The reader should generally know what your narrator knows (Page critique)

by | Jan 9, 2020 | Critiques | 8 comments

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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 Krystata, whose page is below.

Prologue
Speedie

September was always my favorite month. The crisp breeze accentuated the auburn flame of the trees as it crinkled through them. I flared my nostrils, sighing deeply as I turned away from the glow of the leaves, the wind catching my black mane. She sits there, tears in her eyes, watching me intently as she whispers to me softly

“Speedie,” her voice pleads with me, filled with an unmistakable ache.

I whuffle softly as I hobble toward her, favoring my left hind leg. Dropping my head to her lap, I feel her face in my mane, the sobs wracking her body. She breathes deeply, and I know she’s taking in my scent. The same as I take in hers. She smells of the sweet alfalfa she placed in my enclosure earlier, and I know I will carry this memory with me into eternity.

I rub my upper lip against her cheek, meaning it as comfort, but realizing it falls short. Nibbling at the ends of her hair, I rest my leg. Her sorrow fills my soul and I’ve no means to soothe her. I wish I could have made the choice for her, and in some ways, I was her guide- much as she has been mine. I pull away to gaze into her eyes, feeling her soft touch on my face. So much kindness, so much love.

We both turn at the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. I expect her to pull away now but instead, she wraps her arms around my neck. “I love you, Speedie. Please forgive me.”

My whicker is a whisper in her ear. Oh, my dear, Amy, how my heart aches for you. All is forgiven. You will always be my person. Forever. Even if all we had was a moment in time.

She rises ever so slowly, and reaches for the beautiful leather halter, engraved with my name, which I had always worn with pride. It was time.

While this is a prologue, which in general tend to be a bit more atmospheric and ephemeral than the start of the actual narrative, I worry a bit that the reader has to work just a bit too hard to understand what’s happening here, which lessens the emotional impact this scene could otherwise have.

There are two very rough rules of thumb when it comes to first person narratives that apply to this page:

  1. The reader should generally know what the narrator knows. It’s confusing when the narrator is withholding information they know from the reader. If something is withheld it should be thought through very carefully.
  2. Remember that the narrator is telling a story. Unless it’s experimental fiction or an otherwise idiosyncratic approach, a first person narrative isn’t someone’s transcribed thoughts. It’s a story, which means things need to be contextualized for the reader.

In this case, while I think the author is able to pull off the conceit that this is a horse narrator, I’m just not sure there’s enough of a reason to withhold who the horse is talking to. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be picturing in this scene.

Who is “she?” What does “she” look like? I have some guesses, but why do I need to guess? Why can’t we know?

Ultimately, while I think the prose mostly reads well, I found it frustrating to be kept too far from the story to know what to take from this scene. It ended up feeling needlessly vague to me.

Here’s my redline:

Prologue
Speedie

September was always my favorite month. The crisp breeze crinkled through the trees, accentuated ing their auburn flame of the trees as it crinkled through them. I flared my nostrils, sighing deeply as I [careful with sighs, they can easily be overdone] and turned away from the glow of the leaves, feeling the wind catching my black mane. She sits there, tears in her eyes, watching me intently [careful with glancesand gazes, which can also be overdone] as she and whispers to me softly. [Who is she? What does she look like? I’m having a hard time picturing this.]

“Speedie,” her voice she [I thought she was whispering?] pleads with me, filled with an unmistakable ache.

I whuffle softly as I hobble toward her, favoring my left hind leg. [Why is she hobbling? Contextualize] Dropping my head to her lap, I feel her face in my mane, the sobs wracking her body. She breathes deeply, and I know she’s taking in my scent. The same as I take in hers. She smells of the sweet alfalfa she placed in my enclosure earlier, and I know I will carry this memory with me into eternity.

I rub my upper lip against her cheek, meaning it as comfort, but realizing it falls short [Why does it fall short?]. Nibbling at the ends of her hair, I rest my leg. Her sorrow fills my soul and I’ve no means to soothe her. I wish I could have made the choice for her, and in some ways, I was her guide- much as she has been mine. [This feels both a bit convoluted and too vague. What choice? What does guide mean in this context?] I pull away to gaze into her eyes, feeling her soft touch on my face. So much kindness, so much love.

We both turn at toward the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. [Who is this?] I expect her to pull away now but instead, she wraps her arms around my neck. “I love you, Speedie. Please forgive me.”

My whicker is a whisper in her ear. Oh, my dear, Amy, how my heart aches for you. All is forgiven. You will always be my person. Forever. Even if all we had was a moment in time.

She rises ever so slowly, and reaches for the beautiful leather halter, engraved with my name, which I had always worn with pride. It was time.

Thanks again to Krystata!

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Art: Gesattelter Brauner by William Barrand

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    #1: The first paragraph suggests the narrator is a horse: “I FLARED MY NOSTRILS, sighing deeply as I turned away from the glow of the leaves, the wind catching MY BLACK MANE.” By the third paragraph, it is obvious it is a horse–there is no confusion.
    #2: The reason Speedie, the horse, is hobbling is due to a leg injury which is stated in the same sentence (“…favoring my left hind leg.”)
    #3: And anyone who has ever loved an animal and had to make the excruciating decision to put them down knows exactly whose tires are sounding on the gravel driveway. It’s the veterinarian arriving to perform the euthanasia.

    I agree, the page needs work, both in clarity and syntax, but I feel the author has succeeded in the concept (conceit??) of a horse as the narrator. I think the author might consider plumping up this prologue by providing more details in terms of characters, background, and setting, much in the way author Garth Stein does in the first chapter of his best-selling novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” a first-person narrative told from a dog’s perspective.

    Reply
    • Nathan Bransford

      Thanks for the additional notes!

      I have a rural background so I can similarly make guesses about who is arriving in the driveway, but I also don’t think understanding the scene should be contingent upon possessing that kind of knowledge. People without that kind of a background also need to be let into the story.

      And yes, clear it’s a leg injury, but there could be more specificity around how or when that happened (with the caveat that it’s a prologue and that may be an intentional mystery).

      But I definitely agree the author has succeeded in the conceit of making it clear it’s a horse narrating, and especially agree with this: “I think the author might consider plumping up this prologue by providing more details in terms of characters, background, and setting”

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        “Conceit” might be a bit of an overstatement, as this prose is neither fanciful in expression nor an elaborate metaphor. On the contrary, it reads as though the author intended merely to capture a tender and poignant moment between a human and her beloved horse.

        Reply
  2. Lauren B

    I was also a little thrown by the tense-change in the middle of the first paragraph.

    Black Beauty was one of my favorite books growing up, so yay for equine narrators! Using a non-human POV gives you so many opportunities for a unique voice, and as a reader I love spending time in a head so different from my own 🙂

    I think Nathan’s note “a first person narrative isn’t someone’s transcribed thoughts” really captures why first-person, especially first-person present tense, can be challenging. It’s not a matter of writing action and description like third-person and simply swapping pronouns. It’s a wholly different perspective. My favorite first-person narrators are those who are clearly telling the story to someone unseen, with an agenda, like Humbert Humbert or Holden Caulfield, and not just seemingly describing a moment-to-moment play-by-play to themselves.

    Reply
  3. JOHN T. SHEA

    An interesting first page. My only concern is where does one get a horse sensitivity reader to avoid speciesism? That may have to wait for the audio version in Equine.

    But seriously, thanks to Krystata and Nathan!

    Reply
  4. Neil Larkins

    They’re short, but I always learn something from your Page Critiques, Nathan. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Wendy

    Firstly, I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to Nathan for this series of critiques. Always a mine of information which is much easier to digest than reading a list of techniques from a text book. Always enjoy and get so much from these critiques. 🙂

    I agree with the syntax corrections. Certainly makes the prose flow more beautifully.

    As you pointed out, Nathan, prologues can get away with being a bit ephemeral. Often the story takes a different turn in the first chapter so to go too deeply with characters that might not be seen again isn’t necessary. This was a prologue where I think a little bit of vagueness kind of worked as it’s a tragic scene where we don’t want to know too much overt detail. In this prologue, we don’t want to be drawn too deeply into the lives of characters, especially as the narrator is the source of this short passage and he (why do I think ‘he’? I don’t know…just a feeling) is also the source of the tragedy.

    If we come at the passage at the right momentum, however, all the clues are there. (Admittedly, I had to reread a few times, because during the first reading, I came at it with the pace I’d read a newspaper or more modern story) but this didn’t detract from the beauty for me. I found that I appreciated the subtle clues all the more.) The name of the narrator character is ‘Speedie’ inferring, as we read on, that this character was a race horse. It is usually the fate of such horses to be put down once they become maimed. (Last Melbourne Cup, in Australia, there was a huge furore over the number of horses who were injured during the previous Melbourne Cup, and ‘had’ to be put down. Taylor Swift refused to perform after fans lobbied.)

    However, this piece still presents Speedie’s owner, Amy, in a sympathetic light as through the eyes of the narrator we are shown her distress and genuine love for the horse with clues like the alfalfa left in his stall earlier, the beautiful and expensive halter, and the moments of tenderness between the horse and his person friend. The setting is autumn which usually symbolises the beginning of the end for someone or something.

    I don’t think it matters why the horse is hobbling as this detail doesn’t add anything to the meaning of the story. For me, it was obvious from the narration that there was no foul play involved, either an accident or some kind of weakness in the horse that had become aggravated through training and hard work.

    <<>>>
    I agree with Nathan’s comments here. If I had the time to sit and think about this sentence more, in context, perhaps I’d have understood it a bit better. However, who of us does have that time? We do need some stream-lining, or feeding, to be able to quickly digest what the writer wants us to assimilate.

    All in all, I think it’s beautifully done, especially on the deepest level. The horse character understands, without rancour, the difficult choice his owner must make and still loves her. She will forever be his ‘person’. Is the author subtly stating that this world is filled with irony? We, as humans, are supposed to be the leading species on this planet, and yet have a long way to go to reach this potential. Meanwhile, the character of the horse is demonstrating amazing selflessness, telepathy and understanding.

    Reply
  6. Wendy

    Hello? Who stole my quote? That pesky html 🙂

    Anyway here it is: ‘ I wish I could have made the choice for her, and in some ways, I was her guide- much as she has been mine. [This feels both a bit convoluted and too vague. What choice? What does guide mean in this context?’

    Reply

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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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