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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » The Man Who Got Away, sci fi, 2,400 words

Author Topic: The Man Who Got Away, sci fi, 2,400 words
H Reinhold
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I wrote this one quickly, and have been working on it in small bursts for the last three weeks; this is the third draft. It's based on a character idea that had been loitering in my writing folder for a while, and feels light (in content) compared to other stories. First 13 lines below; please let me know if you'd read on, if you have any ideas to improve the opening, or if you might be up for reading the whole piece.


Even before the discovery of relativistic spaceflight, Pavel knew that his life calling was to run. He'd made his first escape at Father's funeral, when he was only ten. Father, like his own father before him, had died young, of drink, and Pavel had taken one look at that face, lying slack in the coffin, and ran out of the church.

Mother must have thought he'd just taken fright, would come back in, recover himself until his face matched the grown-up clothes she'd forced him into. Her grief dimmed her mind; she didn't start looking for him for half an hour. By then he was already away on the metro, quietly scooting under barriers and along carriages, sidling up to middle-aged women and posing as their own child whenever a man in uniform strode past.

Since then Pavel had always got away.

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A backstory about a focal character's excitement moment to run.

This start fragment's backstory accounts a history that is in a main past perfect tense. Note the number of past perfect auxiliary verb forms of "had" and similar predicate constructions that amount to the same. The time of the story's now moment is far away and, consequently, remote narrative distance. The past perfect tense and consequent remote narrative distance stall dramatic movement. Would this history detail be stronger and of more urgent import at a later placement in the story?

My interest is somewhat aroused by the relativistic spaceflight and the title's implications of flight from whatever, though next disappointed the fragment details backstory and not especially emotionally charged and motivational backstory at that. My neck whiplashes.

The fragment's language, to me, forces emotional texture, uses emphatic language that blunts through blandness rather than emphasizes through -- well, anguish and urgency. Words and phrases therein attempt intensity though fall innocuously bland. This is a quiet start that doesn't engage my intellect and, consequently, imagination and emotions. Part of a consideration is that the tell overbears the show.

Like the visual stimuli of Pavel's view of Father is a bald summary of a slack face, not especially vivid or lively or emotionally charged. Many readers have viewed open caskets, coffins, and hold personal and universal images and emotions in our minds' eyes about those views. This depiction is unrealistic to me, as if, perhaps, the writer hasn't viewed an open coffin or imagined such.

The bit about grown-up clothes likewise, under-realizes how Pavel personally senses and emotionally feels about them, seems intended as an appearance description gimmick and an explanation for how Pavel is able to fit in on his flight from -- well, I don't know and cannot project what. The intent appears to be the miserable lifestyle that is his lineage's legacy, drinking to death due to, what, an emotionally insecure identity matrix?

Those two features, for examples, are sensory stimuli that best practice demand show's appeals of vividness, liveliness, and emotional charge related to whatever Pavel's want-problem complication and conflict stakes' polar opposite forces are. Like, might Pavel see his own future worn and tragic face in Father? The clothes, likewise.

Recently realized the matter of true and believable, authentic suspense arises from the anguish of moral choice. See The Art of Fiction, John Gardner, pg 187, for further explication thereof. What's Pavel's urgent, anguished moral choice? Run away runaway? How is that a vice? Wrath, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth. Sloth? Running away from problems is most closely sloth, and its attendant congruent opposite diligence for a moral choice dilemma, or less sloth and some indiligent diligence seem pre-posed ready made for such a moral choice.

Now, "Since then[,] Pavel had always got away." is the more standout part of the fragment to me. One, that sentence speaks volumes of implications. The intensifier "always" invites question and the past perfect tense implies that is a thing of the past and implies the story is about this time he didn't get away. Ripe fodder there for drama: 365 days in a year, the day that's markedly different is what a story is about, at least the start -- a writing workshop proverb.

But this fragment doesn't start there. In medias res, so to speak, starts as close to the action's full incitement realization as practical. Not the history of a character summarily given since the grandfather's birth and death, for instance.

That sentence also, through implication, speaks to a potential matter for moral choice and signals the complication want-problem and conflict stakes forces introductions to unfold next. The line implies except the day Pavel got caught due to indiligence and sloth. At last, his moral choice catches up to him and forces him to stop running away from his problems.

That, to me, re-innovates the conventional science fiction topos of relativistic spaceflight, FTL, etc., as a youth sets out from the natal creche to seek a secure identity formation independent of family imposition. Instead, this is a prodigal who flees from problems that are inherent baggage accompaniment. No matter where Pavel flees, his ancestor legacy catches up and goes along. The conventional topos story type, likewise, workshop proverbs label the prodigal scion leaves home. Its congruent opposite is the stranger comes to town, which a prodigal is out there a stranger away from home.

This, too, is our host Orson Scott Card's milieu type emphasis of the M.I.C.E emphasis quotient criteria. Milieu emphasis suits this story in that an insecure routine compels escape into the insecurity of the unknown and seeks either or both a return to some secure home sanctuary or sanctuary in the new milieu or both.

However, being a short story and a day most different from routine, the got caught aspect rings prominent for the action and its start is probably a stronger, more appealing time, place, situation to start the narrative than the ancient ancestor backstory. Perhaps the start time is when Pavel is in the age range when youths are freest to and most explore and experiment freely with independent identity formation; that is, early adult ages, roughly 18 to 25.

I wanted to explicate one more area of language of concern or consideration, that of ornamentation, not decorative per se nor hypercorrect, the rhetorical sense of the term. Ornament therein means equip, say, as a soldier is equipped for combat, a baker for bread making, a housekeeper for housekeeping, etc., a language poetically equipped for emotional appeals, pathos in the vernacular. Ornamental language equips expression for its functions, emotionally charged tone or attitude in particular and of an anguish due to urgent moral choice. The word "always" is the single such word in the fragment that succeeds at the ornamental needs of prose language.

Usually, I consider such empty adverb use as emotionally flat, everyday speech use not suited to the somewhat cultured poetry needs of effective prose. The implied opposite of the sentence's meaning transcends the everyday speech use therein. In particular, the sentence is also an ellipsis figure of speech and, with the trope overstatement's ironic hyperbole, implies the opposite of the statement. Artfully equipped language.

Well, now for an on the other hand. The Digital Age has anymore made everyday speech a convention for everyday prose despite its weary mediocrity and sameness of un-ornamented or under-ornamented expression -- ill equipped, that is. Perhaps the time is ripe for such language to be poetically equipped as well from the realm of everyday speech? "Always" in the above contexts and textures goes far to realize that end. Not the word itself, that it suggests an except for this time that the story is really about when Pavel's legacy catches up to his flight from himself. That to me would be an exquisite story.

I might read on, seeking the action start and affirmation of what the story is really about, like running away from one's self, though hold reservations about those features' timely revelation.

[ December 08, 2016, 04:45 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Disgruntled Peony
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This opening caught my interest. The comparison between relativistic space flight and running indicates to me that the protagonist views it as an escape, which means he's got something he feels he needs to escape from. I'm left wondering just what that is, but as long as it comes up shortly thereafter I'd be fine with the wait.

The overall narrative voice strikes me as solid, although there are places it could potentially be improved. The third sentence in paragraph one strikes me as being run-on because it carries multiple ideas and a whole lot of commas. This could potentially be fixed by splitting it, like so:

Father, like his own father before him, died young, of drink. Pavel took one look at that face, lying slack in the coffin, and ran out of the church.
(I should note that I also changed the tense in my example because the second sentence indicates the backward shift in time very strongly to me, so it seemed like a simpler tense could be used. Hopefully that makes sense.)

There's also a lot of repetition of the word 'father' in that first paragraph. While I understand what you're going for in the third sentence, using it in the second sentence as well diminishes the effect of the third sentence's repetition. I'm not sure what the best way to fix it would be (potentially restructuring the second sentence to remove the repetition?), but I'm sure there's a way to do it and still keep the effect you're going for.

The first sentence of paragraph two also feels like a run-on to me, simply because of the number of commas and the length of its analogy. It could be divided up into a couple of different sentences for a stronger effect.

The first half of the second sentence of paragraph two strikes me as unnecessary because it's a very telling phrase. I feel like the first sentence of the paragraph does a better job of explaining the motivations of Pavel's mother.

The last sentence of paragraph two is long, but it represents one unified idea to me--that of Pavel's escape. If you trim down those earlier sentences a bit, I feel it might have a greater impact.

I'm definitely curious about what comes next. Thinking things over, though, it might be good to move the mention of relativistic space flight to after the description of Pavel's childhood escape while still keeping it within the opening thirteen lines. Doing a brief character illustration and then jumping forward seems like it might make the story stronger than if you throw a one-sentence teaser of the sci-fi aspect of the story and immediately hop back in time for character description. (Honestly, opening the first paragraph with your second line would grab my attention hard enough that I'd almost have to read on, because it would immediately generate sympathy for the character in my mind.)

[ December 09, 2016, 11:13 AM: Message edited by: Disgruntled Peony ]

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Grumpy old guy
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This fragment does not work for me on a couple of levels.

First, it is all narrator tell backstory. I prefer my short stories to be 'in the now'. If backstory needs to be addressed, I'd rather it be revealed by the character; unless the narrator IS the character. If that is the case then I think a writer should make it clear at the outset. In my view the first task of a short story is to firmly set the viewpoint character in the reader's mind.

Second, as an attempt to reveal characterisation, the very fact this is past backstory causes the effort falls flat in my opinion, apart from this excerpt: By then he was already away on the metro, quietly scooting under barriers and along carriages, sidling up to middle-aged women and posing as their own child whenever a man in uniform strode past.

But, that is just narrator tell. I prefer character to be revealed through thought and deed. What a character does and says shows their 'quality' and is preferable to simple tell.

I think the last sentence, however, with proper recasting and emphasis, would make a sublime opening. It wonderfully fulfils the main criteria of dramatic writing--it creates tension in bucket loads.


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H Reinhold
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Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Looking at this opening alongside the story as a whole, I see now that it was the wrong place to open for my story in particular (it doesn't accurately indicate the tone of the story to come, except perhaps for that last sentence, nor does it introduce the action or the character), and that even in general it fails as an engaging beginning due to viewpoint character difficulties, bland description, distance, and narrator tells. These things seem much clearer now that they'be been pointed out.

I think I opened with the backstory because I liked the idea of showing the origin of Pavel's conflict. However, Pavel, as the viewpoint character, doesn't come to life until the story really starts. Here in this backstory fragment he is, as extrinsic and Phil pointed out, distant, uninteresting, and impossible to relate to. Inevitable, I suppose, given it's so far in Pavel's past by the time the story really gets going, but then why have it, here or at all? Either it's important to Pavel's current identity or it's not, and as it currently stands there's no way of telling that. Pavel himself, the adult viewpoint character of the rest of the story, is absent. The backstory would only work if Pavel himself tells it, for his reasons--not if I tell it in my stale narrator's voice.

In fact, I suppose in a roundabout way it's another sequencing error, still (unfortunately) common in my writing. I introduce things before the viewpoint character thinks of them. I introduce viewpoint characters before the characters themselves step onto the stage and have a chance to think and speak and describe their own world. It comes about when I detach myself from the viewpoint character during the writing.

As just one example: the problem with the description of the father's face. I'm used to open coffins at funerals, but not (yet) for anyone I've been really close to--therefore the bland description, perhaps. To make it vivid and emotional, it has to be intimate, it has to be Pavel's view. At age ten, he's probably too young to have been to many funerals, and this isn't just anyone, this is his father. It's also supposed to be the moment where Pavel decides (or is driven) to make a run for it. To function as a believable trigger for such a momentous action in his life, it needs a lot more power than I've given it. As it stands, I'm not describing the scene through Pavel's eyes or thoughts at all, and therefore I'm preventing the reader from engaging with him.

Thank you again for your helpful comments! I'll redraft the piece and start at the actual inciting incident for the main narrative. This backstory will find its place within that narrative at a later point, distilled and recast to be shown through Pavel's thoughts, and placed at a point where it (hopefully) raises the conflict/emotional stakes of the story and reveals something integral to the plot at that moment.

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