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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
OSC Critique
November 17, 1998

Rather than answering a specific question, OSC has written a critique to the first chapter of a story submitted by Scott M. Hollander that includes flaws common among new writers.

- - -

Donald sat in the corner of the room, barely illuminated by the dim moonlight filtering through the window. He was trembling badly; the events of the last few hours still storming through his mind. How the hell could he have known? How could he have known? He brought his shaking hands up to his face, and as he hid behind them the smell of fresh gunpowder brought the sickening moment back to him in full force. Tears began to stream down his rugged face, and he was soon racked with sobbing convulsions.

Outside, car horns honked and people scampered about their business. In short, life went on. Donald however knew that life also ended. Just three hours ago, he'd seen to that fact first hand. There were doctors, lawyers, teachers, cooks, government workers, and killers. Though at times Donald had a hard time separating the government workers from the killers. Donald was a member of the last group; a killer. Not by trade mind you, he'd joined that group only in the last three hours. In actuality he was a computer game consultant. He played video games all day, and told the designers what was wrong, or for that matter, what was right with their new products.

At 6'2" he was a formidable presence. He was well muscled and his appearance would make you walk on the other side of the street if you happened to run into him. He instilled fear in you, made you question whether or not you'd survive an encounter with him if you ran into him when he was in a bad mood; he was holding himself and rocking uncontrollably like a child in the corner.

The day had begun just like any other. He'd gotten up at the crack of dawn, looked over at his sleeping wife and child. Actually, he just saw his gorgeous young wife lying sound asleep, her left hand resting upon her growing stomach. Linda was six months pregnant; their first child. A smile quickly grew as Donald began to anticipate the birth of their son. He knew that he was going to have a son. There had been no sonogram; Linda would not allow it. She insisted that to have the procedure would be to take away one of the most precious gifts that nature had to offer parents. Donald had grudgingly agreed to wait and see what nature had lined up for the happy couple.

He leaned over and planted a tender kiss on his wife's forehead and began to get dressed for work. Linda would probably wake up and take her morning walk for her exercise. Donald made sure to remember to write her a note and hang it from the door so there'd be no chance that she would miss seeing it. They'd been married for six 8 months and since that day he could not believe that he'd been so fortunate. At first, his friends could not believe that anyone as gorgeous as Linda would show Donald the time of day. Not a day went by that Donald didn't thank whoever was responsible for bringing them together, or think that he would wake up and find that she was just a fantasy.

The drive to the office was uneventful until he pulled off of the freeway exit for his office complex. As he was slowing down to the posted speed limit, some hotshot in a bright red sports car roared past him on the right. The driver was riding the shoulder of the exit ramp, and as he past Donald's car, he pulled right in front and deliberately slowed; almost to a crawl. The driver's left hand flew out of his window and offered it's middle finger to Donald's stunned gaze. "What the hell did I do to this guy? I didn't cut him off, didn't even know he was there until he pulled alongside me to pass. Jeez, what's his problem?" Donald asked himself.

The driver in front of him began to speed a little, pulling ahead of him, and for a moment Donald thought that their brief encounter was over. Just as he reached over and began to change the radio station, his peripheral vision brought the car into his view. The driver was alongside the shoulder again, only this time the car was stopped, and the son of a bitch was standing outside of his car. Nothing too alarming, but Donald had time to see the gun that the man was holding. Had time to see that it was indeed pointed at his car. Panic began to take over, and he didn't know whether he should duck and speed past the car, or ram into him and take the sick bastard out. In the time that it took him to decide, his windshield exploded in a flurry of broken glass.

The shot must have been through the right side, or he'd been incredibly lucky as he'd not been shot. Donald screamed, and slammed the accelerator down to the ground. "Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch. Oh my God. The son of a bitch shot at me! Holy shit!" Risking a glance in the rear view mirror showed Donald that the maniac was not following. He drove through the tollbooth at the end of the exit ramp, and saw the pissed off toll booth attendant leaning out of his booth waving his flabby arms at Donald. He just couldn't believe what had just happened. There was no reason that he could come up with for what had just happened.

Did he somehow know the driver of the red car? Playing the event back in his mind, he couldn't even remember what the driver looked like. Plate number? Yeah, right. There'd been time enough to get that information. Was he Black? White? It was a guy, right?? Donald began to slow a little as he realized he was now driving through residential streets at almost 70 miles per hour. All he needed now was a collision with another car, or God-forbid, a pedestrian. Another glance at the rear view mirror, and he felt confident that the driver had not followed him. He began to look in earnest for a police officer or a cruiser. This surely had to be reported. He glanced down at his cellular phone. He could just call the cops, tell them where he was, and wait for them to find him. He should call Linda and tell her what had just happened. Yeah, that would be smart. Just what a pregnant woman needed to hear as she opened her eyes from a deep sleep. No, he'd call the cops, give his location, and wait for them to find him.

How the hell was he supposed to know that the shooter was sitting in his car, police scanner in hand waiting for him to do just that?

-- Submitted by Scott M. Hollander

OSC Replies:

I can tell you right now, this story is dead in the water because of this most common and most awful of openings. This is the standard "she drove through the snow, tears flowing down her cheeks, thinking through the events of the past few days" opening that wrecks story after story. At least you have the consolation of knowing that everybody else makes this mistake too.

What you're doing with this kind of opening is: You are forcing us to face the character's raw emotions without giving us any information about the story or any reason to care about the character. It is the opposite of how it has to work. We should not face the emotions until we completely understand the entire situation so that we will feel those emotions ourselves -- and then the character does not have to "tremble badly" and waste our time sitting around while memories "storm" through his mind.

You certainly don't have the liberty of showing the ironic contrast between Donald's suffering while outside traffic moves on oblivious. That's the closing shot of the movie, not the opening.

Then, when you do start giving us actual information, because you've given us intense emotion to begin with, the info you give us feels weirdly disconnected -- he's there trembling, having just become a killer, and you're going to tell us about his career? You're going to tell us how tall he is? Without first telling us what the hell he just did that he's trembling about? No, you have strained the audience too far.

When you reach for emotions the story has not earned, we call it "sentimental" or "melodramatic."

Paragraph 3 makes another common but killer mistake. You are trying to establish his point of view, to see the world through his eyes. However, this description is completely from outside himself -- in fact, it consists of the omniscient viewpoint in which the author talks to the reader, and the character is viewed as through a telescope, from a distance. There is no reason to describe him like this. How would you handle the physical information about him through his point of view? For instance, "Ever since puberty gave him a large frame and heavy muscles, he had been aware that he scared people just a little. Without doing anything at all, he made smaller men nervous. Some women, though, were drawn to men who looked intimidating -- except on dark nights, when they would see him coming and cross the street." That sort of thing -- from inside his mind, how he feels about it, the experiences he has had with it.

By the way, a good mother does not refuse a sonogram. She just refuses to look at it herself. The sonogram is how the doctor checks how the baby is lying, looks for heartbeat, body development, etc. It would be absurd to refuse to have one done. If you don't want to know the sex, don't look and don't ask. Amniocentesis, however, is another matter -- a small percentage of cases cause spontaneous abortion, ending the pregnancy, and since the things you find out from amnio are all things you can't do anything about except abortion, why bother if you have no intention of aborting the baby no matter what?

Your description of his love and happiness is not working. Why? Because it's all vague and abstract and cliched. Heavens, you even have his happiness founded in the fact that she is so "gorgeous," not because she is a human being who is interesting. If you want us to actually care about their relationship, then show it. Begin this story with a scene between them, showing how they handle conflict resolution in a happy way, showing her as a funny, interesting person, giving her quirks that are endearing and showing a relationship founded on something other than lust or pride in a trophy wife. Let us find out about the pregnancy, not because of thoughts, but because they talk about it, because her belly is beginning to get in the way of her work, etc. Unfold the relationship in a scene that is about something.

Now, the story finally comes to life when you have the traffic confrontation. But why not begin the story with that? Guy driving to work, that's perfectly normal. You want an action start, this one works. Plenty of time to get the other stuff while he's sitting at the side of the road, sans windshield, waiting for the cops. However, while the "how the hell was he supposed to know" line was effective as grabby writing, in fact it is such an egregious violation of point of view that basically you have decided not to let character matter in the tale. Definitely a distant voice, narrator firmly in charge.

Two opening strategies, then, would work:

1. The Life Interrupted: Start with a scene at home, funny, interesting, idyllic, and then interrupt it with the traffic incident. However, the first sentence could still be along the lines of: "Donald Blank did not wake up and say, Today I think I'll kill a man" or some such other line that signals us that life and death matters are at hand. You can do that in the first paragraph, and the first paragraph only, because it is "free." I'm not advising you to do it -- I think it's better just to let it unfold. The story will be interesting enough if you make the relationship interesting enough.

2. Action Jackson: Start with the traffic incident, and flash back to the morning scene with wife (he thinks of her because of how that bullet could have left her a widow with an unborn child; that if he died, he would never have known the child; someone else would have raised him; what kind of bastard would do that to his family over some traffic thing, etc. -- all within his point of view, all tied to the present moment). No need for a cute opening sentence in this opening. However, he will not be as real a character to us -- more like everyman than this particular man. Either strategy would work well, however.

And either way, you cannot tell us that the shooter was sitting in his car, police scanner in hand. Instead, you have him call, wait for the cops, and then be shocked when the shooter shows up. Then he realizes -- the guy has a police scanner. When I call the cops, I call him! It will work just as well to have the realization after the fact -- and does not violate point of view. Thus you can have your cake and eat it too -- the frisson of realizing the "cool idea" of the story (i.e., highway shooter who uses police scanner to find his victims before the cops do) and also the close identification with character that is possible when point of view is intensely maintained.

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