The Space Between, by Scott J. Robinson (33:30)

Today we see that major story motives have to be convincing or readers won’t buy into the crisis that drives the plot.

What I gleaned about the story: Kim is a grumpy woman trapped at a Robin Hood festival she doesn’t want to attend. Meledrin is an eager elf scout who is saddled with a dim-witted dwarf she does not want to supervise. I suspect their worlds are about to collide.

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WTF #1: Information hoarding

Analysis: In the opening scene, the protagonist almost runs over an old man with her car—a man she keeps referring to as “Robin Hood.” There is an exchange of dialog as they each apologize to the other, and then they part. But at no time is it ever made clear why she’s calling him Robin Hood. Does he look like Errol Flynn? Is he wearing a green leotard? Is he carrying a bow?

We get plenty of humor about how the old man has spent too much time drinking and not enough time running from the sheriff, but not a glimpse of what it is about him that makes him so Robin Hoodish. It’s possible that this will be explained later, but that doesn’t work for me because in my view, this is the kind of information the narrator is not allowed to hold back.

To explain that, I first have to discuss narrative responsibility. Fiction theorists like to talk a lot about narrative mode, going on about intimacy vs insularity, deep vs shallow POV, and getting hopelessly tangled up in who has access to what thoughts of which characters and when. But setting all that hand-wringing aside, there are exactly four functions the narrator can perform:

  1. Describe the physical properties of the scene. What is the terrain? The weather? Who is present? Who is standing where? What actions does each contributor perform, including utterances, gestures, etc., and what are are the immediately evident results?
  2. Describe the thoughts and feelings of the various participants.
  3. Offer an opinion or synthesis of the events of the scene, their import, or their potential consequences.
  4. Provide context, such as local history, laws, rules of physics/magic, or any other aspects of the world that are relevant to the story but may not be common knowledge to the reader.

Items 2–4 in that list are subject to constraint, depending on the narrative mode and the POV rules, but the one thing that remains fixed is #1. The narrator must serve as the reader’s avatar, reporting any and all physical properties of the scene that are relevant to the action, just as though the reader were physically present to witness things for themselves. Dereliction of any of the other duties can be overlooked, but a failure in the role of sensory avatar is a sin that many readers cannot tolerate. It breaks the narrative contract by which the reader allows the author control of their inner theater and makes them reluctant to continue the relationship. It feels like a betrayal from a trusted confidant. Even in the case of an unreliable narrator, the lies told to the reader are almost always limited to dimensions 2–4.

So this is why I find the withheld detail here so galling. Not because the reason for calling him “Robin Hood” is crucial to the story, but because withholding it signals that the narrator does not understand his job.

Note: Half a page later, we are finally told that she has come to a Robin Hood Festival, but even then, we don’t know what it was about the old man that told her he was a Robin and not a Little John or a Friar Tuck.

Was this in an attempt to create mystery? If so, it backfired. Mystery comes from the narrator not knowing what’s going on and the reader empathizing; not from the narrator withholding information just to make the reader squirm.

WTF #2: Unfortunate image

Analysis: Another page or so further in, we get: Kim nudged her way among the stalls, past a silver smith and a weaver, a potter and a dressmaker.

I’m sure the author intended that to be a silversmith, but I couldn’t help flashing on an image of some mirror-skinned blacksmith standing there in a leather apron, hammering away at a sword. And then, a few paragraphs later, we got over done instead of overdone.

These two glitches are both things that a solid, professional editor should have caught. Seeing them there in the first couple of pages, seriously undermines my faith in the quality of the editing.

Note: I quite enjoyed the exchanges Kim had with fair-goers during her brief lunch. Especially the woman dressed as the Wicked Witch. She felt comfortable and lively. I hope we’ll be seeing more of her.

 

WTF #3: Unconvincing inciting incident

Analysis: Following the Robin Hood events, we are then introduced to a new story line involving an elf named Meledrin, but I found the inciting incident of her arc very hard to believe.

A dwarf has appeared in the elf village, and has annoyed the elves because in his haste to set about repairing their homes, he started work rather early in the morning. As it unfolds, we find that the dwarf has been evicted from his clan, apparently because he couldn’t pass a singing test. But more strangely, if he tries to return home, he will be killed. That seems a bizarrely severe penalty to me, but maybe I can roll with it.

We then find that the elder of the elf village has been so annoyed by the dwarf’s unannounced and unsolicited helpfulness that she wants him ejected at once, sent back to wherever he came from, even though she has been told he will be killed if he does so. To sentence a clearly confused and possibly brain-damaged handyman to death for the crime of starting too early on his volunteer task of repairing your village, seems more than just heartless. It seems unbelievable. If it were the only strain on my credulity, I might be able to live with it, but alas, now there are two.

Or rather, three. Our POV character herself, Meledrin, is a warder (some kind of elf policeman or guard) who first tracked the dwarf through the forest and was the first to find him in the village, doing his thing. Since the moment she found his trail, she has been in a high state of alarm about the danger he represents. She even seems to find him physically repulsive. Yet, when the elder announces that he is to be sent home, to his death, Meledrin is suddenly clamoring for mercy. I understand that this is an empathetic thing to do, but just a page ago, she was tracking him through the forest, with an arrow nocked and her bow half-drawn, ready to kill him on sight. And now suddenly her position is completely reversed?

All of these decisions are taken without even asking the dwarf if he could maybe start his work a little bit later in the day, rather than waking everybody up. This entire nexus of events feels contrived and superficial. And if this is the way people in this story deal with their problems, I have no interest in spending any further time with them.

Marketing Note: Given what I’ve read so far of the story, I find the book’s cover to be totally perplexing. This appears to be a full-on fantasy novel, yet the cover image is about as science fiction as a cover image can get: a planet and moon floating against the background of space. That science fiction vibe is further corroborated by the title: The Space Between. Having only read the first few scenes, I can only guess that this is intended to reference the space between our world and some fantasy world, but I’ve always seen this use of “world” as synonymous with “reality” or “realm.” By associating it instead with “planet,” I think the cover (unintentionally) misrepresents what’s inside, promising a story of space adventure and then delivering something entirely different. My fear would be that anyone who responded to such a cover would feel bait-and-switched once they got inside, and that can’t be good for attracting an audience.

Of course, I could be wrong. There may be elements of the story later in the book that completely justify the cover and title choices, but I would still be worried that first impressions might invoke that bait-and-switch impulse and cause readers to jump ship before they got to the justifying story elements.

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.

Lament of the Fallen, by Andy Peloquin (33:08)
The Drifter: and other short stories, by Robert Scott-Norton (17:34)

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.