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.
When a story gets stuck, there are as many reasons for it as there are stories. I salute the writer who sticks with it, who believes in the story no matter how often or how strongly it resists being told. That’s a story that needs to be out in the world. The trick is to find the best way to tell it.
This chapter is working hard to find its feet. We have a viewpoint character. There are hints of backstory and glimpses of the world. There’s a new arrival, a mystery, and a set of actions and reactions that help to move the story forward.
What I’d like to talk about here may be an issue for much later in the process, when it’s time for line edits. Or it may be worth noting now, to shift the direction a little bit, to point toward a slightly different way of telling the story.
This chapter is told through filters. There’s Brienna’s viewpoint, expressed in first person, which means we experience everything through her. The narrative unfolds through her thoughts and feelings.
This is an ancient and honored way of telling stories. Maybe it’s one of the first; who knows? I did this, I felt this, I thought this. I tell you what happened. I determine what you can and can’t know.
Where it gets tricky is when the original filter takes on additional layers. We as readers never forget that the narrator is “I,” that we’re being told a story. But “I” may place more barriers between us and what’s happening.
Here for example Brienna tells us what she does and why, but she does it in a particular way. She conveys information primarily through internal monologue. She’s telling a story to us, but she’s also telling one to herself.
This additional layer of filter comes through in a couple of ways. Thoughts expressed in italics are a popular narrative technique; I think they’re meant to make us feel as if there’s a dialogue happening, though there’s just one person talking. They mix up the text on the page, make the reader’s eye jump a bit at the shift from roman to italic and back again.
The question to ask is whether the typographical change does what it’s meant to do. Does it punch up the narrative? Does it give the reader a clearer sense of what’s going on? Is it effective? Can the story progress more smoothly without it?
The answer to these questions can perfectly well be yes, it does make a difference. The story is better for it. But it may help a stuck revision to ask whether there’s a different way to get the idea across.
The same applies to an equally or perhaps even more popular technique in internal monologue, the rhetorical question. The protagonist thinks about what’s happening or has happened or is about to happen, and wonders about it. Is this true? Is that going to be a problem? Has she done the right thing? Does she know what’s going on here?
I admit that I’ve maxed out on this in recent reading—this part of my TBR pile is unusually well populated with characters who tell their stories to themselves and then to us. I find myself wanting to be told it straight. To see it through the characters’ eyes without the ongoing sense of being told rather than simply being. I want to be there, to live the experience.
That’s a personal reaction, to be taken as such, for as much as it’s worth. What I hope it may do is point the way toward a more effective manner of telling the story. It may be as simple as reducing the number of italicized thought balloons or rhetorical questions. Or these filters may be exactly what the story needs in order to evolve according to plan.
If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to try a more direct mode of narration. We can still experience it through Brienna, but more subtly. Let us see what she sees, but perceive it through the words she uses, through the connotations they carry. Maybe a bit of backstory might come through as a flicker of memory, an image, an emotion, a flash of sensory information: a color, an odor, a sound. We’ll feel what she feels, rather than being told what she feels; we’ll hear what she hears, without the character’s voiceover.
Try it and see. The story might move faster, and the characters and events come through more clearly.
Or not. But it may be worth the experiment, just for a short chapter, to see if it works.
— Judith Tarr