White Liners: Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery Sketches, by RE McDonald (2:09)

IOD-WhiteLinersToday we see that having the reader trust your description is crucial if you are writing mysteries.

What I gleaned about the stories: People who don’t like their lives could find things getting radically worse.

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Note: This is a short story collection, so the rules are slightly different from standard Immerse or Die: instead of reading on every time I lose immersion, I stop reading that story and move on to the next one. As usual, I stop reading after the third WTF.

WTF #1: Interminable sentence

Analysis: A short way into the first paragraph of the opening story I encountered: It felt good to be on the ground and it felt great to be able to look at something other than the white lines on the black ribbon of highway snaking beyond the cone of his headlights.

Reading …it felt great to be able to… rather than …and great to… slowed me, and I slowed further as the sentence continued with more description and comparison. I finally ran out of mental puff around cone.

Split into two sentences it might be manageable. Even the addition of a comma after ground would give the reader a pause for breath that might let them reach the end. But even then, not all the information is necessary: white lines snaking beyond the cone of his headlights carries the same image as white lines on the black ribbon of highway snaking beyond the cone of his headlights.

Without division or trimming though, it was too much information to hold in my head while waiting for a natural parse point, so I moved on.

WTF #2: Missing information

Analysis: The third sentence of the second story is:

Lying on her stomach, feeling a weight in the hollow behind her knees, Elspeth Watson pulled the sheet over her head and burrowed under the spongy pillow.

So, I moved on with a space in my mental image for something in the hollow behind her knees. And, as it was a mystery story, I doubly wanted to get the mental image right so I didn’t miss a key piece of evidence.

However, the next sentence is about her annoyance about being awake; as is the next one. By the end of the paragraph, I still hadn’t been given any idea what the weight was.

The next paragraph started with a discussion of her internal clock, followed with her shifting in irritation. At this point, the weight (about which I still knew only it was behind her knees) shifted in response.

Trying to change my mental image before I’d been given enough to form it in the first place was too much. My faith in whether I would get a good description gone, I moved on.

WTF #3: Inconsistent character voice

Analysis: The third story opens with the narrator being called by a woman with a clipboard. The person calling him is in a hurry so calls his name again when he doesn’t come immediately. At this point we learn he is in a hospital waiting room with a broken foot. As he feels aggrieved at being chided he responds in anger. A great deal is made of him forcing himself not to swear, giving the image of a plain speaker or gritty character.

However, after his outburst, he narrates that a woman shhh-shushed him. I wasn’t expecting sound effects in the narration, and consider shushed onomatopoeic enough this one doesn’t add anything, so might have been distracted by it anyway; but coming from a narrator who swears frequently it felt doubly out of place.
With my trust in the description already shaky from the several sentences it took to discover he was in a hospital, this conflict with my mental image was enough that I lost faith completely and pulled the plug.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

No One's Chosen, by Randall P. Fitzgerald (4:59)
Pilgrim of the Storm, by Russ Linton (40:00)

About the author

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and speculative fiction. He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.