My Delicate Destruction, by Jillian Ashe (11:25)

IOD-My_Delicate_Destruction.jpgIn today’s episode we see that when the viewpoint isn’t nailed down securely, people die.

What I gleaned about the story: Kris is a player with a cancer problem and his twin sister Kat is a street racer who goes toe-to-toe with the big boys and manages to hold her own. But one day in the distant future, their fortunes are going to be reversed. Meanwhile though, there’s a race to win.

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Note: There’s a story opening I’ve seen a lot of lately. It’s the one where somebody wakes up disoriented after <insert catastrophe here>. It can be anything: a crippling traffic accident, a deep space mission gone awry, a severe beating, you name it. One of the more common science fiction versions of this trope is the one where the protagonist wakes up from suspended sleep to find themselves in a world of the distant future. It can be an effective way to get things started, but I’ve seen the regaining consciousness gambit so often now that I’m beginning to classify it with two other over-used opening scenes: the morning mirror glance, and the pausing to breathe while running away from terror. They might have once served a purpose, but maybe we need to collectively stop reaching for those easy tools on the storytelling utility belt.

Kudos #1: A nice and unexpected twist

Details: Anyway, having pointed out how common this kind of opening scene is, I was pleasantly surprised to see a minor twist on the trope this time out. Usually with a cryosleep opening, the hero is alone, a last weary warrior from some age-old catastrophe. The more common variations on this include waking up with your enemy in the next pod, or your spouse, and I’ve even seen one in which the hero woke up with a hooker on either side, just in case sex had been abolished while he slept. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done with a twin sibling before.

And to my surprise, I quite like how it works. There’s a sort of intimacy that one associates with twin siblings that I don’t think adheres to any other kind of relationship. Moreover, that intimacy is completely devoid of any lustful complications. (Unless maybe in the hands of George R.R. Martin.) So there’s a visceral kind of innocence and urgency in this wakeup scene that I don’t often find when I see it attempted in others. I don’t often see something pleasantly unexpected and new on page one.

WTF #1: Surprise sex change

Analysis: After that brief little cryosleep prologue, I’m halfway down the first page of chapter one and I’m in the zone, watching some dude lean against his car in a gritty urban warehouse scene as he casually mentions his twin brother, Kris. Then the penny drops. That’s a reference to the Kris we saw in the prologue. The guy with the sister in the cryo-tube. Which means that the protagonist here is the twin sister. Oops. Not a dude after all. And so I went scurrying back to see if any of the earlier bits of this scene carry different significance under this new gender filter. (It’s not that I particularly care whether the protagonist is a man or a woman, or even a goldfish, but knowing which it is carries implications for how I interpret the situations they face and anticipate what they might do about them. If I’m a guy walking into an abortion clinic, I’m likely going to make a completely different set of assumptions about what’s going on than I would if I was behind a woman’s eyes.)

Note: Sigh. I’m onto the second page of the first chapter and this is definitely starting to feel like a romance. There are a lot of long, meaningful glances, and eyes as brown as melted chocolate… Grumble. I get that there are a whole bunch of people who live for that kind of story, but it generally comes across as a little too breathy and palpitating for me. Especially when I’ve come in expecting science fiction. That’s not to say that a bodice-ripper can’t have robots, but when throbbing glances and sweaty dialogue seem to become the point of the story, that’s when I usually start looking for an airlock to jump out of, without benefit of atmo-gear. So I’m hereby placing my expectations on notice: Smoldering glances off the starboard beam, cap’n!

WTF #2: Galloping “I” disease

Analysis: It’s been building slowly, since the first paragraph, where I bobbled over a single sentence that used “I” three times, but it didn’t swamp me until about the fifth page, where I’ve now hit four successive paragraphs all beginning with “I”. They were lined up like little soldiers standing at attention down the left margin, and once I saw them there, I couldn’t unsee them. Nor did it help that they brought friends. Four more hooligan “I”s standing vigil near the bottom of the page, bunched together in the space of six paragraphs.

WTF #3: Confusing camera work

Analysis: We’re in the midst of a street race, with our protagonist at the front, battling for the lead, but she’s also reporting on the progress of the battle for third place going on behind her. I could question whether somebody engaged in a gruelling struggle for first actually has the bandwidth to watch and report on the race behind them, but I’ll set that aside.

My first real hiccup came with this pair of sentences: I shifted to fourth and into fifth. My car broke even with Kevin’s S2000.

Why the sudden change from “I” to the more distant “my car”? This may have been an attempt to break up the headword echo, but this particular solution to that caused a different problem. We had been talking about how “I” was doing in the race, and then suddenly, we’re talking about what position “my car” is in. This seems rather dislocating to me. Is the protagonist no longer in the car? Well of course she is, but that’s the question that it raised for me. But this was only an idle curiosity, so I kept going.

Then a paragraph or two later, we got this brief report from the rear-view: Newbie crashed into the back of her car and his car flipped end over end. He landed on the nose of his car and slid into a cement wall.

Uh-oh. That sounds bad. It seems pretty clearly to be saying that the cars collided, and then he slid down the nose of his car and hit the cement wall. That dude is definitely dead. Or is he? Because dude shows up a page or two later, pissed off about having been tricked into crashing his car, but not in any way showing signs of being road-pizza. How can this be? The entire misunderstanding was caused by a single recurring problem: unstable POV.

Consider that excerpt. The guy and his car are referenced four times. First, with “Newbie,” which was intended to mean both the guy and his car. Those two entities crashed as one into the back of her car. But then “his car” flipped end over end. So now the author has abandoned the conjoined reference (which is a rhetorical device called a synecdoche, for anybody who cares about such things) and has chosen to cite the car in isolation. On its own, this might have been okay, because the driver himself did not flip end over end—he remained strapped safely inside it, oriented properly. But unfortunately it plays into what happens next.

In the second sentence, we are told quite clearly that “he” lands on the nose of “his car,” so naturally, we continue with that image and see the driver dude and sliding on into pizzaville. It is only several pages later that we realize the error. The “he” who landed on the nose of the car was not the driver himself, but was intended to be another synecdoche in which the driver/car unit landed on its nose and then skidded into the concrete.

Confused? I was too. The entire debacle could have been fixed with a simple change: His car landed on its nose and slid into a cement wall. But this does serve as a great example of how important it is to maintain a stable narrative camera. It’s fine for a reader to be confused if you’re relating a confusing event, but immersion will shatter if they are confused because you related a straightforward event in a confusing manner. When in doubt, choose a stable referencing mode and use it consistently.

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.

Upriver, Downriver, by Aaron Ward (4:53)
Rejects From The Idea Factory; A Flash Fiction Anthology, By Ray Daley (1:37)

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.