Pantheon, by Scott Beckman (10:00)

IOD-Pantheon.jpgToday we see that every sentence in a story needs to have a reason for being there. And that reason must always support the story.

What I gleaned about the story: After the death of his hermit mother, Lars is alone, and has to leave the desert and re-enter the world on his own. Meanwhile, lizard people want to eat his mother’s body.

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WTF #1: Declarative sentence parade

Analysis: This opens with a very distant, trudging tone. He went here. He did that. This thing was blue. That thing was hot. Fact. Fact. Fact. There’s nothing behind it all for the reader to process, nothing to consider, no connections to make. I found myself skimming ahead, hoping to find something to engage me, and when the reader is skimming by the end of the first paragraph, immersion may be a problem.

WTF #2: Detached narration

Analysis: The parade of declarations is broken up to some degree by dialog, but I still can’t find any flow in the tidbits and snatches that the narrative camera is choosing to show me. You know how stream-of-consciousness writing is all about what impressions are flitting through the narrator’s head and you have to sort of intuit what he’s seeing around him from those impressions? Well this is like the exact opposite of that. We get a steady stream of observations, but absolutely no internal context or analysis for any of it. A rock. A scorpion. A water jug. A village. Everything passes through the narrative lens but nothing sticks. Nothing seems to register in this narrator’s consciousness or hold any meaning for him, so it all just slides by my window as well.

I think what bothers me is that none of the reported facts seem to have any “why” behind them. Why has the narrator chosen to report this detail or that one? What does Observation #6 have to do with Observation #7? Or #3?

In immersive stories, everything on the page is there for a reason, and usually for two or even three reasons, but when I can’t find any currents within the prose, no hints about what those reasons are, I end up rudderless and drifting. See, if the story world were a real place, there would be so many details taking place at every single moment, that the narrator would have to choose which ones to relate. Should he devote word-count to describing the shape of the chair leg jutting out of the mattress, the smell of candle wax in the coffin, the sliminess of the puss leaking from the leper’s eye, or the sound of the bailiff’s cudgel thumping against his palm? A few of these details might be part of the story he’s telling, but many will be distractions, or simply irrelevant. So the narrator has to choose. He has to decide which ones illuminate the story he’s telling and which ones to ignore. And readers pick up much of what the story is about by making connections between, and inferences from, those details that the narrator has decided to share.

Consequently, with every detail we read, we have been trained subconsciously to expect patterns and connections between the details. Why is this here? How does it connect to everything else I know about this story? What will this mean for our hero? We do this on a subconscious level. Most of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re looking for them. Unfortunately though, we do become aware when we hit a patch where the story details don’t seem to have a connection; when they’re just random details. We may not be able to articulate what’s wrong, but we know instinctively that something is missing. Even with all these facts marching past our viewport, the story rings hollow. Empty. Trudge, trudge, trudge. We look at all those random images, dialogue, exposition, etc., and search for the threads that weave them together into a cohesive story, but nobody’s home.

So that’s why a good narrator has to be a ruthless curator of story details, telling us the bits that illuminate the story he’s telling, and ignoring the bits that don’t. Because a stream of unrelated facts sampled from an imaginary world isn’t story. That’s just telemetry. And nobody reads telemetry.

WTF #3: Mercy rule

Analysis: I haven’t invoked this in a long time, but after ten full minutes I still haven’t found anything to pull me into the story. I don’t know what this kid is doing, why he’s going where he’s going, or what he feels about anything. And after three chapters, I should at least have some first approximations of these things. After all, I’ve been inside his head for several days now.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Human Again, by Moran Chaim (3:08)
While the Black Stars Burn, by Lucy A. Snyder (40:00)

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.