Junk and Other Short Stories, by Duncan James (1:12)

IOD score cardToday we see that a change in format conveys meaning; and if it doesn’t convey something about the story, it conveys something about the author instead.

What I gleaned about the stories: Sometimes, people don’t expect surprises.

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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: Overloaded sentence

Analysis: A few sentences into the first story I encountered:

The post usually arrived just as he was leaving for the office, so he quickly thumbed through it, and anything that was addressed to him went into his briefcase, to be read on the train, and the rest went into the bucket.

While the sentence was long, I made it to the end without running out of mental puff. However, I wasn’t sure which bits were important: was the focus on the throwing away or the keeping? Was the train important? Had the sentence been split into two, I would have formed an image of sorting, then adapted to the new information; but with everything in one sentence, all the pieces were still unresolved, so I didn’t know which bits were load bearing and which were decoration.

At this point, my unconscious raised a concern that other – potentially more significant – descriptions might also be packed together like this, so I moved on.

WTF #2: Empty signalling

Analysis: Partway down the first page of the second story, the typeface changed. My immediate thought was that it must be significant: a change of PoV; a method of psychic communication; unusual denotation of inner dialogue; or such. However, after a few sentences, I’d encountered no indication that it was anything other than continued narration in the same voice, which both tweaked one of the pillars of my mental image and raised the spectre of more significant formatting issues later in the work that might make pages hard to understand.

The problem is, typography serves a purpose. Fonts, spacing, margins, and white space all convey specific information. So changes in the typography carries meaning as well. Or at least, that’s the convention, and readers have subconsciously learned to recognize such changes and look for its intended meaning. But when typography changes randomly, or by accident, there is nothing new to find. We get confused. And with confusion, immersion is broken.

My faith in the invisibility of default formatting damaged, I moved on.

WTF #3: Confusing timeline

Analysis: The third story opened with: Marjorie Northcot died quite suddenly. It turned out to be a heart attack, but it was a great shock because nobody was expecting it at all. There were no real signs, early on.

I couldn’t quite sort out the timeline in the third sentence: if there were no real signs early on, then there were – by implication – real signs later. However, the death was sudden and no one was expecting it, which was a very strong indication it came without warning: so, there couldn’t be real signs later. And aren’t most heart attacks quick enough that there isn’t an appreciable difference between onset and ending to create an earlier and later in the attack?

After a few attempts to untangle, I wondered whether the author meant that there weren’t any signs Marjorie might have a heart attack in the future; however, that still didn’t resolve the early on reference.

A confusing first paragraph damages immersion before it has a chance to properly exist, so 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.

A Moonlit Task, by Tom Hansen (11:49)
Made in the Image of the Goddess, by Chantelle Griffin (2:41)

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.