Editor’s Choice Award February 2023, Horror

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.

Dead and Buried by Dylan Edeal-Smith

One of the joys of reading fiction with fantastic elements is that it allows us to satisfy desires we can’t satisfy in our lives.  According to J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the primordial desires we all share is “to hold communion with other living things.”  “Dead and Buried” satisfies this desire by allowing us to experience events as Sadie the dog does. I think one of the strongest elements of the story is the portrayal of Sadie, through her viewpoint, narrative voice, actions, and relationships.  The portrayal makes me believe in Sadie as a character and a dog, and gives me a lot of pleasure as I read.

Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.

The plot, with Sadie protecting her family from a malevolent ghost, has a nice ending, with Mike’s health restored, Sadie being praised and receiving treats, and Sadie happy with herself and her role in the family.

The beginning effectively establishes in subtext that Sadie is a dog, her family is human, and she can see ghosts.

The middle of the story, para. 2-4 of the second scene, feels weak.  It establishes Sadie’s problem, the malevolent ghost and it’s negative effect on Mike and the rest of the family; and how Sadie solves the problem, by digging up the man’s bones and re-burying him across the stream.  This is a very short amount of space to dedicate to the conflict and rising action.  And there isn’t much conflict or rising action.  Sofie easily identifies the problem, finds the source of the problem, and solves the problem.  Because the problem is solved almost as soon as it’s identified, the story doesn’t really increase obstacles, raise stakes, build suspense, or generate strong emotion.  If you want to keep this as flash, there’s almost 400 words you can spend on this.  And if you are open to expanding it beyond flash length, you could build these elements even more.

What are some ways to expand these elements?  Let’s look at increasing obstacles first.  Right now, there really aren’t any obstacles to Sofie solving the problem.  Here are some possible obstacles:  the family, which has been affected by the ghost, locks up Sofie for barking so she can’t follow the ghost’s scent back to his grave; the family members are so lost that they forget to feed Sofie, so she loses strength; the good ghosts are afraid of the bad ghost and cling to Sofie for comfort, making it hard for her to move; Sofie might not know how to get rid of the bad ghost and might have to try several things before figuring out the solution; and Sofie might not be able to track the bad ghost to its grave.  There are a lot more possible obstacles, but I’ll leave it at that.  Some of these seem more interesting/relevant than others. In flash length, you might limit the story to one or two obstacles.  In a longer story, there could be more.

Looking at stakes, we could put Sofie’s relationship with the family at stake.  Under the influence of the bad ghost, they could get very angry with her, tell her they hate her, throw her out and tell her not to come back, drive her to a distant place and throw her out of the car.  The lives of the family could be at stake.

Looking at escalations, the bad ghost might draw other bad ghosts to the house.  If Sofie is locked up, escaping from the place could cause Sofie to be wounded.  Digging up the bones of the bad man could increase the ghost’s power, so it overwhelms Sofie.  Rolling in the bones of the bad man could infect Sofie so the ghost can act through her.  Escalations can be especially effective if the protagonist tries to solve the problem and fails, and that very attempt to solve the problem makes things worse.  Sofie digging up the bones of the bad man and becoming overwhelmed by the ghost is an example of that. Things getting worse can cause us to truly worry for Sofie and feel suspense over what will happen, which can give the story greater emotional impact.

So how do you know which obstacles, escalations, and stakes to include?  If you feel happy with your ending, it can often help to look at it closely, and that can provide insights into how to strengthen the rest of the story.  In this case, Sofie and Mike bonding at the end is key to generating an emotional ending.  But the current ending generates only mild emotion.  I’m happy that Sofie is being treated well by Mike, and I smile.  But if Sofie’s relationship with Mike seemed to be ruined, if Mike yelled at Sofie and called her a bad dog and chased her and locked her up (all under the influence of the bad ghost), and then Sofie struggled to overcome the bad ghost and triumphed, I would feel much more intense relief and pleasure at seeing Sofie and Mike bonding at the end.  That relationship could be brought out more as the heart of the story.  So I think one key element we need in the middle is that relationship breaking apart.

Since Sadie is happy with her role in the family at the end, it could be stronger to make her unhappy with her role in the family earlier in the story, to give her a character arc.  At the beginning, she might be frustrated that they don’t understand the ghosts are around.  And in the middle she might be alarmed that they don’t understand.  And then in the end she could feel okay that they don’t understand, because she now has confidence that she can protect them.

Another element in that vein is Sofie’s relationship with the good ghosts.  She’s warning the family about them at the beginning.  Maybe at the end she’s happy and grateful they are around.  This would create a relationship arc between Sofie and the good ghosts.  It could also allow you to use the good ghosts more.  In my mind, they’re like the gun hanging on the wall that should be relevant to the story’s conflict.  Thus, the good ghosts should be involved in the struggle against the bad ghost.  So at the beginning, Sofie would distrust the good ghosts and try to warn the family about them.  And in the middle, the ghosts could at first serve as an obstacle to Sofie, but ultimately help Sofie put the bad man to rest.  And at the end, the good ghosts might be acting in a more friendly, less threatening way, and Sofie would be friendly with them.

I really enjoyed getting to know Sofie and was glad to see her happy at the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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