prologue" excerpt doesn't read to me like a prologue. It doesn't read like a prelude either. Frankly, it feels like part of the main action from developing a dramatic complication, and not prefatory in the least.
The earlier part of this "prologue," though, may be prefatory. I wonder what hunch compelled posting this excerpt. The action does feel like it begins here. Perhaps the prior portion doesn't start the plot moving and is in actuality a prologue.
A dramatic complication is a central want or problem wanting satisfaction. Satisfying curiosity about an unexpected face in the sea below a high cliff is a private want with a mountain of possible problems. That for me works and is the strongest feature of this passage.
Viewpoint glitches leave the flow and voice unsettled for me. Inadvertant, unnecessary, and bumpy shifts between narrator voice and character voice leave me adrift, unsettled on identification with either narrator or central character alignment.
A glitch is a hiccup that slows or stalls reading.
Let's say the narrator voice is intended to predominate here. Why? A strong reason is when a single viewpoint character is unaware of all the action. Then an omniscient or limited omniscient narrator or detached viewpoint narrator can report action that takes place outside of a central character's awareness. Lorcan is aware of all the action in this passage, though.
Another axis of narrative point of view is degree of access to thoughts. Omniscient narrators have access to anyone's thoughts at anytime and anywhere, even in any given scene. That is sometimes labeled a god's-eye narrator viewpoint. It is rare in convention-based genre and rarer still in middle grade genre.
Limited omniscient has access to a single viewpoint character's thoughts at a time, favoring most frequent and deepest access to a central character's thoughts. That is sometimes labeled a camera on or about the shoulder narrator viewpoint.
Detached narrator viewpoint accesses no character thoughts. In that case, the narrator perceives all the action and nonverbal expression and expresses commentary about the action. This is sometimes labeled fly on the wall narrator viewpoint.
For convention-based genre, for middle grade through early adult genre, for entertainment reading in general, the preferred narrative point of view is single viewpoint character thought and perception access. Then in addition to identifying with the action, readers also identify with a single character.
Those four narrative point of view viewpoints are rarely used in novels that precisely and exclusively. A judicious mixture of limited, detached, multiple single, and single viewpoints is more the norm. Though for short stories the single viewpoint narrative point of view is most preferred.
I dissected the below part for narrator voice and character voice or writer predominance:
"The face dove under the waves [melded] and a flash of light was seen before the apparition disappeared [writer]. It appeared again, rising out of the water, closer and closer with each dive until Lorcan could no longer see it over the edge of the cliff [Lorcan]. He glanced around [narrator] and saw that [narrator] Padraig and his mother were occupied with the baby [Lorcan], and seeing no one else on the path [narrator] he gathered his strength and pushed himself up on the stone wall [narrator]. He felt the bottom of his shoe crack and part break away [Lorcan] as he scrambled to get a leg over the wall [narrator]."
The melded first clause reports a visual sensation both a narrator and Lorcan can see, Lorcan artfully held in abeyance until he's introduced in the next sentence, but by default is the viewpoint character observing. That is strong writing craft. The passive voice second clause reports an anoymous actor seeing a flash, neither per se narrator or Lorcan but defaulting to writer, actually. That is in my estimation the weakest clause of the excerpt.
The next sentence is strongly Lorcan's viewpoint from he not being able to see the face anymore. Though any use of "it" gives me pause from vague subject antecedent. Is the face, the light flash, or the apparition the subject "it" references?
The third sentence switches back and forth between narrator and Lorcan. Lorcan cannot possibly see himself looking. Any use of a looking verb gives me pause for that reason and because it places a narrator in an intermediating and static position. Just reporting a visual sensation all by itself closes into character perception, as the first clause of the excerpt artfully does.
The fourth sentence, first clause is in Lorcan's perception from expressing "he felt." Though I think that perception could be more artfully expressed. //He scrambled onto the stone wall guarding the cliff. His shoe caught on a jagged stone, tearing off part of the sole.//
Any use of "as" as a conjuction word meaning while gives me pause. Though in this instance "as" suits a somewhat concurrent joining of two actions, they are not as parallel or linearly causal as main ideas as might be a strong practice. Another issue I see with the conjunction's construction is putting effect before cause. Scrambling onto the wall causes Lorcan to catch his shoe on the wall, an effect of climbing onto the wall, and catching his shoe is a cause of consequently breaking off part of the sole, the last effect of climbing onto the wall.
I'd think also that Lorcan might note the wall's function is to keep people and livestock away from the cliff, unless he's a tourist. Developing the setting further would at least describe Lorcan's awareness of the wall's physical presence.
The last clause, only the narrator can see Lorcan scramble onto the wall.
After that, the narrative voice wavers between Lorcan's and the narrator's. To a degree, the narrator's access to Lorcan's thoughts expresses his attitude and hence develops his character a mite. That's getting there craft- and voice-wise, but I feel closer access to Lorcan's perceptions and thoughts and emotional attitude are called for.
Strong dramatic complication development overall, fair to middling setting development, limited character development. Unsettled voice is for me the excerpt's biggest shortcoming. Above par mechanical style, though, a few minor grammar and punctuation glitches. Grammar: the passive voice clause. A prefatory sentence adverb takes a comma to set its dependent status off from a main clause. "Cautiously[,] he crept."
Thank you both so much for taking the time to respond. These are both very helpful.
MattLeo: it is in media res because I grabbed the ending since it felt much stronger than the beginning. I can post the first 13 lines, but itís mostly a descriptive paragraph meant to set the scene and it seemed strange to ask for input about it. So I hope I am not misleading readers (fingers crossed). Will certainly have to double check from that reader perspective.
quote: One thing you might try is feeding someone a sentence at a time of your opening, and then asking them what they're picturing.
I know what my husband will be doing tonight!
extrinsic: I think, based on your advice, it should probably be moved to the first chapter since the earlier passages are supposed to be in Lorcan's POV. Thanks for the overall advice about POV. I am struggling with this, but I now have a better idea of what to look for.
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Diana -- You should show where you begin the story, not what you think is the best part. Aside from the end not making any sense without the beginning, the beginning is the hardest part and it's more helpful to you to share the part that most likely needs the most attention.
Also take any advice you get here on the first 13 with a large grain of salt. We can sometimes go overboard with demanding you do this or that, but the truth is there's only so much that can be accomplished in 13 lines. What those lines *do* do is show us a surprising number of things about your prose and where the opening is going.
I just want to be clear about my narration advice. Make sure the reader knows where the protagonist stands relative to the stuff he's observing -- at least if there's going to be something coming along that depends upon this. Other things that won't be constrained by further writing you can safely leave up to the reader's imagination, for example whether the cliffs are chalk or limestone. If you're going to say "white chalk" get that out early; if you never mention the cliffs again you don't have to say what they look like.
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I would lose the simile in the second line as it totally ruins a perfectly good description. The first part of that sentence is a nice, concrete description, but then it ends with me being pulled out of the story as I wonder about this dress his aunt wears on Sunday. Unless this dress has made an appearance earlier in the prologue.
I thought the line of his breath catching twice was a bit funny. If it catches once, he needs to at some point breathe again in order for it to catch again.
I did, however, like how the description of the boy and girl mirrored each other as exact opposites, with him on his stomach, her on her back, and also the play on opposites with she smiling up at him and the ground falling beneath him. Nice wordplay there.
I do think, though, that you should have probably just posted the opening and not the conclusion, as its easier to write hooks in endings than beginnings.
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