King Callie, by B. Lynch (7:37)

IOD-KingCallieToday we see that authors should report all significant changes in a character’s stance or position, to prevent seated characters from striding across rooms.

What I gleaned about the story: Valric, son of an ailing king, pounds upon a servant’s door. Royth, the mysterious Seer who serves them, takes his sweet time answering. I suspect there is more.

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WTF #1: Conspicuous exposition

Analysis: In the first two pages, the only thing that’s happened is that the prince has banged on a servant’s door. Meanwhile, we are flooded with details about whose castle we’re standing in, who the servant is, where he’s from, what his job is, how old the prince is, and the fact that the king is ill. There might have been a fun bit of banter in there between the prince and the cocky servant, but since no rhythm was ever established between them, I can’t really tell if it was banter, or real ire, or maybe even some kind of teacher/student vibe. I was lost trying to sift through all the details, most of which had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to set the hooks of curiosity before you launch the backstory. And when you do, less is more. Only tell as much as is needed to understand what’s going on in the moment. There will be plenty of time later to reveal more depth. Think of your story as a retail store. Customers come to the window and look in, but only a few actually come through the door to give the place a proper inspection. Your job is to design the store so that these timid visitors see something they like as quickly as possible. That’s the only way they’re going to move beyond the doorway.

But unnecessary exposition is like stacking empty boxes around the lobby. It blocks the visitor’s view of Today’s Special and all the fancy posters on the wall. It slows him down as he tries to move around. He can’t even see the expensive carpets you had put in. So in all likelihood, he’s going to turn around and go back out again.

And then he’s going to tell his friends what he saw.

WTF #2: Show vs. tell mismatch

Analysis: Now we’re another page on and getting a list of the servant’s favorite gods and the manner in which each of their statues has been clothed and styled, but we still have no real story elements to chew on.

I’m sure the author is simply trying to paint a complete visual for the reader, but this is way too much for my tastes. One or two details in each new setting is a good way to orient the reader so they can visualize what’s going on. But unless that god-statue is about to strangle the servant with the brocaded scarf, I really don’t need to know about it. I can often put up with excess description, if there is some other element of the story holding my attention, but this one seemed particularly intrusive to me and I kept losing my place in the text.

Then I hit a line that struck me as quite funny, but unintentionally so. After all those distracting descriptions from the narrator had passed, we get: Valric stepped over it, and strode towards Royth with impatient purpose. Really? He’s impatient? From the lecture about statue fashion, I had inferred exactly the opposite—that he had all kinds of time. This is a case of the show being in ferocious conflict with the tell.

WTF #3: Confused stage business

Analysis: Stage business is the general term actors give to the issues of who is standing where, doing what, while other characters are reciting their lines. Midway down the next page, the servant is seated at a writing desk, scribbling furiously. Then he stops and looks up at the prince. In the very next paragraph, the servant “closed the gap with slow, deliberate steps.” Had I missed a position change? Had the servant stood up? I checked. No, apparently not. Or maybe he’d been at a standing desk? I skimmed back further, but could find no evidence of that either.

As a general rule, every time a character changes position, stance or turns to face a new direction, the movement should be signaled to the reader. Otherwise, we end up with mental images like the one I had here, of seated figures crab-stalking their feet across the floor while seated and dragging their chair behind them.


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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.