Topping Mr Macguffin

September 14, 2010 at 8:20 am (Writing Ranting)

The bad thing about having a fabulous prologue is that you need to re-grab your readers from the very beginning of chapter one – while also (along with the usual difficulties of setting, characterisation, action, plot hooks, and finding a new way to say what your characters look like and how the magic of the world works) making the link between prologue and actual story perfectly clear.

Here’s my tips on all of these (since I think better when instructing someone else) – keeping in mind it’s vital to SHOW the various details rather than boring a reader by simply explaining the salient points.

1. Instant hook: I used magic (which has coolness factor), and a need to escape. Instant goals = good. Here’s the very beginning:

I smiled prettily at my usual pack of guards and eyed the outermost wall of Ratu Castle one last time. It hadn’t been easy to get them so close to the open air. They’d all seen me walk through walls before.

It’s the challenge that makes it fun, I thought. Escaping Mum’s clutches.

2. Setting: My fantasy world is tropical, with many islands (and many cultures), and brown-skinned people. It’s rare to go hungry and almost impossible to be cold. People trade stories or art for food (or, more likely, other art). About one-third of the population has some kind of magic, and it’s considered quite ordinary (even lower-class in some places). The technology is fairly medieval, as is the population (ie villages and towns and farmers and sailors, rather than high-rise buildings and businessmen). Ratu island has a population of a few thousand, ruled by a troubled monarchy (the previous two kings were both murdered by the pirate at different times) and currently experiencing plague.

We’ve already seen pirates in the prologue, which implies 1700s Europe. The hints of “this is like Earth, but a while ago” is reinforced by the mention of the castle/monarchy. In the first two chapters, only the castle is described – that’s enough setting for now. The narrator’s magic and the fact that she’s a princess are both mentioned in the third paragraph – the two things combined are a quick character hook to keep people interested as I draw a more detailed picture of who she is. She’s about 13, a couple of years older than the target readership (her age is never mentioned, but it’s clear from the way people talk about her and how she relates to them).

3. Characterisation: The first paragraph above shows the princess is cheeky and a little melodramatic – and accustomed to a “pack of guards” (slightly ominous). It also shows there’s trouble with her mum (who may even be evil). There’s more in the next little while about her dad’s recent death, her mum’s emotional withdrawal (not evil, but not making good decisions), and the fact she’s not allowed out of the castle (which I hope kids will relate to on a metaphorical level – certainly they’ll relate to an over-protective parent). She also shows kindness by making sure the guards aren’t punished, and shows more spirit by eavesdropping on an adult conversation. My favourite thing about her is her goodness and innocence/optimism – it’s her innocence that is at risk in the book (people think the most exciting books are the ones in which the character nearly dies – but losing one’s identity is a lot more frightening).

4: Instant action: Magically escaping guards in order to eavesdrop. It’s exotic but also relates to escaping schoolteachers, so it’s not TOO exotic (I’ve been comparing “Sabriel” by Garth Nix with his “Seventh Tower” series, and one of the reasons “Sabriel” is better is that the “Seventh Tower” series has a lot of stuff on class structure – which isn’t very emotionally powerful to modern Australian kids).

5: Plot hooks: In chapter one, we find out she is leaving the island (quite shocking and exciting – I think kids will like the idea of going away to sea). In chapter two, she is given a goal – to find the pirate Sol (who we already know is Bad News). So there’s adventure and danger. I think kids need to relate to the emotional heart (“I need to help my mum”) but the physical plot (going away to sea) should be outside their experience (who wants to read about homework and chores? Not me ). I now realise I need to reinforce that emotional goal – helping mum – about six times more in the next few chapters. Readers need more than one plot hook to stress over, so here’s what I have:

a. Going to sea to find the pirate, to help mum. (As a main plot, this is a bit too complex/far-fetched ie how could the pirate possibly help?)

b. What is Ransom, what does he want, and is he dangerous?

c. The princess’ aunt is dying (weak, because there’s no action, but it does provide an ongoing stress).

d. I need something else for readers to stress over. (In YA fiction, this would be the romance strand.)

6: What characters look like: She describes the other characters (which is handy for the brown-skinned part), and it is clear from “smiled prettily” that she fits the pretty part of the princess image already in people’s heads. Rather than having her look in a mirror (ugh! SO overused!) I described what she looked like by her actions – she mentions pushing her fringe out of her eyes, wishing her perfect ringlets would be messed up, and that she’s wearing royal dress. Someone else mentions her “big brown eyes”.

7. How the magic system works: There are three normal types of magic – quickensmiths (able to shift solid objects, given touch), healsmiths (about to hurt or heal, given touch), and feelsmiths (able to read or change emotions, given touch). The princess demonstrates quickensmithing with her actions, and the other two remain unmentioned in the book because they’re irrelevant here. In my opinion, the sooner a book mentions magic, the easier it is to accept. All we need to know is that some people are quickensmiths, and that they can touch physical objects in order to make them move or change shape. (For this scene, all we need to know is that she can walk through or inside the thick wooden walls.)

8: Link to prologue: Ratu Castle is mentioned in the last paragraph of the prologue, so hopefully it’s still in the reader’s mind. Also, the character of Ransom is described as “the human-shaped thing” (that the pirate fears) in the prologue and “the queen’s counsellor” (that the princess takes for granted) in chapter one – a nice ominous contrast for readers to stress over.

PS In other news (in case I’ve left something dangling from past entries):

I’ve just been put on Vitamin D (I was extremely low, as it turned out – something that causes fatigue, muscle/joint pain, and cramps).

Publisher B still hasn’t replied, not even to say they still have the books.

Publisher J dislikes fantasy (arg!), so didn’t request “The Monster Apprentice”. I’ll send them my realist novel when they’re open to submissions again – at least they know I can handle myself in person (useful for future promotion). They also suggested I change the name of the character formerly known as “Boy” (who appears in all my fantasy books). At the moment I’m trying out “Ransom.”



  1. W said,

    WRT d) something else to stress over. It’s too early for romance, but arranged marriages have been used successfully there (I’m thinking Ping in Dragonkeeper). Pets, puberty and other life-changes (social stigma from having a dead parent?), keeping up with a growth spurt (when it’s too fast it’s painful) and protecting an important object are other macguffins that an go there.

  2. Felicity Bloomfield said,

    thanks W. a veritable buffet of age-appropriate stress 🙂

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