Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Page Critique: Vagueness tends to deflate a mystery



If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts on the page, please be exceedingly polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to Justin McKean, whose page is below:
The taller stood near the third floor window, scanning the crowd of parade-goers lining the streets. He turned to the shorter and smiled.
“Bigger crowd, yes? Than last year?” the shorter said.
“Last year wasn't as big a deal. Oop – here we go.”
The shorter crossed to the window as well, standing carefully back from it. Outside the number 150 was blazoned on just about everything. One hundred fifty years since the Great Tomes revealing the Builders had been discovered.
A troupe of actors passed, playing out one of the Tome stories. The Tomes claimed an ancient enemy had chased the Builders across the sky and that they had died in a final stand, here, at the valley of Safehaven. Debate about the veracity of the texts shook academic halls for over a century.
The crowd roared. The King arrived, waving and laughing. Richard was in his sixth year as King. Kind, fair, savvy enough to throw a good party regularly, King Richard was the most popular monarch the realm of Safehaven had seen in generations.
The crowds' adulation continued but the King's laughter abruptly stopped because of the arrow which seemed to suddenly appear in his throat. He fell to his hands and knees, then began to get back up again, falling as a second arrow pierced his sternum. The crowd still screamed his name. It took another moment for the tone to change from praise to horror.
Authors sometimes have a tendency to want to create mystery by withholding information. This is a natural impulse, but it can be a very dangerous business.

In this case, while I am definitely intrigued by this world and this king who got rather abruptly shot with an arrow, I kept thinking, "Taller what? Shorter what?" Are these people? Gnomes? Squirrels?

It's so important to pick and choose what you decide to reveal and withhold. This scene would be no less mysterious if we had a better mental image of the people/gnomes/squirrels observing this action, and in fact it would perhaps even heighten the intrigue. Are these people in on the assassination? Are they horrified?

And throughout this page, specificity would go a very long way. My thoughts below are only directional, the author alone knows what's really going on in this scene, but hopefully will illustrate how things can be improved with a bit more illustrative detail.
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.
A troupe of actors passed, playing out one of the Tome storyies of the sky chaser ["one of the stories" is vague, better to be specific]. The Tomes claimed an ancient enemy had chased the Builders across the sky and that they had died in a final stand, here, at the valley of Safehaven. The actors, wearing flowing blue tunics, leaped and twirled in a pantomime of a race through the heavens. Debate about the veracity of the texts shook academic halls for over a century.
The crowd roared. The King had arrived, waving and laughing. Richard was in his sixth year as King. Kind, fair, savvy enough to throw a good party regularly, King Richard he was the most popular monarch the realm of Safehaven had seen in generations.
The crowds' adulation continued but tThe King's laughter abruptly stopped because of the when an arrow which seemed to suddenly appeared in his throat. He fell to his hands and knees, then began to get back up again, falling again as a second arrow pierced his sternum. The crowd still screamed his name. It took another moment for the tone to change from praise to horror.
The arrow still perhaps appears a bit too soon in the narrative and it might be better to have more setup on "taller" and "Igor" and Richard and what exactly is going on during this day, but this redline hopefully illustrates how replacing vagueness with specificity will give the reader a better chance at imagining the action and becoming invested in what happens.

Thanks again to Justin McKean, and if you'd like to have your page critiqued you can enter it here.

Art: Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna by Laurits Tuxen






8 comments:

Neil Larkins said...

Great example of how a scene can be improved by substituting illustration for vagueness. I have this problem...or adding unnecessary detail. I'm working on both. Thanks.

wendy said...

Justin's story has great potential to be an intriguing story that entices readers for a very long time. Stories of kings and queens - and mysterious sky people - have the power to become legends. I agree that more detail would aid in creating a visual image for the reader thus pulling them in. Once a story can be visualized, then the reader becomes more invested as the story becomes more real.

I'd have also liked more information about the king, himself, including a description on the day, and info regarding the attitudes of the two shorter and taller characters towards him, specifically.
I'm always looking for attitudes because this reveals so much about character, theme, etc. At this stage, I don't need information about mysterious texts as that distracts from the great spectacle playing out around us.

I liked the detail of the '150' number appearing everywhere. That was an intriguing element and great visual aid.

I thought the appearance of the arrow was a bit limp. Could the arrow, perhaps, thud into his throat and be accompanied by spurting blood? There is an artery around the throat area and when an artery is pierced blood spurts out. To kill a great and powerful man, the scene needs to have drama and some horror, I think.

Obviously much thought has gone into this story already and, as I mentioned, the diverse elements such as a popular monarch and myths give it the potential to become a compelling read.

wendy said...

Justin's story has great potential to be an intriguing story that entices readers for a very long time. Stories of kings and queens - and mysterious sky people - have the power to become legends. I agree that more detail would aid in creating a visual image for the reader thus pulling them in. Once a story can be visualized, then the reader becomes more invested as the story becomes more real.

I'd have also liked more information about the king, himself, including a description on the day, and info regarding the attitudes of the two shorter and taller characters towards him, specifically.
I'm always looking for attitudes because this reveals so much about character, theme, etc. At this stage, I don't need information about mysterious texts as that distracts from the great spectacle playing out around us.

I liked the detail of the '150' number appearing everywhere. That was an intriguing element and great visual aid.

I thought the appearance of the arrow was a bit limp. Could the arrow, perhaps, thud into his throat and be accompanied by spurting blood? There is an artery around the throat area and when an artery is pierced blood spurts out. To kill a great and powerful man, the scene needs to have drama and some horror, I think.

Obviously much thought has gone into this story already and, as I mentioned, the diverse elements such as a popular monarch and myths give it the potential to become a compelling read.

dolorah said...

I little more set up for the king's arrival, the street crowd, and the actual assassination would be helpful. I also had the same thoughts about Taller and Shorter. I want to know what race the citizens and conspirators are. And even though the assassination is grisly, and the king seems well loved by the people, I'm still not connected to either the king or the assassins. I'm a reader who doesn't bestow empathy simply because a reportedly good person was murdered, and don't judge negatively for assassins.

I am intrigued by the set up however, and would likely read on.

Aggie Cowboy said...

Justin has a great premise going. I'm especially intrigued by the Builders.

But...Last Paragraph, First Sentence: 'abruptly' and 'suddenly' in the same sentence...tsk, tsk, shame on you, Brandon. That said, this is a great place to really build on the suspense and add specificity, especially with pacing. Pacing can add to suspense as well by slowing things down, adding more detail, etc...the reader will know something is about to happen to the King, but will keep reading to find out. Then speed it up as the chaos erupts (to Hell with proper grammar). Also, instinct is to reach for the injured body part.
***
Richard's hearty laughter cut short as he stumbled. He reached for the black-feathered shaft protruding from his throat even as he collapsed to knees. The pure white silk of his cuff turned bloody red.

The crowd cheered and shouted good-natured jabs at his Royal Clumsiness as the King struggled back to his feet.

A second shaft pierced his sternum. The king collapsed.

A high-pitched scream. More screams sound. Curses and wordless bellows.
***
Okay, not great. And much depends on how far away taller and shorter are since this is from their POV as well as what they're actually watching for.

Justin McKean said...

Hey, thanks very much for the critique. I see what you're talking about. Now I can go fix things up a bit.

If I'm understanding correctly, it's the lack of specific things to choose to be mysterious about that saps the drama. So if I get more specific about what I choose to conceal, I can more effectively direct the reader down the path I want them to follow.

Nathan Bransford said...

Justin-

Yeah, think of it as articulating the mystery. You might keep the characters' ultimate motives hidden or not reveal who the real killer is, but that doesn't mean the reader can't picture the beards on their faces.

Thanks again for volunteering the page!

Marion said...

Great excerpt. I would definitely elaborate on the assassination scene: the king's eyes widening, the agony in his face, blood spurting, courtiers rushing to help etc etc. It happens too quickly with no suspense leading up to the event which I presume is monumental. And when the king dies, it happens in one sentence. Needs another layer of description, emotion and feelings :)

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