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.
In response to the question in the author’s note, for me there’s enough mystery and ambiguity especially toward the end, that I’d keep reading to find out what happens. The concept is interesting and I like the idea of a dispatch from beyond the grave.
What I’d like to talk about for this Editor’s Choice is a more general topic: distancing and filters. At first I thought I’d call it passive writing, but it’s more complex than that. It’s a tendency to separate the reader from the narrative and the characters through the use of passive voice and temporizing constructions.
Passive voice is a powerful tool. When the subject drops out of the discourse, when actions happen without an agent, the story takes a step away from immediate and lived experience. It’s filtered. Emotion is muted, tension weakened.
When it’s deliberate and calculated, it excludes the reader from the direct experience. It can twist the meaning in subtle and even pernicious ways. “A shot was fired” as opposed to “X shot Y.” X and Y are no longer there. It’s just the shot, exploding in empty space.
Passive prose isn’t only the direct use of the passive voice. It creeps in through the use of passive or distanced constructions. I am by no means opposed to the use of was and were and their relatives, but when they show up frequently and to the exclusion of active constructions, the cumulative effect is to distance the reader from the characters and the story.
Look at this progression:
There were several useful things I should have done.
Then a little later:
There were two more. One was a guy watching everything
And shortly thereafter:
That was the three of them
There are active bits in between these passages, but the repetition of there were/that was adds up. Think about how to shift the discourse toward the active. “I could have done several things.” “I saw two more. One was watching everything.” And maybe the third doesn’t need to be there; it’s already clear that there are three.
A similar thing happens with temporizing phrases. They seem to be an attempt to make the narrative more conversational, to establish that the narrator is telling a story in an oral-ish style. What mostly happens however is that the narrator inserts herself between the reader and the story.
Here at the beginning:
well! I pulled through
Does “well!” add anything to the story? Does it need to be there?
C’mon—the Dark Emperor’s insignia?
Here too. Is “c’mon” necessary?
Another form of temporizing is the use of negatives or inherent contradictions:
And it’s not because I have a genetic demon dad—it’s because…
Like I was going to lie quietly while they cut me. Instead…
Such constructions can make the reader feel as they’re being pushed away from the direct action. The emotional affect flattens and the pacing slows down. Again, as with passive constructions in general, a little can go a long way and be very effective in setting up a contrast between the predominantly active narration and the brief shift to a more filtered experience. It’s what horse riders call a half-halt: a pause, a brief break in the movement. But too many half-halts can stop the movement altogether.
One last thing to watch for is the tendency to minimize a particular action or line of thought. It often expresses itself as some version of the phrase,
I didn’t have time to worry about that.
What this tells the reader is that the information they’ve just been given is not relevant. It erodes their trust in the narrator. If she’s explicitly not giving them the information they do need in order to understand what’s going on, how much of the rest is relevant, either?
All of this, when done deftly and deliberately, can make the story stronger. An unreliable narrator can be fascinating. But it has to be careful and intentional and above all, sparing in its use. A little goes a long way.