On the cover of Tiger’s Curse is a white tiger giving me an intense blue stare. I think it knows I’m about to critique its book, and it does not approve. Still, I can’t help but appreciate the tasteful graphic design and gentle pattern overlay around this cover. The author is marked as Colleen Houck. If you’d like to read along or read after, Houck’s made the first seven chapters available for free (PDF). Well met, Houck.
No time to waste; that tiger might eat me at any moment.
Give Threats Some Nuance
In the opening pages we have a poem: “The Tiger” by William Blake. It’s pretty melodramatic in its fear of tigers. I shouldn’t make fun though, since I just claimed a tiger on a book cover on my computer could eat me.
Next we’re on to the prologue: the curse. Here’s our opening sentence.
The prisoner stood with his hands tied in front of him, tired, beaten, and filthy but with a proud back befitting his royal Indian heritage.
It does leave me wondering why the prisoner isn’t named. His hands are tied and he’s been beaten, so it’s not like Houck needs to clarify that he’s a prisoner.
Let’s continue with the rest of the paragraph.
His captor, Lokesh, looked on haughtily from a lavishly carved, gilded throne. Tall, white pillars stood like sentinels around the room. Not a whisper of a jungle breeze moved across the sheer draperies. All the prisoner could hear was the steady clinking of Lokesh’s jeweled rings against the side of the golden chair. Lokesh looked down, eyes narrowed into contemptuous, triumphant slits.
And here’s our comically villainous king. This flat caricature is what happens when you design a mere villain instead of a whole person who does some villainous things. In most cases, these caricatures can be identified the moment they enter the story.
This segment also demonstrates why adverbs have gotten a bad name. Some writers insist you should never use adverbs. I’m not in that camp, but they are certainly overused. Let’s take the phrase “looked on haughtily.” When writing a sentence, put as much power as you can in your verbs. “Looked on” is bland and therefore a poor choice. Lokesh could glare, inspect, study, or even just “look down his nose.” To make up for the bland verb, flavor is added by inserting an adverb, “haughtily.” This tells us Lokesh’s demeanor when Houck should be showing it.
The description is also a little repetitive. The “steady clinking of Lokesh’s jeweled rings against the side of the golden chair” tells us the room is lavish well enough. We don’t need that and “lavishly carved, gilded throne.”
I’m not sure how eye slits can be both contemptuous and triumphant. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
For Conflicts to Matter, Readers Must Bond With a Character
The prisoner was the prince of an Indian kingdom called Mujulaain.
Technically, his current title was Prince and High Protector of the Mujulaain Empire, but he still preferred to think of himself as just his father’s son.
Why don’t we know his name?? Is Houck saving it for a reveal?
I’m also wondering about the perspective. I’m not sure whether this is bland omniscient or distant limited. Certainly a distant viewpoint makes concealing his name a little less weird. Even so, Houck’s name-concealing distance will make it difficult for the audience to feel for this guy. His imprisonment won’t create tension unless they sympathize with him, and tension is the whole point of a prologue like this.
That Lokesh, the raja of a small neighboring kingdom called Bhreenam, had managed to kidnap the prince was not as shocking as who was sitting beside Lokesh: Yesubai, the raja’s daughter and the prisoner’s fiancée, and the prince’s younger brother, Kishan. The captive studied all three of them but only Lokesh returned his determined gaze.
Wait what? We already described the whole room, surely these people were important enough to mention along with white pillars and jungle breezes. Who else is hiding in here? Some elephants maybe?
Now it’s even stranger that this prisoner prince has no name because every other character in the scene has one. If it’s really so important to keep his name under wraps, Houck should have referred to all the characters by their titles or situation. She could style it like a fairy tale, in which characters often go unnamed.
Beneath his shirt, the prince’s stone amulet lay cool against his skin, while anger surged through his body.
I’m sure that amulet will never be mentioned again. Just a bit of flavor.
And apparently the other prince and princess did come out of hiding, because our nameless prisoner is only getting mad at them just now.
We have few lines of dialogue that are mostly meaningless, then this.
[Prisoner] “Nothing you could want can justify this. Are our kingdoms not to be joined? Everything I have has been at your disposal. You needed only to ask. Why have you done this?”
Lokesh rubbed his jaw as his eyes glittered. “Plans change. It seems that your brother would like to take my daughter for his bride. He has promised me certain remunerations if I help him achieve that goal.”
The prince turned his attention to Yesubai, who, with cheeks aflame,
assumed a demure, submissive pose with her head bowed. His arranged marriage to Yesubai was supposed to have ushered in an era of peace between the two kingdoms. He had been away for the last four months overseeing military operations on the far side of the empire and had left his brother to watch over the kingdom.
This setup is good. A prince who’s been working hard for his kingdom finally returns home, probably looking forward to his marriage. Then he’s betrayed by the people he thought were his closest allies.
Unfortunately, the implementation is robbing this setup of its emotional power. We need to get to know this nameless prince (why doesn’t he have a name??) and care about him before this betrayal is revealed. If he woke up in a dank prison and spent some time thinking about the things he remembered last, that would provide a vehicle for bonding with him. He could think about how his brother was surely out searching for him, and how his fiancée must be worried about him. Then when readers learn these people are behind his kidnapping, it would be a gut punch. As is, it’s falling flat.
We also have more repetitive telling. Yesubai bowing her head with cheeks aflame illustrates that she is demure and submissive. It’s unnecessary to say outright that she has a demure and submissive pose.
Put Yourself in Your Character’s Shoes
Next, we have some more useless dialogue. I’m calling it useless because it does more grandstanding than communicating. For example:
The prisoner strode fearlessly forward, faced Lokesh, and called out,
“You have fooled us all. You are like a coiled cobra that has been hiding in his basket, waiting for the moment to strike.”
That’s poetic and all, but what would saying that accomplish? It feels like Houck is writing dialogue based on what she thinks is dramatic instead of what people might say in this situation. While no fictional dialogue is perfectly natural, it needs to come across that way.
Lokesh laughed disdainfully and spoke, “If you agree to surrender[…]
your piece of the Damon Amulet, I might be persuaded to allow you
The prisoner clenched his jaw, and said simply, “My father’s armies
would destroy you if you killed me.”
Lokesh laughed. “He certainly would not destroy Kishan’s new family. We will simply placate your dear father and tell him that you were the victim of an unfortunate accident.”
Lokesh’s motivation is stretching thin. So he’s decided that getting this magic amulet is worth the hassle of trading one allied prince for another. All right. I don’t know why he needs this elaborate situation to get that amulet, but maybe that will be explained. However, does he actually think that a new marriage will stop this other king from getting revenge? After the first son is murdered, the prisoner’s father would worry about the same happening to his second son. It doesn’t look like Lokesh is keeping this murder very secret.
So far, all of the dialogue has been between the prisoner and Lokesh. Why hasn’t anyone else spoken? If it isn’t polite to speak before a raja, a little body language would work as well. This feels strange, as though the prisoner and Lokesh are the only ones in the room. Maybe the fiancée and brother are mannequins that have been styled to look like the real people. Such trickery!
He stroked his short, stippled beard and then clarified, “Of course,
you understand, that even should I allow you live, I will rule both kingdoms.” Lokesh smiled. “If you defy me I will forcibly remove your piece of the amulet.”
Kishan leaned toward Lokesh and protested stiffly, “I thought we had
an arrangement. I only brought my brother to you because you swore
that you would not kill him! You were to take the amulet. That’s all.”
Lokesh shot out his hand as quickly as a snake and grabbed Kishan’s
wrist. “You should have learned by now that I take whatever I want. If
you would prefer the view from where your brother is standing, I would
be happy to accommodate you.”
Well Kishan can talk; that’s good. But now, what little sense I could make of Lokesh’s motivation has evaporated. If he can just remove the amulet, why hasn’t he done that already? And why does he need Kishan? He could have nameless prince silently killed, grab the amulet, and blame it on bandits.
And was the prisoner completely wrong when he said his father could destroy Lokesh? How does Lokesh plan on appeasing this guy after killing both sons? On top of that, how exactly is he going to rule both kingdoms?
[Lokesh to Kishan] “I have now amended our former
arrangement. Your brother will be killed if he does not comply with my
wishes, and you will never marry my daughter unless you hand over your piece of the amulet to me as well.”
My new theory is that this guy is bluffing, and that these princes are so gullible it’s working. The kingdom is lucky they’ll never be in charge.
Kishan sat back, raised a hand to touch the engraved amulet piece hidden underneath his own shirt, and made eye contact with his brother. An unspoken message passed between them.
The brothers would deal with each other later, but Lokesh’s actions
meant war, and the needs of the kingdom were a priority for both.
In many stories, having two characters make eye contact and silently transmit a complex message feels unrealistic. But you know what? I’m buying this one. They’re brothers, so they might know each other well, and using eye contact to make a silent alliance feels realistic to me.
Yesubai is still in the room, right?
Angered to the point of action, Lokesh jumped to his feet. “So be it!”
Lokesh pulled a shiny knife with a jeweled hilt from his robe and
roughly yanked up the sleeve of the prisoner’s now filthy, once-white
Jodhpuri coat. The ropes twisted on his wrists and he grunted in pain
as Lokesh drew the knife across his arm. The cut was deep enough
that blood welled up, spilled over the edge, and dripped onto the
Lokesh tore a wooden talisman from around his neck and placed
it beneath the prisoner’s arm. Blood dripped from the knife onto the
charm, and the engraved symbol glowed a fiery red before pulsing an
unnatural white light.
The light shot toward the prince with groping fingers that pierced his chest and clawed its way through his body. Though strong, he wasn’t prepared for the pain. The captive screamed as his body suddenly became inflamed with a prickly heat and he fell to the floor.
He reached out with his hands to brace himself, but he managed only to scratch feebly on the cold, white tile of the floor.
This is a lengthy excerpt, but I wanted you to see just how long this process takes. Instead of simply killing the prisoner like he threatened, Lokesh grabs a knife and does this elaborate magic transformation. He has to leap forward, make a big cut, rip off his talisman, and hold it out. Then there’s a light show.
Kishan, who just made an eye-contact alliance with the prisoner a moment before, does nothing during this struggle. Maybe he thinks he can transform his brother back again and attack Lokesh at a better time?
The prince watched helplessly as both Yesubai and his brother attacked Lokesh, who shoved both back viciously. Yesubai fell to the ground, hitting her head hard on the dais. The prince was aware that his brother was near, overtaken by grief as the life drained from Yesubai’s limp body. Then he was aware of nothing except the pain.
Nope. Kishan and Yesubai just decided to wait until Lokesh wasn’t busy with the prisoner. After all, it would be rude to inconvenience the villain by interrupting his spell casting.
Yesubai has remained silent for this entire scene. The only thing we’ve heard about her is that she’s submissive. Now she’s physically attacking her father? Then she promptly hits her head and… dies? It’s good to know that writers these days are getting better at gender representation.*
And where are Lokesh’s guards? Since we’re in his palace and he’s threatening the lives of two men nearby, I just assumed he’d have some. Maybe the guards are staying silent and standing idle as the action happens. That’s consistent with the characters in this work.
There ends the prologue. Will we find out why the prince has no name? Read on.
Normal Events Aren’t Compelling Problems
We’re on to chapter 1: Kelsey. The title cues us that we’re focusing on a new character, almost certainly the story’s protagonist.
I was standing on a precipice. Technically, I was just standing in line
at a temp job office in Oregon, but it felt like a precipice.
Interesting. Like in so many other works, the writer is trying to make up for a slow start by feigning conflict in the opening. It’s not great, but making a joke of the attempt is a good move. The joke feels self-aware, giving the opening some engaging personality. Three out of five stars.
Let’s finish the paragraph.
Childhood, high school, and the illusion that life was good and times were easy were behind me. Ahead loomed the future: college, a variety of summer jobs to help pay for tuition, and the probability of a lonely adulthood.
Oh dear. I have seen this before. The intention behind it is good. Viewpoint characters need problems to generate sympathy from the audience. But you can’t take someone’s normal life and write it as though it’s a problem. You have to give the character actual problems.
Houck needed to identify something important from Kelsey’s life that she’s losing. Maybe she’s previously lived comfortably on her parents’ high income, with the promise they would pay her way through college. Then they lost their fortune. The family home was sold, and now she has to work to pay her own expenses. Her dream of getting the degree she wanted is gone. These are the sorts of details you need to make a character sympathetic.
It turns out Kelsey is waiting in line to sit down with a job-placement worker. The worker then asks her basic questions like what her name is. Why isn’t Kelsey just filling out a form on the internet? The book was published in 2012; maybe it takes place decades ago? I don’t see any indication of that.
Then instead of asking Kelsey about her “parent or guardian” like every official ever, this happens.
[Worker] “Parents’ names?”
“Madison and Joshua Hayes, but my guardians are Sarah and Michael Neilson.”
Here we go again, I thought. Somehow explaining my life never got easier.
“Yes. My parents are . . . deceased. They died in a car accident when
I was a freshman.”
She bent over some paperwork and scribbled for a long time. I
grimaced, wondering what she could be writing that was taking so long.
Kelsey’s parents died recently. We have unearthed a genuine problem! I think? Houck is writing about it like the real tragedy is that people don’t get this guardianship thing. Surely her parents’ death has more serious consequences, such as grieving, moving far away to live with godparents, monetary problems, etc. Why didn’t we hear about that in the opening paragraph? That’s more compelling than some vague fear that college will be worse than adolescence.
I’m also seeing some troubling signs that this is written in distant limited. The narrator is narrating how she is thinking and wondering instead of just writing the content of the thinking and wondering. Here’s what it looks like in close limited:
“Yes.” Here we go again. “My parents are . . . deceased. They died in a car accident when I was a freshman.” Somehow explaining my life never got easier.
She bent over some paperwork and scribbled for a long time. I
grimaced. What she could be writing that was taking so long?
I also intermixed Kelsey’s thoughts and dialogue more. In dialogue between two people, paragraphs are used to distinguish who’s speaking; the readers expects the speakers to alternate paragraphs. If you put in one paragraph of a character thinking, then another of them speaking, you’re more likely to create confusion. In addition, a whole paragraph of thinking creates the impression that your character is remaining silent for a while. That’s clearly not the intent here.
Then the job-placement worker asks her if she like animals and just assigns her a job:
A TEMPORARY WORKER FOR TWO WEEKS ONLY
DUTIES INCLUDE: TICKET SALES, FEEDING THE ANIMALS, AND
CLEANING UP AFTER PERFORMANCES.
Note: Because the tiger and dogs need to be cared for 24/7, room and board are provided.
You know, having work that needs to be done 24/7 is what shifts are for. The other thing that gets me is that a a local circus (that’s who’s hiring) has to go to some temp agency to fill a job caring for tigers. People line up to work with exotic animals. They might even find volunteers.
“So, do you want the job or what?” the woman asked impatiently.
“A tiger, huh? Sounds interesting! Are there elephants, too? Because I
have to draw the line at scooping up elephant droppings.” I giggled quietly at my own joke, but the woman didn’t so much as crack a smile. Since I had no other options, I told her that I would do it.
She gave me a card with an address and she instructed me to be there the next day by 6:00 a.m.
I wrinkled my nose. “They need me at six in the morning?”
The worker just gave me a look and shouted “Next!” at the line shuffling behind me.
What had I gotten myself into? I thought as I climbed into Sarah’s borrowed hybrid and headed home. I sighed. It could be worse. I could be flipping burgers tomorrow. Circuses are fun. I just hope there are no elephants.
So Kelsey has an immature sense of humor. I guess that’s a distinctive trait, if not a particularly endearing one. She also complains about the 6 a.m. start time. While that might help her feel relatable, it also doesn’t make her situation feel urgent. Supposedly, she has to take this job because she has no other options. But it’s only a two-week temp gig. If she needs that, she has bigger problems than getting up at 6 a.m. Once again, I have to conclude that Houck is taking a character with no problems and trying to present circumstances like she has some.
And could we give the real people who actually flip burgers a break? There are worse things to do with your life than working a fast-food job.
Skip the Boring Parts
We have a scene break, and then the story moves on to covering Kelsey’s domestic life. Will she have problems or “problems”? Let’s find out.
Living with Sarah and Mike was okay for the most part. They gave me
a lot more freedom than most other kids’ parents, and I think we have a healthy respect for each other—well, as least as much as adults can
respect a seventeen-year-old anyway.
This is not looking good.
Next, we watch as Kelsey parks the car, walks into the house, goes to get a glass of water, and sees her guardian Sarah making cookies. Remember: you can just jump to the important part. For instance “When I got home, Sarah was in the kitchen making cookies.” You don’t have to narrate all the in between bits.
I stifled a snigger by coughing.
She narrowed her eyes at me shrewdly. “Kelsey Hayes, just because
your mother was the best cookie baker in world doesn’t mean I can’t
make a decent treat.”
“It’s not your skills I doubt, it’s your ingredients,” I said, picking
up a jar. “Substitute nut butter, flax, protein powder, and agave.
I’m surprised you don’t put recycled paper in those things. Where’s
“I use carob sometimes.”
Surprise twist: no attempt at problems whatsoever. Instead we have some playful dialogue. Clearly this is meant to be bonding time. Demonstrating Kelsey’s bond with her guardians might be important, particularly if they will be kidnapped later. Even so, bonding via playful dialogue can happen while the characters deal with interesting problems. Or with anything interesting.
I watched Sarah lick a finger and continued. “By the way, I got a
job. I’m going to be cleaning up and feeding animals at a circus. It’s at
“Good for you! That sounds like it will be a great experience,” Sarah
perked up. “What kind of animals?”
“Uh, dogs mostly. And I think there’s a tiger. But I probably won’t
have to do anything dangerous. I’m sure they have professional tiger
people for that stuff. But I do have to start really early and will be
sleeping there for the next two weeks.”
“Hmmm,” Sarah paused contemplatively. “Well we’re just a phone
call away if you need us.”
Readers already know all about this job; listening to Kelsey tell Sarah about it is just unnecessary. Not only that, but now we know Kelsey can summon reinforcements whenever she runs into problems on the job. Maybe she actually does call her guardians later, but in the majority of cases, giving the protagonist reinforcements only creates plot holes. To make an engaging story, Kelsey needs to solve problems herself. Houck might ending up making Kelsey conveniently forget this offer, or she might insert poor explanations for why she isn’t calling her guardians. Hopefully, Kelsey will actually call them to help her, only to find out they’ve been kidnapped, etc.
Next, Sarah’s other guardian, Mike, shows up. He also makes fun of Sarah’s cookies.
[Sarah to Mike] “If that’s the attitude you and Kelsey are bringing to the table then the two of you get cleanup duty tonight.”
“Aw, honey. Don’t be mad.” He kissed Sarah again and wrapped his arms around her, trying his best to get out of the task.
I took that as my cue to exit. As I snuck out of the kitchen, I heard Sarah giggle.
Someday, I’d like a guy to try and talk himself out of cleanup duty with me in the same way, I thought and smiled.
Oh Kelsey, how delightfully naive you are. When you are that age, you will be more interested in a guy that doesn’t try to get out of cleanup duty. Or better yet, a guy who cleans without being asked at all.
Sexist gender roles aside, Houck is establishing that Kelsey is interested in romance. However, this doesn’t have much pull to it. I’ll go into more detail on that later.
Then we hear about how Kelsey does the dishes, decides to go to bed, and what her bedroom looks like. We learn how Kelsey sleeps every night with her grandmother’s quilt. It’s a cute detail, but not worth the entire paragraph it gets. She undoes her hair, sets her alarm… can we end this chapter already?
Describe Your Viewpoint Character Carefully
Wait, I detect some meaningful information:
I glanced at my nightstand and the two pictures I kept out. One
picture was of the three of us: Mom, Dad, and me at a New Year’s celebration. I had just turned twelve. My long brown hair had been
curled but in the picture it drooped because I’d thrown a fit about using hairspray. I’d smiled in the shot, despite the fact that I had a gleaming row of silver braces. I was grateful for my straight white teeth now, but I’d absolutely hated those braces back then.
Nevermind, I take that back. Once again Houck takes content that could be emotionally powerful and focuses on the wrong thing. Kelsey is looking at a photo of her dead parents, and all she thinks about is herself?
I touched the glass, placing my thumb briefly over the image of
my pale face. I’d always longed to be svelte, tan, blond, and blue eyed
but I had the same brown eyes as my father and the tendency toward
chubbiness of my mother.
Now I see. Houck really wants readers to know what Kelsey looks like, and she’s having trouble working it in. I’ll admit, this is tricky. In a limited perspective like this one, it must be done carefully or it will feel contrived. The picture was actually a good idea. If Houck had started by focusing on the parents for a while, and then was more subtle about Kelsey’s description, it might have worked. For instance, this is what I might do:
One picture was from a New Year’s celebration five years ago. For most of those years, the people in the picture with me were just Mom and Dad, who hugged me goodnight and made breakfast for me every morning. Since their deaths, that’s been slowly taken from me. Mom is now a dumpy woman with brown eyes and a flowery dress. Dad is a svelte, tan, blond, and blue eyed man who looks like he’s posing for a catalog. Sometimes I search in the mirror for the model who was my dad, but I only find the dumpy brown-eyed woman.
This focuses Kelsey’s physical description around her relationship with her parents. It provides the same information about her appearance, and implies she wishes she looked like a blond, blue eyed model. It doesn’t put much emphasis on her longing to look more attractive, but that’s just another “problem.”
Romance Should Fill a Need
We have another picture.
The other was a candid shot of my parents at their wedding. There
was a beautiful water fountain in the background, and they were young, happy, and smiling at each other. I wanted that for myself someday. I wanted someone to look at me like that.
This still doesn’t give the dead parents enough attention, but at least it makes Kelsey’s desire for romance a little more compelling. In addition to admiring happy couples, it would be meaningful to know how Kelsey thinks being in a relationship will make her life better. Clearly she wants someone to love her, but even without her parents, she currently has the love and support of her guardians. It doesn’t feel like she’s missing something important.
The chapter closes with a prophetic dream, which are all the rage in books these days.
That night, I dreamed I was being chased through the jungle, and
when I turned to look at my pursuer, I was startled to see a large tiger.
My dream self laughed and smiled and then turned and ran faster. The
sound of gentle, padded paws raced along after me, beating in time with my heart.
Most of these dreams are menacing, but this one’s actually cute. It has a nice little surprise where Kelsey laughs when she sees the tiger instead of being afraid. I find the tone refreshing. However, I’m not sure this is carrying it’s weight as the end of the first chapter. That’s a location where writers should focus on convincing readers to continue. This doesn’t create tension, and since the book’s synopsis describes a prince-turned-tiger, it doesn’t provide any new or interesting information.
Let’s look at what the prologue and first chapter should accomplish, and how close Tiger’s Curse got to it.
Hooking readers is the most important purpose of a prologue. It should make them want to read the first chapter. For it to work, a couple things must be in place.
- The hook has to be effective. Houck has some good ideas about showing a betrayed, captured prince, but fails to help her readers emotionally connect to that character. The antagonist comes off as comical, which doesn’t help him feel threatening. So a hook that would otherwise be strong is only mediocre at best.
- The hook has to feel relevant to the first chapter. After the prince is imperiled, we jump to Kelsey. Kelsey doesn’t know the prince yet, and as far as we know she is safe from the villain. What hook we have isn’t crossing into the first chapter well. Houck’s intent seems to be that these characters are linked by romance. That might have worked if the prince was longing for a special someone. However, after everything that’s happened, it feels like that would be the last thing on his mind.
The prologue is not failing so hard that I would tell a writer to cut it. But it could use a rewrite.
The first chapter should introduce the protagonist, get readers attached to that protagonist, and hook them further. We do get to know Kelsey in chapter one, but otherwise this chapter is struggling. Sympathy is an important part of attachment, but Kelsey’s problems feel petty instead of sympathetic. And as a hook, it feels like Houck is barely trying. The chapter is almost devoid of tension, and the romantic longing isn’t given the development it needs.
Most of all, this chapter doesn’t feel like it’s part of the story. This story is clearly about Kelsey and her tiger heartthrob, but they haven’t crossed paths yet. All these details about how Kelsey gets the circus job and what she does the night before with her parents are boring and irrelevant. This entire chapter should be cut.
Instead, readers should get to know Kelsey as she starts at her new tiger-related job. Certainly it will be more difficult to introduce Kelsey while at the same time moving the plot forward, but this type of multitasking is necessary to make stories entertaining all the way through. By changing a few details, you can make it easier. Maybe Kelsey gets this job because someone at the circus knew her parents, providing an excuse to discuss their tragic deaths.
For its good ideas and lackluster delivery, I’m calling this work “flat.” Hopefully Houck will get better at implementing her ideas with practice. For those of you who have read it all the way through, I gotta ask: when does the prince get a name?
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