This is a revised version of the intro for my previous topic. I had made some changes based on my wife's feedback. Then Disgruntled Peony and extrinsic gave some more helpful input.
After fiddling for a while, I realized that re-working these 13 lines might be less needful, since I want to elaborate on prior scenes in the story. Despite that, if you can vote whether this version is nearer/farther from the mark---ie, an engaging story start---I'd love to hear any insights you can share. Thx!
I knew this last part would be the most upsetting, so as I finished the story, I picked my words cautiously. Only if Alyonssa understood things clearly could we overcome them. "He claimed there was only one way to end this curse. Because I had violated his love’s resting place, I would have to end the life of my love, using the same sword." The rapier lay between us on the table like a silent, graceful evidence of what the warlock had done to me. Alyonssa, thank the gods, was listening so patiently, I could feel her quiet support. She had grimaced when I told her about the ugly wound in my thigh, but who wouldn’t? At least the bandages were hidden below the tavern’s table. Warm blood continued to seep from the cut, just like the warlock had
Closer -- in time as pertains to a definite span for the signal event, not per se closer in place or situation. The curse was placed on the narrator at a more immediate past time in this fragment.
Setting place and situation, not developed in the fragment. Voices and thoughts still come from a disembodied head. Backfill, or infill, is one way to incorporate external circumstances into speech and thought.
First sentence recast for illustration: "I knew this last part would be the most upsetting, so[,] _as_ I finished the story, I picked my words cautiously."
(A pesky "as" coordination conjunction again. This is a Not Simultaneous mistake. Even if two conjoined ideas are simultaneous, they are non-correlated. Nor should simultaneous be cause for run-ons, in the first place. Adverb "so," to mean therefore, modifies the third clause, too, not the middle clause, takes comma separation. Syntax confused, part due to the faulty "as" conjunction, part to the misplaced "so.")
//Alyonsa, thank the gods. Her face beamed earnest rapport through the taproom's bleak shadows. I knew the last part would be the roughest. She grimaced when her eyes fell upon my bloody leg wound. Who wouldn't? While I continued the account, I chose kinder words. The cursed rapier . . . //
Contemporaneous -- not simultaneous -- sequential external and internal event, setting, and character development are the arts of infill and backfill.
When a noun is first mentioned, like the rapier, it is an indefinite noun, takes an indefinite article. //A rapier// A modifier, like "cursed," warrants the definite article. Note, too, past participle verb "cursed" is a verbal metaphor, two meanings, the metaphysical one and the interjection one.
"'I would have to end the life of my love [--] using the same sword.'" The comma after love could be inferred as a punctuation error, the emphasis intent overlooked. A dash signals what's wanted emphasis-wise.
"The rapier lay between us on the table like [a] silent, graceful evidence" Another article error. "evidence" is a non-numbered noun, construed as singular though of plural count, or both. Non-numbered nouns do not take articles, adjectives themselves, unless a noun is a definite subject, then they take the definite article "the." No article at all warranted in this case.
"silent, graceful" is wordy, or "fat writing." Fat writing evinces a writer reaches for an effect, dramatic and emotional, and overwroughts in overcompensation for struggle and missed context. Multiple modifiers mark fat writing.
The "like" also reaches for a simile though is a direct comparison, not an allusive comparison, another signal of a reach for artful expression. Robust verbs and nouns do more heavy lifting than modifiers to begin with. Look to verbs first, nouns second. Like "lay," what metaphoric verb might stronger and clearer in an economy of words serve the intent?
//The cursed rapier on the table divided us. Its feigned innocence accused the warlock who gifted me the bloodlust crave.//
Closer, revisions to go before full realization, I warrant.
As a first person account, I expect deeper POV. When I see so many "I" in thirteen lines it is an indication to me that the POV should either be deepened or changed. First enables us so much! It can give us a front row seat to a blood duel or a crazy soliloquy.
Boo Hooo Hoo! Why must I always cry so much for spilled milk? Crap anyway, really? So what I lost 2000 words when the power went out? Should have backed it up when the door rang. A lot can happen in the time it takes to kill the FedEx guy.
Once POV is established "I" becomes unescessary an IMO an indication of passive writing.
Otherwise I was interested in the opening. I would read on if it were polished
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extrinsic, your analysis about overwrought prose hits home. I would like the writing to be artful; however, your impromptu example of robust language seems almost as over-reaching. IMO, the doubled modifiers seem more natural (the opposite of artful, I agree), less distracting, and more consistent with the characters personality. Not every agonist will have the language proficiency to plausibly sustain such robust prose.
This might be a question for another forum, but I'd be grateful for any advice y'all have about balancing robust prose, character faculties, and plain style writing (which I think Monsieur Card has lobbied for).
Where to start? I guess I'll start with the choice of person. Despite Bent Tree's effusive endorsement of first person, it is the second hardest 'voice' to write in. The ability to crate a nuanced, deep, and complex character is beyond me in such a voice; and every other member of this forum as well from what I've seen. Also in this vein, lets not forget the difficulty in creating real nail biting suspense, tension, and surprise in the first person.
This is one of the reasons I would not read on past the first few words in both iterations of your story. The other main reason is that the prose is, to my mind, pedestrian, mundane, lacking in lyricism, and in poetry, not to mention emotion. This makes your character as dull as dishwater and not someone I would want to spend a second of my time with.
The next issue I have is that the story seems wholly derivative of Elric of Melniboné and his word Stormbringer, as well as a number of other 'soul eater' curse stories. The point of which is to lay the hero low through self loathing, shame, and self destructive tendencies. Others have done such things much better.
Finally, why are you insisting on beginning your story with a barely disguised exposition by the main character of something that's happened in the past? The entire tortuous recounting could be done away with simply by having the character state, “I am cursed.” Then you could move on and 'show' me what the curse is, what it does, and how it effects the 'hero' and those around him. I've read your various reasons for structuring the story the way you have and my only response to that is, “Bunkum and bosh!” In my opinion, there are better ways to start flash fiction or a short story than the one you have chosen.
I'll have to find a copy of the Elric/Stormbringer book and learn what has gone before. Your comment reminds me about the Thomas Covenant book I've read. Although I'd disagree that the point of this story is to lay the hero low. It's merely the starting point, which is all I can convey in the first 13 lines.
About 1st POV, I wonder if your disappointments about nuance, complexity, suspense, tension, and surprise are coming more from the 13-lines rule than from the POV. I'm not the most widely read author-wannabe, but I've never come across 13 opening lines that do all you seem to expect. The best I've ever seen anyone accomplish is a level of intrigue that would entice me onward. If you can tell me of some examples though, I'd love to learn from them too.
Touche on the exposition-dump. The comments from extrinsic and yourself have got me rethinking what the pivotal emotion/action for the story is and how I can foreground that better.
Thanks for the smiley-face too. That took a lot of the sting out of the 'bunkum and bosh'.
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Illustrations I share exaggerate a particular effect. One shortfall of them is they overdo an effect for an ironic intent to show an excess of the principle on point; one craft principle in general, that a shaded hint of a mannerism that calls due attention to itself is stronger and clearer than an overwrought mannerism that calls undue attention to itself. A flavor of a mannerism, a light-handed touch that accumulates an intended appeal effect across more than a sentence or two, often is a best practice, except when hyperbole is indicated for best effect.
Sentence-level effects cannot in and of themselves support their intended mannerisms; they require context and texture support from proximal content and organization craft. For examples, the antithetical of accumulated nuisance effect from excess passive voice and excess present progressive tense and gerund -ing words in too close proximity call undue attention to them.
Likewise, many other expression shortfalls of excessive whatever type accumulate undue attention.
On the other hand, in my own defense, a few illustrations favors briefness, too brief to work to best effect, because a commenter has an obligation to not rewrite whole swathes and usurp creative ownership. A rule of thumb for most of these principles is the ten percent principle, for passive voice to active voice ratio, for timely and judicious variety. Likewise for static voice proportioned to dynamic voice robustness. The ten percent rule of thumb is also a guidance for cites quantity used in academic essays.
Ten percent -ing words are too many, though, one percent maybe, part because they are too convenient of habit and run-on sentence potential and Not Simultaneous likelihood, and they are ear-ringer nuisance. Prose's poetic equipment rigorously avoids any rhyme scheme, unintended anyway, like from the alliterative assonance and consonance of haphazard -ing repetition.
The sing-song rhythm of traditional poetry is also troublesome in prose. Rather, prose's poetic equipment are aptly proportioned accentual emphasis and comparison tropes of an is a attributive-strained similarity model type. My day job is a jail. Static voice there. Artful? Maybe within dynamic voice-wrapped context and texture. Dynamic voice: Ella unleashed Hell at Martin for his goop-splatter prank on her. Artful? Needs context and texture wrap.
Comprehensible and apt rhetorical figures that express more with less need context and texture wrap and judicious and timely setup and pre-positioned signals for its pendency. Appealing drama -- artful prose demands a figurative language facility from writers and readers alike for word economy's sake at least.
Figurative language aptitude is a degree age-dependent; however, even toddlers possess abstract expression and reasoning skills. The first brain teaser I recall intuitive comprehension of from my eager toddlerhood: "Little pitchers have big ears." My response became, "I'm a little teapot, short and stout. Pour me out and see me spout." Sometimes, for a desired effect, I only hummed a few notes to get my point across, or whistled. I had a precocious vocabulary for a young age.
First person's unique challenges exhort different figurative language considerations than third person. First asks for a character-narrowed abstraction facility, idiom, which may be unusual for readers and can be artfully awkward: idiosyncrasy from which readers can accumulate inference if gentled into it. Third offers wider abstraction scope and which may be apt and more easily inferable at first sight for a target reader audience. Second person -- well, an abstraction itself -- for many readers, a rhetorical bridge too far.
Scot, I do not expect you to fully address within the first 13 lines any of my concerns about a first person narrative. On the other hand, I, and every other reader, do expect them to be addressed in some form.
Lets start with basic characterisation: Who is this person, what's his name, what does he look like, smell like, sound like? Does he have a van Dyke, or a bushy beard, blue or green eyes, a piercing stare or a vacant look? Is he missing the pinky finger on his left hand, does he walk with a limp? What's he wearing? Clothes, or just a bandage over a slowly weeping wound? Trousers and a bright pink jacket, or a plaid kilt and knee socks? How many other pieces of characterisation can you think of that you might need, and that your readers want to know, that you simply can't explore in first person without resorting to artless trickery? “I looked in the mirror . . ..” And this is just the basic stuff, I haven't even gone into specific character traits, nervous ticks, and patterns of speech, etc..
A character the readers can't empathise with and relate to is a character doomed to irrelevancy--no one will want to read about them.
What about suspense and tension? The reader can only know what the character knows, nothing more and sometimes less, if you want to resort to those sorts of cheap tricks. Creating tension, suspense, and mystery is no easy task--if you can't get simple characterisation right, don't bother trying to create these aspects, they take real effort and a certain skill most people (including me because I've tried it ) don't have.
In my opinion, first person is only a suitable voice in puzzle stories where the reader and the character try and solve some problem (and the race is on), such as crime, thriller, and mystery stories.
This version of your opening leaves me a bit confused, I'm afraid. I have a lot of questions when reading that do not seem to be answered clearly enough to resolve my confusion. For example, in the first line:
"I knew this last part would be the most upsetting, so as I finished the story, I picked my words cautiously."
Reading the sentence for the first time, I ask: 'the last part' of what? 'the most upsetting' of what? 'upsetting' to whom? 'the story' of what? At the end of the sentence, it finally becomes clear to me that the 'last part' is the last part of a story, but still I do not know what the story is about, whom it might upset, or why. I also know nothing about the main character.
"Only if Alyonssa understood things clearly could we overcome them."
Again, when I read this for the first time it's not clear to me who Alyonssa is or if she's the one who might be upset, or what 'things' she has to understand. I'm not even sure if she's actually present--there's no sense of location, of physicality, until much later in the opening.
The next line, with the dialogue, adds further characters and events that I struggle to fit into the context of the first two lines. Who is this new 'he'? What is the 'curse'? Who is 'his love' and 'my love', and what is 'the same sword'--and 'the same' as what? Was this sword used before? It wasn't very clear to me. Also, I find the placing of the dialogue itself a little confusing and unclear. Is this the main character finishing his story, or a new speaker? Is it the final part of the story, or a comment taking place afterwards?
Answers to some of these questions come later: 'the same sword' seems to be 'the rapier'; 'he' seems to be 'the warlock', but I'm used to seeing people or items introduced specifically before being referred to in more general terms. (To use an overly simple example just for illustration: 'She turned to me. "I hate you," said Susan.' - These sentences are confusing. Is it Susan who turned, or another woman? By contrast: 'Susan turned to me. "I hate you," she said.' - This arrangement makes it much clearer that Susan is both turning and speaking. Sometimes reading some of the sentences in your opening I wondered if it might be easier to read if you simply rearranged your nouns/pronouns a little.)
Another, smaller detail: if Alyonssa is the one referred to as 'my love' (I don't see any hint that there's another candidate yet), then it strikes me as slightly implausible that she would only grimace when hearing of an 'ugly wound' in the MC's thigh. If she loves him, I'd expect more of a reaction, more emotion. At the moment, emotion (both on her part and on the part of the MC) seems lacking and prevents me from really caring about the scene.
At the moment, I don't feel particularly drawn to keep reading, because I don't understand the situation, and don't find the setting or character emotions vivid enough to connect to.
Phil, thanks for taking the time to elaborate on those limitations of 1st P-POV. I hadn't thought much about those constraints. Probably due to my being enamored with Stephen Brust's use of this vantage point.
Thanks for highlighting these confusion points!
In my intro to this excerpt, I probably should have noted that this story was originally framed as flash-fiction. My (shaky) understanding of that form is that the story hits the in media res pretty hard, requiring the reader to make lots of connections from small cues. I'm not saying I did this successfully, by any means. Just that that's where I was coming from.
Now that I'm thinking of working this scene into a larger story, I'll definitely be revising the problem areas you pointed out. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!
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Brust believes coolness of motifs and actions that suit his mien are part of his appeal, like cloaks and nuanced rapier duels rather than armor and broad swords hamfisted blunt force, which he thinks are uncool. Like Brust believes a rigid ethics criminal code in service to an adopted aquaintanceship group opposed by a corrupt government and commerce culture is cool.
Brust could do with a stronger and clearer appreciation for timely and judicious narrator mediation through extra lens filters, sometimes too much mediation or too many lenses. But, I suppose, he believes that's cool and probably his fans do too. Suzanne Collins is in the same extra lens arena for Hunger Games, and, well, to a greater degree, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.
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I don't expect it's quite what extrinsic had in mind, but to group 3 relatively successful authors into that characterization makes me think there's something to be learned from what they're doing.
Unless these are 3 outliers that don't make a reliable sampling of extra-lens-filter writing (if you could summarize what that is exactly).
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From "Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction": "Reality is filtered through an extra lens. Instead of saying 'rain poured down' the author writes 'I felt the rain pour down'. A story always has one filter — author telling reader — and good authors generally try to make the author as unobtrusive as possible. Adding this second filter — author telling character to tell reader — is not only uneconomical, it is also often intrusive.
"Feeling trapped into the restriction that all information must come to the point-of-view character, with the result that characters often rush onstage to tell the point-of-view character something. This is even worse than the first problem, because now we have a third filter: character telling character telling author telling reader.
"Confusion between the perception of the author, the narrator (if any), and the POV character. See Author Surrogate."
Other more filter lenses than character telling writer to tell reader arise in extra lens writing. Here's a schematic for the personas of prose conversation (From Story and Discourse, Seymour Chatman ["viewpoint agonist" appended per moi]):
Real writer | Implied writer | Narrator | Viewpoint agonist | Narratee | Implied reader | Real reader
The ideal deepest fiction dream conversation is viewpoint agonist and real reader inseparable. At the other extreme, all seven of the above participate in the conversation, or more. It's a hubbub. Examples, Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, serial publication 1759 through 1767, considered a signal forerunner of the Postmodern movement; Travis Tea, Atlanta Nights, "a collaborative novel created in 2004 by a group of science fiction and fantasy authors, with the express purpose of producing an unpublishably bad piece of work, so as to test whether publishing firm PublishAmerica would still accept it. It was accepted; after the hoax was revealed, the publisher withdrew its offer." (Wikipedia "Atlanta Nights")
Brust, Collins, and Meyer use, at times, character tells self to tell narrator to tell writer to tell implied reader, an invisible bystander type-reader, for an "aside" type of private conversation that fills in provocative details, of an intimate conversational nature, as if the details are spontaneous agonist thoughts evoked by antagonal-causal stimuli of the moment expressed aloud only to the invisible bystander -- a deeply private interjection nature, which is part of the appeal: intimate and private.
At times, the method -- a type of stream of consciousness -- is used to good, maybe not best effect, as like thoughts leak out of those works' first-person narrator-characters' heads. The early adult target audience of each doesn't mind and probably appreciates the method regardless, as it is a consciousness and conversation aspect part of their routine cognitive processes. The method nonetheless provides relevant and timely details in an economy of words.