The Dark of Light, by Audrey Sharpe (7:47)

IOD score cardToday we see that it’s hard to feed your reader worldbuilding porridge while a giant chocolate cake of dramatic tension is being wheeled by.

What I gleaned about the story: Aurora comes across an alien youth being bullied by three teenage boys. She decides to intervene.

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WTF #1: Descriptive overload

Analysis: The second sentence of the book packs a lot of description in, with an abundance of adjectives.

The harsh voice echoed in the early morning air, a discordant note amid the cheerful chattering of birds and the whispering of the wind in the pines overhead.

I think it would have been less noticeable later in the book, but the first couple of paragraphs is crucial territory. The author is still establishing their voice. And in this (possibly non-representative) sample, the voice is “complicated sentences with lots of adjectives.”

I’ll admit, I like the contrast it’s trying to draw between “the sounds of nature” and “the sounds of a kid being threatened.” But I think a simpler sentence would have packed more punch.

WTF #2: We’ll return after these brief worldbuilding messages

Analysis: The story’s brought us to a moment of lean-forward-in-your-seat tension: three rough youths have a younger boy surrounded, backed up against a steep drop-off. Our hero, Aurora, is watching this, sizing up the situation and deciding how to best intervene.

But she’s not thinking the thoughts of a teenager getting primed for something stupidly heroic. She’s thinking the thoughts of a narrator who needs to fill the reader in on the finer points of the world she lives in.

For example, when she recognizes that the boy is a member of an alien race:

That changed things considerably. Kraed society was clan-based, with very strong bonds between members of each family. Individuals rarely left their home planet of Drakar for extended periods of time. The Academy administration had trumpeted the arrival of Siginal Clarek as a member of the staff this year, the first Kraed to ever accept a long-term position as a professor.

It goes on in the same vein for a few more paragraphs. This might be good information to have. But there’s this dramatic standoff happening, and little of the infodump is directly relevant to that standoff. The movie’s hit the pause button, a professor in a tweed jacket has walked onto the screen. “To fully appreciate this dramatic moment, you need to understand the historical origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, during the first world war…”

As infodumps go, this one wasn’t particularly onerous. Information about an alien’s native culture, even in infodump-y form, might make for interesting reading elsewhere in the story. But placed here it causes two problems: it pauses the action, and it rips the POV out of the protagonist’s head.

WTF #3: Skin-deep logic

Analysis: Aurora’s still going over what she knows about the alien race her Academy is hosting, but at least now the knowledge she’s laying down has relevance to the current situation:

He’d also grown up on a planet that was populated with very large, very lethal predators. Even though the Kraed had long since learned how to safely co-exist with the creatures of their world, Kraed children were still taught to defend themselves from infancy.

The narration is signaling that young Jonarel Clarek isn’t as defenseless as the bullies think. But the reasoning doesn’t feel all that believable. The story does try to hang a lampshade by admitting up front that the Kraed had solved their predator problem long ago. As it should be: a civilization capable of interstellar travel is probably capable of building predator-proof walls, tranquilizer darts, wildlife refuges, etc.

Yet the Kraed keep teaching the skills “from infancy” (hinting that they place great value on this training) long after those skills stopped conferring any particular survival advantage. The lampshade isn’t helping much; I’m still stuck going, “No, that can’t be… but what if?… no, that would mean… okay, how about… still not right.”

A second problem rears its head: the logic is saying the training which protects their young from the enormous predators of their homeworld can also even the odds against a trio of teenage Earthlings. But it seems unlikely that the skills would transfer. If you’re being hunted by a tyrannosaur, a mastery of jiu-jitsu isn’t going to level the playing field.

Biographical aside: Okay, so back when I was a cub scout, I was told that if a bear ever chased me, I was supposed to run downhill at an angle. The reasoning was that, because bear’s front legs are shorter than their back legs, they wouldn’t be able to duplicate the feat, and trying to follow me would send them tumbling down the hill. #LifeHacks

I’ve never had a chance to put this advice into practice. It could be total bunk. But the point is, the tricks for dealing with one species might not be useful against another. It might be hilarious if Jonarel’s anti-predator training kicked in and he covered himself in the scat of native fauna and then tried to play dead. It might even work, though I doubt that’s where the story’s heading.

Maybe there are satisfying answers ahead which will clear up my confusion. Maybe the lampshade is hinting at that. And part of me does want to know: why did the alien boy’s father take an academic position in Colorado? From the way the Kraed are described, isolation doesn’t seem like an option. But when you see a problem early, it’s easy to imagine that it will recur. Readers need to know that solid logic underpins the world you’re inviting them to explore.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

Sonoran Dreams: Three Short Stories from Exile, by Robb Grindstaff (2:33)
Blood and Beauty and Other Weird Tales, by Jeff Chapman (2:14)