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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » In Medias Res?

   
Author Topic: In Medias Res?
extrinsic
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For me, in medias res is more than in the middle of things. In medias res openings introduce the action and through the unfolding action introduces characters, settings, events, theme, voices, and a central or bridging dramatic complication. In medias res action is in character voice and unfolds in the moment, place, and situation of the dramatic action. Backstory develops in the background, if at all, and maybe to a degree through flashback scenes also in medias res, recollection, and character introspection (thoughts).

I favor in medias res openings, scenes, and jump transitions between scenes. How about you-all? What does in medias res mean to you and how do you deploy it? Do you like in medias res?

[ May 03, 2013, 07:30 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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I like an in media res opening in the way I like a nice piece of beef liver. Under- or over-cooked liver is horrible; and truth be told there are things I like better than liver. Still, liver is good when it's handled properly.

Openings in general are hard, but I think in media res calls for a particularly high level of skill.

Imagine you're starting the story with a nighttime scene in which the hero is being trailed down a street by dark wizards. It takes considerable skill to make that kind of scene work in the middle of a story, to infuse it with atmosphere and tension. But in an opening you're dealing with a reader who doesn't know the ground rules yet. In openings you're constantly faced with decisions about what a reader needs to know in order to understand enough to continue, and what can be left for later. In an in media res opening you've got to handle that, stage manage the action, and fill him in enough on the rules that he can understand the peril the POV character is in.

The potential for confusion in an in media res opening is higher, and openings are where a reader's tolerance for confusion is lowest. Still, if you can pull it off, in media res helps get the story moving a little more quickly.

Let's be clear, though, what in media res isn't: it's not a quick fix for a dull opening. I sometimes see in media res openings crudely welded onto exposition-laden story openings, as if the writer thought he could generate enough momentum to propel the reader through the dense mire of information that follows. If you can't handle the reader briefing you need to launch a story conventionally, then in media res only makes your shortcomings more obvious.

I think there is too much emphasis on gimmickry in openings anyhow. I believe the most important thing to achieve in an opening is clarity. Yes, there may be things about the story the reader doesn't grasp yet, but the dominant feeling a reader should have in an opening is one of effortless comprehension. If you can do that, then you can manage an in media res opening, and it doesn't feel gimmicky, it feels natural

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LDWriter2
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Actually, I usually don't think about it.

I do what I feel the story should have or how I see it in my head.

Sometimes that starts with action, sometimes with introducing the MC first, a couple of times I have started with the result of some action that the MC has to react to. I'm not sure what I do the most. But whatever the MC is doing I try to add in an introduction too.

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Grumpy old guy
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Beginning a story 'in the middle of things', technically referred to as an in medias res opening does not mean that you have to open your story with a full scale inter-galactic battle in progress around your protagonist. It literally means that the story starts after the dramatic complication that sparked the whole thing off.

An in medias res opening could be a quiet, intimate scene between two people over a candlelight dinner instead of swords at two paces.

For me, an in medias res opening needs to be handled with great care, ensuring that the reader's sensibilities aren't offended. By this, I mean that a reader needs some basic information the moment they open a book; and to me this is either who or where, what can come later, but not too much later.

The biggest danger with an in medias res opening is: where do you go from there? The tension and conflict in a story is meant to rise as the story progresses. So, if you start with a whole lot of colour, movement, ding-dong punching and cussing, how do you ramp up the voltage? So to speak.

Phil.

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RyanB
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Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all start in the middle of a larger story but roughly at the beginning of the MC's involvement with the story.

Roughly. Upon closer inspection that's not true at all. HP's involvement starts either when his mother is killed or when the letters start rolling in. Katniss' starts when her father is killed or when Prim's name is pulled from the hat.

It's mostly semantics. All stories start in the middle of something. Even though the Bible starts "In the beginning," we have God present. Where did He come from and what's His motivation for creating things?

Ten Little Indians feels like it starts in the middle of the action because it moves so quickly even though it pretty much starts at the beginning. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feels like it starts in the beginning even though it starts near the end of the story ... because it moves so slowly.

I'm with Matt. Something that feels like in medias res can be satisfying. But it's hard to do right.

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Reziac
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I'm with LDWriter2. The story starts where it starts. Which may be in media res, or it may be elsewhere. Grumpy Old Guy makes good points about what that may actually BE.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all start in the middle of a larger story but roughly at the beginning of the MC's involvement with the story.

Which means those stories don't start in media res.

Every event depends on events that came before it. If you define "in media res" as "depending on something that happened before", the term becomes pointless because all stories would start "in media res". For example every story depends on the protagonist being born, or if the story starts there it depends on his parents or grandparents being born, all the way back to Adam or amoeba, take your pick.

Here's how the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines "in media res":
quote:
The Latin phrase meaning "into the middle of things", applied to a common technique of storytelling by which the narrator begins the story at some exciting point in the middle of the action, thereby gaining the reader's interest before explaining preceding events by analepsis ("flashbacks") at some later stage.
(emphasis mine)

Here it must be understood that "in the middle of the action" means "after the protagonist's involvement with the main events of the story." If you include backstory as part of the "action" of a story, then not only is the term "in media res" meaningless, "backstory" becomes meaningless as well.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
I'm with LDWriter2. The story starts where it starts.

I think one has to be careful about this. Where to start a story is a choice an author makes, whether he does so by design or by default. I've seen many, many stories in which the writer struggles with a host of problems that would simply evaporate if he started the story in a different place (usually later).

There's the start of the story (where the plot begins) and the *genesis* of a story (where the idea comes from). For C.S. Lewis, a story's genesis was always with a visual image (e.g. a lamp post in the middle of a snowy forest), then he'd sit down and write about that image. You can either take the starting point that emerges from your initial inspiration, or you can choose to move the starting point if the opening doesn't seem to work. You *ought* to do what's best for the story.

An in media res opening could arise either way; it may be the first image you have when you sit down to write, or it can be a solution you try to fix an opening that's too slow.

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Grumpy old guy
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I'm afraid I'm with MattLeo here, a story does not determine where it starts, the author does. And that choice is a monumental and momentous one. [Frown]

I have a novel at the moment that is desperately searching for the right opening. The opening of my story has certain things that simply must be accomplished. If I can't find the right method of informing the reader of essential information within that first opening scene, they won't understand the whole premise of the story, or the reversal on the last page.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Aristotle notes a first cause is the beginning of incitement to act, a circumstance that does not of necessity follow another, that progresses through the action to a final effect, and that completes one and only one action; that is, an accessible action.

Potter's singular action, though many motifs arise along the way, is a maturation story, coming of age, initiation, middle grade through young adult. The opening begins with the infant orphan's delivery to his foster family, caused by Voldemort murdering his parents. Potter's involved from then on in growing into adulthood with all the evil of his culture opposing him, without benefit of family guidance.

What's the first cause? is a forerunner question part of my process, reading or writing. The first cause of Santiago's dramatic complication is being labeled salao, cursed as unlucky by his society, partly metaphysical and partly mundane (earthly). Santiago's journey then is proving to himself and others he's not salao.(Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea).

I've read many a narrative opening that does what Freytag says is a best practice, paraphrasing, upsets emotional equilibrium. Though many more openings I've read begin in backstory, their emotional equilbrium is upset as much as in medias res openings, which more often begin with a a first cause enciting force instead of what came before that causes emotional upset different from an everyday routine.

A strong example is Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." The short story doesn't get into "the middle of things" until the tenth paragraph, when the action starts from a first cause. However, the backstory is necessary to understand both the tangible and intangible action of the story.

Besides, if the backstory had been portrayed in scene instead, the story would have been at least twice as long, and dull getting through it from no clear direction of the plot, and not suitable for the half-hour reading budget or under five thousand words market for the short story, nor would the intangible meaning have been as accessible. And also, that backstory openings which summarize and explain preceding circumstances, all the while upsetting emotional equilibrium, generally fit readers' comfort zones, since escalating tension excites readers' emotional responses.

Link to an authorized online publication of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been":

http://www.usfca.edu/jco/whereareyougoing

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MartinV
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Originally posted by MattLeo:
quote:
I think there is too much emphasis on gimmickry in openings anyhow. I believe the most important thing to achieve in an opening is clarity. Yes, there may be things about the story the reader doesn't grasp yet, but the dominant feeling a reader should have in an opening is one of effortless comprehension. If you can do that, then you can manage an in media res opening, and it doesn't feel gimmicky, it feels natural.
You, sir, are my hero.
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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
If you define "in media res" as "depending on something that happened before", the term becomes pointless

I agree, but I'm not going that far.

HP's involvement certainly starts when he gets his scar, not when he's delivered to his foster parents. Rowling uses the scar and people's reactions to Harry to create intrigue, rather than dropping you into the "action."

My point is that in medias res is not binary. It's a spectrum. And the effect we associate with in medias res (being dropped into the action) isn't completely due to where the story begins.

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Grumpy old guy
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After reading "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been", I'm pretty certain that such a story, with that style of opening, would not get beyond the slush-pile. I agree with extrinsic that without the narrator providing the back-story, the piece would have been of novella length. However, today's writers are expected(?) to 'get to the point' quickly, and preferably in a close POV.

I'm not saying that Joyce Carol Oates would not have risen to the challenge, simply that in today's world she would have had to choose another way to quickly 'fill in the blanks' at the beginning of the story.

Phil.

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Grumpy old guy
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RyanB, in terms of the series of stories, Harry Potter does begin in medias res; simply because of all that has gone before the moment we first meet him, and the back-story revealed in subsequent stories.

However, the first book does not, in my opinion, begin in medias res. What we do get is an introduction to character (Harry Potter, et al) and milieu (wizards and muggles). What we don't know anything about yet is the inciting incident for the series (an in medias res qualification that it meets), and we are yet to learn about the inciting incident for the first story.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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The Potter saga begins and stays in the middle of the moment, place, and situation of the settings' actions, one qualification for in medias res, not recounted from a writer's desk, nor told from a narrator's thoughts or lectern. Seymour Chatman might label the saga a nonnarrated piece for its close narrative distance and otherwise mostly absent narrator voice.

The Oates piece, contrarily, has a strong narrator voice, recounted by a narrator with significant tense changes as the storytelling unfolds. That's subtle. The traditional voice does hold readers a distance apart, but then the voice signals a degree of vicarious remove from a horrific experience, and signals there's intangible action boiling beneath the surface for readers who delight in layered depths. It's an allegory. I've noted sophisticated readers like the way the story is constructed and told because it is traditional and more easily accessible for its traditions. A paradox; that is, that its less sophisticated method appeals to more sophisticated readers, because that's what they're used to reading.

The long term trend, though, over the opus of literature has been from strong narrator voice and limited character voice to limited narrator voice and strong character voice, another feature of in medias res, since character voice is also in medias res. However, as RyanB notes, voices and in medias res are spectrum curves with extremes. I've noted readers generally favor timely, judicious, well-crafted variety and not purely any one extreme or another. Monomania is to my thinking the emotional death of a creative inspiration.

[ May 04, 2013, 11:34 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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RyanB
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
However, today's writers are expected(?) to 'get to the point' quickly, and preferably in a close POV.

Have you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It's incredibly slow. It takes Larson around 100 pages to get the story going. Yet it's a modern blockbuster. Life of Pi is similar.

But in Ten Little Indians, Christie introduces 10 characters, establishes setting and gets the plot going in around 15 pages. And then it continues at a blistering pace. Her parsimony borders absurdity.

Readers don't mind you going off on long tangentials as long as the subject interests them. They also enjoy a fast paced story with the bare minimum of details.

I don't think there is a trend in the market to favor fast paced stories. What's happened is that some gatekeepers have come to expect that for various reasons.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by RyanB:
I don't think there is a trend in the market to favor fast paced stories. What's happened is that some gatekeepers have come to expect that for various reasons.

That latter, that these gatekeepers mediate content and method for their respective publications' audiences' sensibilities.
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extrinsic
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A third qualification for in medias res, besides in the moment, place, and situation of the settings and characters, and predominant character voice, begins in the middle of an emerging dramatic complication, a want or problem wanting satisfaction, the dramatic action.

Freytag labels a dramatic complication's compulsion to act an exciting force. He also names an enciting incident as the exciting force. Writers today know this first in sequence major plot turn as an inciting incident. Though not of necessity, an in medias res opening might begin after one or more, as many as three compulsions to act.

Many narratives begin by developing the compulsions first in an exposition act (introductions act) but are nonetheless in medias res openings. However, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" begins after the complusions to act occur and skips entirely over developing the inciting incident. Montresor had reached his tipping point priorly and priorly prepared for meeting and leading Fortunato to the crypt. He'd ordered his household staff not to leave their posts during Carnival, thus assuring they would disobey. When Montresor meets Fortunato in the opening, he's already set his plan in motion and passed the inciting incident.

In medias res also does not of necessity have to begin or open in the middle of things. Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Have You Been, Where Are You Going" leads from a backstory setup into in medias res. The opening is akin to a prefatory passage, like a prelude or prologue, more prologue-like than prelude but with prelude features interleavened.

I wonder whether an ending act in some published narrative or many might be in medias res, after beginning and middle acts given in other methods. This organization mannerism will still require, as all narratives require, upsetting emotional equilibrium from the opening line, escalating disequilibrium, and reach an emotional disequilibrium climax before the ending act.

Contrarily, a nonlinear story timeline will portray an in medias res event first and yet raise a mystery that upsets emotional equilibrium and evokes readers' empathy and curiosity. Donna Tart's The Secret History has a buttonhole timeline, starting in the middle of things, looping back to the beginning of the dramatic action, the complusions to act, catching up to the linear timeline, and linearly continuing to the novel's ending from there. The emotional disequilbrium arc is apropos of an otherwise linear timeline.

[ May 17, 2013, 01:25 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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In one of my novels that is currently on the back-burner, I begin at the end of things in one reality, the fall of Troy, and segue into an inner crises moment for the main character in another reality; btw, both realities are linked and the link is set-up in a 13 line preface to the first chapter; except it isn't the first chapter, it's the Prelude. At the end of the tragedy, and I now know that this is what it is, my main character is banished into our reality where, on the final page, the reader will realise that he will be remembered as the thing he hates most, a God; even though he isn't, and, even better, an historical, real-world God.

So, I guess you could say that I begin my story in medias res, but it doesn't feel like that to me. The preface and prelude (the fall of Troy) introduces the exciting force, as Freytag calls it, for the MC of the story, which is a personal question: are mortals the play things of the Gods?

Now, my current problem is that I think that the Prelude is going to influence a readers expectations on a course I don't want them to follow; after all, of the two central characters in the Prelude, one dies and the other escapes from Troy, and, we meet her again in the Epilogue. However, the reader won't know this until near the end, and I guess may feel manipulated. A conundrum I'm trying to resolve. And, I've probably strayed off-topic as well. Grrr!

Phil.

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genevive42
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Done well, I enjoy the in medias res type of opening. I don't mind figuring things out on the fly and I'm more likely to get excited by a book that starts this way.

As for my own writing, I use it when I feel it's appropriate. Every story is different.

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extrinsic
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From writers, the sense is generally favorable toward artfully crafted in medias res reading, challenging to write, and generally one of which method suits a story.

As a reading audience, writers tend toward closer scrutiny of method. General readers don't pay that much attention to method. I believe the ideal for readers and reading writers is using methods that paint the moving picture and don't call undue attention to them.

Next up for discussion in a new thread coming later in the week, how about developing a workshop lexicon similar in mannerism to the Turkey City Lexicon, but the topic different? Say, standard workshopper responders' comments, like;

The Grammarian Phone-In: ["Story name here"] exhibits a "Strong mechanical style," "good grammar," "well-developed punctuation and spelling skills," etc. This type of workshopper comment, often given early, before what doesn't work, to get the favorable comments out of the way quickly and get into the main course of finding shortcomings, demonstrates a welcome effort made to find and comment upon what works, though it signals less than inspired efforts. It is phoned in, so to speak, not much effort made, and likely a feature everyone recognizes already anyway.

Please think about this and bring some irony and thought, like used in the Turkey City Lexicon, to the table. No rants or rails against worst workshop comments and commenters ever and the like, please, unless you can couch them instructively and ironically. Let's start a group identity flagship: The Hatrack River Writers Lexicon!?

SFWA hosts The Turkey City Lexicon online.

[ May 06, 2013, 02:42 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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I immediately envisioned these various lexitropes as stepping stones leading from the bank out into the River... which instantly titled them in my mind:

The Hatrack River Stumbling Blocks. [Big Grin]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
I immediately envisioned these various lexitropes as stepping stones leading from the bank out into the River... which instantly titled them in my mind:

The Hatrack River Stumbling Blocks. [Big Grin]

That's the ticket. Can you think about adding an expository paragraph describing the Stumbling Blocks?
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

The Grammarian Phone-In: ["Story name here"] exhibits a "Strong mechanical style," "good grammar," "well-developed punctuation and spelling skills," etc.... demonstrates a welcome effort made to find and comment upon what works, though it signals less than inspired efforts. It is phoned in, so to speak, not much effort made, and likely a feature everyone recognizes already anyway.

I look forward to this discussion. I confess I do give comments like these, but only to unfamiliar writers. You can't take fundamentals for granted. The first five thousand words or so of a writer's work I see I'll go over line by line to familiarize myself with how he does things. Once I've got a good feel for the his stylistic quirks, I won't mention them further unless there's a problem (e.g. "I know you like to write in long sentences but this one is impossible to parse.").

A good critique demonstrates an understanding of what the author is trying to do and how he is trying to do it. That takes a lot of work. I think phone-ins of all stripes come from people trying to meet some kind of reciprocal obligation. It's much better to have critique partners you care about and would critique for nothing in return than to deal with writers you don't care about and who don't care about you.

Speaking of basics, one simple thing that I really appreciate is the proper use of capitalization. Fantasy mss especially are often infected with what I call the Portentious Majuscule -- a capital letter decorating a common noun to make it sound a bit more sexy. I simply can't stand this, it sets my teeth on edge, but some of my best writing friends insist on doing it! You know who you are.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
I immediately envisioned these various lexitropes as stepping stones leading from the bank out into the River... which instantly titled them in my mind:

The Hatrack River Stumbling Blocks. [Big Grin]

That's the ticket. Can you think about adding an expository paragraph describing the Stumbling Blocks?
Ways crits trip you...and make you fall into the common mire? [Smile]

Another type that leaps to mind is the Power Sander, who relentlessly grinds all the 'rough edges' off your prose until it's as flat and bland as his own.

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extrinsic
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Yeah, all that. I'll open up a thread Thursday for contributions and discussion. One thing to keep in mind, maybe not naming names as persons but rather as types of comments, impersonal-like so as not to unintentionally put the pointy finger on anyone. The Power Sander, for example, a critique that relentlessly, tediously grinds down sharp corners until the prose is as flat and bland as a rice cake.

Stumbling Blocks, might be Stumbling Stones, stepping stone-like critique comments that foster mediocrity and bog down interpreting them in a quagmire of ontological questions.

Given as examples of impersonal-like items, not per se as critiques.

Maybe expand on "Lexitropes" as an item? It feels like it's in the ballpark.

[ May 07, 2013, 08:31 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Portentious Majuscule -- a capital letter decorating a common noun to make it sound a bit more sexy.

Yeah, More. Of. This! Maybe about the workshop comment type, though, how a critiquer might deploy one, for persuasive or ill effect, about the Portentious Majuscule.

I've got a few more from years and years of workshop. Like the Yes Butt: Agreeable commentary veiling passive-agressive denial. "Yeah, that there is okay, but this here is lame."

Missed-the-page-itis: An actually inspired and astute comment when it respectfully interprets the intent and meaning of a piece and suggests treatments for underdeveloped or missing content. "The first and second major turns rise in timely sequence and proportionately escalating tension. The third dramatic turn feels like it missed the page."

[ May 08, 2013, 12:45 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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