Let's give this a try! This is the start of a short horror story, split into two parts. Part 1 takes place in 1692. Part two takes place in 2016. I am not married to the title as it is a spoiler. Looking for general feedback, but most of all, does it make you want to read more? Thanks in advance for your critiques.
July 19th 1692: Despite the day's warmth, Sarah shivered as she stepped, barefoot, onto Proctor's Ledge and took her place alongside the others. Jute cords bit into the flesh of her wrists and turned her fingers to ice. It was the first time in her wretched life she had been afforded a vantage point whereby she could look down upon them, they who had brought her low with their false piety. They, who had always found pleasure in looking down their noses at her. They, who were gathered to see her hanged.
Judge not lest ye be judged. The bitter thought afforded her little comfort.
To the side of ledge, bearing witness to the consequence of her selfish lies, Tituba stood with her dark shoulders slumped, her bruised and swollen face tipped down.
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Fragment comment to come once read a few times and pondered.
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Welcome to the terrifying world of being critiqued. Just remember that this is one person's opinion and I have my own biases, likes, and dislikes that influence how I view a submission. For future reference: I don't like in medias res openings and don't like first person narratives, the rest is subject to change without notice.
This fragment does not work for me on a number of levels.
The first is opening with a date. Instead of “July 19th 1692:”, and for demonstration purposes only, I might open such a story with: Salem's summer sun gave no warmth to Sarah's body . . .. This could be worked to provide enough clues to the reader so they could intuit this setting as a hanging during the Salem Witch Trials without you having to specifically point it out.
The second problem I have is with Sarah's internal dialogue/thoughts. She is about to be killed by slow strangulation--a short drop hanging--which takes ten to twenty minutes to kill you, agonisingly. Would your thoughts be so unfocused? I'd either be soaking in one last breath in the warm sunlight, be spewing forth vile hatred and imprecations upon the zealots who are about to murder me, or starring down and denouncing the woman who accused me. That, or peeing my pants, consumed with terror. I guess what I'm trying to say is that my thoughts at that last moment would be more personal or reflective that quoting and errant piece of scripture and a trite observation about 'looking down' on your betters--who are only there to watch you die slowly and horribly.
Third, this section needs a lot of work: Tituba stood with her dark shoulders slumped, her bruised and swollen face tipped down. Why are her shoulders dark and how do you 'tip' a face down?
Finally, how does this opening relate to the story's dramatic complication, what ties this to the other parts of the story? Just how are we going to understand why she is accused and how this will have a bearing on what is to come? After all, she's only going to be 'actively' around for the next few minutes. Have you started too late, too early, or is this just backstory?
[ December 09, 2016, 06:12 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
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The timeframe and opening descriptions definatively impressed upon me that this story opens during the Salem Witch Trials. (I wrote an extensively researched paper on the subject in college, so that may have given me an undue advantage.)
The first sentence of your opening lines strikes me as a run-on, and could potentially be trimmed or edited to greater effect. I feel similarly about the last sentence. A good rule of thumb is to illustrate one idea per sentence. It keeps prose from getting over-cluttered and strengthens the pace of a story.
There's a lot of emotional impact in this opening fragment, but I feel it might have a greater impact if you describe who 'they' are rather than leaving it vague.
You definitely have a good sense of descriptive language. For example, I really liked the description of jute cords turning fingers to ice. I'd read on, due to the combination of descriptive strengths and my own personal interest in the subject.
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An individual awaits execution by hanging, and casts about for external blame assignment targets for it, the pious ones and Tituba.
The close narrative distance first person by default poses is a standout of the fragment for me. Challenges of first person and common shortfalls are lacks of character identity development, mostly due to lack of report for the anguish of moral choice first-person narrators overlook. The fragment certainly expresses anguish. Moral choice less so.
Whatever moral choices led to Sarah Good's hanging had long since been decided at the time of her execution. The fragment's moral choice, Good's, is also decided. Good chooses to assign blame for her unmerited misfortune. A start of already decided choice leaves little opportunity for tension's emotional empathy or sympathy alignment and suspense curiosity development. From John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, page 187, "All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice."
Good is not yet hung at the fragment's time. Readers unfamiliar with Good's witch trial and outcome may hold some hope for another outcome than death. That allows a degree of suspense and sympathy, though cannot long hold tension. Good is hung, must be in order to be resurrected, as the working title states; however, in and of itself, that is of a low magnitude tension engine suitable to an opening fragment.
The hanging is a time when Good's moral choice may be cued and foreshadowed for the later action. Instead of or in addition to Good resigned to her fate and blaming others, for example, Good could promise internally or speak aloud she will exact revenge in the here and hereafter on her tormentors. Whatever, some implied or stated action to come would serve tension's full realization functions for an opening. That, too, places Good in a proactive state of action despite the seeming utter death end congruent to her static victim state.
The situation certainly incurs antagonism and causation forces ripe for tension force development, though is of a stasis state of a victim of circumstances, unmerited. She suffers the unmerited misfortunes of a self-error. Although the fragment's antagonism and causation are extant, they are not of Good's doing; they are done to her. This is victimism. If Good has a cause to pursue, soon implied or stated at the start, proactivism's more dramatic and appealing tension criteria present.
In short, this moment in the story's time is static, no dramatic or aesthetic movement. The start too, is an outcome effect of an unstated cause. Both cause and effect in prose can be depicted contemporaneously, only that the cause mechanism be clear and not rely too much on receivers knowing the cause beforehand. Many might not know why Good was sentenced to hang and is about to be.
Good was an otherwise homeless beggar at the time of her trial, and, by all accounts, an uncultured person. A self-error matter of sloth and indiligence presents, naive about Salem's social, political, etc., community conditions, too, probably. In any case, the fragment's language attempts a hypercorrect discourse for purposes of depicting a historical dialect suited to the time and situation. Good was not so literacy inclined. She was deemed illiterate by the expectations of the time. The twice-used word "afforded" is an example of such over-cultured language. Other diction and syntax matters throughout the fragment are of the same vein.
Well, uncultured persons did not record their speech and thoughts at the time, thus, little available content from which to authentically model Good's diction. However, sources are available for informing the modeling of such authentic uncultured grammar from the time. Salem's people who did record their thoughts and speech were not so cultured as they thought they were.
Historical inaccuracy of any type challenges or spoils willing suspension of disbelief. Tituba was not hung; she confessed her sins and crimes and was let live, part due to she was a heathen scion of Noah's son Ham, of the dusky complexion that marked descendants of Ham. A theory of the time asserted that such persons were subhuman and could only imitate their betters' true piety and, ergo, needed the supervision of true believers to keep them on the righteous path. Alas, though, they were preordained naturally wicked. So allowances and frequent resorts to whip and staff persuasions were made for sinful and criminal infractions if a heathen penitent exhibited remorse. Good did not. Historical fiction requires accurate report of known events, settings (time, place, and situation), and characters.
"shivered _as_ she stepped" conjunction error. "As" doesn't have a coordination conjunction function in general prose English usage. It does for everyday speech of the most informal and lackluster verbal expression. Prose asks for some degree of poetically cultured diction, even if an imitation of everyday or illiterate speech. That "as" coordination conjunction use is post 1990 Internet social media jargon. It jars the mind. See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage sense 3 "as," for its conjunction uses, mostly if not exclusively for terminal apposition phrases.
"Jute cords bit into the flesh of her wrists and turned her fingers to ice." Faulty conjunction splice and stranded past participle clause "turned her fingers to ice." Plus, "jute" is an anachronism; the term entered English usage 1746. The two actions "bit" and "turned" are logically simultaneous and warrant an "and" conjunction on that basis; however, the causal and subject relationship between the two actions is illogically construed.
The true subject doer, so to speak, of the stranded participle is diminished blood circulation chills Good's fingers, not the cords, that they bite into her flesh, nor her wrists. Nonsensical sentences more so diminish vividness than enhance their sensations' vividness for receiver visualization effect. It's a pretty image, brutal as it is, though causes a stumble Huh? What? and a consequent effort to interpret the confused meaning, even if a sensation and thought of an uncultured individual.
"They, who," twice, punctuation error; and both sentences are sentence fragments intended to express emotional charge yet fall flat due to repetition without attendant emotional amplification. The rhetorical, poetic, as it were, scheme of repetition requires substitution and amplification in order to succeed. The punctuation error is faulty separation of the two subjective case pronouns from their otherwise sentence subjects, thus subjective. The objective case, sentence object or object complement phrases, does separate a relative clause from a main clause. The use of three serial items does, though, suit repetition's function.
"they who had brought her low with their false piety. They, who had always found pleasure in looking down their noses at her. They, who were gathered to see her hanged."
Recast for illustration purposes:
//They, who had brought her low with their false piety; they, who had always found pleasure in looking down their noses at her; they, who were gathered to see her hanged, chattered magpie gossip at a ready squirrel carcass.// Too cultured an allusion and diction, though, for a functional illiterate.
The close narrative distance and re-imagination of a historical event hold strong promise from my perspective. The dramatic possibilities for a resurrected victim from the Salem witch trials in today's settings leaves me curious what will happen and how it will turn out in the end. I do, though, want too much for indications in the title and fragment what the story is really about, in terms of private moral choice of a public notability relevant and relateable for today's audiences, especially the apparent target audience. If the fragment contained one not too subtle small foreshadow cue or clue of Sarah's moral choice dilemma and anguish, I might read up to four hundred or so words hoping for its further timely development.
I would probably not read on due to inauthentic historical facts and language, both open to rewrite and revision adjustments that fulfill full realization criteria.
Thank you for that in-depth analysis. I must admit that I'll have to read through it multiple times before I will be able to wrap my head around all the grammatical stuff.
It sounds like you know quite a bit about Sarah Good. Based on my research, it was my understanding that Sarah was born into a wealthy, merchant-class family and was educated as such until the time she was wed to a husband who failed in his business endeavours and left her a huge debt which she was unable to pay off. Subsequently, she and her second husband ended up homeless. At the time of 1692, begging was (oddly enough) an actual profession that one could take on in the puritan community as a way to fulfill the need for "charity." Historians in New England (I live in Salem) generally agree that she was described as "filthy and bad tempered" by testifiers as a way to other her. No one likes to think that good folks from wealthy families can end up indigent due to bad luck. In any case, I'm not sure that the diction I portrayed for her is inaccurate, but if that's how it feels to you, the reader, that's what matters.
Nice catch on the anachronistic use of the term "jute," and I need to clean up that sentence.
You've given me plenty to think about. How can I ramp up the tension sooner. Sarah is moments from her execution, but she is about to face an ultimate moral dilemma. Since this is a horror story, she won't fair well, and collateral damage will result. I must make that promise clear to my readers sooner, it would seem. My goal was to make clear her bitter, self-view as victim. My hope was that the title combined with that portrayal of her would suggest nasty things to come. Not quite, apparently.
Again, I very much appreciate the critique. The grammar analysis was a bit over my head, but I'll dig into it and get it figured out.
You mentioned being willing to read up to 400 words. Was that a passing comment, or could I send you a bit more of the story? Let me know.
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Sarah Good did learn a bit of culture, that Puritan Salem society proscribed for subjugated women due to the accident of birth station, limited to their pious wifely duties and contrarily expected to be uncultured and praised for it. Cultured is for high-born and powerful, wealthy men alone, then anyway. "Afforded," for example, akin to similar poetic uses of "allowed" to mean permitted or granted or given or a place from which to view, etc., are all twentieth century and later uses, not seventeenth century Salem, women's schooling then, or elsewhere then at all.
Tension can be ramped up sooner by a straightforward implication or direct statement of Good's proactive want at the moment. What does she most want at the moment? To blame her tormentors is, to me, not enough to hold up tension throughout the story. What could be enough is a want for revenge she obviously cannot at the moment satisfy or some other similar or different private want of a public, larger-than-life scenario. A Faustian bargain, for example. To me, this story intends some social-moral commentary about Puritan values and beliefs, ergo, satire of their vices and follies. What Good most wants futureward, despite its seeming impossible satisfaction, at the moment of her execution, is an artful tension engine.
Subtle as that want for revenge is, it's natural, human, necessary, and ample enough due to it foreshadows an action to come, that of complication's want-problem motivations, perhaps, then proactively pursued in the present-day part and parcel.
A possible consideration, for illustration example, could use a different Biblical proverb than "Judge not lest ye be judged." Like sins of the fathers, "Should not the son suffer the inequity of the father?" (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers) Hah! That's a fun proverb and potential dual satire, satirizes both Puritan culture and private moral choice, that chooses consorting with Satan for purposes of revenge, to re-imagine for a contemporary fantasy horror of a fresh and lively Faustian type. Not to mention, satirizes present-day satanic panics.
About reading more at present, I'd prefer to wait and see productive, substantive revisions before reading further and are subsequently posted in this thread beforehand.
Sorry for jumping in slightly late--busy weekend.
To me, the title (and therefore the plot, if you say it's a spoiler) is the most interesting thing about this piece, and the thing that makes me want to read on to find out how you're going to execute the idea. I've been mildly interested in the Salem Witch Trials since school, so I'm reading with the hope of being able to connect with the story. The opening posted here isn't bad, but doesn't grab me.
I think the primary reason I don't feel any hook is that the opening line in particular, and the majority of the opening paragraph generally, just doesn't connect me to Sarah. I think perhaps I feel the things Sarah notices are also implausible given her situation. So there's a disconnect not only on the sense level, but also the emotional. I want to sympathize with her, but I don't find the character convincing enough at this stage. If you were about to be hanged, is the first thing you'd notice the fact that you were going barefoot? The fact that you've got cords around your wrists? I think I'd have something to say about the momentousness of taking (or being forced to take) that step onto the ledge, knowing there's no way back, joining others who are also about to die. And who are these others, what do they look like, smell like? Do they try to comfort each other in their last moments, or do they all, like Sarah, have bigger things on their minds?
'It was the first time in her wretched life she had been afforded a vantage point whereby she could look down upon them, they who had brought her low with their false piety.' I like the sound of this sentence, but in this context it feels distant from the action. Again, I get the sense that it's not plausible, given Sarah's situation.
I think I would find the lines describing the crowd more interesting if she had some more specific observations of the people gathered beneath her. Does she know anyone? What do they look like? You can show us many of her feelings by the way in which you describe things through her. Does she spot certain individuals in the crowd? Are they looking at her, or trying to avoid her gaze? Righteous or ashamed? I'd find this personal, emotional sort of comment much more of a hook than what seems to me to be, at the moment, a distant and depersonalised generalization of the crowd. Sarah's from their community, isn't she? So why doesn't she notice individuals? Or, if her eyes are really glazed over, show us that, and show us why she's reached this state.
One note (because I'm a nitpicker) about the quotation 'Judge not': 'Judge not lest you be judged', as a direct quotation (Matthew 7:1), appears to match only the Orthodox Jewish Bible translation, completed in 2002. It's unlikely Sarah Good would have known that one. Quick researches into the question of which translation(s) she might have used brought up a book by K. David Goss, Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials. On p. 111 he states that New England Puritans would have preferred the Geneva translation of Calvin to the King James version usual in England. These seem to be the only two English translations widespread at the time. Both KJV and Geneva translate the verse: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged'. So it's likely that she'd have learned it, and remember it, in this form, and not randomly rephrased it.
The final line describing Tituba seems to be without any emotional charge. Although she is 'bearing witness to the consequence of her selfish lies', I still don't feel any reaction on Sarah's part--it sounds almost disinterested. If you're going for 'bitter', you could certainly strengthen the feeling here and throughout the piece.
If I encountered the story opening in a magazine or on a website I might or might not read on, depending on mood and time available. Perhaps I'd keep going just enough to see what happens with the inciting incident, because I'm attached to the setting. But in any case, I'm happy if you'd like to send me more for general comments.
quote: Since this is a horror story, she won't fair well, and collateral damage will result.
I think Kathy in this statement you will find your opening tension.
To paraphrase --
My name is Sarah Good. This is my horror story. I won't fair well, and the devil's summoned by the darker deeds of my tale shall be paid for with the blood of those who surround me. So listen well, or follow me to my gallows perch where flightless I am set to fly.
You get the gist, but in third person or something. Just an example. Sometimes the simplest things we say about the core can be the most profound.
Reading through everyone's feedback has sparked a question. Do folks think this is written from the first person POV? It's written in 3rd person limited, but it sounds like perhaps that's not clear? It's a close POV, to be sure, but it is an external narrator, not Sarah specifically, telling the story.
I think I need to work on contextualizing Sarah's current state of mind. She'd been imprisoned for over a year at that point, and has had all that time to process the fact that she's going to be hanged. She is protecting herself from the horror of her execution by constructing a (false?) sense of moral superiority.
So much to think about, but really great feedback. Readers must immediately connect with Sarah (though she is not a sympathetic character--she's kind of a piece of work, really). I think I'll need to fully revamp this opening. Thanks for all the excellent input and insights.
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My impression of the fragment's narrative point of view is a neutral zone between limited omniscient's narrator access to one viewpoint character's thoughts, etc., and a detached narrator. The NPOV straddles a fence and oscillates precariously unsettled.
For illustration, the first sentence deconstructed: "Despite the day's warmth, Sarah shivered as she stepped, barefoot, onto Proctor's Ledge and took her place alongside the others."
"Despite" is a narrator's detached assessment and overly cultured diction, in particular, for a first word. The overall sentence syntax is also a mite over-cultured, neutral, detached, and clumsy.
Note the syntax: "Despite the day's warmth," dependent subordination phrase, of a sentence adverbial phrase nature; main clause and idea: "Sarah shivered"; conjunction-spliced separate main idea clause: "as she stepped, barefoot, onto Proctor's Ledge and took her place alongside the others." "As's" artful prose use is, not as a coordination conjunction; "as's" poetic equipment conjunction use is connecting appositive (noun modification) content related to and to a main clause's subject or object. "As's" descriptive use is a correlation conjunction -- co-related connection.
Illustration: //Sarah shivered, as from a cold fear raised against the cruel daytime heat.// That dependent phrase example is a subject complement, not a subject, a predicate, an object, nor object or predicate complement. The "as" phrase modifies subject noun "Sarah's" state of being through an indirect (dative case) relationship to predicate "shivered." Compare to accusative case: a modifier phrase's direct relationship to a predicate phrase's action. //They hung Sarah.// "Hung" directly acts upon Sarah. They are the doers, though indirect actors of the hanging. A rope hangs Sarah.
The example's "as from" is subjunctive mood, gentles from the narrator's guess perhaps why Sarah shivers toward an external cue, that the day is hot for Sarah, regardless of her cold fear, and the narrator -- both know and can report the day is hot. The subjunctive estranges the detached narrator in favor of Sarah's viewpoint. Then next can close in narrative distance farther soon thereafter to direct expression of Sarah's internal viewpoint, from the inside looking out and looking inside.
That is, a transition from narrator outside looking in to viewpoint persona inside looking out. Plus, that is a preparation segment that sets up the next segment's further clarification of who, when, where, what, why, and how, and is a suspension segment.
Next, an independent sentence is warranted for the as is sentence's content remainder, a suspension segment. //She stepped barefoot onto Proctor's Ledge and into her place alongside fellow [condemneds].// Doesn't state why she's condemned, though alludes to why Sarah shivers from fear. She is condemned to hang.
Soon, if not next, a partial reader curiosity satisfaction segment is warranted. I don't know what; the fragment doesn't suggest one directly. A projection, though, "Condemned" for what? Readers can guess Sarah is to be hung, some could infer for witchcraft, many might not. A satisfaction segment after the prior two segments is a timely moment to clarify so, and from Sarah's closed-in viewpoint inside looking out or looking inside. What readers know beforehand creates suspense in anticipation of timely revelation and starts overall forward movement.
The whole sentence nonetheless is detached narration and in a frozen stasis of little to no movement. If the intent is limited omniscience, get too it and away from narrator detachment: access Sarah's viewpoint and anguish from inside looking out and looking inside as soon as practical, if not sooner, includes her emotional attitude tone.
This is the first occasion of inside looking out -- well, actually, inside looking inside: "her _wretched_ life." That's an artful self-assessment reflection and recollection, is not an artless narrator's detached assessment.
To answer your question, I've always known the fragment is written in 3rd person. However, I would not call it a 'close' narrative distance, that would be direct character perception for me. I would call this intermediate, possibly close intermediate.
As an observation, being brought face-to-face with a noose is not the time for character development. You might want to consider moving the start of your story to the moment 'they' come for her in her cell.
Hello! I'm giving my feedback without reading the others comments. First time providing sentence level feedback like this so some of what I have to say may be completely wrong. But here goes anyways!
I really don't know if it's a problem or not but I was getting the feeling after reading the fragment that I should have some idea what was going on here with Sarah Good. I was provided a full name, in the title at least, and a specific date. After googling 1962 Sarah Good, I felt I had the context I needed to understand what was going on with the POV character. That information was contextually lacking from the fragment for me.
"Jute cords bit into the flesh of her wrists and turned her fingers to ice." The first time I read this I felt like it was occurring after she stepped up to the ledge. It may have read smoother to me if Sarah performed some action that indicated her hands had been bound for some time.
Something about the next three sentences felt off to me. I think it's that the crowd of people gathered is not mentioned until the end of the paragraph which threw something off for me when Sarah refers to "them". This "Them", to me, seemed to be talking about the previously mentioned people she "took her place alongside" Who could also be the ones she perceives as having mistreated her so. (Though I kind of assumed she was literally looking at people in my head.) These descriptions would have worked better for me if the text had shown me the crowd below her earlier.
I was unsure where "to the side of the ledge" put the character Tituba. In my mind the ledge is a natural formation like a rock face with some construction on top that allows for hanging. This description of her location messed with the visual I had made for myself of the situation. It did have the effect of making her feel separate from the rest of the crowd though.
I was unclear whose selfish lies Tituba was bearing witness to. Sarah's? Or Tituba's own lying which put Sarah in her current situation? I think Tituba's, which I like as a way of showing that Sarah is not at fault, or at least does not blame herself, for her situation.
Something about Tituba being described as bearing witness, but then having her face "tipped" down didn't sit quite right with me. I think bearing witness implied her looking up at the gallows to me, but then she wasn't. May come back to messing with the visual I had in my head again.
You mention not being married to the title as its a spoiler. However, it is currently that, in combination with your written description of it being a "horror" story that promises some supernatural event in the far future, that make me want to read on. These things tell me this tale will be twisted into a genre that I would likely find interesting and fun to read. Without them there would be nothing in the text to tell me to expect anything other than a rendition of a historical event. I don't think I have ever have picked up something like that to read for fun.
Some of these things may be totally fine! It is my first attempt at breaking something down like this. Hopefully there is something helpful in here.