In Strange Worlds, by Brenda Cheers (6:15)

IOD-In_Strange_Worlds.jpgToday we learn a great way to ensure your readers do not invest emotionally in your story: Give them a narrator who doesn’t invest either.

What I gleaned about the story: Meg woke up in the delivery ward to find everybody in the hospital dead. Then she finds that her baby died too. But what’s really bothering her is that she has nothing to wear when she goes looking for help.

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WTF #1: Echoing headwords

Analysis: The opening is a fairly compelling situation in which a young woman wakes up in the hospital, clearly postpartum, but there’s nobody around. Not even the baby. Unfortunately, the mounting drama of the situation was diffused for me by the constant barrage of “She did this thing…” “She did that thing…” In the first two pages I counted about 15 sets of direct “She”-echos, on top of another five or six isolated sentences of that form.

A direct echo happens when two or more successive sentences use the same headword, and these are usually what stick out most clearly to me when a story suffers from the problem, but it’s worth noting that isolated sentences of the same form can still contribute to the effect, by keeping the offending pattern alive in our pattern-recognition system, re-energizing our sensitivity to it. So even though these singletons don’t actually trigger the echoing problem, they continue to erode our patience for the problem once it appears.

Note: And as a curious side-observation, I also note that we were given the protagonist’s name (Meg) in the very first sentence, but were given no reminder of it until page three, after 1000 words and approximately 200 references to her as “she.” A few “Meg”s thrown in to replace some of the “She”s would have worked wonders to both reduce the echoing problem and remind readers of the narrator’s identity.

WTF #2: Detached narrator

Analysis: So Meg has just awakened in a hospital after delivering a baby and finds that everybody in the hospital is lying dead on the floor. Upon finding the first body covered in bloody mucus—the very first dead body she has ever seen, no less—she says, “Oh my God. Oh my God,” and then walks on, continuing to look for her baby. Okay. I can buy that, I suppose. I guess she’s very distracted by concern for her child and has no capacity to react to the body any more deeply than that.

After a bit more looking, she hasn’t found the baby, but she has found a lot more bodies. Unsure where else to look, she goes back to her room to check her medical chart. At this crucial moment, we are given: As she read the details, hot tears fell onto the much-used pages. Stillborn. That was that then. She had to get out of there. Then, in the very next sentence, she’s worrying about what to wear when she leaves the hospital.

Frankly, that’s not even close to being enough reaction. When you wake up to find every person in your local hospital dead on the floor from some hemorrhaging head disease, I want to see more than a pair of “Oh my God”s. I want to see the horror of the moment reflected in your eyes. I want to feel the world spinning around you as you try to make sense of this horrible calamity you have awakened into. And when you then discover that the baby you’ve been carrying for nine months did not survive the birth, I want at least some semblance of grief before you move on to worrying about being seen in public in your hospital gown.

WTF #3: Echoing headwords

Analysis: After seeing Meg’s complete lack of reaction to two horrifying life experiences, I’ve lost any interest I ever had in following her story, so when I hit another flurry of echos two or three paragraphs further on, I 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.

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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.