“Watch your step, man.”  Marvin tugged at Lance’s sleeve.  “Snakes lie closest to the trees.”

Lance moved away from the trees, as guided.  He glanced over at Marvin and chuckled, “you’d think I’d know that, being den leader of my son’s cub scout group.  Do you hunt often?”

 They walked in tandem on the cool damp morning, both armored in hunting vests and Timberland boots, their steps crunching the dried leaves layered on the ground.   A multitude of trees filled the area, splitting rays of the sun that hit and warmed them.   Crows fluttered overhead, unseen critters scurried away into the distance.

“Hey, I appreciate you inviting me on this outing,” Lance said after a long period of silence.  “I was feeling isolated, like at that last barbeque in your backyard for the men . . . everyone seemed to be drawn to you–“

“We should break soon.  I need a smoke,” Marvin said.

“ .  .  . Of course.  You got an extra?  I don’t usually smoke, but I’d be willing to try it.”

Marvin stopped short, Lance took an additional step and in a single swoop a long rope hit then  spun around his ankles, whining as it cut the wind.  It tightened, and yanked him off his feet.  He shrieked and coffee he had drunk earlier re-entered his throat.  He sputtered as the rope raised him several feet into the air, near-missing his head hitting the ground.  Coins from his pockets fell to the ground.  He tried thrusting his body around, but the rope cut deeper into his skin.

He stopped struggling, let his arms dangle, looked at Marvin’s shoes then up toward his face.

Marvin returned no eye contact, but lit a cigarette. He plopped down onto the ground below Lance’s head.  He reached up and took ahold of a tuft of Lance’s mussed hair.

“Now,” Marvin said, pulling as he blew a puff of smoke in Lance’s face.  “Your discomfort can be short-lived if you cooperate.”

“Ugh. . .  Oh. . . I can’t breathe, please.”

“You’re talking, you can breathe.”  Marvin replied.

Lance closed his eyes and scrunched his face.  He took a deep breath and a stream of coffee spewed through his mouth and nose, just missing Marvin.

“My daughter said you made some tapes.  I want them.” Marvin said.  “Where are they?”

 “Tapes?  What are you talking about?,” Lance asked, panting.  Droplets of brown liquid back dripped from his nostrils.

“You know damn well what I’m talking about.   My daughter told me everything you did to her.  Sadly, it would be her word against yours without those tapes.”

“I just tutored her in Art History, that’s all.”

“Who the hell needs tutoring in Art History?  As far as I know, she wasn’t failing any classes.”

“She wanted an A.”

“You mother –“ Marvin swung his fist through the air and struck Lance’s face.  “Where are the f- tapes!”

The hit threw a loud, continuous ringing into Lance’s ears.

“I ain’t got all day.”  Marvin said.

Lance couldn’t hear as well.  He felt submerged in a vacuum.  He closed his eyes and wondered what could have led Marvin’s daughter to tell her father whatever she told him.   And he had tapes of every class room session since school began; they were erased daily, it was routine.

He opened his eyes as he hurt from the tension Marvin had pulling his hair.  Then he froze.  A large diamond back snake was gliding up toward Marvin from behind.

 At that very moment, a few seconds seemed like a minute as he pondered what to do.  The neighborhood would blame him if Marvin was attacked and killed.  He would never recover from the shame.  They would shun him at home association meetings and at the grocery store.  He might lose respect from the community, including his students and especially the cub scouts.  Such a situation would be his most dreaded nightmare.  On the other hand, if Marvin survived, he would pursue this personal vendetta.  It would be a hard allegation to fight.  He weighed his options.  He decided on the option that worked best in his favor.

“Don’t move a muscle,” he said in a low voice.

They both heard the rustling of the snake, incongruent with the wind.  Marvin paused and loosened his grip.

“It sounds huge,” Marvin said, afraid to look around.

“Don’t move.  Trust me. . . friend, ”  Lance said, being sure not to move a muscle himself.

Instructor Response

Hi Jac.  Thanks for the submission. I’ll make my comments and highlight. Excellent work. Good story, and you kept to the guidelines very well. Most of my comments are not about mistakes but rather overall observations about creating dialogue and pacing, including rate of release of ideas. The intent is to stimulate useful self-criticism when revising; the ideas on pacing are applicable to anything you write, not just related to correction of what you’ve written.

Dialogue. There are two things in fiction that usually don’t go well in dialogue: exposition and stage direction. (Backstory too, which is a type of exposition.) Exposition is story background. In dialogue it might sound something like this: “Watch your step there, Clem. Them shoes was made by Obediah. Worst cobbler ever set up shop in Lincoln.” Stage direction: “Look over there near the window where that straight-back chair blocks the door.” This is the author speaking to the reader trying to get story information in. It’s not how credible characters in fiction stories would talk. I’ve highlighted in yellow some examples in your story. Again, not suggesting a need for change, but just to increase awareness.

The second thing is pacing, which is essential in all aspects of fiction. A major pacing consideration is the rate of information release. Either too much information too rapidly or too little information presented slowly pushes the reader away from the story. Again, you’ve done nothing wrong, but one of the purposes of the exercise is to illuminate for an author the rate of information release in your short piece. I’ll highlight information in gray and I’ll make comments on whether the information seems in the right place at the right time. Much of this is deciding the purpose of a sentence in dialogue. Does the sentence or paragraph have a story purpose: characterization, plot progression, providing conflict, imagery, etc. and does it follow a logical integrated story pattern? I think you’ll see what I mean.

 

            –“Snakes lie closest to the trees.” Does the danger inherent in wildlife fit in this story at this point? Here, it doesn’t do enough for characterization or plot progression, I think.

            –“the cool damp morning, both armored in hunting vests and Timberland boots, their steps crunching the dried leaves layered on the ground.” This is interesting. You have feeling (cool), character description (vests and boots), and hearing (crunching). Effective writing, but is it too much at this moment? Does it need to be trimmed to a few words for each idea?

            –“A multitude of trees filled the area, splitting rays of the sun that hit and warmed them.   Crows fluttered overhead, unseen critters scurried away into the distance.” This is more setting, nicely written, but does it contribute to the purpose of the story at this point, which is to get to the conflict between the two men? It’s not necessarily wrong, and it depends on what you the author want to do.

“Watch your step, man.”  Marvin tugged at Lance’s sleeve.  “Snakes lie closest to the trees.”

Lance moved away from the trees, as guided.  He glanced over at Marvin and chuckled, “you’d think I’d know that, being den leader of my son’s cub scout group.  [Exposition. Better in narrative.] Do you hunt often?” 

 They walked in tandem on the cool damp morning, both armored in hunting vests and Timberland boots, their steps crunching the dried leaves layered on the ground. Good. A multitude of trees filled the area, splitting rays of the sun that hit and warmed them.   Crows fluttered overhead, unseen critters scurried away into the distance.  This seems too much setting for me. Your judgment, of course.

“Hey, I appreciate you inviting me on this outing,” Lance said after a long period of silence.  “I was feeling isolated, like at that last barbeque in your backyard for the men . . . everyone seemed to be drawn to you–“ [Exposition. Y0u might have used it for characterization. But it seems a bit of backstory that doesn’t do as much as it should for the space taken up.]

“We should break soon.  I need a smoke,” Marvin said.

“ .  .  . Of course.  You got an extra?  I don’t usually smoke, but I’d be willing to try it.”

Marvin stopped short, Lance took an additional step and in a single swoop a long rope hit then spun around his ankles, whining as it cut the wind.  It tightened, and yanked him off his feet.  He shrieked and coffee he had drunk earlier re-entered his throat.  He sputtered as the rope raised him several feet into the air, near-missing his head hitting the ground.  Coins from his pockets fell to the ground.  He tried thrusting his body around, but the rope cut deeper into his skin.  [Vivid! Nice imagery perfect for scene visualization and progression.] This is nice pacing!

He stopped struggling, let his arms dangle, looked at Marvin’s shoes then up toward his face.

Marvin returned no eye contact, [“looked away”? “looked to the side”? maybe.  As it is itseems in a style stiff and formal.  It’s in the syntax and word choice; it has to do with showing rather than telling too.] but lit a cigarette. He plopped down onto the ground below Lance’s head.  He reached up and took ahold of a tuft of Lance’s mussed hair.

“Now,” Marvin said, pulling as he blew a puff of smoke in Lance’s face.  “Your discomfort can be short-lived if you cooperate.”  This is strongly implied by the storytelling and probably would be best left out. Redundancy can make readers unenthusiastic about the writing and telling.

“Ugh. . .  Oh. . . I can’t breathe, please.”

“You’re talking, you can breathe.”  Marvin replied. [Great.]

Lance closed his eyes and scrunched his face.  He took a deep breath and a stream of coffee spewed through his mouth and nose, just missing Marvin.

My daughter said you made some tapes. [Exposition.] I want them” Marvin said.  [You might consider just; “I want them tapes.”  It’s brief, the way people talk when the emotional valences of the characters are heating up.   “

 “Tapes?   Lance asked, panting.  Droplets of brown liquid back dripped from his nostrils.

“You know damn well what I’m talking about.   My daughter told me everything you did to her.  Sadly, it would be her word against yours without those tapes.” [Try letting the narrator tell this outside of dialogue. It’s exposition, which affects dialogue.]

“I just tutored her in Art History, that’s all.”

Who the hell needs tutoring in Art History?  As far as I know, she wasn’t failing any classes.”

“She wanted an A.”

“You mother –“ Marvin swung his fist through the air and struck Lance’s face.  “Where are the f- tapes!”

The hit threw a loud, continuous ringing into Lance’s ears.

“I ain’t got all day.”  Marvin said.

Lance couldn’t hear as well.  He felt submerged in a vacuum.  He closed his eyes and wondered what could have led Marvin’s daughter to tell her father whatever she told him.   And he had tapes of every class room session since school began; they were erased daily, it was routine.  This is crucial information and should always have priority in the revelation of information.

He opened his eyes as he hurt from the tension Marvin had pulling his hair.  Then he froze.  A large diamond back snake was gliding up toward Marvin from behind.

 At that very moment, a few seconds seemed like a minute as he pondered what to do.  The neighborhood would blame him if Marvin was attacked and killed.  He would never recover from the shame.  They would shun him at home association meetings and at the grocery store.  He might lose respect from the community, including his students and especially the cub scouts.  Such a situation would be his most dreaded nightmare.  On the other hand, if Marvin survived, he would pursue this personal vendetta.  It would be a hard allegation to fight.  He weighed his options.  He decided on the option that worked best in his favor.  [This wasn’t clear to me–that is, what he decided and how it was in his favor.]

“Don’t move a muscle,” he said in a low voice.

They both heard the rustling of the snake, incongruent with the wind. [This is sort of poetic, but seems totally out of place for this section. Use it somewhere else?] Marvin paused and loosened his grip.

“It sounds huge,” Marvin said, afraid to look around.

“Don’t move.  Trust me. . . friend,” Lance said, being sure not to move a muscle himself.

I hope this provides some ideas for revision and some appreciation for having purpose for writing and identifying continuity and appropriateness of information for the story at every stage of writing.

Very nice work and all the best,

Bill Coles

  1. Thanks for the review. I appreciate the harshest of critiques. After reading some how-to books on writing, I realize I make every mistake possible. I’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go.

    I have redone the piece using some of the pointers you made. It’s a start, anyway.

    Thanks again!

  2. To clarify – I appreciate any harsh critique, not that this one was harsh.

    Thanks.

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