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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » Smile Me Dead - Horror - 2000 words

Author Topic: Smile Me Dead - Horror - 2000 words
Member # 9669

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Hello all,

I haven't been on Hatrack in a long while, but I have been working hard on many projects during my time away and I am happy to say that I am back [Smile]

I will be posting many stories here in the next couple of weeks, but I will start out with one story to avoid clogging up the forum.

You know what to do and I appreciate all your help.


Riding my bike through the gloomy neighborhood consumed by a gray cloudless sky, trees rustling in a breeze, crows perching on telephone lines and calling to me down below, I reached into my newspaper baggy and threw one of my many knives at a smiling man walking the length of the pine straw cluttered sidewalk.
The knife entered his neck. He fell to his knees and bled. The blood spewed out of the wound, drenching his white T-shirt with the sticky red liquid. He said not a word, his eyes wide, face dead, bleeding on the concrete.
My frown fell further down on my long, white face. This is my town and no one smiles. F@cK grand happy-go-lucky perceptions. The sun never comes, never shines its light on my day, on my streets, on my children sitting in their yard with dead eyes and sad faces.

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Member # 8019

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This opening illustrates two of first-person viewpoint challenges: narrator intermediating the action and viewpoint glitches. Intermediation places strong writer surrogacy and an overly personal omnipotence onto a narrative.

Note that personal possessive pronoun "my" occurs seven times, "I" and "me" once each. This is overwrought narrator intermediation.

//Riding a bike// elides one "my," for example.

However, the last sentence's triplet "my" works for me. That is an overstatement that expresses a strong attitude and contradicts personal possession.

If that last paragraph after the first sentence opened this opening, that would also work for me.

The viewpoint glitch I see is "My frown fell further down on my long, white face." How does he see that? He can't possibly see it.

Some of the diction also doesn't work for me, feeling awkwardly descriptive and overwrought: "consumed," "crows perching," "pine straw[-]cluttered," "sitting in their yard."

"Consumed" connotates eaten, the neighborhood or the narrator eaten by the gray[,] cloudless sky? I don't know why the sky is gray, cloudless, and sunless. I can't visualize it and default to a perpetual arctic twilight.

"Crows perching" is a parallel construction glitch. Smoothing that glitch out would read more like //Crows perched on telephone lines and calling//.

"Sitting in their yard" implies the children all gather in one yard, the yard of the narrator. Is it not their families' yards?

"Pine straw[-]cluttered" connotates obstacles. "Strewn" might be stronger and clearer.

I suppose I'm a mite curious what this story is about. The narrator being maladjusted makes me want to understand what makes him tick and commit such heinous acts. I'd be most curious if the narrator were an intangible force of wickedness personified in the person of a mass murderer on a killing spree doing it for the attention.

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I'll make two observations here.

First, my study of story openings has led me to believe that the most common problem with story openings is that they throw up roadblocks to the reader entering the story. You want the reader to feel effortlessly drawn into the tale.

So right off the bat what strikes me is the syntactic difficulty of the opening sentence.
(1)Riding my bike
(1a)through the gloomy neighborhood
(1a1a)by a gray cloudless sky,
(1a2a1)in a breeze,
(2a1) on telephone lines
(2b)and calling
(2b1)to me
(2b1a) down below,
(4) [verb phrase]
(4a)reached into my newspaper baggy
(4b) and threw one of my many knives
(4b1) at a smiling man
(4b1a)walking the
(4b1b) length
(4b1b1) of the
(4b1b1a1)pine straw
(4b1b1) sidewalk.

OK this is slapdash analysis, but it's enough to illustrate my point: this sentence is way too complicated, particularly for a story opening. There's modifiers all over the place, and the reader has to keep it all in his head, them somehow match up all those adjectives and adverbs with what they're supposed modify. Some readers won't have any problem with this, but many will. The usual fix for this kind of problem is to break the compound sentence up into a sequence of shorter sentences.

I believe (and I invite dissent on this) that language in an opening is best simple and straightforward. That means uncluttered sentence structures, and restraint in the use of metaphors. I know writers work really hard to hook readers or propel them into the story. That's fine, but they should pay equal attention to making it easy for the reader to enter the story. Some of the best story openings have no visible "hook" whatsoever, you just fall effortlessly into the story.

Second point: C.S. Lewis once pointed out the difference between believing there's a tiger in the next room and believing there's a ghost there. There's fear in either case, but only in the case of the tiger do you know exactly what you're afraid of. Horror hinges on a kind of uncertain awe. Is ghost alive or dead? It's kind of both, which makes it scary. The philosopher Noel Carroll calls this "category jamming"; when we don't know what to make of something it fascinates us in an uncomfortable way.

So one way to generate horror is to take something that seems perfectly ordinary and give it a macabre twist. You seem to have grasped this principle, good for you. Just from the standpoint of my personal taste, buckets-o-gore doesn't do it for me. At some point you simply can't raise the stakes that way any longer. Recently I was reading a passage written by George R.R. Martin where a character carves off someone's nipple with knife, and my reaction was "meh." There'd been so much of that kind of thing going on that I wasn't impressed.

Of course *you* need to know the market your selling to. If the market norms is buckets-o-blood in the first para, then that's what you'll have to supply. But I'd consider harnessing the power of suspense. Suspense and horror go together like peanut butter and jelly. You can milk the horror of something that might possibly be about to happen indefinitely.

John Bellairs, the children's fantasy author, is a master of horror through suggestion. I suggest looking at his one adult novel, THE FACE IN THE FROST for several potent examples of horror without a drop of blood involved. If you can generate horror with a cloak hung on a peg (as he does), think of what you'd be able to do with buckets-o-gore.

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Member # 7912

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I'll take a look
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Bent Tree
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The problems for me were the voice and the lack of empathy I felt for the MC.

First person can be conveyed without the use of excessive pronouns. Also descriptions of ones own frown falling down ones own face seem a stretch for me.

I didn't really feel the connection with the MC. I have F' the world days but I don't go riding my bike throwing knives at people. This will be a challenge. We need an empathic trait to identify with.

Just my take...

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Hi C@r3y:
I think I see where you're going, or at least the direction you're taking. The issue was the lede sentence. You have too many elements at play at one time, and even though they all tie together, it creates a situation where I found myself trying to read and understand rather than just being able to read and enjoy. I think the initial sentence could be broken into three shorter sentences, each with its own individual point, to draw the reader in.
I think the second sentence would work better as your lede. The description in the first sentence could be fed to the reader a bit at a time, with the action and its attendant questions of the second sentence being more of a draw.
You are setting us up for something that, despite that criticism, I would be tempted to keep reading. All the best and keep writing.

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I agree that the first sentence was difficult to choke down. I believe it should be broken up into at least two pieces, possibly three.

However, that 2nd paragraph was really great. It gave me a good feel for the environment and the MC's attitude and power.

Would you consider leading with that? (With slight tweaks to make it first sentence-like.)


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