Cyberbully Blues, by Rubin Johnson (7:50)

IOD-CyberbullyBluesToday we see how distancing language can chill the tone of the scene and hold readers at an emotional arms-length.

What I gleaned about the story: Dakota lives in the future, but she loves Harry Potter and 80s music. Then a robot delivers some unexpected packages. Again. And there’s a puppy.

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WTF #1: Distant language

Analysis: The first scene portrays a kid of the near future, rocking out to 80s music and reading Harry Potter. But as charming as that sounds, I was unengaged by it, largely I think, because of the distant narrative voice.

When Dakota is startled back to reality by her mother, she doesn’t open her eyes and see mom. She opens them and sees “a brown-skinned, brown-eyed woman wearing pale blue hospital scrubs.” It’s only later that the narrator tells this brown-skinned woman is her mother. What could be more cold and emotionless than to see your mother, but only register her physical features?

But it wasn’t just that one case. She and her mother (Libby) go on to have a brief but familiar argument. Then when it ends, we get: “Libby softened her face.” Note the difference between that and, “Libby’s face softened.” The former gives it a sense of being a conscious effort, rather than the natural progression of emotion that would be natural to the situation. This again introduces a subtle form of distance and coldness, and these sorts of wording choices are all through the first scene, which ultimately held me at the periphery of the story world, waiting to be invited in.

WTF #2: Inconsistent voice

Analysis: The second scene, like the first, is from Dakota’s POV. She seems like a typical girl, in both her interests and her manner of speech, but every now and then we get narrative lines like: Neither the bright sun, nor the warm breeze offered any solace. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that sentence, but it would be far more appropriate to the voice of a Victorian dowager or perhaps a tormented Depression-era poet. It certainly feels nothing like the language of a teenage girl thinking to herself.

And this is an important point. Even when the POV character is not engaged in direct internal discourse, the narration should still be presented from the context of that character’s world view. This is what it means for them to be the POV character. And as such, the narration should use a character-appropriate vocabulary and focus on topics of interest to that POV.

WTF #3: Declarative sentence parade

Analysis: Again we have distant, tell-mode language and a preoccupation with the physicality of the scene. And, as often happens in such situations, we’re seeing a lot of simple declarations about facts, and very little emotional weight to help pull us down into the scene.

Company Daughter, by Callan Primer (19:14)
Night Terrors by Valentine King (5:50)

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.