The Colossus, by Ranjini Iyer (5:10)

IOD-The_Colossus.jpgToday we see that physical movements are eye-candy for the visual cortex, but that the rest of the reader’s brain needs something meatier to chew on.

What I gleaned about the story: Dr. Rosen once wrote some notes about an imaginary scene from the deep past, now today his adult granddaughter wakes up from a nap.

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WTF #1: Echoing headwords

Analysis: At least a half dozen echoing pairs and triples, just on the first page, but they were racing with the declarative sentence parade to see which issue would trip me first. Good prose weaves a spell. It pulls the reader in and makes them forget the world around them by raising a million curiosities for them to think about, gaps for them to fill in. That’s what immersion is. Conversely, when the prose does not raise questions or inspire musing, immersion is impossible.

WTF #2: Awkward prologue

Analysis: The story opens with a prologue in which an archaeologist sits down in 1935 to write a fictionalized impression of what “might have happened in that tomb over two thousand years ago.” He then gives us a page and a half of 3rd person narrative in which “the foreman” explains ancient burial practices to “the artist.” This came across as very thinly concealed exposition, and the constant references to “the artist” and “the foreman” completely reinforced the artificial nature of what I was reading.

Furthermore, the framing device of having the archaeologist write this narrative himself really interfered with the sense of this being a prologue. We get two or three sentences about the presumed POV character of this scene and then we’re immediately thrown into his invented backstory narrative. So, apparently he wasn’t important after all. But upon reaching chapter one, we see that the protagonist of that scene has the same surname as the archaeologist, so maybe he was important after all. And worse, since we’ve changed protagonist again, and jumped to the present day, it seems that the prologue was more like a prologue within a prologue.

WTF #3: Declarative sentence parade

Analysis: The prose feels so mechanical that I can’t slip past it to see the world of the story. But again I ask myself why. Faced with yet another candidate that seems to plod with the robotic rhythms of declarative sentence parades, I spent some time trying to dig deeper into the root cause of the trudging sensation, and I think I’ve teased out something new.

Consider this opening excerpt from chapter one:

The alarm went off. The first few bars of “Metamorphosis” began to play. For the sixth time.

This time, Max raised her groggy, disoriented head from her pillow. Her long curls were plastered about her head and face. She brushed some stray hair out of her eyes. A power nap had turned into a two-hour-long siesta. With a grunt, she turned the alarm off.

How many of those seven sentences give me anything to wonder about? How many of them raise even the slightest question about her world or her story?

The first two sentences are entirely self-contained. Bare facts. They imply nothing that requires any further thought, provide no blanks for me to fill in. The third sentence raises a very minor question: Why did she snooze the alarm 5 times? But I quickly answered that: Because she’s tired. Hardly a revelation about where the story might be going. So still nothing much to engage with.

The 4th sentence tells me how she moved her head. The 5th tells me what her hair was doing. Number 6 tells me that she had slept longer than she’d intended. And finally, the seventh sentence reveals that she turned off the alarm. Taken together, these seven sentences give me a series of things to look at but nothing to wonder about. They tell me virtually nothing about her world, about her personality, or about her situation. It doesn’t make me curious about anything at all; it’s just a list of facts about waking up. So my mind’s eye gets a workout here, but my puzzle-hunger goes unfed.

Compare: Now, by way of contrast, let’s look at an IOD survivor. The opening of Strictly Analog, by Richard Levesque, also happens to be about somebody being awakened.

I was dreaming about Las Vegas again when the ferret woke me. He stuck his cold little nose in my ear, interrupting the nightmare that had been my final battle.

“God damn it, Rex,” I shouted as I swung my feet to the concrete floor, rubbed my eye, and then checked my watch. 6:20. I hadn’t planned on falling asleep, and after a second felt relieved that the ferret had woken me.

Notice that it’s the same basic scenario: somebody waking up after an unexpected nap. But this one is very different. Pay particular attention to how many questions it raises. Or in other words, how much work it gives my curiosity to chew on while I’m visualizing the mechanical details.

The protagonist says he was dreaming about Las Vegas again. Why again? What does Las Vegas signify and and why does he dream about it repeatedly? Then, still in the first sentence, we get an unexpected twist: a ferret. What the hell? Along with that surprise, we also get a strong, almost visceral image of a cold ferret nose rooting around in his ear. Then moving along, we come to the revelation that the dream was a nightmare, and then a further revelation that this guy had been involved in some kind of battle. A battle in Las Vegas? Even cooler.

Notice that we’re only two sentences into the piece and we already have loads to think about. In fact, the whole “waking up from a nap” thing is entirely incidental. In terms of the narrator, the nap is what’s on his mind, but to the audience, that’s just the carrier wave onto which all these fascinating details of story have been layered.

Having aroused all those questions, the second paragraph then gives us a bit more of the physicality of the scene to look at, along with a taste of the narrator’s personality, as he yells at the obviously familiar ferret. Then finally, we get one last question to consider: Why is he glad the ferret woke him?

I find it helps to think about the physical movements as the narrative equivalent of a ticking clock. Each movement is another tick that keeps the time of the story moving forward. But the story is never about that. The story is about what significance those physical events have, which our mental wonder-engine infers from all the other stuff going on at the same time: the dialogue, the tension, the scheming, the struggle for power, etc.

It seems to me that when I find myself trudging along through a declarative sentence parade, the problem isn’t that physical movements are a bad thing to write about. The problem is that the author has let my mental wonder-engine run out of fuel. And that’s where boredom comes from.

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.

A Secondhand Life, by Pamela Crane (2:16)
The Odyssey of Hans Kessler, by Brad L. Smith (1:19)

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.