Finished With Life But Unable To Die, by Scott Bartlett (8:05)

IOD-FinishedWithLifeToday we discuss the promise that every story has to make. And what happens when it doesn’t.

What I gleaned about the story: Michael is an old man. His wife is dead. His kids don’t understand him. He doesn’t understand them. And he has cancer.

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WTF #1: Frequent grammatical miscues

Analysis: There isn’t a single one of these that would have earned a WTF on their own, even though one of them occurs in the very first sentence. They are all low-grade quibbles. But the thing about low-grade quibbles is that when they gather in flocks, they become high-grade trouble. Let’s look at some examples.

Sentence #1: Much of Michael Haynes’s life was dim to him now, though there were parts of it that remained so bright it hurt. There were multiple parts being discussed, so that should read “so bright they hurt.” But one could make the argument that it was their (singular) collective brightness that hurt, so I let this pass.

Sentence #3: He remembered shades of happiness, and ample sad hues, too. But it’s not the hues that were sad; he was talking about different hues of sadness. So the sentence should either read “hues of sadness,” or possibly “sadness hues.” Again, pretty minor, and I kept reading.

Sentence #4: Blurred faces who had jostled him one way or another, or tried to. Clearly he does not mean that the actual faces jostled him, so that should probably read “faces of those who had jostled him.” And again, too minor to gripe about on its own. But at this point, I’m seeing an annoying trend. I’m four sentences into the book and so far, only one of them has been completely clean.

Sentence #7: He’d started working in a dark room at the age of fourteen… From context given later, we learn that he was a photographer, so he did not start work in a dark room. He started in a darkroom. And this is the point at which I’d seen enough of these quibbles to throw a flag.

WTF #2: More quibbles

Analysis: I hate being picky about the really little stuff, but the problem is, once you’ve been sensitized to them, no minor grammar issue is truly minor after that. They all become part of a pattern of irritation that is bigger than any one infraction on its own.

The culprit this time? If he was being honest, it had surprised him when he didn’t pass away shortly after Linda did ten years before. That’s a mismatched verb tense. The phrase should be “when he hadn’t passed away shortly after Linda had.”

WTF #3: No promise made

Analysis: I’m about five pages in now and I’m still getting nothing but backstory. Michael is old. His wife is dead. He has become sick. His kids don’t understand him and he doesn’t understand them. We’re getting all this exposition but the author has forgotten a key deliverable: he has not made his promise to us.

Every story carries with it one fundamental conceit: that the events of the tale you’re about to read are worthy of a story. A boring man going about his boring life is not a story until he does something out of the ordinary. Something story-worthy. So if you’re going to start your tale by painting the picture of said boring man with boring life, you must give readers a reason to believe that this story will at some point become unboring. That’s the promise.

Some stories do this by dropping us into an unboring moment right at the start. A battle. A chase. A conquest. Something that ensures the reader that here be a tale worthy of your time.

Others do it with a subtle hint: Everything about him was boring, save for the tiny fragment of explodium embedded in his thumb and wirelessly connected to the ringer in his phone.

And some even try to do it with a cheesy reveal: But little did he know that the barber was secretly a Klingon assassin sent from the future to be right here in this barber shop, right now.

But no matter how the promise is made, it has to be made early. It’s the contract an author makes with the reader. It says, “You give me a couple of hours of your time, and I’ll tell you a tale that will delight and entertain you. See? Here’s my proof.” And it’s this promise that a reader has to hear before he’ll be ready to cut the author any slack in delivering the goods.

Unfortunately, Michael’s tale gives us no such promise. We just get the boring backstory about an ordinary man, living the ordinary life of an aging and forgotten senior. We get the history of his wife’s illness and death, the history of his own advancing illness, and character sketches of each of his kids. But after five pages I have still not seen anything to assure me that this work is going to deliver on the cardinal rule of genre fiction: Thou Shalt Be Interesting.

In this case, I just don’t see anything to raise Michael up out of the sea of other grumpy old men. Nothing that promises me that this sick old man is going to be worth watching.

So I pulled his plug.

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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.