Architects of Destiny, by Amy DuBoff (6:45)

IOD-ArchitectsDestinyToday we explore why a word choice with the wrong connotation can cripple a scene.

What I gleaned about the story: Cris is the heir to the family fortune as well as to its curse. Doomed years ago by the death of an older brother and destined to become the next head of the family empire, Cris is also saddled with the taint of telekinetic powers that nobody will teach him how to use. Will this rebellious youth finally learn to use his gifts and then put them to work behind the power of his privileged station? Probably. I mean, where else could this be going?

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Technical Note: The ebook has a Table of Contents page at the beginning, but no metadata ToC, so there’s no way to jump around within the book.

WTF #1: Disruptive connotations

Analysis: The protagonist, Cris, is engaged in a fencing lesson, and his instructor lectures him about being mentally prepared. Then the action resumes with: He took a swing toward Cris’ right leg.

With that one word, “swing,” the entire illusion dissolved for me. In my vernacular, taking a swing at something connotes a big, loopy movement, like a roundhouse punch. So in the context of a sword fight, which has thus far been portrayed as an elegant test among talented equals, the notion of the instructor “taking a swing” at his leg dramatically changes the tone of what I’m imagining. Instead of the sophisticated swordsman, I now see the instructor as a big, lumbering oaf. And having my understanding of the scene thrown so suddenly into question disrupted my immersion, forcing me to go back and reread things to see which image was correct.

That’s when I re-read another passage that had rasped at me earlier, but that I’d let pass. During their match, we were told that the tutor: jumped to the side as he stabbed at Cris’ torso.

Both beats of that sentence bothered me at the time, but it wasn’t until I was reviewing it in the context of the “take a swing” problem that I understood why. In most proper fencing competitions I’ve seen, both military and recreational, 99% of the movement is lunge and withdraw, forward and back. The lane in which the match takes place is only a few feet wide, and stepping out to the side draws a penalty. So outright leaping to the side is almost always a movement of wild desperation, which good fencers simply do not do. But worse, such a movement completely undermines the intended depiction of grace and skill in this scene.

Then immediately after that leap, he “stabbed at Cris’ torso.” As with the previously mentioned “swing at,” the verb ‘stab’ connotes to me a brutal, clumsy movement; one that has no place in a sword fight between well-matched opponents, unless one of them has pulled a knife in the midst of the fight or they are fighting in one of the many two-bladed traditions, but neither of those explanations was offered.

WTF #2: Disruptive connotations

Analysis: Cris is annoyed that his tutor will not answer a question regarding something Cris really wants to know about. He gets frustrated, and we are given: Cris fought to maintain composure, but his serene façade shattered.

This struck me as entirely over the top for the situation. He’s in the middle of an argument in the midst of a fencing lesson and he has a “serene façade?” To me, that phrase calls to mind the peaceful contemplation of a Buddhist monk. And this is then juxtaposed by the opposite extreme, as his face “shattered.” I would expect a shattered face to signify a profound realization of tragic loss. Think Oedipus learning who Jocasta really is. That’s a moment for a shattered face. But a trust-fund whiner being denied an answer to a question? For me, the connotations do not fit the circumstances, and so again, I was pulled out of the story by the disjunction.

WTF #3: Disruptive connotations

Analysis: After the friction between student and tutor regarding the unanswered question, Cris presses with a heartfelt plea for information and he gets this reaction: Sedric nodded, but his jaw was set in a frown.

How can a jaw be set in a frown? Frowning happens with muscles and skin, not bone. This wording immediately called to mind some bizarre, downward twisting motion of Sedric’s jawline, and that image disrupted my understanding of both Sedric and the scene.

Sure, an instant later, I realized that it was an unfortunately misleading way to describe a simple frown, but that’s one of the really fundamental things about immersion. Readers take in the prose at light speed, converting words into images nearly instantaneously. We do not take the time to pre-examine each word to be sure of its meaning—we just dump it into the imager and grab the next one. So as a consequence, we subconsciously assume that every single word is absolutely correct, and was used by the author to mean exactly what we think it means. If this creates a bizarre mental image, then for that first split-second, our story reading brain assumes that the image was correct, and tries to make sense of it. For example, with the frown problem, I saw the jaw warp downwards and my first reaction was not: Oh, the sentence is wrong. It was, Oh, I wonder if he’s some kind of shape-shifter, because that interpretation is the one that best fits what the author has told me. It is only later that my word cop throws a flag and halts the whole imagineering production line to figure out what happened.

Which is just another way of describing what happens when immersion breaks.

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 uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.