Wednesday, October 12, 2011

First Page Critique: Fantasy

We have another opening page critique today. Here’s The Dreams of the Common People, by Don Nelson


For three hundred years, no one had ventured into the long forgotten and remote corner of the earth known as, The Common Land. The inhabitants of this lonely place had never given thought to cross over the rugged borders into the unknown surrounding lands. The Common People lived out their lives on a cultural island separate from all the other people groups of the known world.

In a previous enlightened time, this unimportant place functioned well and the people prospered. No one owned the land on which they lived. The land had always been owned and nurtured by nature. In the beginning of time, the order of things, both seen and unseen, had allowed both good and evil to co-exist, side by side. Neither force dominating the other because of a truce established between The Maker of Good and The Demon One.

The atmosphere of this long existent and balanced society changed the day a brutal, arrogant and evil enemy, known as The Hooded Accusers, galloped across the impassable borders into the Common World. They brought with them an oppressive force, which was soon to create a race of tormented men and women. Only the Common Children were spared from this unending season of oppression until they reached the age of accountability.

The grieving populace endured constant visions and voices of suffering in what had become a ghostly infected, malignant and decaying world.

The peace loving Common Landers had long ago given up any thoughts or hopes of escaping from these brutal thoughts and emotional captivity. The pleas and whines of mental persecution, a common sound throughout the land, subsided only when the people dreamed. It was a simple dream that gave them a daily hope of the "sacred-one", the one who would lead them out of their captivity.

The Hooded Accusers, also known as the 'spoilers of dreams' had toiled long, at their own destiny, waiting the glorious day when they would be rewarded, by their master, for their dedicated and unending service.

Chapter One

"Good thoughts can happen to anyone" 

This is the first line of the first page of, "The Journal of Good", documenting the record of the Common People's ancestral history. The journey to reach those good thoughts would require the skills and talents of the most unlikely hero, a fifteen-year-old boy named Darby, and his three footed traveling companion, a four hundred year old tortoise named, Achilles.

My comments: Usually I do a little more line editing, and I did notice some grammatical errors here, plus writing that was hard to follow sometimes. (When you are conveying a lot of information quickly, use shorter sentences with one piece of info per sentence, to give the reader time to process each piece.) But my bigger concern is that this seems to be all back story “telling.” I get the impression that the author has created an interesting fantasy world, and I’m certainly intrigued by the elderly, three-footed tortoise. I’m also curious about the “spoilers of dreams.” But I’d rather start with specific characters, where something is happening, and figure out the background slowly from context.

You can find extensive debates on when (if ever) and how Prologues should be used. I’ll cautiously acknowledge that they may have a place at times, but generally I recommend avoiding them. Often it’s an excuse for the author to “info dump” a bunch of background information he thinks readers need to know to understand the story. But plenty of novels with complex and unusual worlds drop the reader right into the story. Trust your reader to figure out the situation as we go along!

Here’s an example from a fantasy novel by Joni Sensel, The Farwalker's Quest:

Zeke’s tree wouldn't speak to him.
"Are you sure you've got the right tree?" Arial asked when he told her. "Maybe you've been hearing another nearby that got tired of the confusion and gave up."
Zeke shook his head as the two twelve year olds hurried back across the meadow toward afternoon classes. At lunchtime, they’d dashed off to chase pollywogs in the creek. Their catch wiggled in the wood bucket that now dangled between them, and water splashed their legs with each step. Their free hands crammed their mouths with last-minute lunches.
"I think I know my own favorite tree," grumbled Zeke. "She's just stopped paying attention."
Ariel calculated. Today was March 29. "But Namingfest is only three days away!"
"Gee, really?" Zeke rolled his eyes. "I might..." he couldn't say he might fail. "I might have to wait until next year."

This opening introduces the two main characters, suggests the setting, introduces a problem, and hints at unusual fantasy elements—all in 140 words. We don’t have to know yet what Namingfest is, or why Zeke would expect a tree to speak to him. The hints are intriguing enough that many readers will want to read on.
Without knowing more about The Dreams of the Common People, I can’t say for sure whether a prologue is necessary, or where the story should really start. But I would certainly recommend cutting background information at the beginning of the story, and starting with a scene that includes action and dialogue, and a specific, immediate problem. The problem needn’t be the main story problem yet, just something to draw us in, so we can learn about this world in an exciting way. (Click on the “Beginnings” label in the list to the right, for more specific advice on story beginnings.)

Thanks, Don, for sharing your work!

1 comment:

  1. Don, I'm glad you're writing! Welcome to the club. Thank you, Chris, for the opportunity to encourage and critique a serious writer.
    I totally agree with Chris. Also, the first page sounds too familiar to me. My brain doesn't want to go on because it is screaming, "been there, done that, got the shirt."
    No prologue--I always skip over prologues--have never found them useful as a reader, I just want to get dumped in the story and start focusing on a character with a problem already walking and breathing in his/her own world no matter how fantastical. Kinda like rubbernecking at the scene of an accident or altercation or whatever. People are nosy after all.