The Dangers of Detail Derailment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, kids, we have a first page to discuss. Let’s read it and chat on the other side.

Shadow of Xiom-Thogg

Barbarians clashed on the road to Heliopolis. Three were stout, blue-bearded Sherdens, one of the tribes of sea-folk that sailed forth to harry faltering Egypt. They wielded long, leaf-bladed swords and were protected by horned helmets and bronze-banded corselets, augmented by round shields emblazoned with bulls heads.  One of their number already lay dying, a spear tangled in his guts. She who cast that spear was as alien to the land of the Pharaohs as the Sherden, though she came by a longer and more circuitous route. A green-eyed giantess, pale of flesh and tawny-haired, standing a good head taller than her sea-faring opponents. She was incongruously clad in the manner of a Persian soldier, with a bronze-scaled cuirass over a linen tunic and trousers thrust into soft leather boots. Like a lioness cornered by jackals she battled her tormentors, lashing out from behind a tall wicker shield with a sagaris, the deadly battle-axe of the Persians.

A Sherden made a bold thrust, seeking her vitals, but his blade transfixed the wicker shield instead, narrowly missing the woman’s sinewy forearm. She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield. Unwilling to release his weapon, he was upended and tumbled to the ground. She let the ruined shield fall with the hapless swordsman, and his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged recklessly in an attempt to decapitate the tawny-haired she-devil. Moving with preternatural speed she sidestepped his powerful blow. As the momentum from the spent attack sent him stumbling past her, she brought down the axe, shearing through his horned helmet and splitting his skull in a welter of blood and brains. He fell, sprawling in the dust that thirstily sucked up his flowing blood.  

***

JSB: Ah, nothing like blood and brains to get us going this fine Sunday. Let me say some good things up front. I like this writer’s imagination. There is a vivid “other world” here, and the potential is bubbling in the pot.

In some ways it reminds of the great Robert E. Howard, and the many stories he did for Weird Tales back in the 30s. He could build a world and clash the swords unlike anyone before or since. This author has similar raw material; we just have to chisel it so it makes for gripping fiction.

First off, a tip about readability these days. No one likes big, blocky text. This entry is made up of two Brobdingnagian paragraphs. A browser opening up this book might take a look at the page and think, “Why bother?”

True, readers of epic fantasy are perhaps more tolerant of blocky graphs. But not all, so why turn off a significant percentage of readers when it’s so unnecessary? No one is going to complain that your first page isn’t hard enough to read. So break up the blocks! This page could easily be four to eight paragraphs. (Which reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked if he’d like his pizza cut into four or eight slices: “Better make it four,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”)

Now to the heart of it. World building in any kind of speculative genre is a crucial part of the program. But the trick is to do it without overlarding us with details. Our brains (those that aren’t split by an axe, that is) cannot adequately process or appreciate too many unique details coming at us in a rat-a-tat fashion. We will either have to slow down and re-read, which ruins the flow; or we’ll set the book aside, which ruins the chances of selling the next book in the series.

In the first paragraph alone, I count at least sixteen unique details, all demanding to be a picture in my head, and two stopping me cold and sending me to the dictionary (cuirass, sagaris):

  • stout, blue-bearded
  • long, leaf-bladed swords
  • horned helmets
  • bronze-banded corselets
  • round shields
  • bulls heads
  • green-eyed
  • pale of flesh
  • tawny-haired
  • bronze-scaled
  • cuirass
  • linen tunic
  • trousers
  • soft leather boots
  • tall wicker shield
  • sagaris

The point is there’s an exciting fight going on, but my head is swimming with all these details. There are just too many.

So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, let’s put it another way. Don’t let details derail the action. You, author, will have to develop a sense about this. It may be that you’ll require outside eyes to look at your pages: beta readers who are familiar with the genre, crit partners, perhaps a freelance editor.

What you want is an action scene with essential details. Pick a few that best set the stage and flow them in naturally with the action. In fact, that may be a good rule of thumb (though many writers bristle at rules, and use their thumbs primarily on the space bar): allow yourself only 2 – 5 unique details per page in the opening chapter. Everything else should be action.

One more crucial craft point will help you in this quest: pick a point of view! This passage is in Omniscient, which tempts the author to put in all the things they see in their imaginary world.

If, on the other hand, you filtered this action through the POV of a character, you would naturally become more selective in the detail work; plus, readers will be more fully engaged because it is through character that readers bond with the material. A twofer!

Right now you’ve got three Sherdens and one “she-devil.” We have no way of knowing who, if any of these, will be a main character. Maybe this is a prologue and no one here will end up being the MC.

No matter. You still should choose one of these characters to be the viewpoint. When you do that, the action of the scene will automatically take precedence over the details. And that’s what we’re after. [Note: Third Person POV is usually the better choice, but even in Omniscient POV you can select a viewpoint character. See the excerpt below.]

For laughs I looked up a Robert E. Howard story from the January 1934 edition of Weird Tales. Here’s the opening paragraph from “Rogues in the House,” a tale featuring our favorite barbarian, Conan:

At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the real ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to met the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and to wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing the Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.

Notice that we start with action and two named characters. How many unique details does Howard give us? One: small gold cask. No derailment here. We are caught up in the mysterious exchange (an ear? Really?) and what it could possibly mean. Nothing distracts us from the action, which is a hallmark any Howard story.

Thus, my advice:

  1. pick a viewpoint character
  2. give him a name (or her, if it turns out to be the she-devil)
  3. rewrite these 288 words using only 2-5 unique details
  4. with the action established, use 2-5 details per page until the scene ends
  5. from that point forward be strategic in your use of details. Utilize what you need for world building, but never let the details get so thick they interrupt the flow of the story

Others may have some advice, too, so let’s hear it. Help our anonymous writer out.

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First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001

 

Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.

PROLOGUE

Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?

 

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