The Ring and the Flag, by William L. Hahn (7:21)

IOD-The_Ring_and_the_Flag.jpgToday we see that tiny issues may not bust immersion, but when they gather in sufficient number, the colossus they form is plenty big enough to get the job done.

What I gleaned about the story: When the happy young human of the first sentence turns out to be a shame-filled ancient Elf in the second, so many things have gone wrong that it’s hard to know where to begin.

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WTF #1: Gang-mugged by irritants

Analysis: Five times in the first paragraph I stopped to make a note about a minor irritation. Finally, on the fifth, I realized that having to constantly look past tiny problems is actually a bigger problem in its own right.

Let’s begin where I did, with the first sentence: Justin’s boots rang off the solid wood floor, bringing him pleasing echoes as they always did, even on this day, his last to dream of being an Imperial officer.

That seems pretty straight-forward. Happy Justin won’t have to keep dreaming about that promotion, because it appears he has now achieved it. But even with the excitement of all that going on, he still has enough awareness to enjoy the little things, like the awesome sound of his boots. But then a couple of sentences later, we discover he’s actually ashamed and horrified because he has in fact washed out of the program completely. At this point, I had to go back and re-read the opening line, wondering how I could have so completely misread the dude’s mood. And yup, it can also be read with a more ominous meaning, along the lines of: Sure the boots sound nice, even nice enough to distract him from the fact that the big promotion dream is now dead.

Sigh. Okay, I chalked that one up as my bad. Clearly I didn’t pay enough attention to the word “even.” But that’s fine. I’ll just carry on.

Then I got hung up on an oddly formed em-dash that was actually a hyphen. But the oddity was exaggerated further by the fact that there was no space preceding it, even though there was one after. Subconsciously, I saw this as a hyphenated word that was somehow incomplete; missing its second half. But that too seemed a relatively minor infraction, so again I pressed on, wincing and ignoring each time it happened again.

Next came a bizarre and unexpected revelation. Remember that soldier-dude protagonist whose name is “Justin?” Well it turns out that the “dude” is an elf. Really? Justin? Why not Kenny, or Benjamin? Maybe Carl. There may well be a good reason why this elf has such an entirely modern, Earth/English name, but none of that has been established yet so I get a strong sense of cognitive dissonance when I try to picture him. He’s entirely normal and Earthlike, as his name suggests, but also inscrutably alien, as his race suggests. And worse, I know this is going to keep happening, every time his name or race are mentioned explicitly.

The final straw came when the narrator indicated casual emphasis on a word by putting it in block caps. To me, block caps are only used for a character bellowing in rage, and even then I would have to think twice. But what does it mean for him to rage scream in a private thought? So I surmised that it was only meant to indicate casual conversational stress emphasizing the word in question. To bad the block caps are generally perceived to have a different and somewhat contradictory meaning. At this is point I realized I was being pecked to death by a herd of flea-sized irritations.

WTF #2: Narration failure

Analysis: Now let’s throw our attention back to the young man of the hour. Or rather, the young elf. The one who has now been drummed out of this military training program. Clearly his life as a soldier is getting off to a rocky start.

But then in the third paragraph, we see a reference to “the wars he had known before.” Not one but many, and not battles but entire wars. So suddenly, I was confronted with the knowledge that the young man whose shoulder I have been looking over for several paragraphs now is not actually young, either.

The problem I have with this, fundamentally, is that it violates what to me is one of the primary functions of the narrator. Readers cannot see the world of the book, except through the descriptions given by the narrator. We rely on him to be our eyes and ears, and we trust him to report to us anything that is important to understanding the story. If no mention is made of his hands, then we assume he has two, each with four fingers and a thumb. And if nothing is said of his face, we assume it is standard issue. And so on.

By that same assumption of efficiency, when the tone of the narrative conveys the situation of a young man and carries no cautionary notes on the matter, we assume it is because no cautionary note is warranted, and that he in fact is a young man. If we had been in the world for ourselves, we would have seen instantly that he was not. So when we construct our mental image of a young man, based on both the evidence provided and the evidence omitted by the narrator, but later have to completely re-cast an important feature, I mark that as a failure of the narrator living up to his assigned duties.

Note: Confused about a word use: Justin’s name fell far in the war of the rebellion, and many of the new dekentars showed him they remembered, though their respect was quite intact. From context, I can only assume that “fell far” is some indication of reach or renown.

WTF #3: Missing past perfect

Analysis: Justin has just noticed a man whose name he does not remember, but he describes him with a brief anecdote, beginning with: During one night mission, it proved difficult to restrain the man from actually hurting his fellow cadets.

From context, this can only be a reference to the deeper, remembered past, and it might be a minor quibble, but the more of them I notice and then have to force myself to ignore, the harder that gets. But fortunately, a second and then a third case of missing past perfect further down on this same page convinced me that it wasn’t an isolated omission, and gave me the ammunition needed to throw another flag.

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.

Threw Lake and other short stories, by Les Bill Gates (3:15)
Grey Magic, by JT Lawrence (4:13)

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.