The Edge

Let’s do another first-page critique. This one is the prologue from a manuscript submitted anonymously called THE EDGE:

Emma is five years old in the nightmare.

She’s huddled in the V-berth of the sailboat she’s called home her whole life. She wonders what’s gone wrong. When her mommy tucked her into bed the ocean had been calm, the moon was a beacon of light. Now her little home is lurching and rolling on an angry sea. The sails crack like whips as the wind shrieks. The night is a black monster that wants to swallow her.

She hears her mommy rush up on deck and scream. She’s screaming for Emma’s daddy. “Ivan. Where are you? Ivan?” Why doesn’t he answer? The boat’s so small, there’s no place to hide. When Emma plays hide and seek, she always knows her mommy will find her. Where is daddy hiding?

Then everything in Emma’s dream goes silent, like a movie with the sound turned off. She sees huge waves crash over the cabin windows. She watches her mommy’s feet appear, first on one side of the boat, then the other. Fast. Her mommy is so fast.

Hold on tight, Mommy. Emma wants to call out but no words come. She feels sick. The boat plunges and bucks. She vomits in her bed. The smell makes her sick and she vomits again.

Emma wants her mommy to come back inside and comfort her. Her body bumps and thumps against the walls of the berth as if she’s a ragdoll. She clutches her bear and closes her eyes as the boat does a slow tumble over on its side.

This is a tough call. As we’ve discussed here before, prologues can work for you and against you. In this case, we’re starting with someone named Emma having a dream. Unfortunately, this first page tells me absolutely nothing about Emma and the book. All I know is she has bad dreams. The first question that comes to mind is: who cares?

I know it sounds crass, but it’s a legitimate question. Having read just this much, I have to ask, would the reader care? Would the agent or editor? Would anyone care enough to read on? There’s no grab or hook. Nothing happens. The dream is probably something that could be utilized later in the story since I’m sure there’s a reason for it and for the mommy-daddy-boat-on-troubled-waters thing. But as it stands, this might be a turn-off for an agent unless it was preceded by the greatest query letter and synopsis in the history of literature. My advice: ditch the prologue and get on with the story.

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9 thoughts on “The Edge

  1. Fair or not, you often hear agents and editors say, “Don’t open with a dream or the weather.” It’s best to follow this advice until you’re #1 on the NYT list. Then you can do what you want.

  2. From a Is it publishable? standpoint, what has already been said is probably correct. From my own personal point of view, I like a well written prologue and I like seeing dreams in novels. As a writer, I like to use them to show what a character is worried about. In my non-expert opinion, I see potential here, but it needs work.

    First, I would lose the first sentence. We never know how old we are in a dream and we shouldn’t tell the read it is a nightmare, it should be obvious. The dream should also be written in past tense instead of present tense. Present tense is almost always distracting and should be used only when the writer intends to be distracting. There’s a lot of stuff here that should be removed, such as “the sailboat she’s called home her whole life,” “When her mommy tucked her into bed the ocean had been calm, the moon was a beacon of light,” “The night is a black monster that wants to swallow her,” etc.

    When we’re done, we have something like this:

    For as long as she could remember, the dream had always been the same.

    “Ivan!”Emma’s mother called out. Emma could only see her feet from where she lay in the V-berth, first on one side of the small boat and then on the other. Giant waves crashed against side of the boat, rocking it from side to side while a monster roared in the dark. For a moment, Emma saw the monster and her daddy in its grip. “There he is Momma,” Emma called out, but her mother couldn’t hear her above the noise.

    But that isn’t enough for a first page, much less a prologue. What we need now is an understanding of why this dream is causing Emma problems.

  3. Jim, what about a dream about weather?

    Timothy, your suggestions are well taken. I also like a well-written prologue and I’ve used dreams in some of my novels. But starting with a dream doesn’t work for me in this example. As my co-author, Lynn Sholes, is fond of saying, “Just get on with the rat killing.” In other words, start by doing something to grab the reader’s attention. Otherwise, they could drift off into a dream first, and that’s never a good thing.

  4. I agree with previous comments–as a general rule, don’t open with a dream, and avoid the present tense.

  5. I didn’t have too much of a problem with this as an opening – it is a bit too long and I like Timothy’s suggestions but other than that I would keep reading (so there you go, I’m clearly the wrong person to be advising on this as I like dream sequences). i would just keep it short and then launch into the action.

  6. This reminded me somewhat of the opening to Clare Clark’s book THE NATURE OF MONSTERS. There, the prologue tied in with the story later on, and served as a dramatic lead-in.
    I think there’s the potential for that here, but would advise making it a true prologue. Don’t mention that it’s a dream. And consider switching to a more distant third person POV so that the writing can be bumped up a notch, rather than telling it as a five year-old would.

  7. I opened a book (TOO FAR GONE if memory serves) that was a prologue of a child awakened because of a storm. She gets up her courage, goes to her parent’s room to find them gone. Downstairs she works her fearful way to the kitchen where her parents have been meat- cleavered and a husky woman (the killer) picks her up in bloody arms. I labored over that opening prologue and I think it worked. At least I liked it.

    So, I’d like to see Emma awaken with cold salt water fast approaching her bed in the V berth as the small boat is sinking in a rough sea. Not a dream, but awakening from one. That’s just me.

    I don’t mind a prologue or opening with a dream. I’d choose one and proceed.

  8. Brandilyn Collins used this technique in “Brink of Death”, book one of her Hidden Faces Series. It’s told in 3rd person present, through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. Not a dream–it’s real time and it is chilling. It is several pages long and includes some foreshadowing, which is one of BC’s specialties.

    Anyway, I have no problem with prologues if they serve a purpose. I agree with most of the comments, here. Change the POV, drop the openin g sentence, and flesh it out.

    I would read on.

  9. Ummm…

    Is the previous comment a real comment or just comment spam? Sounds like spam to me.

    Regarding the opening, I actually liked the first sentence. But others are right – it’s not enough to grab me. And it needs the POV shift, etc. I would read on though if only to see how this tied in with chapter 1.

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