Hungry Gods, by J.D. Brink (8:56)

IOD-HungryGodsToday we see that a casual reference to a common human experience that is not common can completely disrupt immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: When Manosaur attacks the waterfront, Luke Gillis, superhero and college student, has to stop picking up chicks and head out for another kind of action.

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WTF #1: Ambiguous contraction

Analysis: After seeing news coverage of a monster attacking the city, our protagonist narrates: Only a few seemed to notice the pandemonium on TV, and only half of them were as enthralled as he’d expect.

Unfortunately, the contraction here is ambiguous. When I parsed it, I expected “he’d” to unpack as “he had,” but that quickly derailed into “he had expect”. Oops. A little typo, perhaps? But upon re-reading, I realized that it could also have been unpacked as “he would expect.” That has the benefit of being a more grammatically correct phrase, but it didn’t seem to fit the overall flow of the sentence well. To me, “as he would expect” sounds awkward there. Anywhere else in the book I’d have let this pass without making a note, but coming on the first page, anything that forces me to back up and try again gets flagged.

WTF #2: Inexplicable human experience

Analysis: I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this particular type of problem with a book before. The protagonist is sitting in a student lounge watching the news report about a monster tearing the city apart. He’s fascinated and starts to get anxious about what he’s seeing. This is described to us as: He was watching the big screen. Pins and needles tingled across his face and his toes started tapping with an anxious electricity—in a good way.

The casual use of this description suggests that the tapping toes and tingling face are universal, a common human experience. By his tone here, the authors seems to be saying, “You know that experience of having pins and needles dance across your face when you’re excited? It’s like that.” Only, WTF? Um, no, I do not know about that needles-in-your face kind of excitement. I’ve never experienced anything like that, and I’ve never even heard about people experiencing things like that.

I’m not saying that this particular character can’t be having that experience, but the tone of delivery was far too casual for what struck me as a bizarre and eerie-sounding physiological sensation. Later, we learn that Lucas is some kind of superhero, so perhaps this was a normal part of his psycho-neural landscape, but if so, the author should have signaled that, yes, it’s weird, but it was normal for Lucas. (This is an example of what we call “hanging a lampshade” on a story detail, by which we reassure the reader that the author knows full well how odd this detail is, but you’ll just have to take it on faith that it happened as described.)

WTF #3: Omitted word

Analysis: Most often, an omitted word is obvious from the context. It’s more than just noticing that there is a word missing. In most cases, we can usually take an educated guess as to what the word was. You know how it goes. You’re just reading along in some random sentence and then suddenly you notice that an important is left out. (See, you just experienced it for yourself.)

But on occasion, the signals are less clear, and you can’t tell what word was left out. Or worse, you can’t be sure that one actually was. Case in point:

There were yellow saw horses with flashing lights and patrol cars parked sideways across the lanes, holding back a growing mass of public that was apparently willing to let curiosity turn them into dinosaur food.

So what’s a “public?” On first reading, I expected to read “a growing mass of public nuisances,” or some other collective noun. But then I realized it might have been intended in the sense of “the public,” meaning the citizenry. And this is where a relatively innocuous omission becomes distracting, because if the error is self-correcting from context, it doesn’t intrude overly much and I can keep going. But if two different readings are possible, then I can’t just go blithely about my business, because I have to stop and make a decision. So even though this problem is not a show-stopper, in terms of my ability to understand the story, immersion-wise it’s like throwing out an anchor in the middle of a speed-boat race. The anchor snagged on a rock and immersion got jerked out the back of the boat.

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.

Flash! Vol 1, by Brady Koch (2:13)
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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.