Let’s Analyze A Pinch of Magic: Prologue

Let’s dive into A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison. I’ll be quoting directly from the book and noting things that are working well, as well as things I would have changed. I do this as an example of how you should be reading books when you are a writer studying them for craft.

You can view the first five chapters that I’ve analyzed on my Buy Me a Coffee by becoming a member.

A Pinch of Magic

A spellbinding middle grade fantasy about three sisters who go on a quest to break the curse that’s haunted their family for generations.​

All Betty Widdershins wants is an adventure–one that takes her far away from Crowstone, the gloomy island where she’s always lived. But instead of an adventure, Betty and her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, are given of a set of magical objects, each with its own powers: a scruffy carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror. And these magical objects come with their own terrible secret: the sisters’ family is haunted by a generations-long curse that prevents them from ever leaving their island–at the cost of death.

The sisters set out to break the curse and free their family forever. But after stumbling upon a mysterious prisoner who claims to be able to help them, they find themselves in great danger. And in order to break the curse–and stay alive–they must unravel a mystery that goes back centuries, one that involves shipwrecks, smugglers, and sorcery of the most perilous kind.

The prisoner gazed out her window.

  • What a line. It’s a clear image without much to go on. I, the reader, picture a female silhouette (having little details to go on), something like long hair and a dainty outline, against a night sky through a window shape.
  • I feel like I’m already in the room with this character, rather than below her window watching her look out of it.

It was one of four in Crowstone Tower…

  • And now we know where the prison is and what it’s called. It might feel weird to note this information, because, obviously, this tells us where things are happening, but I’m noting it to mark WHEN we are finding out this information. A common trope of beginner writers is to hold out on names of people, places, and things, until the very end to use them as a cliffhanger. Which I personally find incredibly aggravating. End on action and emotions, don’t withhold information for the sake of packing a punch.

Marsh witch, the crows seemed to croak, in the voices of the villagers. Came in off the marches, she did, killing three of our own.

  • This character is haunted by her actions. The next few lines go on about how she “hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.” We can feel a little pity for this prisoner since she isn’t evil at heart.
  • There is an air of mystery here. What did she do? Where was she coming from? What happened that she hurt/killed people?
  • There is also an air of regret and sorrow, and something to suggest that this prisoner has been wrongfully imprisoned. Although, we will need more details before we can make an informed decision about that.

The girl explored the rough stones until she found the small gap she had discovered in the mortar when she hadn’t long been in the tower, assessing the walls for possible footholds. When she had still had hopes of escaping.

  • Just before this, we got to see that she used to scratch the days away into the wall–but she no longer counts her times. And now we know she no longer dreams of or attempts to escape. This shows us some characterization right upfront. This imprisoned girl didn’t take her sentence lying down, she asserted some level of defiance until she realized she’d been beaten. I don’t who this prisoner is, but I like her fire.

Using the stone, scratched on the inside walls as if she were writing with chalk. With each letter she focused, thinking dark thoughts. She wrote a single word: a name… the one who had wronged her. When she was finished, she let the stone fall from her fingers. She didn’t need it anymore. This was the last thing she would write.

  • She moves that stone like she’s moved it before. Etching stone on stone is clearly a habit. We’re building this character out more here. We can see her bitterness now.
  • She has been betrayed and she is focusing that energy on her vengeance.

It was true, she hadn’t wanted to cause anyone harm then, but now, revenge was all she could think of.
And she would have it, even though she knew it would not save her.

  • The word “then” is very powerful here. What landed her in jail was an accident, something she hadn’t intended and clearly has (or at least had) regrets about. But her intentions have changed. She now intends harm, has a target, and has accepted that it will not change her fate, but it will make her feel better.
  • Her actions are petty now, not built on survival but hatred. This makes this character dangerous. Her evil is for the sake of harm, and so long as she achieves that she will be successful in her vengeance.

This is a character who was once good and has been twisted. We don’t know much about her fall from grace but we know the important things: it was accidental, people died, someone she confided in betrayed her, and she has spent so much time in prison that she has been able to plot her revenge. We also know that she will be executed and only seeks vengeance as a form of comfort.

There were some small bits of worldbuilding in the prologue as well, though I did not quote it. We learned about the warders (guards) briefly, so we know this prisoner isn’t simply an unguarded tower. We also learned that witches exist and that iron negates magic.

Iron negating magic is a fantasy trope but one that works well.

While we should always strive to turn tropes and cliches on their sides, sometimes things don’t need reinvention to work in your story, and attempting to do so only creates complications. When in doubt, remember: Don’t reinvent the cow.

Fairy Tales All By My Shelf

  1. Fairy Tales
  2. Mind Mapping
  3. An Interview with Carly Heath

Originally published on March 24, 2022 @ 12:00 pm

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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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