Wrong Side of Hell, by Sonya Bateman (5:25)

IOD-Wrong_Side_of_Hell.jpgToday we see that if a prologue can be replaced with 5 words of exposition, it probably should be.

What I gleaned about the story: He found a dead woman. He found her baby. He thought about giving the baby to someone else.

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WTF #1: Confused pronoun

Analysis: The first half page is all about “he.” We have no name, no occupation, not even a species. Just “he.” Then we reach this passage:

It was her—his father’s human lover. The one he’d chosen to keep and defend, even though it led to the Unseelie Queen banishing him from Arcadia.

Which “he” chose to keep and defend her? The father? Or the narrator, for whom the only name we have so far is “he”? Normally, a pronoun is assumed to refer to the most recently mentioned person who fits the gender and number, which would make it a reference to the father. But in this case, we have no other label by which the narrator is known. So the narrator asserts a stronger hold over the pronoun than he normally would.

Worse, once the pronoun has been assigned to the father, how can we ever refer to the narrator again? The author does a nice job of this, actually, by referring to the narrator as “a good son,” before resuming the narrator = “he” stuff. Unfortunately, these references to he and him and father and son continue, and for me they all get painfully tangled. Not hopelessly, though. I was able to pause and work out the references in most cases. But even so, the fact that I had to meant that I was no longer immersed.

And I can only hope that the narrator gets a name soon. Either that, or I pray no other male characters enter the book.

WTF #2: Confused pronouns

Analysis: Dammit! One page further and we have another male character. A newborn baby. Plus his dead mother. So now we have three males in the mix, all three of whom are nameless.

To make matters worse, now we can’t use “son” cleanly either, because both the baby and the narrator are sons of the same father. Once again the author does a decent job of dancing through this minefield of pronoun overloading, but I am still having to pause over some instances to work things out.

And now there’s another psychological factor coming into play. There are so many “he” references in the text now that the word itself is beginning to lose its meaning for me. It’s a process known as “semantic satiation,” and most school-kids discover it for themselves, by repeating some common word over and over and over again until the syllables blur into a meaningless drone. I’d never experienced it while reading before.

But now I have.

WTF #3: Unnecessary prologue

Analysis: Once again we have a prologue in which nothing happens that I needed to experience for myself in order to understand later events. A male character found a male baby in the arms of a dead female, who had been the mistress of his father. One of those “he”s took the Fae-blood baby and vowed to swap it with a he-human baby. We didn’t see who killed the woman. We didn’t see where “he” took the baby. We never saw the father. We didn’t even learn anybody’s name. It’s just some guy in the forest who picks up a baby and thinks at us about what he’s going to do with it.

And when you factor in all the “he” trouble I had to endure to get even that much, I can’t help feeling that the entire prologue was a waste of my time. Just some fairly conspicuous exposition that exposed nothing of substance.

The narrative function of the prologue could have been better served later (if/when we finally meet the grown-up baby) with just five extra words. Instead of saying something like, “The man in the blue hat was Donald,” we could provide all the salient exposition from the prologue by adding, “—who was raised a changeling” to the end of the sentence.

Either way though, when I find myself muttering over the pointlessness of a scene, my immersion has definitely failed.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That’s why he writes.