A Conspiracy of Shadows, by Randy Nargi (2:35)

IOD score cardToday we see that creating cognitive dissonance for the reader is a great way to sever immersion.

What I gleaned about the story: Our intrepid wizard awakens to find himself bound hand and foot with magic-proof chains. Then he’s flung into the sky and left to plummet to his death.

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WTF #1: Declarative sentence parade

Analysis: The opening few paragraphs are comprised entirely of declarative sentences. Our hero opened his eyes. His hands were here. His feet were there. He shifted his weight. His skin was clammy. Etc. That’s not a direct quote, but it gives the essence of the opening rhythm. Statement, statement, statement; all of it about the physical situation and nothing about who I’m watching or why I should care.

It’s not that I need to know about his ailing mother or the abusive nuns who beat him at school. What I need is some hint regarding how to feel about all this activity. Am I in the POV of some miserable creep who tried to molest a child and is now bloodied, bound, and awaiting the arrival of Durgan “The Cudgel” Blackstone for some swift country justice? That sounds good. I should probably hope Durgan gets here soon.

But I could just as easily be stuck in the head of some innocent bystander who has the misfortune to look like Wild Prince Jessop and now he’s about to start a terrifying plunge into the world of court intrigue and shadowy backroom poisoners. In this case, I’d be aching along with our hapless hero, hoping the poisoners get stuck in traffic.

So clearly, the presented facts could go either way. And when I don’t know how to feel about what’s happening, I end up asking myself why I’m bothering.

WTF #2: Narrative cheating

Analysis: Further down the page, Tobin recounts several lines spoken by others, but they are attributed only as “the voice” and “the other voice.” Immediately after that, we are told: He knew who held him and he also knew why.

IMO, this breaks one of the cardinal rules of narration. Unless you are dealing with an unreliable narrator, the narration should always be expressed from within world view of the narrator. This means using the vocabulary appropriate to the narrator, and imbued with whatever knowledge, beliefs, or prejudices the narrator has. So when the narration refers to these men simply as “the voice,” the unspoken implication is that he does not know who they are, and I proceed for a few paragraphs under the impression that he’s being held by villainous strangers.

But then at the bottom of the page, he mentions that he does know who they are, and I immediately think, “WTF? Then why didn’t you tell me that earlier? What’s the point of keeping that a secret?”

The answer, of course, is that it was probably done to increase the sense of drama, but it’s a false kind of drama. A narrator who lies to his audience is called unreliable and I can enjoy that kind of protagonist, but when it’s the author who’s withholding or misrepresenting the information, that feels like manipulation. And nobody likes to feel manipulated.

WTF #3: POV violation

Analysis: For the entire opening page, Tobin has had a heavy sack tied around his head, and much has been made of the fact that he cannot see what’s happening. In addition to being trussed up, now he is also being moved around by the men, suspended from his bound hands and feet, so presumably he’s getting fairly disoriented. Then we get: Tobin Leroth’s body jerked savagely and he was flung 100 yards into the air.

How does he know how high he’s been tossed? How does he even know he’s being thrown upward? He knows he been thrown, certainly, but he wouldn’t have any idea which way, or how far. It sounds like a minor point, perhaps, but in the moment of reading it, I found his knowledge of the distance ripped my mental camera in half. Up to that point, I’d been trying to see/feel his experience inside the bag, but them I was given information that felt like it could only be known by looking at him from outside. And so, being required to have my mental camera both inside the bag and outside, I found my immersion torn again.

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.

Inner Mind/Outer Space: Four Short Stories and a Novelette by the Author of Alien Within, by Karen Forrester (0:53)
Short Stories Part 1., by L.L. Caulton (1:16)

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.