Teeth of the Gods, by Sarah L. Wilson (6:53)

IOD score cardToday we examine one of the recipes for melodrama.

What I gleaned about the story: When the queen dies and nobody seems to care, her pampered daughter decides to take matters into her own hands. But first she has to escape the palace.

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WTF #1: Iron pyrite wisdom

Analysis: One of the things that sets a really good book apart from the pack is the presence of what I might call “wisdom nuggets;” little gems of insight about the human condition expressed in poignant ways. Not preachy. Not necessarily poetic. But insightful. And a really great place to do that is in the opening line. If you can establish that “wise commentator” vibe from the very start then readers will slip more easily into your spell.

And, indeed, the opening line of this book seems to be reaching for exactly that, in the form of a dramatic (or at least, thought provoking) statement from the protagonist, born of bitter experience. Here’s the line:

I always thought my mother would protect me from anything really bad, but it turned out that the one thing she couldn’t protect me from was losing her.

Unfortunately, given the lofty goal I thought the line was aiming for, the payoff here fell disappointingly flat for me. The key, I think, was that phrase, “but it turned out.” To me, that implies that whatever comes next will be something learned through painful experience. So I was fully expecting to be hit with a bit of that wisdom juice, only to find out that, apparently, protective people can’t protect you from missing them when they’re gone. That’s it? Color me disappointed.

A bit further down the page, we get another example of this wisdom setup, followed by a weak payoff. In this second case, the setup is a sentence that begins: How could anyone be safe if… Sounds promising, right? As if there’s going to be a perceptive observation about what it means to be protected from harm. Unfortunately, the sentence concludes with: if the only person who ever loved them was dead?

To me, this seems to be overreaching. Physical safety (which is the point that was being discussed) requires being loved? It is entirely possible that the narrator truly believes this, so it might be honest writing, but the effect for me was that it immediately conjured up a nickname for this as-yet unnamed character: Princess Melodrama. I hope that’s not how things play out, because that’s one character type I really don’t enjoy spending time with. But to be fair, I’ll wait and see how things unfold.

Note: In the middle of page one, there’s a space between the end of the sentence and its terminal period. Not an earth-shattering problem, to be sure, but it’s the kind of thing that would surely have been caught if the first page had received the degree of attentive revision that most first pages get.

WTF #2: Houston, we are “go” for melodrama

Analysis: In the space of the first page, we get the following beats:

  • I had to stop doing that or it would be bloody for the rest of my life.
  • Was my mother lying out on the ground under that moon, stiff and frozen in death?
  • If they caught me, I’d lose my chance for good.
  • Could my heart beat any louder?
  • I knew I’d never really be safe again.
  • Was I really going to do this?
  • I was no soft flower and they’d all know that when they saw what I was going to do.
  • Did mother think of all the memories that we’d never make in her last moments?

Each of these sentences seems designed to provoke an emotional response in the reader without providing enough information to allow the emotion to occur naturally. In fact, several of them seem to explicitly withhold that supporting evidence. (ie. when they saw what I was going to do.)

To me, these are the very definitions of melodrama. Emotional tell without any show. Rhetorical questions wrapped in hyperbole. A character’s emotions should not be painted solely by what they say. They’re conveyed much more powerfully in how they behave.

Note: A bit later, I encountered this little curiosity: Well, it mattered to me. I would go, and I would find her and lay her to rest. My hand twitched with excitement. I willed it still.

What does that last line mean? On first blush I thought it simply meant: I forced my hand to cease trembling. But then it occurred to me that it might be a callback to the previous line, where she was expressing her will to bring peace to her mother, in which case it would mean: I continued to wish to avenge her.

Little ambiguities like this can be very annoying, as they force the reader to stop and conduct a forensic examination of the text. Speed bumps on the story highway. And what’s worse is that if there is no way to make a definitive determination, the line continues to rattle around in your head, repeatedly calling your attention away from whatever you’re supposed to be focusing on next.

WTF #3: Conspicuous exposition

Analysis: As the protagonist begins her journey of escape, we get:

The footfalls of the guard passed my door and echoed down the hall. I slipped, whisper-quiet, out of my door. Good thing I stole those velvet-soled shoes and close-fitting black clothing from the back of the merchant’s cart three weeks ago.

That last line felt entirely too much. For one, there’s already been a bit of a problem with every noun getting an adjective, which is repeated here. But then to drop an entire adventure into a throw-away clause at the end of the sentence like that? Especially when her heart is in her mouth and she’s near terrified, trying to watch and listen in every direction at once? Who has time for history lessons at a time like that?

But there’s another thing. This entire drama is unfolding because the princess (I’m assuming that’s what she is) was told seven days ago that her mother was dead. But now we learn that two weeks prior to that, she stole the perfect outfit for sneaking out of the palace? It can’t have been part of her escape plan, because at the time, she didn’t know she was going to need to escape. What I’m left with is the image of a petty-thief princess who steals from common merchants for the thrill of it. That might be entirely what the author intends, but to me it’s just another brick in the wall of dislike I’m building for this character.

And who wants to spend an entire book in the head of an unlikable narrator?

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.

Darkin: A History of Blade and Light, by Joseph A. Turkot (1:23)
Resistance (Divided Elements #1), by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky (7:39)

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.