Generation (by Jenny)
Lucy shoved through the sea of legs, ignoring her mother’s frantic calls. The people she knocked tutted and muttered under their breaths but she didn’t care; the President was coming.
She burst through the front of the throng and straight into a huge soldier dressed from head to toe in black armour. Her hand touched the cold metal of his lowered rifle and she snatched it away, but he glared and shoved her back.
She shrank back to the line, a ring of soldiers kept the people at a distance. In the middle—in handcuffs—was a man in drab clothes. He looked comically small next to the soldiers, but her smile faltered when she saw the blood on his face. The soldiers forced him to his knees and a shadow of resignation clouded his fierce expression.
She couldn’t understand it; if he was a criminal, why weren’t they taking him to prison? People had said the President was coming. The murmur had reached them from nearly halfway across the huge parade square and Lucy had broken free from her mother’s grip to join the gathering.
Her heart skipped a beat in delight when she saw the black limousine sliding through the parted crowd. She tried to hold back her grin out of respect, but she couldn’t help but remember the stories told of his benevolent smile, his towering presence as he gazed lovingly on his grateful subjects, spreading his wisdom and guidance.
He was here to grant the criminal forgiveness. They always said he was merciful.
Lucy shoved through the sea of legs, ignoring her mother’s frantic calls.
Overall this sentence gets a C+. It locates itself in a definite narrative present, which is good. It introduces our protagonist. It implies something about that character: that she’s a child (based on her shoving through ‘legs’, and ‘her mother’). It also contains conflict: the ‘frantic calls’. These are all Good Things.
‘sea of legs’ is a cliché. A ‘sea of’ anything is a bit hackneyed, really. Its familiarity encourages the reader to switch off. More importantly, it’s not even accurate. Just think about that image for ten seconds. If you were shoving past legs, would they really be like ‘a sea’? All those vertical trunks? If you’re going to settle for a cliché, at least make it accurate. She’s shoving through a forest of legs.
I’d suggest ‘frantic’ is unnecessary. ‘ignoring her mother’s calls’ implies that they’re ‘frantic’, or somewhere in that ballpark (I think ‘frantic’ might be overegging the pudding a tad, to be fair – her mother’s alarmed, sure, but ‘frantic’ makes the woman sound utterly hysterical). She’s not going to be ‘ignoring her mother’s relaxed calls’ or ‘ignoring her mother’s encouraging calls’, after all.
Don’t stick on emotive, abstract adjectives just for the sake of it. They bog down your narrative and deny the reader the pleasure of making judgement calls and interpreting the situation for themselves. Leave space for the imagination.
The people she knocked tutted and muttered under their breaths but she didn’t care; the President was coming.
So this is all rather vague and bland. General nouns like ‘people’ don’t do much to excite the senses. Every time you go for the broad over the specific, you’re missing an opportunity to world-build and draw us into your fictive milieu.
‘she knocked’ is redundant – you’ve already told us she’s shoving her way through. That first ‘the’ is a fluff word – cut it. ‘under their breaths’ is fluff – one doesn’t ‘mutter’ in a loud, clear voice. Cut it.
‘the President was coming’ is a strong bit of stakes-raising. It places us within the scene and sets the stage. Bear in mind that ‘President’ is a very loaded word, culturally-speaking. Is this set in a future or alternate America? Otherwise, you might want to consider a different honorific.
This early on, we’re hunting for clues that can help us locate your world in a time and place. Make sure you’re not misleading readers unless you have a very clear reason for setting up false expectations that you later collapse. (a completely legitimate and often very powerful tactic, as long as you’re doing it consciously)
She burst through the front of the throng and straight into a huge soldier dressed from head to toe in black armour.
Again, ‘throng’ is a cliché and not particularly evocative. What does a ‘throng’ look like? What are people wearing? How many of them are there? What sort of age and class are they? Are they enthusiastic? Are they there to keep up appearances or do their eyes burn with zeal? What’s the weather like? Are people sweating, shivering? If they’re chanting, what are they saying? Or are they having discussions amongst themselves? (and if so, what about?) Or are they waiting in silent anticipation? How do they react when Lucy pushes through the crowd?
‘head to toe’ is a cliché – change it. Again, it just encourages your readers to switch off. It’s laziness, and it will produce a similar lassitude in your prospective audience.
What exactly do you mean by ‘black armour’? We’re still very early in the story, so we have no sense of whether this is set in some proto-medieval feudal society or on a far-future colony planet. You tell us it covers his whole body, but what’s it made out of? Is it some kind of servo-assisted environmentally-sealed power armour with a visor? Is it full plate? Is it matte black? Polished? Scarred from battle? Most readers, when you write ‘black armour’ with no other cultural signifiers, will think of an evil knight.
And is ‘soldier’ the best name you could come up with? It’s such a vague noun, one that has meant many different things over different periods and in different cultures. It tells us function, but gives us nothing to engage our senses. Might they not have some kind of ceremonial name? Are these dudes policemen, essentially, or a sort of Praetorian guard, or actual military, or what? Are they grunts or elite?
Her hand touched the cold metal of his lowered rifle and she snatched it away, but he glared and shoved her back.
No need for ‘her hand’ – ‘she’ would convey the same. Avoid the pronoun confusion later in the sentence (on a first pass, it sounds as if she snatches away the soldier’s rifle) by changing ‘it’ to ‘her hand’. So with those edits, the first part of the sentence would read:
She touched the cold metal of his lowered rifle and snatched her hand away,
Which is clearer.
How does she see him glare if he’s ‘dressed from head to toe in black body armour’? Is he wearing a helmet? Isn’t the face covered? It seems a bit of an oversight to deck soldiers in cumbersome body armour then leave their most vulnerable spot exposed. Unless this is ceremonial armour, of course. Whatever the answer, we need to know. It’s not the reader’s job to speculate on what you probably meant.
She shrank back to the line, a ring of soldiers kept the people at a distance.
When I am king, the penalty for improper use of a comma splice shall be half an hour in the stocks, whereupon the perpetrator shall be pelted with clammy piss-sponges. These are two discrete clauses. Separate them with a full stop.
Again, those weak noun choices: ‘line’, ‘soldiers’, ‘people’. Such vague, unevocative words. Excite our senses. Make us see this scene. Make us hear it. Make us smell it (surely in such a densely-packed crowd smell would be one of the most intense sensations, and the types of smell – perfume? Sweat? Incense? Manure? – would offer all sorts of cultural, world-building clues for the reader).
Think about your syntax. I bang on about this week after week but no one bloody listens: try to put the most interesting information at the end of your sentence. ‘distance’ is a drab, abstract word to close on. Far better to hit us with something like: ‘Behind the ring of soldiers, bloodied and on his knees, was the criminal.’ Or whatever. That’s not a perfect sentence, but it illustrates a more effective word order.
In the middle—in handcuffs—was a man in drab clothes. He looked comically small next to the soldiers, but her smile faltered when she saw the blood on his face.
Would Lucy really interpret this as an amusing situation until she noticed the blood? She’s culturally-savvy enough to make all sorts of speculations later on, so wouldn’t she understand the seriousness of the predicament, especially when a crowd has gathered? And if she’s such a True Believer in the President and his essential goodness, wouldn’t she equally feel fear and/or hatred towards this criminal? It’s implied that this is a totalitarian police state, which can only exist on a foundation of extreme paranoia. The soldiers are huge, grizzled mooks in black armour, for fuck’s sake. She’s hardly likely to be thinking ‘ho ho, what a lark’, is she?
The soldiers forced him to his knees and a shadow of resignation clouded his fierce expression.
So what are the dimensions of this circle, then? At first you said the soldiers are standing in a ring, by implication facing outwards if Lucy bumped into a lowered rifle and was ‘shoved’ back. Are these different soldiers, forcing him onto his knees? How are they ‘forcing’ him? Striking him in the shins? Aiming a rifle at his head? Berating him? Gripping his shoulder with a great rook-black greave and pushing? Specificity, specificity, specificity. Try saying that three times fast.
I quite like ‘a shadow of resignation clouded his fierce expression’ – at least it’s not a cliché and it makes the prisoner feel a little more realised as a human, but it’s still dealing in abstraction and value judgements. That’s a pretty penetrating, nuanced assessment for a child – who apparently can’t even tell that this is a life-or-death situation at first – couched in rather grown-up language. What does a fierce expression clouded with a shadow – just a shadow, mind – of resignation actually look like? Surely that’s just one of many interpretations of the man’s expression.
People had said the President was coming. The murmur had reached them from nearly halfway across the huge parade square and Lucy had broken free from her mother’s grip to join the gathering.
There’s that vague ‘people’ again. Who?
You’ve got more pronoun confusion in the second sentence there – the first time through, it sounds like ‘them’ refers to the ‘people’ of the first sentence, but reading on, it seems you mean ‘Lucy and her mother’.
‘huge parade square’ is the first hint of their environment. This is good, but it needs to come in the first paragraph.
No need to tell us that ‘Lucy had broken free from her mother’s grip’ – we know. You just told us. This isn’t Momento.
Her heart skipped a beat in delight when she saw the black limousine sliding through the parted crowd.
Bzzzt! For exceeding your novel’s cliché allowance in the first page, you have been fined 10 credits.
‘Her heart skipped a beat’? Not if you want your work to be read by human beings ever, it didn’t. Come on, Jenny. You can do better than that. And no need to add ‘in delight’. It’s not like we think she’s having an aneurysm.
Again, word order, a thousand times word order. What’s the most interesting piece of information in this sentence? That the crowd parted? Or the appearance of the ‘black limousine’?
If you answered ‘black limousine’, then congratulations – your prize is you get to stick it on the end of the sentence, where it belongs. Have the syntax mirror the actual chronological order of events, so we experience the scene in the same sequence that Lucy does.
And can we have a bit more detail than ‘black limousine’? I’m glad that you specify the type of car (although I’m still a bit baffled as to when and where this story takes place) but we need more mood, and more specificity, otherwise it’s just another object dragged n’ dropped from the collective consciousness.
Rewritten, the sentence might look closer to this:
Her heart clenched. The crowd was parting to admit the tinted windows and armoured doors of black limousine.
Or something. You get the picture.
She tried to hold back her grin out of respect, but she couldn’t help but remember the stories told of his benevolent smile, his towering presence as he gazed lovingly on his grateful subjects, spreading his wisdom and guidance.
Really? They tell stories about his smile? Those sound like pretty shitty stories to me.
I think it’s more likely she’s seen images – either posters, statues or newsreels, depending on the tech level of this civilisation – of his smile and ‘towering presence’.
Don’t overdo it with the adjectives. I appreciate that you’re trying to signal to us, ‘hey, she’s been subjected to a whole bunch of propaganda’, but it doesn’t mean you can hit a purple patch. ‘gazed lovingly on his grateful subjects’ is too much – ‘subjects’ implies submission, to cut ‘grateful’. ‘lovingly’ is probably redundant too – ‘gazed’ implies it, especially when you’ve already used the word ‘benevolent’ earlier in the sentence. No need for ‘and guidance’ – ‘wisdom’ conveys that more than adequately.
He was here to grant the criminal forgiveness. They always said he was merciful.
Who’s ‘they’? Rather than casting it in this rather tentative ‘they said’ mode – which introduces a level of doubt that Lucy doesn’t in fact feel – just have her repeat what she’s been told as the truth. We get it, she’s been indoctrinated. Also, I’d switch round the order of these two sentences, as the former implies the latter.
With those changes, they’d read something like this:
The President was merciful. He was here to grant the criminal forgiveness.
Which has a nice, ominous ring to it. The reader, having been exposed to all these glowering, armed, black-armoured soldiers and a single defenceless man, is thinking: ‘Nuh-uh. This President is going to be a fucking douchebag.’ And, for all the problems with this extract, it’s cool that you’ve managed to establish that ironic gap between what we’re told, what the protagonist understands, and our own interpretation.
So, to recap: be specific, eradicate clichés, and favour concrete words over vague, abstract words. Cut unnecessary adjectives. Don’t tell us the same thing multiple times.
Frankly, I think you need to do some more thinking and some deeper research so that you’re able to describe this scenario in more detail. I suspect that a lot of the vagueness comes from your discovering your world as you write it. What calibre are the soldiers’ rifles? What insignia do they have on their armour? Where is their leader (their immediate leader, not the President) and how is he identified? What time of year is it?
Not that every scene should include answers to all these questions, but you, the author, should know. The only way to tighten your focus and make this world more real for you – and therefore, for the reader – is to spend some time giving yourself a list of questions and making up answers to them, writing down notes on the history of this fictive world, and – mostly importantly of all – doing research to give your story that all-important ring of authenticity. If this isn’t set in the world as we know it, you can still use analogous periods from history or countries or cultures to get some initial ideas.
So, yeah. Be specific. Research. Cut the crap. It’s hard work, but if you want to write better, it’s the only way.
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