Sunday, October 27, 2013

First 250 Words Smash! #39

Most Wonderful Author: Cactuar
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: N/A

They always sat, him and Halil, perched atop the towering walls in the evenings, sharing what food they could scrape together and looking out towards their doom, the black silhouettes which swarmed over the hills surrounding their city, once home to some of the best vineyards in the whole of the world-- now a scarred and barren expanse marked by the charred remains of an arbor here or there, sticking out of the ashes like the blackened bones of some long-dead beast.

He didn't know why they did it. It wasn't as if seeing them out there helped anything. There was no help for any of it. Nothing to do but sit and talk and eat what they could find, and watch Halil's eyes grow colder and darker and harder with every day that passed.

By now, the stores had gotten so low and nerves frayed so raw by the fear of what was coming that violence was breaking out among the citizens. The day before, the guards had violently repelled a group of panicked townsfolk trying to throw open the gates. Surrender, and hope for mercy…though, they had to know that it was far too late for that. Surrender, then, and at least get it all over with a little faster.

As it turned out, they didn’t have much longer to wait. Five days later the gate fell, and Halil turned to Kadri and suggested that they jump.

"Jump?" he'd squeaked in reply, leaning out over the edge [...]

Strong Points –
What I liked about this was the subtlety in the writing. It’s definitely far from purple prose, but in that aspect, I like it. The simplicity makes description like “sticking out of the ashes like the blackened bones of some long-dead beast” stand out like a frame around a portrait, so I like it. (And I absolutely love that metaphor, like wow, so perfect for the atmosphere and mood.)

The first paragraph is definitely my favorite, because not only does it build up the surroundings, but it builds up the setting. It effortlessly begs the question “what happened here?” without ever prompting the words. That’s definitely a skill that takes practice to evolve.

Some Tips –
While I love the first paragraph, the following paragraphs fell into the trap of exposition and info-dumping, all “telling”. The first paragraph does a good job of setting up the scene, but then we lose it when we enter all the background telling.

While this information might be critical for the reader to know, it delays the start of the actual story, the reason why readers picked up the book, and there are other ways to unpack it other than taking up so much of the crucial opening paragraphs. A good way to unload all this necessary background information is to unload ideas with and between dialogue. Check out the example I have in that old post, and also the super old post linked above. These’ll help create some strategies on how to tackle adding backstory in as it becomes necessary.

Of course, there are times where telling is absolutely necessary and okay. (There’s a post somewhere about this that I saw recently, but for the life of me, I can’t find it.) A good balance of showing versus telling and telling versus showing keeps the dynamic of the world and character intentions clear and distinct and focused. The art of showing alone simply can’t reveal all that necessary information, but in the beginning, setting up the story is critical. Finding this balance will take practice (I can definitely attest to that, because it’s one that I’m still far from mastering).

Secondly, be aware of word choice. “Doom” for me is a word that says very little in the context of a narrative because it’s something that’s relative. The definition of it changes from person to person. Also, there’s the connotation of the word that hits the scale of “epic” for me, a word so overused because of its dramatic flair that I can’t see it used in fiction anymore – not in a serious manner, anyway. In modern dialogue, sure. Or even in the narrative from the POV of a modern voice.

Other than that, I’d say be conscious of grammar such as “he and Halil” versus “him and Halil”. Another bit is that the first paragraph is all one sentence. That’s 82 words in one sentence with five commas and one dash. That sentence can definitely be broken up, and it might improve how the opening flows.

Also, as a final note, check out 250 Words Smash #37 for some tidbits on dialogue tags.

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet. Half the intro was exposition, so I didn’t have much of a chance to get into the story. I’d like to see a revision, though, and then I’d get a better sample of the writing, too. Since the exposition was mostly summary, it’s difficult to get a better feel for prose. I’m sure I’d have more feedback then!

Good luck!


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