Sharpen the details

From Nathan Bransford:

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 CBwriter, whose page is below:

Title: Come As You Are
Genre: Bookclub psychological thriller
(pls note British English!)

Marc took the narrow turning for Wigpool passing a warning sign for wild boar. The Forest of Dean was nothing like the well-behaved woodland that bordered his garden in Surrey. A damp, earthy smell invaded the car as he pictured a family of boar, all bristles and tusks, running through the undergrowth, gathering speed and then erupting in front of him to total his new 4×4.

He had wanted to bring his wife to the reunion, but Penny had been adamant: no partners. There was something unsettling about the prospect of spending the weekend with his ex-housemates without the comforting buffer of his spouse. He tried to remember the last time he’d slept alone and couldn’t. Night-time in the forest would bring the kind of blackness you could slice with a knife. No comforting car headlights or friendly glow of lights from neighbouring houses. He would have to keep his bedroom window open because of the heatwave which meant he would be kept awake by foxes, boar, and who knew what else, making noises indistinguishable from a murder in progress. Then a bat would fly in.

Surrey bats wouldn’t do that, but he was certain anything was possible in this borderland between England and Wales.

He glanced at the sat nav. The car was a red arrow on an empty screen, the metalled track he was driving along apparently unknown to modern mapping systems. Hard to believe there was a “pretty cottage” with “an enormous lake” nearby.

I like that this page immediately situates us in a particular place and there’s a strong voice to guide us through the opening. The reference to animals making scary noises in the forest gives a tantalizing taste (presumably) of what’s to come in a psychological thriller. I enjoyed the distinction between Surrey and forest bats, which showed some fun personality.

My concern with this opening is that it feels a bit choppier than it needs to because information and context is dribbled out rather than just situating us cleanly the first time a concept is described. We first have a car, then it’s specified that it’s a “new 4×4.” We hear about “the” reunion, then eventually find out it’s with ex-housemates, then much later on that it’s at a pretty cottage on the border between England and Wales. I’m still not sure who Penny is.

There’s not much to be gained by forcing the reader to piece everything together. Err on the side of being clear the first time around.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Nathan continues his post with a redline of the page.

2 thoughts on “Sharpen the details”

  1. Probably it’s either a British thing, or just different tastes, but I liked the opening. It teased and revealed tantalizing possibilities of where this story may go. But, as always, YMMV.

  2. (pls note British English!)

    Marc took the narrow turning for Wigpool passing a warning sign for wild boar.

    That just tickled me, because “Wigpool” immediately makes me think I’m either in Britain, or a fantasy written by a British writer. The Brits have the most picturesque names 🙂 The next sentence referencing the Forest of Dean and Surrey would have removed all doubt about the Englishness of the setting.

    Aside from that, I agree with the OP. I don’t like piecemeal openings, where first we’re presented with an ear, then a trunk, then a tusk, and finally many paragraphs later announce there’s a whole dang elephant in the scene. The presence of the elephant isn’t supposed to be a mystery with a big reveal. The corpses hanging upside down from the trapezes are the mystery; know the difference. Just establish from the get-go an elephant is present and doing stuff, and move on to the more interesting parts.

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