The first 13 of the beginning of this final book in a trilogy:
I rest my hands on the railing of my claustrophobic balcony and feel the last warmth of the autumn sun bleed out of it into the chill night air. It is two in the morning and an anaemic light flows around me as it flees the confines of my apartment; a prison of my own making permeated with the cloying smell of slow decay that is the ruin of my life. It was not always so. Once life, and love, coursed through my veins, now all that remains of me is longing and despair.
I look out over the town of Bateman’s Bay prostrate below me, darkened windows staring back like empty eye sockets. Hard-edged shadows cast by the hunter’s moon above create a bas-relief world of grey shades. In these darkest hours, when despondency stalks the unwary mind, I wait, as I have these past eighteen...
The first story in this trilogy is completely stand-alone. The second could be construed as a stand-alone tragedy but it does continue on into this third book. The point is that anyone who will have read the second book will know that what is written above does not sound like the protagonist they have come to know.
Any thoughts are, as always, appreciated.
[ July 13, 2014, 08:22 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
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The tone is a bit overwrought. 'claustrophobic balcony' stopped me, the present tense 'is' stopped me again in the second sentence. And 'It was not always so' seems really old fashioned.
From your notes, this opening isn't supposed to exist in a vacuum, and it feels that way. I'm left unsure what's going on, nor am I given any particular reason to read on.
I am curious, however, of the two ways a similar scene has been described in two openings on Hatrack. In this opening, the Bay is prostrate below the narrator. In the other opening, the narrator is sitting on top an empire.
Both are basically giving the description of someone at an elevated level looking down at something. Both are equally impossible, as a bay can't follow the strict definition of the word 'prostrate':
quote: : stretched out with face on the ground in adoration or submission; also : lying flat
And you can't literally sit on top of an empire. Because you pointed this out, I'm surprised you would allow your Bay to be prostrate.
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quote:Originally posted by Denevius: I am curious, however, of the two ways a similar scene has been described in two openings on Hatrack. In this opening, the Bay is prostrate below the narrator. In the other opening, the narrator is sitting on top an empire.
I think because laying out a scene below the POV character seems so natural to many writers, to the point that it is involved in many cliche opening images, e.g. the warrior sitting astride his horse on a hill, surveying the burning city below. It's so commonplace that I'd be cautious of any opening that starts with a scene spread out below the POV character. I'm not dead set against them, it's just that if what follows doesn't seem fresh I get the "I've read this before" feeling. If I get that feeling I might suggest a different "camera" effect, say pulling back from a single detail, or looking up, or panning across.
Phil -- I want to pick up on what Denevius said about the tone being "overwrought". I agree, and I'd like to zero in on what I think makes it so.
I have a theory that figurative language tends to fizzle in story openings, and your opening here is chock full of it: the sun's warmth "bleeds"; light is "anemic"; light also "flows". The POV's apartment is a "prison", and the town is "prostrate" -- which it can't literally be because prostrate means "face down". Love once "coursed" through his veins, which of course it can't because love is abstract, or if it's not in your world that takes some explaining. The darkened windows are "empty eye sockets" -- which is not only a metaphor, it's a cliche of the worst kind: one that hasn't quite reached dead metaphor status yet. I *do* like "hard-edged shadows" though, because I feel I immediately know how to picture that. The moon creates a bas-relief world -- I'm not entirely sure how to picture this, because I don't have a picture of what the town is like. Is it full of five story tenement blocks, or thatched huts?
Oh, and despondency is personified as a predator that stalks minds.
That's a lot of metaphor for 13 lines!
Now let me tell you why (according to my theory) metaphor tends to fizzle in an opening. The reader is trying to enter the story, but instead of feeding his imagination you're challenging his intellect. One of two things that happens when a reader encounters something like "bas-relief" above in an opening. Either it passes through his consciousness with no impact whatsoever, or he pauses and to ponder exactly what that means and what you intend him to picture (problematic for reasons I've already noted).
I believe until a reader is into the story he's not so inclined to take figurative language in stride; he's more apt to wonder whether it makes sense or notice that you're trying to manipulate him with loaded language. Or maybe he'll just start skimming, which means you're wasting words.
And it's rare in any case that you can load up a passage as much as you have here and pull it off. If all that metaphor is to do the work you want it to, the reader's imagination has to work incredibly hard to come up with its own details so that the reader's mind has something to picture.
Now I'm the first to admit that this is just a theory I cooked up for something I've often noticed in openings, and I may well be all wet. I may also be more inclined than a "real" reader to stop and notice things like the juxtaposition of "bleed" and "anemic" because I've read so many of these things with my funny critic's hat on. But I think there's an experiment worth trying.
Try rewriting these lines as literally as possible, with no metaphor, simile, personification, etc. Try to put a precise picture into the reader's head of the POV character's sensory experience, conveying the same mood by the choice of things he notices.
Oh, and one more thing. This kind of "cinematic" opening seems most appropriate to a third person narrator. Usually an effective first person narrator starts right in on some kind of agenda.
Of course this is present tense, which is something I don't have a lot of experience using myself. In present tense the consciousness of the narrator is somehow magically transferred into our heads, so I imagine it is much more unfiltered by his trying to put one over on us (one of the greatest pleasures of first person past narration, I might note).
But I'd still expect to see some flashes of narrator personality in first person present openings, some indication of why I'd want to spend another seventy or hundred thousand words with that voice in my head. Your narrator seems oddly disembodied here, like he's not so much in the scene as in his *idea* of the scene, if you see what I mean. It feels like rough sledding ahead.
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This fragment is finely honed style. The intent and meaning are clear and strong. Emotion and attitude rise through. A routine about to be interrupted, with emotional equilibrium upset, though that emotional equilibrium ongoing for a long, prior span is the routine; that is, misery is the routine.
However--always however--the language is on the forced and unnatural side. As MattLeo notes, diction used for tropes: metaphor and simile and metalepsis, is on the awkward side. Awkward diction can be used to express strong attitude commentary, generally for narrator estranging and viewpoint agonist reflecting expression for close distances: narrative, emotional, psychic, intellectual.
"Claustrophobic balcony" for example, a metalepsis. Though a precise term "claustrophobic" and a stretched connection (metalepsis) between a balcony and a sense of a cramped, uncomfortable space, the term is too sophisticated and too much of a summary explanation of the balcony's portrait for the imagery--or other sensory stimulus--tells the emotional meaning of the balcony. Other terms MattLeo notes are as well clumsy for similar reasons.
Causal sensory stimulus that a viewpoint agonist reacts to--cause and effect--are the dominion of reality imitation "show." The scene details' meaning of the balcony are told and their reaction explained. Sensory show implies the emotional meaning of stimulus such that readers feel the emotion for themselves, not told what the stimulus causes.
If the balcony space is cramped, showing that and the agonist's reaction to it means attitude interaction with the space. This is show, reality imitation. Which features of the balcony are the "telling details," the sensory details that a viewpoint agonist notices and reacts reflectively toward. Might he bang around potted plants, other balcony tactile sensations or other sensory stimuli, coarse stone scrapes his back, a small stool. What's on the cramped balcony that his attitude toward reflects his sixth sensation sense: emotional feeling--claustrophobia?
"I rest" likewise is a tell, when the act of touching railing radiating the last of the daytime's heat is the proper subject of the sentence. By proper, I mean the first-person, viewpoint agonist narrator's reflection upon the railing, not mediated by the narrator having an out-of-body moment observing himself grasp the rail. Same with "I look."
This is a viewpoint glitch, the character observing the character's self. These de se, of the self, moments generally lose touch with reflector agonist, estrange character viewpoint in favor of narrator or even writer viewpoint: wide open narrative distance.
I understand the fragment's intent to set up a recollection scene, a flashback. The transition steps and signals are there. The routine of a long span of decline evokes forth a reflection recollection, akin to the opening of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, begins in the now and circles back to the first moment life took the turn toward the inevitable end.
Frazier takes off from a recollection longing for Cooper's true love, a character. Similarly, this opening does that abstractly, inaccessibly, by vaguely encompassing the balcony, apartment suite, the landscape scenery, casting about for an anchor upon which to emotionally fixate and reflect, general generic settings. A stronger emotional focus is warranted. Might he have a keepsake that evokes the recollection to come, for example?
This is symbolism and imagery or sensory representation: use of a concrete, tangible, material, motif to express, access, an intangible, immaterial, abstract motif. The meaning here, though, is told through summary explanation, where implication a target audience can access is the art of symbolism, imagery, sensory stimulation.
Robust verbs serve, like transitive verb "prostrate." In the absence of a suitable verb, an adverb may express, imply, the attitude, the emotion. Or an adjective as warranted for attitude and emotion expression. For example, "anaemic light" implies a sickly, weak, vigor-less light. That's imagery, since the figure of speech, metalepsis, is of a visual sensation, expresses an attitude about the reflector agonist feeling sickly, weak, vigor-less.
In all, the fragment portrays a static, timeless moment. Not static as in noise, static as in stasis, a suspended state of being. This fragment says this is the agonist's state of being, now and for some nondefintie period of time. Static openings delay or stall plot and story movement, useful for transition bridges, for timely, judicious tension relief, not a best practice for an opening.
Drama, dramatic movement, dramatic action, etc., is the dynamic, significant clash of wills, contradictions, decisions, doubts, etc., that cause transformative action and motion, even within one character, causal events showing a passage of definite time, place, and situation. Time shown moving through events, settings, and characters.
A contradiction lays in a cramped balcony that overlooks the wide open outdoors. A clash of wills lays in a self-imposed exile. A contradiction lays in the wait for a change, knowing a change is wanted though not happening now, though implying the wait soon will end and a new beginning begin. This type of introspection scene, also, naturally focuses on one motif, without distraction. What is the focal motif?
These above are pregnant pendent, about to, about to, about to, under-realized, going to. This is a domain of front loading, pre-positioning, foreshadowing: Chekhov's Gun. The Gricean principle implcation is a parallel to those former.
This fragment implies a recollection narrative is about to unfold, or a transformative change is about to interrupt the routine, or both.
The former, the outcome revelation realization where life took the fatal turn and continued to take fatal turns until the present moment of revelation. The outcome of the routine interrupted, a new routine restored. The latter, both, forward time progression toward a revelation and a complication satisfaction outcome. And a transformative arc unfolding clause by clause, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, accumulating dramatic motion all along the roller coaster track.
Consider lingering in the scene, setting up implication such that the dramatic complication of the whole, the want and problem wanting satisfaction, is introduced, implied, and strongly and clearly, appealingly accessible.
One grammar glitch: "It is two in the morning" this is a syntax expletive. "It" refers to subsequent subject "two in the morning." This is a slang idiom that is problematic from an expectation "it" refers to an antecedent subject, say, "the chill night air." Syntax expletives are speed bumps, sometimes asking for a reading stall retrack backward to locate a pronoun's subject reference.
Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities uses syntax expletives artfully, as synchrisis, alliteration, and holding the overall subject open to interpretation, expresses and reflects the confusion and uncertainty of the "times." That's persuasive rhetorical virtue, where syntax expletives are generally grammatic vices.
That sentence overall is problematic from being overburdened by several main ideas and subordinate ideas and awkward diction run-in together, unfocused.
The poetry and attitude emotions of the fragment are strong and clear, only cluttered and rushed, such that the meaning is told or confused and another meaning wants to arise yet remains under-realized.
Thanks to all who have contributed so far. Denevius, I must make certain that the fuse is a little longer next time so the headlines won't read, "Critic hoist on own petard!"
There is actually a 'sting' underway in this fragment, which lasts for 680 words in this current draft (v. 1.5), that I will expand on tomorrow, giving a few more people time to add their ideas if they want to. Let me just say now that I am pleased with most of the observations; it is what I set out to do.
If you haven't already, I recommend that you read what OSC has to say about science fiction and fantasy writers using figurative expressions in their work (he discusses this in his book HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY).
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Well, if this is it, then thanks to all those who’ve contributed. What I posted as a first 13 is an ‘abridged’ version of the opening I’m trying to craft. As extrinsic suggested, in the ‘complete’ version I am lingering a little longer in each discrete moment but the elements I posted are essential, I think, to understand what I’m trying to do. And, as I said in my original post, this is the third book in a trilogy and, as it follows on from the previous book, I have chosen to write it with the assumption that a reader will come to it from within the trilogy rather pick up the last book of a trilogy and begin there. And this begged the question: How do I reintroduce readers to the protagonist and his situation in this, the third and final book?
The usual practice is to write a synopsis, a what-has-gone-before short narrative piece in order to jog the reader’s memory about all the salient points. I’ve read lots of these and so have most people. Personally, I don’t like them. In nearly all my writing I am prone to experimentation; so let’s label this as an experiment.
The original male protagonist of the second book of the trilogy readers will (hopefully) remember as a sort of cross between Crocodile Dundee, Napoleon and some dude with a Doctorate in Metallurgy. He is the quintessential, dry humoured Australian larrikin, with an even drier observational wit. He is a hero’s hero, larger than life in an almost epic mould. So, as these readers who have become intimately acquainted with him start reading this opening they are going to be wondering what the heck is going on here and what in the name of ‘Tricky Dicky’ has happened to him? This doesn’t sound like the hero they have come to know and love. I’m hoping (fingers and toes crossed) that such a sudden jolt to their fond memories will ignite that spark of recollection of what he was like before and all the obstacles he had overcome. Instead of telling them what has happened, I’m trying to get them to remember.
Now, to the actual prose itself. The actual words contained within it are chosen for their capacity to convey multiple meanings and emotions (in the main). It does however (I hope) generate an undercurrent of feeling in the reader’s mind that this opening is slightly ‘off’. It is far too expansive in its use of simile, metaphor and that other thing extrinsic mentioned. It is, on the face of it, an attempt at writing in a literary style, but too earnestly attempted. I am attempting to write close to the edge of literary irony without tipping over the edge into literary farce.
I was hoping for more cries of, “Oh, what pitiful stuff!” Which leaves me tempted to start trying to make the prose even more ‘flowery’ and loaded with ‘meaning and import’. But I think I will try and resist that urge.
One last point, and this concerns my use of the word ‘claustrophobic’ and the chosen POV. I deliberately chose first person, present for this opening because it gave me the latitude I needed to write what I wanted to write. The opening ‘narrative’ is meant to operate on multiple levels; situational, emotional and psychological. And, it is in this context that I chose to describe the balcony as claustrophobic. It isn’t meant to say the balcony is small and that the character cannot physically move around without bumping into things. It is claustrophobic in an emotional/psychological sense, an extension of the prison of his own making.
Oh, and the sting? If readers get all the way through this ‘tragic narrative’ they’ll realise that the protagonist they love and remember is actually reading the first page of a manuscript about himself and his own experiences, recounted by a good friend of his, a retired journalist. Now, who doesn’t know a journalist who has a story he is writing in his back pocket?
It sounds kind of like what's done on television or film when an actor is pretending to "act" badly for comedic effect. Since it seems that not only isn't this opening supposed to stand alone, it's also abridged, I can't tell how successful or not you are in your endeavor.
However, as I always say, I'm not a fan of narrative withholding. It seems too much like a cheap trick for my taste. So, if the narrator is reading a manuscript about himself, I would just prefer to know immediately.
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Denevius, I understand your dislike for the withheld narrative approach, and yet this is the only viable alternative I could come up with in lieu of a synopsis. Practically every synopsis I've read that tells me 'what-has-gone-before' bores me to tears. I keep muttering to myself wishing they'd just get to the story.
I chose this approach because it allows me to 'jog' the memory and also introduce tiny snippets about what has happened to the protagonist during his hiatus. His mundane life between books is not something a reader would enjoy reading. After all, 18 years have passed.
quote:Originally posted by Grumpy old guy: Denevius, I understand your dislike for the withheld narrative approach, and yet this is the only viable alternative I could come up with in lieu of a synopsis...
... thus far. Think some more and study similar books to the one you are writing and you'll see there are other approaches.
You're talking about what is the universal challenges all spec fiction authors face: bringing the reader up to speed without boring him. And there's lots of ways to do it; the only real rule is to get away with it. That said I'd be surprised if can pull off the approach you're taking here.
A while back I went through a number of story openings, both published and in MSS I'd been given to critique, to try to get a sense for what worked for me and what didn't. What I found was that the good openings had what seemed to me to be "confident writing". I've since thought more about that and realized that "confident writing" is an effect produced in the readers' minds by a couple of things.
One of those things is information handling. A lot of writers have this perfectionism about information. They've imagined this richly detailed story world and want to make sure the reader understands every jot and iota before they settle down to tell the story. The truth is that readers not understanding what's *really* going on is perfectly benign in an opening, as long as the reader feels he *mostly* understands what's on the page in front of him, with only a few apparent gaps in the jigsaw puzzle. As the story unfolds you hand the reader more pieces of the puzzle, and the reader's perception of the size of the puzzle changes.
There's nothing wrong with withholding information from the reader, or manipulating his perception of what the story is really about. Those things are the most natural things in the world. The problem is that readers usually don't like to be aware they're being manipulated. Then you get slapped with the label "withholding information", which really just means using a objectionably noticeable gimmick because all writers withhold information.
Think about what you're proposing to do: hang a sign several hundred or even thousand words into the text saying, "None of this really happened; it's just a trick to make you do your background reading." Readers will likely be incensed, *especially* if you make the text as dense and hard work as you have here.
Can you pull this text-within-a-text opening off? Sure, but I think you have to pay particular attention to three things if that's going to happen:
(1) Getting the reader to the reveal point without losing him. (2) The state of mind of the reader at the reveal point. (3) The reason the reader will want to continue on with the "real" story when he reaches the reveal point.
You've got to be brutally honest with yourself. "This is the only way I've figured out to launch the story so it HAS to work" doesn't cut it.
Right now I think the biggest problem that's apparent from your first 13 is going to be getting the reader to the reveal point. You're making the reader work too hard, and unless suddenly this is all going to be come wonderfully rewarding in the next dozen lines or so. If the narrator of this part is a journalist, consider how a journalist would write the story: in simple, vivid language opening with a lede telling the reader what the reporter thinks the story is about. It doesn't have to be what the whole story is about; misinformation is OK as long as it seems natural.
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A strategy for narrating detail summary and explanation, like backstory from prior narrative installments, portrays what matters at the moment, place, and situation of the viewpoint reflector agonist. If a journalist reads the journals of the focal character, why, what, and how does it matter to the journalist, when, who, where as well.
The single feature that matters for any part or parcel of a narrative is its emotional influence on agonists and, by inherent extension, readers. For the journalist, this might be a want for a reporter award, though that's simplistic. The emotions of moment are empathy or sympathy and curiosity. Fear and pity are the top empathy or sympathy appeals. For curiosity appeals, the basic dramatic question is what will happen to So-and-so. "Will" in the future that scenes from now arouse curiosity and develop empathy or sympathy.
A serial installment opening that backtracks to the prior action should matter in the now moment to a viewpoint agonist, not be a lecture to readers about what has gone on before. Take for example Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Princess of Mars. Narrator Burroughs starts out the narrative referencing his uncle John Carter and the man's life and journal from which Burroughs has the account, sets up the action that John Carter experiences. Once the main action begins, Burroughs the narrator drops out of overt narrator status to covert, switching viewpoint agonist from narrator direct report to agonist reflector reality imitation. The "prologue" sets up also the emotional disequilibrium and curiosity of tension that Carter's reflections then take over.
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Kathleen, I'm hoping that anyone who is reading this third novel will like, perhaps even love, the character of Peter Falcon. It is my HOPE that, when they read my proposed opening, they're going to ask what's happened to him, because this opening sounds like something he would never do--wallowing in his own pity.
As for the 'three questions', that remains to be seen. Peter Falcon found himself in much the same boat as Captain John Carter of Mars; he sacrificed his future with the woman he loved to ensure she, and their child, survived a catastrophe and as a result ended up in a different universe (one the readers should be familiar with). That's where book 2 ended and book 3 picks up 18 years later as Peter feels death's cold hand reaching out for him.
Btw, this self indulgent foray into over-expansive simile and metaphor lasts for 680 words in the first draft. I plan to get that down to under 500 hundred before the big reveal. I really don't think that's asking too much from my readers.
Funny, as I was going to point out that if it's any consolation, readers that have gotten to book 3 probably aren't going to be turned off by an opening, no matter what it is (well, almost no matter).
Completely on its own, I don't think it works to the effect you're going for. But as part of a series, then the opening in and of itself probably doesn't matter too much. If the writing throughout the narrative isn't very good, you may lose readers. But I don't think many people who have gotten this far are going to give up hope over 500 to a 1000 words.
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It's overwrought. It's like overacting, and it simply doesn't work, especially at the beginning of a book.
It is the third book of a series, but most readers don't read one book right after another, so you can't jump right into the heavy dark stuff IN THIS MANOR and expect them to catch on. They've read other books in between, or even have had a full night sleep so they are not in the zone you left them in.
You have to enter them into the melodrama, in my opinion, slowly. Give them a place they can associate themselves with, and step them into the tragedy, especially if there has been 18 years between the actions of book two and this chapter. What's with this character that eighteen years has gone by and he's still not functioning like a grown up?
I'd suggest a rewrite for sure, and instead of this melodrama, work against the tragedy. Have him trying to be happy or function, not being brooding angstily (totally a word) for eighteen freaking years. Get a hobby man, a day job. That's a whole lot of life you've been wasting. I'm not saying the tragedy and the pain wouldn't follow him, that there wouldn't be reminders, or bad dreams or songs he still couldn't listen too, but come on man, live your life. Even parents who have lost children eighteen years later would be functioning grown ups. And that's about as tragic as it gets. Don't lose the tragedy, but don't let it define him either.
I'm reminded of this quote. "The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt sock lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance." ~Richard Price.
I think you have to take them on a journey, and not drop your readers off in the deep end.
Just my opinion. Good luck with it.
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Grumpy old guy, has it occurred to you that your readers might, remembering the original character, look at what you've written and wonder "What the heck has Phil done to him? I don't want to read this!"
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Yes, Kathleen, it has and I know I may be taking a gamble. If, once I finish drafting the opening, I can get what I want in less than 300 words, roughly just before the end of the first page, they may give me that much to reveal 'the truth'. At least I hope so because I like how this segues into the 'real' story.
As a reader only: Let's assume I have read the first two books in the trilogy and it has been about a year before the third book is out. Unless it is a really big ending in the second book that sticks in my head,(not much sticks in this head) I will reread the last chapter of the second book before I begin the third. That said: Claustrophobic seems out of place to me seeing how you're on a balcony. I rest my hands on the railing of my… cramped balcony or… my sorry excuse of a balcony, or whatever, but claustrophobic just seems out of place to me. IMOHO Hard-edged shadows throws me off next. How is a shadow, hard edged? Maybe, distinct shadows? "Hunter's moon above"…..I think above, could be dropped , but then again, there are more than a few politicians out there that would look down when you made reference to the moon. I had to look up bas-relief and I hate that when I'm reading, but it can't always be helped. Maybe not so soon in the first chapter of third book. Well, maybe some of this helped, and maybe not, but overall, I liked what you wrote and I would read more. PS: Not having read your first two books, but does your story have something to do with vampires, or werewolf's?
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Graig, the ending of book two is, IMHO, quite memorable. The story does actually include ancient versions of vampyres and wyrdwulfs; they're the bad guys, minions of the gods. The other fantastical creature is a shape-shifter loosely based on the legends of the Valkyrie, But, in their natural form, they look nothing like a white swan. Think of giant eagle with serpentine neck and head similar to a huge velocoraptor with foot-long teeth.
Thanks for the input. And, btw, you'll never need to look up bas-relief again.