Welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
I am so tired I can barely explain it. The Fringe has been great (one last weekend to go!) but I am so exhausted. I’m going to take the first week of September off and spend it putting on weight and reading books that have nothing to do with work. Look, if you want to know more about the blog, check here.
Otherwise, you know the drill.
Untitled (by Bernard)
Alex stood at the edge of a pond when he felt something furry brush past his leg. He swiped across his shin to feel whatever it was, but nothing was there. He turned and surveyed the area, glancing around trees and over bushes. A distant grumble accompanied the rustling of leaves. Alex peered into the upward, looking for those gleaming eyes. Behind him was the sound of flesh being torn apart and a leg snapping in two. He spun on his heels and watched a thin silhouette drop from above.
Possibly against his better judgment, he ran over to what had fallen. It was a limb, a tree limb. But, the cut was smooth and clean. Alex ran his hand across the trunk of the yew nearby and felt the deep gashes made by four massive claws. He wiped the thick sap off his hand when he heard a soft thump on the ground behind him. He spun around and saw two bright yellow eyes piercing the mist.
They grew closer, locked with Alex’s movements. He dove behind trees, around bushes, into a shallow ditch, and over a stream, but the eyes approached faster and the beast snarled louder. He found a stack of boulders where the stream ended and hid inside the tight space between two. He peaked around the edge and saw nothing. No more snarling, no more gleaming. He sighed and moved back out into the open.
Alex stood at the edge of a pond when he felt something furry brush past his leg.
Okay, so I think the preferred phrasing is ‘Alex was standing’ rather than stood, if you’re qualifying it with ‘when’.
Are you sure it’s ‘a’ pond? This isn’t a pond he knows? He’s just standing at a random pond?
Skipping ahead, there’s nothing in this scene which gives us any sense of whether Alex is in familiar territory or completely lost in a foreign land. Are these woods he visits every day? Has he been in catapulted into another world? You don’t need to give us explicit answers to these questions – indeed you shouldn’t – but we should be able to get a sense from how he reacts to his environment, and the words you use to describe it.
Otherwise, this is an okay first line. It’s clear, it gives us a protagonist, and it introduces a conflict – or at the very least a question. What brushed his leg? The implication is that the answer will be important or interesting (ideally both!).
The nouns are pretty dull and there’s very little specificity (even the name ‘Alex’ is pretty blando) but hey, it’s intelligible, it starts the story moving. I’ll take that.
He swiped across his shin to feel whatever it was, but nothing was there.
‘He swiped across his shin’? I get what you mean but come on, Bernard. This isn’t a conversation you’re having with a neighbour over the fence while pegging out your boxer-briefs. Vague approximations of language aren’t good enough.
‘swiped’ in this instance needs to take an object. He ‘swiped his hand across his shin’, in actual fact. ‘swiped’ is intelligible, but ambiguous and awkward.
But ah! you cry, wagging a pedagogical forefinger, doesn’t this make the sentence longer by introducing redundant words, and therefore… less good?! Tim, what on earth is wrong with you? Have you been paid off by the Very Angry Group for Impairing Standards In Literature?
And I reply, yes, it would make it a slightly clunkier sentence, except that the introduction of ‘his hand’ renders ‘to feel whatever it was’ redundant. So those two words allow us to delete five woolly, vague ones from later on. That’s a net loss of three shitty words. Hooray!
In terms of what this sentence is doing, plot-wise, I like it. You’ve accepted and built upon the previous sentence. You’re ratcheting up tension. It’s a mini try-fail cycle:
Alex feels something brush his leg. He takes action by trying to feel what it was. But he fails, because there’s nothing there. So now the tension is slightly raised.
Messy prose aside, structurally this is sound.
He turned and surveyed the area, glancing around trees and over bushes.
Brilliant use of verb choices to convey the urgency of this scene, Bernard. *KLAXON SOUNDS* Do you hear that? Something’s triggered the Extreme Sarcasm alarm!
It was me, Bernard. I triggered it, by praising your verb choices when in fact my intent was to criticise your verb choices. The lowest form of wit? No, that’s waiting til your friend is asleep then guffing on his head. Sarcasm is the second lowest, thank you.
‘He turned and surveyed the area’? This makes him sound like a rotund Victorian industrialist smugly inspecting a new bridge. Why do you use two verbs for a single action? It has the effect of slowing the movement down, as if the act of turning is so significant that it deserves its own mention. Of course there are lots of actions going on in any human body, all the time, but you have to pick your battles, unless you want your protagonist to sound like a cumbersome, wheezing aggregation of temporarily sentient meat barely struggling to cohere moment by moment:
A cry sounded from the summit of the mesa. Nash turned and shifted his heel and breathed and perspired and digested and unflexed his ring and pinky fingers and blinked and slightly parted his dry lips and tensed his deltoid muscles and looked towards the source of the noise, stroking the trigger and clutching the incised grip and cocking the hammer with his thumb and twisting the rotor cuff of his wrist in such a way that the pistol was oriented ready to shoot and bending his elbow so as to lift his hand and forearm and feeling the gun through the nerve endings in his fingertips and interpreting these signals in his brain and waiting.
To ‘survey’ something is to take it in at a leisurely pace with an implied sense of mastery, evaluating it but not necessarily scrutinising it in detail. On the contrary, in this scene, Alex has just felt something brush his leg. He’s been startled, and now he’s looking round to see what the fuck just touched him.
I’m not convinced by ‘around trees and over bushes’. Those two prepositions feel awkward – they make it sound like he’s weirdly excluding the trees and bushes themselves. Why, if something furry grazed his shin, would he be looking ‘over’ bushes? It’s as if Alex has decided: ‘well, I can definitely exclude bushes from my search – whatever this furry, quick thing at near-ground-level is, it certainly wouldn’t hide in a bush.’ Just pick one preposition to cover both – e.g. ‘amongst trees and bushes’, or, even better, exclude the preposition altogether: ‘Alex spun round, scanning the trees and bushes.’
A distant grumble accompanied the rustling of leaves.
Here’s a distant grumble for you: [V/O FROM VERY FAR AWAY] ‘This is shit!’
For a start, do I really have to go over syntax again? That’s a rhetorical question. I have to go over everything again and again, forever, because writers never learn.
As a general rule of thumb, structure your sentences so the most interesting information comes at the end. In this instance, the ‘distant grumble’ (I’ll return to that phrase in a second) is more noteworthy than the ‘rustling of leaves’, so I’d invert the order in which you reveal these two actions.
So look – ‘grumble’ is too semantically-broad to work here. I don’t know whether to imagine a bestial growl (if so, ‘growl’ or ‘snarl’ would work better) or somebody moaning about their corns. How distant is ‘distant’? To me, distant means ‘off towards the horizon’. So if it really were ‘distant’ this would immediately tell Alex that he’s in no danger. I suspect you’re trying to tell us that he hears a low snarl and he can’t tell where it’s coming from.
See, if the reader has to think ‘I suspect he’s trying to tell us’ that is a Bad Thing, Bernard. It means we’re having to puzzle out your intent/meaning like archaeologists pressing together shards of shattered burial urns to try to reassemble the picture on the side. I’m not against literature that makes us work a bit, but that work has to be in service of something. It can’t just be the reader making up a semantic deficit because you’ve failed to explain yourself clearly.
Alex peered into the upward, looking for those gleaming eyes.
‘into the upward’? Ugh. I think my brain is bleeding. That is not even remotely a thing. ‘upward’ is not and has never been a noun.
So you’re introducing a new element here with ‘those’. This suggests that Alex has seen them before.
But wait – is this or isn’t this related to the furry thing that brushed his shin? If so, why would he be wondering what it is that touched him? (it sounds like he knows what it is) On the other hand, if the ‘gleaming eyes’ are unrelated, then this is confusing. Was the ‘distant grumble’ nothing to do with the thing that brushed his shin?
WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?
I’m all for stories starting in media res, throwing us into an exciting moment and allowing us to catch up as we observe the protagonist in a fix. It gives us a reason to care about their backstory.
But stories need to be borderline intelligible. This isn’t intriguingly enigmatic. It’s crap and baffling.
Behind him was the sound of flesh being torn apart and a leg snapping in two.
And the award for Worst Verb Choice 2014 goes to…
*tears open golden envelope*
*locusts swarm out, begin feasting on audience’s eyes, studio fills with screams, feed cuts to static*
Behind him was? Behind him WAS?
Oh, you know, it’s just existing behind him, the visceral bloody terror. Don’t mind that.
He doesn’t even hear ‘the sound of flesh being torn apart’ (excellent insertion of the passive voice there for bonus Shite Points™) – the sound itself is behind him. Note – not coming from behind him. The sound is behind him. So presumably he can’t hear it, right?
What is the difference between the sound of ‘a leg snapping’ and ‘a leg snapping in two’? I know that sounds like the setup to a particularly macabre cracker joke, but seriously Bernard. Is Alex’s hearing so acute and his experience of grievous wounds so comprehensive that he can distinguish, not only the specific bone breaking, but whether it’s a compound or simple fracture? ‘Oh aye, that’s a leg that. Arms are more trebly.’
And where’s the emotional oomph here? Is he bothered by this development, at all? It’s described in absolutely neutral tones, and I don’t mean that in a Bret Easton Ellis ‘oh how edgy and dispassionate and stylish this prose is’ way, I mean in a ‘this has all the emotive heft of an advertorial about a pomegranate-based weight-loss supplement’.
He spun on his heels
Have you tried spinning on both heels simultaneously? Notice how your legs cross then your twisted underpants cut off the blood supply to your knackers?
Yeah. That’s why this sentence is silly. He spun on his heel.
Possibly against his better judgment, he ran over to what had fallen.
Well is it, or isn’t it? Why are you hedging?
I’ll tell you why. Because you know this action is unmotivated bullshit and you’re trying to disguise it. This turns up in bad writing all the time: ‘He had no idea why, but he…’ ‘Even though she knew it was stupid, she…’ ‘Despite nothing in the plot up to this point making this action remotely plausible or consistent with what we know about her character, Charlotte proceeded to…’
We don’t know who Alex is or where he is or what he cares about, but he has no reason to approach the fallen object and every reason to run away from it, or at the very least remain where he is. This is super-lame, and readers will exit in droves when they realise you’re not playing fair.
If you treat your characters as brainless puppets doomed to blindly trudge through the roles you laid down for them when you planned the story, the resulting text will be about as emotionally resonant as a piece of damp cardboard with the word ‘SAD’ written on it in magic marker.
This first page is a mess. I can’t tell what’s real and what is a supposition of the viewpoint character, I can’t tell if Alex is in peril or just bored, I can’t tell where he is or what he wants or what we should care about. I appreciate your efforts to fling us into the middle of the action, but you need to support that decision with crisp, lucid prose and a protagonist with clear needs and purpose. At the moment, the story is all special effects and no script. Remedy that.