The Tilt, by M.A. Robbins (17:04)

IOD-The_Tilt.jpgToday we see that when characters experience facts but have no emotional reaction to them, they’re like plot zombies. And nobody chooses to spend time getting to know zombies.

What I gleaned about the story: Jon Streg is a stone cold gunman: sheriff, judge, and executioner in a near-future Anchorage. You know, the Anchorage that used to be up near the Arctic? But the Tilt changed all that, and now Anchorage is a right pretty place for a survivor to call home. But not them damned Californians. Them pricks we shoot on sight.

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WTF #1: Clichéd opening

Analysis: After any apocalypse, there’s going to be a lot of grief. The survivors will no doubt miss all the good times, the good people, the good food, etc. And I’m sure there will be plenty of tears shed while fondly gazing upon tattered photos of the world we lost, the people we lost, but that doesn’t make it a good way to open a story. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this touching little moment so many times that I can’t stay immersed anymore.

This time, there was actually a sort of running commentary that started up in my head. Hey, I recognize this. It’s the “photo from the before-time” gambit. Will it be the wife, the child, or the dog? Hey, two out of three! Can I double down with a tearful sob? Nope, looks like he’s a tough guy. Oh, but wait, what’s this? He puts the Glock to his head and says, “I’ll be with you soon”! That’s just the tough-guy version of the tearful sob. I’m calling it a Bingo!

Once the reader can start predicting the details of the scene before they happen, immersion vanishes. In this situation, the story has stopped being a world to explore, and instead becomes another butterfly in the collection—no longer to be examined for its own sake, but now to be hauled into the light and compared with all the other similar butterflies in the display case, looking to see if anything about this one is new.

And that’s the key. There’s nothing wrong with running readers through a familiar scenario, but you only keep our interest if you can show us something new. Force me to pay attention. Remember that family photo our hero was gazing at with love? Take me somewhere unexpected. Maybe they’re his kidnapped victims, who escaped during the apocalypse and he’s been hunting them ever since, because, you know, love is forever. Go somewhere totally refreshing like that and you’ll have me eating out of your hand for at last three chapters, eager to see how you play it out. Not to mention anxious to learn what other cool surprises you have in store for me. Just don’t disappoint me.

WTF #2: Plot zombies

Analysis: I’ve been wading through short bursts of echoing headwords since the first page, but they’ve finally congregated in one place. In a sequence of 10 or so short paragraphs, five begin with “Streg” (the name of the protagonist), two successive ones begin with “The guards”, two more begin with “Adams”, and a bunch of the intervening sentences all begin with “He”.

Normally, this might seem like enough headword variety to keep things chugging along, but there are two complications. First, the majority of the sentences also have the same structure: The noun verbed. And to make the pattern even more repetitive, almost all of this chatter is about physical movements. I have a problem staying engaged in a story when all the narration is surface detail. I need more than that. I need to see characters reacting emotionally to their situation. They don’t need to burst into tears or a fit of rage, but the events have to have some meaning for them. Some impact on their consciousness.

But there is no such inner dimension to this protagonist. After his brief flirtation with suicide at the beginning, he seems to have no further opinions about anything. The story is just a series of facts happening around him, which he relays to us almost mechanically. Hell, in one scene, he executed a vagrant, and then found a knapsack full of gold coins, but several pages later, he still hasn’t had a single, honest emotional or analytical beat about what he did, why he did it, or even about what’s going on. I’m getting facts, but no meaning. As I’ve said before, facts without meaning is not story. It’s data. And similarly, a character without emotional resonance is not a character: he’s a plot zombie.

WTF #3: More plot zombies

Analysis: It’s the same headwords, still repeating. The same marching cascade of facts happening while having little to no impact on anybody in the story. The characters themselves don’t seem to be taking an interest in much, so why should I?

Have you heard of The Spielberg Face? It’s a sort of trademark shot that Stephen Spielberg uses in just about every film he’s ever made. (Here’s a cool video to tell you all about it.) The concept is simple: something marvelous/terrifying/majestic has just happened. How do we know it’s marvelous/terrifying/majestic? Because the moment it happens, Spielberg cuts to the hero’s face, and we see his jaw drop and his eyes widen with marvel/terror/majesty. It’s a visual implementation of a something that is absolutely fundamental to storytelling: it isn’t enough for the audience to see something happen. We also have to see the people it happens to reacting. That’s the whole story, right there. Their reaction. Without that, all you’ve got is dry facts: blinking lights and rubber costumes. And zombies all around.

Kudos #1: Strong premise

Details: The story itself seems pretty well constructed. The characters have potential, the setting is refreshing, even the apocalyptic event seems like something a bit new. It just doesn’t feel lived in to me. Like all the lights are on, but nobody’s home. But maybe others will find it more inhabited. If the premise strikes your fancy, give it a try.

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.

Star Crash: A Space Anthology by Vera Loy (2:13)
The Rat Collector, by Chris Yee (6:21)

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.