Unleashed, by Dirk Patton (16:49)

IOD-Unleashed.jpgToday we see that when the narrator’s thoughts are cold and distant, it’s hard for a reader to engage.

What I gleaned about the story: The narrator, known only as “I”, arrives in Atlanta on business and checks into his hotel, but the city appears to be on lock down and he can’t get a phone signal. Then, before you know it, zombies!

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WTF #1: Galloping “I” disease

Analysis: The prose is generally good, but it’s written in the 1st person and spends a lot of time talking about “I.” This is a common trap for 1st POV stories. Authors often forget that the “I” can often be assumed, and therefore can often be omitted altogether.

In this particular case, there were three factors contributing to the low-grade friction I experienced. First, the text is laid out with both indented paragraphs and intra-paragraph blank lines. This excessive white space makes each paragraph feel slightly isolated, like stanzas in a poem, rather than a continuously flowing story. Subconsciously, it feels as though each paragraph is being emphasized for dramatic effect, similar to the way in which a single sentence is often isolated into its own paragraph to give it extra drama.

Second, the narration is primarily about physical activity. As I noted in an earlier report, this leaves me with little to occupy my thinking while I’m observing all that physical detail. And as we all know, an idle mind quickly becomes a bored mind. Finally, there’s the recurring usage of the “I” word itself. These all combine to pull my attention to the words on the page, rather than the story behind them, so I threw a flag to fend them off and now hopefully I can read on without the lurking decision of whether or not to flag them.

Note: As a curious exercise, try paying attention to your natural internal monologue some time when you’re out and about on your own. Do you tend to think of yourself in the distant “I” voice, noting all the things you observe? Or are you “in your own skin,” simply thinking thoughts about the things you see,? I myself think things like:

Oops. Almost forgot to set the parking brake. Does the damned lawn really need trimming again? So soon? And this hydrangea is obviously not getting enough water here on the porch. Hmm. Look at all these scratches around the keyhole. That’ll need some touch-up paint this weekend. Hey, is that the smell of bread baking? Fabulous. 

If this example worked, it should be fairly clear that I got out of my car, crossed the lawn, went up the steps and in through the front door, without ever using the word “I”.

This is not to suggest that 1st POV should be written in total stream-of-consciousness mode, as I’ve done here, but hopefully it demonstrates that by getting deeper inside the head space of the narrator, you can leave a bunch of those galloping “I”s behind. Also note that rather than reporting the physical facts (I crossed the lawn, I walked across the porch, I unlocked the door, etc.) I’ve instead reported the impact those facts had on my life, which feels much more natural. This has two further benefits: First, it gives the reader something to think about, as they subconsciously unpack the physical movements implied by the observations. And second, it takes what would have been a dry report of navigational logistics and transforms it into a mini character sketch, allowing me to convey a bunch of little snippets from the life of my narrator. Take a moment and see how many details you can deduce about his life and character from those few observations.

WTF #2: Unnatural distancing language

Analysis: The protagonist is on a business trip and begins to notice an excessive police presence throughout Atlanta, and an irritating absence of internet or telephone service. Throughout the experience, he talks freely about a great many entities by name: Atlanta, MSNB, CNN, Starbucks, Hilton Garden Inn, etc. But oddly, whenever he talks about his own employer, it’s always as “my company.” It feels extremely unnatural to me for the narrator to think of his employer in such antiseptic, impersonal terms—especially when he is so freely naming every other institution around him. This just isn’t the way people think. Inside his own head, he should be thinking about his job in terms of some label: maybe by the company name, or by the name of his supervisor, or even the company owner/president. (This detail would depend on his position in the firm, the size of the company, his seniority, etc.) At the very least, he might have a personal pet-name for the place. If he works for Steckley Cheese Importers, he might think of it as “Ol’ Stinky-Cheese”.

But by thinking of it constantly as “my company” it completely denudes him of any apparent human emotion. I don’t know whether the author is trying to keep the name of the company generic, or even hidden, but the result is that as Ii was reading, I felt alienated inside the head of this robotic narrator who hasn’t even got enough humanity to personalize his relationship with his workplace.

WTF #3: Galloping “I” disease

Analysis: I tried to hang on through the growing excitement of the narrator’s first experience in the zombie apocalypse, but it just bled together into I, I, I, I for me, and I kept scanning ahead to see if there were more “I”s coming up. Unfortunately, that’s a clear sign that my immersion had faltered, so again I had to throw the flag.

Final Note: If you’re not particularly sensitive to echoing headwords and/or the “I” problem, you might find this to your tastes. It seems to have quite a lot of high-star rankings, so clearly it’s appealing to a large number of readers.

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.

Along For The Ride, by Martin Alvarez (2:35)
Broken People, by Ioana Visan (3:24)

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.