Page critique, illustrating a common failing

I see that Nathan Bransford has a page critique up at his blog today.

Here are the first few paragraphs, with Nathan’s deletions and additions shown:

The taller man stood near the third floor window, scanning the crowd of parade-goers lining the streets. He turned to the shorter his colleague Igor and smiled.

“Bigger crowd than last year, yes? Than last year?Igor said, twirling his uneven mustache.

“Last year wasn’t as big a deal. Oop… here we go.”

Igor crossed the dark room to peer out the window as well, standing carefully back from it. Outside, the number 150 was blazoned on just about everything banners, on signs, on balloons, and capes [be specific to create a better mental picture for the reader]. One hundred fifty years since the Great Tomes revealing the Builders had been discovered.

Nathan then goes on to discuss vagueness, and how important specific details are in allowing the reader to “see” the scene.

I would not think about this in terms of vagueness versus specificity, though that’s a perfectly legitimate way of viewing it.

I would think of this as a reluctance to write description. I’m not sure why, but a good proportion of all the workshop entries and so on that I’ve seen have this precise failing. The writer does not describe the scenery, and thus does not draw the reader into the opening scene.

There is, I suppose, a fine-ish line between setting the scene and stalling the action with so much description that the reader wonders if anything is ever going to happen. Remember, however, that the point-of-view protagonist is IN the scene and that all description is from his or her point of view. Thus, the initial description of the world is also part of characterization. Besides that, we can establish tension AND add in plenty of description at the same time. Here is one of my favorite third-person openings:

Bandits often lay in wait in the ruins of the old town at the fourways — Jenny Waynest thought there were three of them this morning.

She was not sure any more whether it was magic which told her this, or simply the woodcraftiness and instinct for the presence of danger that anyone developed who had survived to adulthood in the Winterlands. But as she drew rein short of the first broken walls, where she knew she would still be concealed by the combination of autumn fog and early morning gloom beneath the thicker trees of the forest, she noted automatically that the horse droppings in the sunken clay of the roadbed were fresh, untouched by the frost that edged the leaves around them. She noted, too, the silence in the ruins ahead; no coney’s foot rustled the yellow spill of broomsedge cloaking the hill slope where the old church had been, the church sacred to the Twelve Gods beloved of the old Kings. She thought she smelled the smoke of a concealed fire near the remains of what had been a crossroads inn, but honest men would have gone there straight and left a track in the nets of dew that covered the weeds all around. Jenny’s white mare Moon Horse pricked her long ears at the scent of other beasts, and Jenny mind-whispered to her for silence, smoothing the raggedy mane against the long neck. But she had been looking for all those signs before she saw them.

This is DRAGONSBANE by Barbara Hambly. We get the initial problem presented to us immediately, but we also learn a LOT about Jenny. We see that she is not terrified at the thought of bandits lying in wait, even though she is a woman and appears to be alone. We learn that she has some ability to work magic. But we are allowed to step into the scene because of the huge number of details Hambly works into these brief paragraphs. Not just about frost and broomsedge; we already have an idea what the world is like, because of the ruins, the need for people to learn caution and woodcraftiness, the reference to the old Kings, all of that.

If you are working with a first-person narrative or a very close third-person narrative, you may not put in so much description up front — if your pov protagonist isn’t looking at something, noticing it, thinking about it, then it doesn’t come up in the narrative. In that case, you depend more or the protagonist’s voice to draw in the reader. But you also add setting details, which also play a role in hooking the reader, like so:

Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.

There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then after a while, a month or two, a new face in the classroom — a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.

That’s from THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M. R. Carey, a story which depends almost entirely on the charm of Melanie’s voice to carry the reader through the story, and very successfully, too. This is one of the closest third-person points of view I’ve ever read, acting a great deal like a first-person narrative.

We get a lot of weird details in just these few words, even though there is no camera panning across the scene. This sets up a tremendous urge to keep reading in order to find out what kind of world this is, with its children brought in at night — children who haven’t learned to talk yet — and locked into cells and given names off a list. Melanie’s voice is so bright and chipper and entirely undisturbed by the extremely weird life she is living; the contrast between her attitude and the situation creates tension and acts as another hook.

Here is a real first-person opening:

It was a dumb thing to do, but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.

Monday evening is our movie evening because we are celebrating have lived through another week. Sunday night we lock up at eleven or midnight and crawl home to die, and Monday (barring a few national holidays) is our day off. Ruby comes in on Mondays with her warrior cohort and attacks the coffeehouse with an assortment of high-tech blasting gear that would whack Godzilla into submission: those single-track military minds never think to ask their cleaning staff for help in giant lethal marauding creature matters. Thanks to Ruby, Charlie’s Coffeehouse is probably the only place in Old Town where you are safe from the local cockroaches, which are approximately the size of chipmunks. You can hear them clicking when they cantor across the cobblestones outside.

This is SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley, who I must say pulls off in this book one of the very best openings I’ve ever seen. This story that looks so much like it’s set in contemporary normal life until, on page ten or so, we suddenly take a left turn toward weird. Of course McKinley doesn’t wait till then to establish the tension; she sets up the tension in the first very short paragraph — what happened at the lake? — but mostly in these opening paragraphs we are setting the scene and establishing the protagonist. Once again we get a very clear picture of the protagonist right away — from her use of casual language: dumb, crawl home to die, whack Godzilla into submission, etc.

In my opinion, it’s harder — substantially harder — to establish a catchy first-person (or unusually close third-person) narrative voice than a more distant third-person protagonist as in DRAGON’SBANE. By harder, I mean of course harder for me, but my impression is that it’s also harder for most people.

But even if you are using first-person narration, you have to draw the setting right up front in order to allow the reader to step into your world. Coffeehouse, cockroaches, movie night, silly B-movies like Godzilla, massive cleaning equipment. We’re right there with Sunshine, we’re IN the story.

That’s what the writer should aim for.

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2 thoughts on “Page critique, illustrating a common failing”

  1. Thank you thank you for reminding me that a UF vampire story by Robin McKinley is still…a story by Robin McKinley. I went out and picked up Sunshine. Now I want to find a bakery that serves Death of Marat.

  2. Hah! You are welcome! Glad you enjoyed it, and I think we all want bakeries in our towns that serve Death of Marat.

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