A Curse Upon the Saints, by J. Rutger Madison (12:15)

iod-curseuponsaintsToday we examine the impact of speech attribution on scene choreography.

What I gleaned about the story: Nurik Shernazar is all set to attack the fortress and win the war when a squad of goat-wizards come out of nowhere and blow the place up from within. Nobody expects an invasion of goat-wizards!

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Note: I was amused to see the copyright declared as: Copyright © <$year> <$author>. It immediately makes me wonder if anybody proofed the final book. But worse, it also means that the content may not be protected by copyright law.

WTF #1: Declarative sentence parade

Analysis: The first half page is a long series of physical descriptions of a siege. The thing was big. Some other things were over there. A guy did an action. Those weapons were weaponly. Etc.

The details being offered are appropriate, but I found myself sliding over them just the same, and I wanted to dig into why. I think the problem for me is that these details came before I had any context. I knew the name of the guy leading the siege, and I knew a few of the political labels of the towns and kingdoms involved, but I had no idea what this siege is about. I don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are. I don’t know how long this siege has been going on, or what’s at stake. And as a consequence of those ignorances, I think I was sliding over the details, scanning to find some context details so that I would understand how to slot all the facts into my mental model of what the story was about. Why is context important? Maybe an example will help.

Imagine that I gave you the following details: Some men are milling about outside a barracks. The men are dirty and thin. They do not smile. They form a line and other men in uniforms inspect them. Then the dirty men are dismissed. Night falls. Thirty dirty men march into a small building. Day breaks. The men do not come out.

At this point, I’ve given you a bunch of facts. People moving around a scene, etc., but who are they? What does it all mean? With just those details to work from, can you tell if you’re supposed to be relating to the dirty men or to the guards? Was this a scene from The Great Escape? Was it Schindler’s List? The gulf between those two contexts is huge, and until you know which one pertains to the scene, it’s hard to know what to feel about all those physical details. It’s that context that allows us to understand what the declarative statements mean, and what we should feel about them.

But without it, they’re just nameless, faceless men scurrying about a drama we can’t relate to.

WTF #2: Confusing choreography

Analysis: Nurik is the commander of the siege forces, and has just taken fire from a sniper while talking to his assistant, Yona. In response, Nurik leaps from the ramparts and charges toward the sniper, as a second shot narrowly misses him. Then we get: “Sir Nurik,” said Yonas, “don’t be a—” What? A fool? A hero? Whatever the word, it was likely an apt fit.

But wait a minute. How did Yonas get there? We weren’t told anything about the assistant following Nurik when he jumped from the ramparts and charged the sniper. And Yonas seems to think that move was pretty stupid, so why did he follow?

Then a few lines later we get: Yonas and three mercenaries arrived as Nurik retrieved his quarrels. What? Now I’m thoroughly confused.

Upon investigation, I think the problem is the word “said” being used when Yonas admonished him. I think a better attribution would have been: Yonas called out from the rampart. The word “said” usually implies a spoken utterance, not an alarmed yell. So when I saw the attributive “said,” I assumed that Yonas was close enough to be talking in a relatively normal voice, and so therefore must have gone with him.

WTF #3: Verb tense problems

Analysis: There have been two or three other examples, but I was able to ignore them, as they were minor. This one is also fairly minor, but it came on the heels of a couple of other odd phrases and ended up being the straw that made me aware of the camel’s back. At the beginning of the second scene we met a new character, who had been playing his flute when he was ordered by his commanding officer to put it away. Then we are given:

This was a microcosm of his life. Music was always his true passion, but duty prevented him from earning a living with it.

It sounds fine in isolation here, but this comes in the midst of a story being told in the past tense. So in my inner ear, this feels like saying: Music is always his true passion, in a present-tense story. It’s the wrong mode for what the author is trying to convey, and ends up rendering a bizarre, existential statement about some constant and pathologically distracting preoccupation with music. If it had been rendered in past perfect, it would have been completely fine.

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.

A Heretical Divide, by Serban Valentin Constantin Enache (6:47)
The Dark Verse, Vol 1: From the Passages of Revenants by M Amanuensis Sharkchild (1:47)

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.