Saturday, June 21, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #53

Most Wonderful Author: Hafza @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Rebecca
Working Title: "Those Who Walk the Darkness"

“Shh, yes, that’s it.” His mother’s voice guided his hand. There was a shift and he slipped. “Oh, be careful, it’s hard to get good ones like these now. They’ve started watching now.”

“But they can’t always be watching, right, Mummy?” His voice was small and childish in the flickering lamplight. There was a low laugh from beyond the edge of the light.

“That’s right, my son. They can’t always be on guard. The darkness cannot be banished for long, and they can’t escape the shadows forever.” He finished his last stroke and reached for the cloth to wipe. “You’re not finished yet.” His mother’s voice was sharp. He sighed as only a small child can, dramatic and exhaustive. “Moth-er!”

“You know that we are not done. Come, I shall show you once more. But from then on you must do it properly yourself.”

She bent to the table and made two caressing movements with the knife. “Can I try it again, Mother?” She looked down at the little boy and smiled. “Not now, my child. Now, we must leave. The Coven is calling, and we have tarried here too long."

“Come here now.” She gathered him in her cloak and disappeared in a swirl of shadows, leaving behind a lone figure on the table. As the lamp flickered out, the last fingers of light illuminated a girl’s face, mutilated and bloody, with two long cuts extending from the corners of her lips, stretched in one last gruesome grin.

Strong Points –
Wow, what a hook! I think this is a great place to start the story, sparking a lot of questions that the reader must keep reading to find out. Why is the Coven calling? Who was the girl, and what was their purpose in carving up her body? How many more bodies have they and will they get away with mutilating?

But at the same time, I really love the contrast of that gruesome ending with the sweet interactions between a mother and child. There were a lot of great moments where the mother-child bond was shown really well:

His mother’s voice guided his hand.

As well as her “caressing” movements with the knife! Add into that the mystery of his mother always just outside of the lamplight, and her mysterious shadow-swirling powers, and we have a really intriguing set-up for a story!

Some Tips –
Making the reader ask some questions is a great tactic to keep them reading, but if the reader asks too many questions, they’ll start to lose their immersion in the story’s world. A lot of what this scene so far is missing is setting—where and when the mother and boy are located. Are they carving up the girl in their personal basement dungeon, or is this out in the woods under a full moon? Is it maybe even in the girl’s own house, where someone could walk in at any moment? Don’t feel pressured to come right out and tell us “This body is located in the basement of 221B Baker St,” but leaving little hints to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions will do the work for you.

For instance, I think we already have some idea of the time period from the mention of the flickering lamp. I assume this takes place sometime before electricity, when lanterns were common. So let’s look at the other furniture we have: the table. Is it a dining room table? An operating room table? Just an ordinary, nondescript oaken table, but with old stains and cuts carved into the wood? Think about what that table could add to the story with the perfect choice of detail, and perhaps there are other props in the immediate surrounding that can help set this scene as well.

A large portion of the lack of detail also stems from the scene’s tone and its balance of Shock and Suspense, the two building blocks of the horror genre. This scene was written with the intent to shock and scare with the big reveal at the end, which is a tried and true storytelling technique! But in order to convey that big shock, I think a lot of the details were withheld from the reader so it would be a greater surprise, resulting in a lot of ambiguous actions occurring in empty space.

This scene could benefit from more concrete details, but those details don’t necessarily have to ruin the surprise at the end. Instead, choosing to reveal the right details should instead ramp up the suspense and make the reader dread the final reveal even more.

For instance, what is the strongest surprise at the end of this scene? I would think that creepy grin and the girl’s dead body. Currently the scene neatly avoids it, and I can almost picture it like a movie camera, zooming in so we can’t tell what’s really going on! However, does the knife need to be hidden in the same way as the body? Let’s look at the first lines of action.

His mother’s voice guided his hand. There was a shift and he slipped.

As I mentioned before, I love that first sentence. The construction is simple, but effective. Subject (voice) followed immediately by verb (guided) and direct object (hand). The first part of the next sentence though is written in the passive voice, “There was.” Those two words in combination tell the readers nothing, yet take up the most important roles in the sentence: subject and verb. The only reason they’re used is to avoid mentioning the knife to the reader. In fact, the final paragraph has such wonderful active and strong verb choices, I think all of the passive voice is a side effect of hiding information to make the twist that much more shocking.

So let’s imagine the same sentence, but this time, show the reader the knife in the little boy’s hands. That sentence can instead read as “The knife shifted.” Or perhaps we’ll get more specific with how exactly its slicing, with “The knife stuck” or “The knife twisted”; or maybe even it’s the boy’s hands that are unsteady, and we can change it to:

The boy’s hands shifted and the knife slipped (in his grasp/and sunk in too far/etc.).

See how much clearer of an image we get from those sentences without even knowing what the knife is cutting? And you can bet the first question on the reader’s mind is “What the heck is that little boy doing with that knife?” But at the same time the right verb choice will make the reader who goes back to reread the scene cringe even more, which is exactly what we want them to do.

Doing a quick read-through of the rest of these sentences and keeping an eye out for more passive voice and weak verbs will help solidify a lot of this scene’s details. For more examples on correcting passive voice, check out Word Smash #42.

Finally, I want to touch on dialogue a bit. On my first read-through, I’m not sure how much information I got out of the dialogue, because I rushed through a lot of it to get to the action and figure out what the mother and son were doing. A lot of that will be corrected with the ambiguity and passive voice fixes I mentioned above, but then I will probably read through just as fast out of pure suspense. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for readers to do, but the writing should take that into account.

A lot of people advise eavesdropping and writing down conversations as people actually talk as an exercise to improve dialogue. While I think that is certainly an important step to get used to flow of conversations, I think it’s also important to remember that dialogue in fiction should cut a lot of the wasted words, like um's and Well's and all that filler we squeeze in while we think of what to say next. Contractions also help move the reader's eye along, unless a character is overly formal. While there's something to be said about Character Voice, dialogue can still be kept simple, so think really hard about every word, to make sure it is working towards either conveying information and moving plot, or revealing the character of the person speaking.

Try making a list of all the important info that the reader should get from the dialogue. For this scene, I would have things like mother teaching son, someone is onto their plans and "started watching", and “The coven is calling." Then I would try and cut the filler that gets in the way of the reader remembering that information. For instance, notice how you could take all of these bolded words out without changing the meaning of the dialogue:

Shh, yes, that’s it.” [ ... ] “Oh, be careful, it’s hard to get good ones like these now. They’ve started watching now.”

Personally, I’m especially harsh on interjections like “Oh” because I recognize that’s a problem in my own dialogue. Seriously. I’ll look at five lines in a row that all start "Well, Well, Well!" So sometimes I make arbitrary rules for myself, like only one "well" per scene. I probably wouldn't cut all the bolded words in that sentence, but I would take a moment and think, is this word working to reveal my character's voice and tone? For instance, that first Shh—perfect for showing the mother's caring tone and also perhaps the secrecy of the scene. I would vote keep!

On the other hand, I did notice a lot of “Now” recurring in this scene--five, in just six short paragraphs! I would recommend cutting the ones that aren't necessary for sentence meaning to avoid word overdose. Same for names and ways of addressing other characters. We already know from the action that these two are mother and son, so we don't need to hear that except when it's necessary (Like that whiny "Mooo-theeeerrr!").

And on a side note, it's usually good style to have a new paragraph begin when a new character speaks up. That way when readers are reading super fast because the scene is so intense, their eyes can use the empty space to keep track of who is speaking! In Paragraphs 3 and 5, I would make the lines of dialogue into new paragraphs, just so the reader has an easier time keeping track of who is speaking. And between paragraphs 5 and 6, I wouldn't put a break there unless there's a line of action or description in between.

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet, but I'm curious where you could go with these fixes. I already see a lot of those things working so well in that last paragraph, so I'm hopeful I won't be able to put the next version down!

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