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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » Genre bender: Working title "Ghosts"

   
Author Topic: Genre bender: Working title "Ghosts"
wetwilly
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1st 13 of a short story. Not sure what genre to file it under, other than speculative fiction. It involves a nuclear bomb, a guy who survives the blast unharmed at ground zero, and a city full of the ghosts of the victims. Kind if sci-fi, I guess? Kind of fantasy? Kind of horror? I don't know. Comments welcome.


These streets are utterly foreign to me, even though I have walked down them a hundred times before. Before, they always teemed with life, people pressing together, creating friction. Now, though, the streets are empty. The people have vanished. The city has vanished.

I walk down the middle of a street. It's hard to tell which; all the distinguishing landmarks have been leveled, and there is so much rubble scattered everywhere that the roads all look the same. They've all been buried under the vast, flat, gray plain that remains.

As I pick my way through the rubble, I search for a sign, anything to tell me where I am in our island city. I have to find my way back home to Kariko and Nolan, but I have yet to see another soul, and I fear there is no way they survived.

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extrinsic
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Post apocalypse, Dystopia, the preamble and the opening excerpt suggest to me those social sciences (soft) science fiction genres.

The most curiosity inciting feature for me is how the narrator-protagonist survived a nuclear blast at ground zero. That's a potential want and problem wanting satisfaction for the protagonist that if it were implied more strongly in the opening would give this part direction.

As it is, the narrator wanders the city adrift, as does the opening drift. A hint of another want is finding his family, maybe that's where this goes. I don't know enough at this point to know what the story is about. Nor do I feel it's especially artful mystery. Thirteen lines of a short story consumes a signficant part of the real estate.

Not knowing the story's direction, I project what I think the story is about. For me, figuring out why he survived the blast is intriguing and promising. I'm comparing this to several short stories of the last man standing motif type.

The 1953 short story "Time Enough at Last" adapted for a Twilight Zone episode 1959 is one example. Though its central dramatic complication, want and problem wanting satisfaction, is having enough time to read at last. The outcome is not a conflict resolution type, nor the story. It is a trick ending type. Thought provoking but not as emotionally satisfying as a more conventional story type. Unlike some trick endings that end on an absurd note--trick endings are often more statsfying when they are sublime and profound--the absurd ending artfully transcends its absurdity. At least the joke is not at readers' expense as the butt. The butt is squarley protagonist Henry Bemis. Due to the episode's popularity, one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes, the storyline's premise has been reinvented often and parodied.

[ December 05, 2013, 06:52 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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It's mostly summary. To say streets are foreign don't let me see what's foreign about them. How did the people look who teemed together? What were they wearing, what were their words? The city has vanished, but for the reader, it never really existed.

Even ruins have landmarks. Exactly what is he seeing as he walks down the street? What's in the rubble?

I can't even say this opening feels like a sketch. It almost feels like doodles. A couple of markings on the page that could potentially form a scene, though aren't nearly detailed enough to create a story.

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MattLeo
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This opening struck me as possibly needing a whiff more of sensory impression. The narrator is describing the effect of what is *not* there on him, which is OK as far as it goes, but we're in a kind of abstract and somewhat contradictory landscape. It's "flat and gray" but also scattered with rubble, which seems somewhat contradictory to me; the vista is presumably flat and gray, but close up it is broken up and rough.

He is walking down the middle of the streets, but all the streets have been buried; so then are we to picture him walking over a trackless rubble surface? Then how does he know he's in the middle of the street?

Try reading the opening para aloud. It has kind of an awkward rhythm to it. The friction metaphor didn't work for me, but metaphors seldom add to an opening picture. I'd consider cutting out some o the redundant words in this paragraph, anything which doesn't contribute to a concrete picture (e.g. both "Befores", ",though,", "people pressing together, creating friction"). Get it down to the essentials of the picture and see what you've got. THen decide on any rhetorical embellishment you might want.

Similarly I think the second para can be trimmed down a it. Concentrate on the stuff that paints the picture.

The "island city" phrase is confusing. I took it as a metaphor, although I'm not sure what to make of it. It'd make more sense if the city were intact and everything around it destroyed to compare it to an island. Unless you literally mean that the city is surrounded by water, or situated on an island (e.g. Honolulu is an "island city" because it is located on Oahu).

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wetwilly
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Looking at it after your comments, I agree that this opening isn't nearly a strong enough visual. I have a strong visual in mind, and the story later goes into detailed descriptions of it, but I can see how this doesn't give you much to envision. Here is my rewrite, intended to create a strong visual impression and smooth out some language issues you brought to my attention. Here's is my next attempt. Comments welcome.

These streets are utterly foreign to me, even though I have walked them a hundred times. Before the bomb, they always teemed with life, people laughing and shouting and pressing together, but now the streets are empty. The people have vanished. The city lies in ruins.

Occasionally, jagged shapes jut out of the wreckage: pieces of brick walls that still stand, halves of buildings that have collapsed on themselves but not fallen. As I pick my way through the wreckage, I search for a sign, anything to tell me where I am in our city. A stairway climbs three stories into the air and then cuts off. A large doorway stands alone in a field of gray rubble. Neither looks familiar. The distinguishing landmarks have been leveled, and there is so much wreckage thrown everywhere...

(Had to cut it short due to first 13 rule).

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wetwilly
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Thank you, Extrinsic, Denevius, and MattLeo for your time and expertise.
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extrinsic
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The second opening has stronger visuals, though, for me, the opening second draft is short on antagonism, causation, and tension devlopment. Though each of plot's ACT fundamentals closely relate to and influence one another, in this scenario, I think tension is most critical for an opening with only the narrator-protagonist in the scene. Developing tension could raise an artful mystery about what's happening in the scene antagonism and causation-wise.

Being a last man standing short story, the protagonist is likely to be alone in every scene. The ghosts mentioned in the original preamble, though, may come into play in other scenes. Since they might, I wonder if one or two could have a role in the opening lines.

Tension's two features are empathy and suspense. Empathy is an emotional feature in that an emotional cluster presents, often fear and pity, for readers access. This is one of the sides of readers caring what will happen. The other, suspense, is related to curiosity, curious about what will happen. Even a hint or two of either empathy or suspense in an opening works reader interest magic.

Sensation development works to immerse readers in a participation mystique--the so-called reader spell immersion in a narrative's events, persons, times, places, and situations reality. This opening has potentially strong visual sensations, though with limited ACT development. For me, the visual sensations are largely travelogue features. Travelogues have limited appeals due to, say, presupposing reader interest in the setting and perhaps milieu of an exotic place and time and situation.

The milieu here being an urban post apocalypse setting. Not a place for a pleasant vacation, though a potential setting and milieu for awe and wonder, fear and pity, excitement and disappointment, or whatever emotional cluster development of the scene's moment and place and situation is intended.

I don't react emotionally to this opening yet, nor care or feel curious much about what will happen. Several possible considerations for adjusment might determine what the purpose of this introductory scene is: emotionally, which antagonism develops; in terms of causation, dramatic events are emotionally influential; and for tension, both antagonism and causation are influential. One way to develop all three is for a solitaire protagonist to express thoughts about what sensations cause him or her.

These are causation features based on antagonism: cause and effect, stimuli and response, action and reaction. How does this narrator feel about what he sees of the ruined city? Emotional feeling is the sixth and most influential of the six human senses, in life and in prose, through responsive, reactive effects to causal visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory sensation stimuli.

The one strong character reaction of the second opening, in my estimation, though neutral and unstably meaningful, is the first clause, "These streets are utterly foreign to me". I feel that clause tells the meaning of the opening up front before a cause incites its expression. It is also unstable from being neutral and inaccessibly meaningful. The streets being "utterly foreign" implies a meaning but what? Utter foreignness may be delightful, frightening, or what?

In any regard, I feel that clause and sentence would have greater impact at the end of the paragraph than at the beginning, with a few adjustments for the other paragraph's sentence pronoun and noun subjects so they are clear and strong.

Also adjustments so the predicates' tense is consistent. The first paragraph goes through present, past perfect progressive, past, present progressive, present, past perfect, then present tense. The "have" past progressive modal instances are a bit awkward. Usually, "had" is the conventional modal term for past perfect progressive tense when an ongoing action has been completed in a past time. "Have" works okay for me, though its possible meanings of possession, privilege, or entitlement, and many others, as well as an unconventional modal raises a little confusion.

Beware of superlative degree expressions like "utterly" and "always." Superlatives signal emotional or mediating commentary. Emotional commentary in character voice is ideal, when the context and texture support the commentary expression. Using "utterly" before what causes that emotional commentary comes across as mediating narrator commentary, a tell summarizing or explaining the action in a narrator voice, instead of character commentary and voice. First-person narrator-protagonist narratives are challenging to write so that they differentiate show (character) from tell (narrator) voices.

Also beware of "ing" present progressive gerunds rhyming in dependent clauses. "laughing and shouting and pressing" Rhymes and alliteration do have possible appeals, countered by calling undue attention to the prose. Dependent clauses purposes are for adding information to a main idea. When their emphasis exceeds a main idea, they confuse the main idea.

Use of a colon to start a list usually signals a three or more item list. "Occasionally, jagged shapes jut out of the wreckage: pieces of brick walls that still stand, halves of buildings that have collapsed on themselves but not fallen." An em-dash may be a clearer and stronger signal, for prose anyway.

"Occasionally," the comma use is prescriptively exact. Missing sentence adverb punctuation like that are a common mechanical style oversight I encounter. Well done. However, the word "occasionally" is an adverb meaning now and then, a temporal modifier, in other words, not here and there, a place modifier, in other words, as I take the intent to be.

How does a stairway cut off? I understand the intent is to show the stairway ends over open space. The visual image I get, though, is of a stairway cutting out like an extinguished light or turns to a different path. The stairway cut off toward. . .? The issue is a grammar one. "Cut off" is a transitive verb, meaning takes an object of the verb's action. For example, //then cuts off in mid air.//

That's just a syntax issue, I believe. The sentence could be recast as //A stairway climbs three stories and then cuts off in mid air.// More than syntax considerations, that leaves the main idea and the sentence's intent for last, for clearer and stronger impact, too, since that the stairway goes up and into mid air nowhere is a more timely mild surprise in last clause object position than in first clause object position. This is a rhetoric principle; that is, amplification from escalation.

I can't help myself from noting that a stairway to nowhere is like an escalator escalating to nowhere. The symbolic imagery potential of a stairway to nowhere might suggest or imply, though, that that is the protagonist's present direction. Since he is wandering around spatially lost, that symbolism could be meaninfully clear and strong if emphasized a bit more, say by a character thought commentary?

[ December 07, 2013, 03:47 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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My first thought was to wonder if he's a ghost himself and doesn't know it (if so, how you avoid the tired old "and I was a XX all along and you didn't know it"). I don't mind that it's all summary so far; that worked for me. As someone said, perhaps a little more sensory impression... unless the idea is to present the landscape itself as a 'ghost', which was kinda the impression I got.
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wetwilly
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He's not a ghost, although he wonders that himself later on. One of my challenges for this one is that I don't want the reader to think, "Oh, this is going to be the Sixth Sense ending. Doesn't this writer think he's clever?" and bail on my story. It is not that story, and I try to make that clear the first time ghosts are introduced.

I'm not actually a fan of twist endings, usually. They're fine as a little extra icing on the cake, but I don't like stories in which the twist is the whole point (An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Gift of the Magi). A story should stand on its own merit, and still be good without the twist (Fight Club, The Sixth Sense). At any rate, I don't like to write twist ending stories.

Extrinsic, lots of food for thought, as always. This opening is becoming a great learning experience for me in tightening up my prose and making every word count. I have a lot I want to accomplish in this opening, which is only slightly longer than the first 13 posted here. Establish clear sensory impact (that "kick to the eyeballs" that the cyberpunks from the 80s and 90s brought us), get inside MC's psychological state (not yet accomplished), establish MC's primary goal and the driving conflict of the story (find his wife and child, accomplished, but maybe not early enough and maybe not with enough emphasis).

Tall order for 15-20 lines of prose. Guess I'm still tweaking.

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MattLeo
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It might be a tad much to expect conflict and antagonism in the first thirteen lines, but it is possible to hint at some purpose. We don't have enough context to infer a purpose, or even to *speculate*. For example, if we knew the city was bombed last week, he may be looking for people he knows, perhaps family. If it were bombed last year, he might be looking for any survivors.

I think the right amount of context here is enough to make us speculate; then our curiosity can impel us deeper into the story.

You don't have to be so simple-minded as to come right out and say, "The city was bombed last year and now I'm looking for any survivors." Instead, put yourself in the protag's shoes. He's looking for *something*. That will naturally tend to focus his attention and give us a basis for speculation without resorting to raw exposition. If he's looking for survivors of a recent catastrophe he'd look for ruins which might have trapped people. If he's looking for survivors of an old catastrophe he'd look for ruins that could be adapted into shelters, or which provide handy access to water and forage (e.g. old supermarkets?).

Also "Occasionally,...": beware adverbs in places where you need particularly tight writing. I'm not saying anything so silly as "never use adverbs!" Just be aware adverbs like this have a way of emerging on their own as you write as a kind of unconscious verbal tick. That's fine, but once an adverb is down on the page you should ask yourself if it really adds anything to the picture. If it doesn't, cut it.

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wetwilly
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MattLeo: yes, I'm playing now with finding that balance

As far as context, the next section (starts like 5 lines after what I have here) provides the context, which I think is fine. I am pretty happy with my visuals here, but I would like to work in some of the others of the six senses, and I would like to filter it all through his mind more, which is at this moment completely focused on finding out if his family survived. I do agree that you can't tell it all in the beginning, (because then why would we need middles and ends?). I'll have to put some time into crafting this opening on a semantic level so that it uses each word to maximum effect and implies a lot between the lines. I think I'm like halfway there.

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wetwilly
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Attempt #3.

I do not recognize anything through the wreckage even though I am sure I have walked this street a hundred times. Before the bomb, the city teemed with life—people laughing and shouting and pressing together—but now the people have vanished, along with the city.

I scramble through the fresh ruins, searching for any clue to show me the way back home to Kariko and Nolan. In the hours since the bomb struck, I have yet to see another soul, and I fear the worst. Ominous shapes loom out of the alien landscape: jagged pieces of brick walls and mutilated halves of buildings, still smoking. A large doorway stands alone in a flattened patch of gray rubble, a red frame around a wooden double door that no longer leads anywhere. An iron stairway climbs three stories...(13 line cutoff)

[ December 07, 2013, 04:06 PM: Message edited by: wetwilly ]

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extrinsic
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Negation statements like "I do not. . ." are problematic in prose from resembling rhetorical figures like irony, litotes, overstatement, understatement, and sarcasm. Negation statements also demand a bit more processing than perhaps is warranted for an opening sentence.

That opening sentence also illustrates awkward syntax, in my estimation, in that a sentence's strongest subject ought best begin the sentence. Is "I" not recognizing the street the strongest subject? Is the street a stronger subject? Is the wreckage the strongest subject? That the street is unrecognizable I infer is the sentence's purpose and thus the strongest subject.

The next sentence contrasts with the first--how the city teemed with life before. However, the two sentences are not parallel. The first is about the street, the second is about the city overall. This I know as an ad hoc fallacy, or to this fallacy--attached to this; therefore, connects to this--a logic glitch. The jump from the street to the overall city is a little too abrupt to connect one to the other. If instead of being about the city, the second sentence was about the city's streets, or a street like the one the first sentence is about, perhaps a specific named street where festivals were held, the ad hoc fallacy would evaporate. Then the contrast would express all the stronger emphasis between the now and the before moments.

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Merlion-Emrys
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I like both versions pretty well. Send me the whole story, I want to see what happens.
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wetwilly
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Merlion-Emrys: I will once I get through this draft. Give me a week or so. Thanks!
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