Editor’s Choice Award February 2021, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Broken People by Chad Rueffert

“Broken People” delighted me this month with its gentle practicality and how it uses a genre staple to dive deeper into the nuances of human interaction—creating one of the rare stories dealing with plague that’s felt to me like it eased this year’s pandemic instead of deepening the stress of it. It’s not a full trope inversion, but a compassionate one grounded in its insight into self-destructive tendencies, magical thinking, survivor’s guilt, and how people process them all. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we’re doing when we deliberately innovate story tropes: how we can build those inversions into every layer of our work while still producing a story structure readers recognize.

Despite its length, “Broken People” is a smooth, engrossing read all the way through. It introduces its worldbuilding organically—enough classic second-world fantasy to let readers fill in the blanks, and enough unique-to-this-setting specifics to stay interesting—and delivers a fairytale structure in inventive ways that don’t call attention to themselves, but just make the entire piece feel considered, thoughtful, and fresh (“a son already placing his feet in my footsteps” was a favourite example of how it takes a familiar sentiment and makes it new).

The man’s problem—immunity to suicide—is legitimately startling, but quickly grounded in an understanding we as readers get to build for ourselves: this isn’t magic, just the impact of a person who can do things for others selflessly that he can’t imagine doing for himself, who has no idea that this is why people keep saving his life. While the witch’s plan to help him is easy to predict once it gets going, the pleasure of watching it—and them—unfold is enough to keep me riveted.

There’s a balance in those elements that’s important to point out. It’s by working both with and against reader assumptions that “Broken People” lets readers know what kind of story it is—a witch’s-bargain fairytale—and that it’s not going to do the same work as other pieces in that subgenre. By focusing on a balance between little familiarities and little innovations, the story keeps a feeling of being confident and comfortable in a kind of fantasy world and still gets the delight of something new.

There’s a great example of how this balancing act works in the opening sentence, which does a great deal of work in a very short space. It establishes that fairytale tone by starting with sun, moon and sea (familiar!); creates a progression almost like a film camera focuses down to its subject, narrowing the world of the story from the biggest scope—the sky—to the witch in her home (a familiar, filmlike opening shot!); sets up the kinetic and slightly unexpected metaphor set of the story (unfamiliar and new!); and establishes thematics by having the witch’s first action be one of hope and light (unfamiliar in this tropeset!). The casual, conversational storyteller’s voice gives readers a clue that this story isn’t going to be an emotionally brutal one. In short, as a reader, I have two familiar structural things to stand on—a set of fairytale imagery and a structure—and two elements that feel a little different, metaphor and theme. And I’m primed for exactly what I’m getting.

That’s the fine technical work, but when we pull back, what makes “Broken People” work is that it’s rethought not the elements of a witch’s-bargain story, but fundamentally changed is the emotions around the tropes. There’s a keen emotional intelligence that pervades the entire story and both of its central characters, despite their inability to see and address the ways they themselves are stuck.

I think the nature of tropes and archetypes can make it simple to assume that the same story shapes will always lean toward the same emotions—that X always equals Y—and it’s when we decouple that assumption, as writers, that we open up a ton of opportunity to say new and interesting things about how people handle situations, emotions, and ideas–but new things on the same topic as the last ones.

With “Broken People”, if we ask What is this about? on the plot level, the answer’s the same: man and witch make deal, it doesn’t go how he expected. When we ask, though, what is this about? on the thematic/emotional level, it’s a story about two pragmatic people who have both been caregivers and neglected themselves absolutely for it finding a way to click together in a cycle that lifts them both up. Nobody is angry, just hurting and cynical because of it, and that can be enough to motivate an entire story; nobody is particularly magical, just a community relying on each other to repay good deeds and kindnesses, and that can be enough to make a blessing.

“Broken People” does a great job at understanding the emotions readers will expect out of this story shape, analyzing where they don’t have to be the same, and bringing in new emotions that crucially have a relationship to the expected ones. It’s working with readerly assumptions in finding better ways to handle this situation or a different story to tell, and that’s what makes it delightful: the continuity between familiar expectation and new approach.

Either frustratingly or happily for the author: I have no particular notes on improvement. I think this is ready for editors.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)


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