Don’t establish a mystery without giving us a reason to care (Page critique)

by | Oct 9, 2019 | Critiques | 2 comments

Painting of a skeleton smoking a cigarette by Vincent Van Gogh

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Now then. Time for the Page Critique. 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, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to jcostello7, whose page is below. As luck and fate would have it, I actually critiqued the query for this novel last week.

Title: Woman of Words
Genre: Upmarket women’s fiction

Not here, not now, not him. Tonight’s looming friendly dinner brought a bigger risk than small talk. Brandy Kellner’s fingers trembled for a cigarette, but it wasn’t worth inviting a lecture from Sophie, her health-nut neighbor and closest thing to a friend. They were walking the few blocks from their high-rise condo to the corner to meet Ryan, who was going to drive to dinner, but Brandy might as well have been teetering on a tightrope, awaiting a descent into the past’s pit.

Discarded Dunkin’ cups littered the sidewalk, washed in the lilac of twilight. Exhaust plumed from the line of cars crammed at a stop light. Brandy’s earlier appetite had disappeared. She’d spent the afternoon toying with her phone, writing out messages to Ryan and deleting them without sending.

She kept her voice low, as if he could hear. “How exactly do you know this Ryan guy, again?”

“Josh’s new roommate.” Sophie jerked her head, making her blonde curls tumble. “He knows of you, Ren. He’s a writer. He’s cool, I promise.” One hand rose to adjust a hoop earring the size of a half-dollar. Her minty gum snapped and retracted again inside her mouth.

The nickname still sounded out of place.

“Everyone knows of me.” It came out snappier than Brandy intended. What if he also knew her, without the tiny but powerful of adding that impersonal distance?

I’m on a real mystery kick lately on the blog and today’s page critique is no exception.

It’s so, so important when creating a mystery to give the reader enough context to understand the contours of the mystery rather than just holding out on the reader and being intentionally vague.

One absolutely crucial element in establishing a good mystery: giving the reader a reason to care. And what makes the reader care? Knowing what the protagonist wants.

In this case, while I think there’s a good and genre-appropriate breezy tone to this opening, I’m struggling to invest because I just don’t really understand what’s happening and what Brandy and Sophie are talking about. I don’t understand what Brandy cares about.

Who’s Ryan? Why is Brandy keeping it a secret? Why does she think it’s weird Sophie says “Ren?”

We don’t have to know every single thing right off the bat, but in this case it’s tipping way too far into vagueness without giving us solid grounding for where we are, what’s happening, and why we should start investing.

I know the gist of the plot because I read the query, but I think it would be much more compelling to build the mystery around whether Brandy is going to be found out, rather than trying to make almost everything that’s happening a mystery.

Here’s my redline:

Title: Woman of Words
Genre: Upmarket women’s fiction

Not here, not now, not him. Tonight’s looming friendly dinner brought a bigger risk than small talk. [Too vague to be meaningful. Be precise about what’s at stake].

Brandy Kellner’s fingers trembled for a cigarette, but it wasn’t worth inviting a lecture from Sophie, her health-nut neighbor and closest thing to a friend. They were walking the few blocks from their high-rise condo to the corner to meet Ryan [insert context for who Ryan is], who was going to drive to dinner, but Brandy might as well have been felt like she was teetering on a tightrope, awaiting a descent into the dangling over the past’s pit [past’s pit is an awkward turn of phrase].

Discarded Dunkin’ cups littered the sidewalk, washed in the lilac of twilight [Set the scene more precisely. Where are they in the world?]. Exhaust plumed from the line of cars crammed at a stop light. Brandy’s earlier appetite had disappeared. She’d spent the afternoon toying with her phone, writing out messages to Ryan and deleting them without sending.

She “How exactly do you know this Ryan guy, again?” Brandy [There are two “she”s, be precise] kept her voice low, as if he could hear. [Need to be clearer about why she is hiding that she knows Ryan from her friend, I’m quickly getting confused.].

“Josh’s new roommate.” Sophie jerked her head, making her blonde curls tumble. “He knows of you, Ren. He’s a writer. He’s cool, I promise.” One hand rose to adjust a hoop earring the size of a half-dollar. Her minty gum snapped and retracted again inside her mouth.

The nickname still sounded out of place. [Which nickname? “Ren?” Why does it sound out of place? Give us more context, help us get to know these characters.]

“Everyone knows of me.” It came out snappier than Brandy intended. What if he also knew her, without the tiny but powerful of adding that impersonal distance? [I don’t understand what this sentence means, it’s convoluted and vague]

With some more clarity and specificity I think we’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening and will be able to start investing in Brandy’s plot.

Thanks again to jcostello7!

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2 Comments

  1. JOHN T. SHEA

    I must say I didn’t mind this page’s abeyance. I would have read on, even if I had not read the query last week. But I suspect there’s a word missing from the last sentence.

    Thanks to JCostello7 and Nathan!

    PS The person in the painting does NOT look very well. Perhaps that’s what comes of trying to smoke a silver spoon. Being born with one in one’s mouth is one thing, but DYING that way is quite another.

    Reply
  2. Dana Rose Bailey

    These are so helpful!!
    I see a pattern with a lot of these. Vagueness. I wonder if this is because we’re told not to give too much back story in the beginning pages that we veer toward leaving too much out.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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