Tuesday, May 31, 2011

First Paragraph Critique - Cloaked in Shadows by Kenny

Remember that *SHINY NEW FEATURE* I talked about? Well, it has actually come into existence! In case you don't know or don't remember, I am now offering to critique other writers' first paragraphs and post them here. You can email paragraphs to me (brigidrgh@gmail.com) or if you have a Goodreads account you can post them in this thread.

Before you submit, you might want to read this post on what I think makes a good story beginning (and revise your paragraph accordingly). And try not to go over 100-200 words. That might not seem like a lot, but I try to be very thorough. Also, I will always get your approval of my critique before I post it. :)

So without further ado, I bring you my first critique ... This paragraph is from fellow Goodreader Kenny, whose story is called Cloaked in Shadows. I hope all ye writers enjoy this and find it to be useful.



"I woke with a start and the dream shattered, falling to oblivion in tiny image fragments that made me want to reach out and catch them. I needed to know what I had dreamed. What I had seen. Something told me it was important to figure this out. So I searched my mind for the scenes. I came up into the light again frustrated and fruitless. I was right in saying my dream had shattered...because it did. I could not find it anywhere inside me. I dislike a lot of things, but one of the things I loathe the most is forgetting. And so I told myself that I must remember."

What works:

1. In this first paragraph, you've already created a strong mood. I'm guessing something supernatural is going on here; usually acknowledgment of dreams implies that, and these seem to be "unusual" dreams, too. It's mysterious, and it makes the reader wonder what the person dreamed about and why it's so important for him/her to remember the dream.

2. The image of the dream "shattering" is strong and specific. It's striking how you describe the dream breaking into pieces and how the narrator tries to "catch" them.

3. The reader can tell the narrator is frustrated, and it's something we can all relate to. Everyone's had trouble remembering a dream before. It's a very aggravating feeling, and you describe it well––how the dream seems to have "shattered", how the narrator tries again and again to remember it, only to fail.

What could be improved:

1. "I woke with a start and the dream shattered, falling to oblivion in tiny image fragments that made me want to reach out and catch them."

--> There's a parallel structure problem here. That is, the two clauses don't quite match up with each other. The subject of the first clause is "I" ("I woke with a start ...") but the "and" sets off a different part of the sentence, in which the "dream" is the subject. The dream "shatters" and "falls to oblivion in tiny image fragments". Since the subject is now the "dream", the end of the sentence should read "that made me want to reach out and catch it" (not "them"). However, I assume the narrator wants to reach out and catch the "fragments", so this idea would probably be more clearly expressed in another sentence.

I would recommend cutting this sentence in two. "I woke with a start and the dream shattered, falling to oblivion." Then in a second sentence, be more specific about the fragments––what about them makes the narrator want to catch them? What are they doing? Dancing? Glittering? Strong verbs are key! "The fragments were [verb]ing in a way that made me want to reach out and catch them."

2. "What I had seen."

--> This is a fragment––that is, it's not a complete sentence. You're probably aware of this and using the fragment for effect, which is fine. As long as the writer knows his/her grammar rules, he/she is free to break those rules intentionally if he/she knows what he/she is doing. Having only read the first paragraph of this story, it's hard for me to judge whether this fragment is needed. I'm not saying it should necessarily be taken out, but I don't think it needs to be there since "what I had dreamed" already implies that the narrator has "seen" something.

3. "Something told me it was important to figure this out."

--> Try to avoid the phrase "something told me", for two main reasons. One, it's vague. What is it that makes the narrator think that remembering is important? Does some specific feeling or sensation make the narrator feel that way? Two, it's telling rather than showing. It seems like the author stepping through the narrator to tell the reader that this is important. In this case, I think you could take out the sentence completely; it's already clear from the rest of the paragraph that the narrator is struggling to remember the dream, implying that it's important to him/her.

4. "I was right in saying my dream had shattered...because it did."

--> Should be "because it had"

5. "I dislike a lot of things, but one of the things I loathe the most is forgetting."

--> This could be more specific. Everyone dislikes a lot of things. I would suggest giving particular examples of what else the narrator dislikes. Maybe something like "I dislike [blank], and I hate [blank], but what I loathe more than anything is forgetting." Not only would it be more specific, but it would tell us more about your narrator. Which brings me to my next point ...

6. We don't know much of a backstory here. No, I'm not saying that the first paragraph should be an info dump, but you could show a lot more about the narrator. In the very first paragraph, the reader likes to have an instant connection with the main character. And "readers" might include literary agents. You may or may not be thinking about publishing quite yet, but it's something to keep in mind for the future. Literary agents have to read a lot of query letters and excerpts every day; some even skip reading the query letter and go right to reading the excerpt. If they don't feel that instant sense of originality and strong character, they might reject the writer solely based on the first paragraph.

So, you want to be clear about who's narrating the story. A boy or a girl? What age? What time period is it? What is the narrator's personality like? You don't necessarily have to include all these things, but at least acknowledge a couple of them so that the reader gets a sense of who's talking. Right now, all we know is that the main character has strange dreams.

Furthermore, the "waking up from a dream" beginning is kind of a cliché. You want to start off your story with something that hasn't been done before, because that's something else that will peak the reader's interest. Everyone has weird dreams sometimes––so what makes this story different? Why should the reader continue reading to find out more?

7. You could cut down on repetition a bit. In the one paragraph you use "shattered" twice, and out of the 9 sentences, 6 begin with "I". (Also some with a conjunction followed by "I"––i.e. "And so I...")


Over all, you've set the mood well and created some strong imagery/emotions, but here are some things you could consider:

- Parallel structure
- Fragments
- Being specific
- Establishing a narrator/setting
- Sentence/word variation

Good luck with your writing endeavors! :)