Flash Fiction:
a complete story in one thousand words
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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Novel Opener

I reserve the right to modify this post a little bit. I'm in a hurry right now. :)

This is the opening of a novel by Jeanne. The original, below, is 728 words.

A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing. Below the camp of the Faragund army teemed with movement. He pressed back against the tree behind him knowing that in the shadows of the dense trees he would be impossible to spot from below. The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.

The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet not dangling a handspan above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man wasn't even a possibility in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon. Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King who stood before the prisoner. Five mages stood, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest catching the bright sunlight. The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids to below his shoulders. On each of his cheeks, scars ran from mouth to hairline. Long strands of a blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.

He raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man gave a hoarse scream. Blood gushed and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight.

For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the stone altar standing nearby.

Jessup stared past the camp into the thick forest of oak to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between their columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, from the day his own people were slaughtered, but watching this was a twist to the guts.

Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the god Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with this. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Khyle would want word of their movements though. Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again. It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial army. The hatred between the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin the goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshiped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

One of the mages near the king motioned to him and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.

The mages' chanting again changed cadence, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.

The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.

The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless watching. Then he turned and struck one of the mages a blow across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the King happy.
My first thought is that we might be able to start slightly later, when the king stabs the scout; but I tried that, and it wasn't easy, so first I'll try a more straightforward cut of the introductory scene.



Original:
A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing. Below the camp of the Faragund army teemed with movement. He pressed back against the tree behind him knowing that in the shadows of the dense trees he would be impossible to spot from below. The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.

The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet not dangling a handspan above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man wasn't even a possibility in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon. Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King who stood before the prisoner. Five mages stood, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest catching the bright sunlight. The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids to below his shoulders. On each of his cheeks, scars ran from mouth to hairline. Long strands of a blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.
Look at the critical data from the first several paragraphs:
  • The main character is Jessup
  • The Faragund is the enemy
  • They are cruel
  • The Faragund king (Jessup thinks) is bleeding a captured scout to invoke a spell
  • Jessup is hiding in the woods from the Faragund army
  • The Faragund army is assembled below him, where the king is bleeding the scout
  • The player list is fairly long: Faragund, the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin sister Urthus, Khyle, the Ilkasar Empire, the Ilkasar Empire's Sharenta mages


We may not need all of that detail; even if we need it, we might not need it just yet. I'd like to get to the action, the knife thrust, earlier. (I actually tried to rewrite the scene starting with the knife thrust, but found it hard to do.)

The passage has one structural problem: every paragraph has some information about every person in the scene. That makes Jeanne have to identify everyone in every sentence. I've broken that up, so the paragraph structure now looks like this:
  • Scream
  • Setting / POV establishment
  • Scout description
  • Jessup interlude
  • King description
  • Description of mages

Descriptions should be easier -- note below that I can abridge "The man's blond hair flowed in a mass of braids..." to "Thick blond braids flowed...".

"A scream echoed through the valley" isn't a particularly strong way of opening this scene, for several reasons. It doesn't introduce the POV character; the POV character knows who is screaming and why, but the sentence doesn't give us any of this compelling detail; and the latest stabbing hasn't happened yet, as far as I can tell, so it feels funny -- as if I'm getting a preview of the stab that's about to come. Let's cut it, painting the setting first.

Little things tip me off to what else can be cut. For instance, "stood in the copse of trees" and "pressed his back against the tree" and "the dense trees" indicated that we might be able to incorporate all of the tree description into a smaller space. The concepts I need are "shelter", "copse", and "individual tree".

It seems to me that the writing shows too much of the thinking vs. what's being thought: "knowing that", "showed him", "the wind brought the sound", "felt fairly sure". Since I know that anything in the description is in Jessup's POV -- not always true in every story, but Jeanne has done a good job with third-person limited POV here -- I shouldn't have to think about how Jessup experiences or knows what he does. The only one that might be needed is "felt fairly sure", since saying "the Faramund King" wouldn't show Jessup's lack of certainty. If we just show the experience without the self-consciousness, we should get a more direct prose style (most important) and fewer words (a byproduct of the direct style).

Lots of prepositional phrases: for example, "in the copse of trees", "against the tree behind him" "in the shadows of the dense trees". These aren't always a problem, but the indicate something about sentence structure to me. Even if I don't cut them directly, I generally look for things to cut or ways to restructure in the paragraphs that contain them.

Lots of forms of "to be": for example, "The scene showed him what a bad idea being captured would be." (Although I think that sentence doesn't add a lot of value anyway -- if the scene shows what a bad idea being captured would be, and you're about to show the scene, why tell us ahead of time?)

There are little things that I noticed, too, that aren't strictly related to cutting.
  • Alliteration is chief among them: "barely breathing" (which would be mundane enough to go unnoticed if it weren't for the rest of it), "felt fairly sure it was the Faragund King", "five mages...head to foot in flowing...", "massively muscled", "biceps bulged...brocade vest...bright sunlight", "blond hair...braids...below his shoulders". (In the next paragraph, "blood gushed...bowl that glinted golden".) A little alliteration isn't likely to get noticed, but sometimes we write as though we're creating Anglo-Saxon poetry. So we'll look for this, and even if we don't eliminate it all, we'll especially avoid having the alliterative letters fall on accented syllables close together, as in "BARE-ly BREATH-ing" and "BI-ceps BULGED".
  • The narrator describes the scout, but doesn't mention the blood that must cover him if he has been bled all day.
Let's cut deeply, maybe more than we're comfortable with. We can always put stuff back.

Cut:
Jessup pressed his back against a tree, using the copse's shadows to hide from the teeming Faragund army encamped below.

An Ilkasar scout hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a handspan above the ground. Blond braids flowed down below his shoulders, and long strands of a blond mustache drooped from the corners of his mouth. On each cheek, scars ran from mouth to hairline.

Jessup's jaw muscles knotted, but the army stretched nearly to the horizon -- he couldn't save him.

A man -- Jessup thought it was the Faragund King -- stood before the prisoner. Though of no great height, he was massively muscled; gold brocade covered his vast chest and arms, glinting in the sunlight.

Five mages stood chanting nearby, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.
211 words to 135, or about 36%. Not bad as far as it goes. The picture is still static -- we're setting up for the knife thrust rather than starting with it -- but the reader has 76 fewer words to get through to get there.


Original:
The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man gave a hoarse scream. Blood gushed and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight.
"raised...and plunged" is cinematic and draws out the tension, so though I could cut it to just "The king plunged a long..." I don't want to do that.

I don't love "The man gave a hoarse scream", but I'm not sure what to do about it.
  • "Gave a scream" doesn't seem as strong (or as short) as "screamed", but I don't really want to say "screamed hoarsely", either.
  • Cutting "hoarse" eliminates the sense that the man has been screaming a lot. Now, we're about to hear how the king has been bleeding the scout all day, so maybe we don't need "hoarse" -- but in original, that explanation occurred in the next paragraph, making it less immediate.
  • Maybe we could attach it to the previous sentence: "into the scout's arm, evoking a hoarse scream."
  • Maybe we use the stronger verb, which would normally also reduce the word count, but expound a little bit instead: "The man screamed, his voice hoarse..."
  • Maybe we bring some of Jessup's attitude to the description, getting deeper into his POV and characterizing him a little bit more.

I think I'll do the latter. To do so, I need to steal some of the text (which I will also trim, of course) from the next few paragraphs:

Original:
For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the stone altar standing nearby.

Jessup stared past the camp into the thick forest of oak to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between their columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, from the day his own people were slaughtered, but watching this was a twist to the guts.
Cut:
The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm.

Jessup winced at his hoarse scream and sucked in a deep breath, trying to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, even his own people slaughtered, but this twisted his guts.

They had bled the scout for the entire day. At first he had refused to scream, and they let his blood drip into the dirt. The ground was black with it. Finally, as now, a mage would rush forward to catch it in a golden bowl and pour it onto the stone altar nearby.
105 words from 170: 38%. I lost some data, though: "thick oak forest" (not just a copse of trees) "to the east" (orientation) "gentle dark" (characterization of Jessup and the forest). I can fit that in later, as he starts to leave. [In the event, I didn't -- Jeanne will have to decide whether she misses it.]

I also lost "his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive", but I don't know that that's necessary at this point.

Notice that I had to slice the paragraphs up carefully to make sure the pronouns work.
  • The first paragraph is the king's action.
  • The second is Jessup's reaction. This was needed to make sure the references to "he" and "his" were unambiguous. The only one that doesn't refer to Jessup is the first one, "his hoarse scream", and I don't think that will cause any problems.
  • The third is about the scout. "He" and "his" refer only to him.
Maybe I didn't need to do that; the original had the same kind of problem.
For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground around him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive.
Technically, it's ambiguous whether the ground was black around the scout or around Jessup. Also, Jeanne couldn't easily replace "the prisoner" with "he" in the phrase "the prisoner had refused to scream" -- for just a fraction of an instant, the brain has to figure out whether "he" refers to Jessup or to the scout. To me, it just sounds wrong. If you found the original to be fine, then you might not care as much about the disambiguation I undertook here. As always, it's the author's call.


Original:
Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the god Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with this. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Khyle would want word of their movements though. Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again. It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial army. The hatred between the Faragund god Kanandra and his twin the goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshiped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.
I ended the last paragraph with a reference to the stone altar. Let's pick up there, and, since he was thinking (it's a flashback), we can continue the same paragraph with additional thoughts.

I don't have to force his eyes back to the Faragund camp, because I never made them leave it.

Since "the altar" is the last thing I mentioned, I can refer to it more simply. That also lets me avoid the object-subject-verb structure currently in place ("The altar he recognized').

Cut:
[...and pour it onto the stone altar nearby.] He could see that it was for the Faragund god Kanandra, twin of the Ilkasar goddess Urthus -- their hatred for each other mirrored the hatred between their followers -- but he couldn't tell what magic they were attempting.

He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Khyle would, though. He had told Jessup that the Faragund might attack the Ilkasar Empire again, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and Imperial army had wiped out the Faragund army. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.
141 words becomes 109: 23%.


Original:
One of the mages near the king motioned to him and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.
Little cuts: "One of the mages near the king motioned to him" seems a bit long. "near the king" and "to him" are prepositional phrases with the same object, but one uses a pronoun, so they can probably be condensed. Make it "One of the mages motioned to the king". (They're already near him; it doesn't matter exactly how near they are; we just need to show change related to the king, since the mages will explicitly change their chanting in a moment anyway.)

"He sucked in his breath" serves the same function as "Jessup gritted his teeth" -- characterizing Jessup and keeping us in his POV. I'd cut one of them.

"as the chants grew demanding" is redundant with "but more insistent", so we should cut one (and I think the former is the obvious choice here). Note that we have to change "the surge of power" to "a surge of power" to make that work.

Cut:
One of the mages motioned to the king and seemed to speak. The chanting became softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel a surge of power. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest.
52 words from 67: 22%.


Original:
The mages' chanting again changed cadence, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.
"again changed cadence" and "and faster" both serve to draw out the sentence. Jeanne might like the way this adds tension. Personally, I don't, so I'm cutting them. This is just a matter of taste, and Jeanne will have to decide what she prefers.

Cut:
The mages' chanting grew faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.



Original:
The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.
The only individual sentence that feels problematic here is "Jessup thought he removed other parts, but with the king blocking his way to see exactly what was happening." It's a fragment, for one thing, and I think we can tighten it even so.

The paragraph itself has one deviant among the pronouns. "He jerked" and "he removed" refers to the King; "his way" refers to Jessup; "He raised" and subsequent pronouns refer to the king again. I don't think it's really critical, but I'd like to use something like "He seemed to..." because that way all male pronouns in the paragraph refer to the king.

"with the king blocking his way to see" is "the king blocked Jessup's view". "To see exactly what was happening" is redundant with "Jessup thought" showing the uncertainty and "blocked his view" to show its cause.

Cut:
The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. He might have removed other parts, too, but his body blocked Jessup's view. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.
76 becomes 70: 8%, with one fragment fixed.


Original:
The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless watching. Then he turned and struck one of the mages a blow across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the King happy.
After the tension build-up, the short sentences here work very nicely to show an anticipation that goes unfulfilled.

There's no need to show that the king was "watching". (You might even consider it a POV violation, though of the least problematic kind.)

"a blow" is redundant with "struck".

I think we can lose the whole last sentence. "whatever it was supposed to do" characterizes Jessup (because we're in his POV still), but in a way that has already been done; and Jeanne has already shown that the king is unhappy, so there's no need to tell it again.

Cut:
The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless. Then he turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground.
49 becomes 33: 33%.


I'm running out of time. Someone has requested the novel from Jeanne, due this week -- Go Jeanne! I'm really excited for you! -- so let me just finish up and get out of her way.

This version is 515 words, down from 728, for a 29% cut.
Jessup pressed his back against a tree, using the copse's shadows to hide from the teeming Faragund army encamped below.

An Ilkasar scout hung bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a handspan above the ground. Blond braids flowed down below his shoulders, and long strands of a blond mustache drooped from the corners of his mouth. On each cheek, scars ran from mouth to hairline.

Jessup's jaw muscles knotted, but the army stretched nearly to the horizon -- he couldn't save him.

A man -- Jessup thought it was the Faragund King -- stood before the prisoner. Though of no great height, he was massively muscled; gold brocade covered his vast chest and arms, glinting in the sunlight.

Five mages stood chanting nearby, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes.

The king raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm.

Jessup winced at his hoarse scream and sucked in a deep breath, trying to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors in his days, even his own people slaughtered, but this twisted his guts.

They had bled the scout for the entire day. At first he had refused to scream, and they let his blood drip into the dirt. The ground was black with it. Finally, as now, a mage would rush forward to catch it in a golden bowl and pour it onto the stone altar nearby. He could see that it was for the Faragund god Kanandra, twin of the Ilkasar goddess Urthus -- their hatred for each other mirrored the hatred between their followers -- but he couldn't tell what magic they were attempting.

He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Khyle would, though. He had told Jessup that the Faragund might attack the Ilkasar Empire again, for the first time in twenty years. Back then, Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and Imperial army had wiped out the Faragund army. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. Few families hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped.

One of the mages motioned to the king and seemed to speak. The chanting became softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel a surge of power. He sucked in his breath as the King plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest.

The mages' chanting grew faster. Smoke swirled around the altar.

The King ripped the dagger up the dead scout's chest. He jerked and sawed and then pulled out the dripping heart. He might have removed other parts, too, but his body blocked Jessup's view. He raised both arms over his head. Blood ran down his arms in rivulets as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat. A roar from out of the smoke ripped the air.

The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze. The king stood motionless. Then he turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground.
What do you think?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jake said...

Jeanne said she couldn't post a comment. If you're having the same problem, email me your comment at oliverhouse@gmail.com.

Thanks!
Jake

9/06/2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Aha! There was something in my anti-spyware that was the culprit even though it wasn't supposed to block cookies. I can post now! :)

Great job cutting! I see that my attempt to not repeat "the king" made it look like part of his description referred to the prisoner. That whole paragraph was about the king, so that part doesn't quite work--my fault, not yours.

Excellent cutting and I'll have a better opening thanks to you.

9/06/2007 5:24 PM  

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