The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

Instructor Response

George,

The exercise is about setting. Great job. And now let’s look at elements of story, about narration, about keeping your ideas clear and arranging them in logical sequence.

The action in this story is pilots in plane preparing for flight, over the mountains, Jack will take control of the plane, force it in a dive and kill all aboard die. It’s the timeline you’ve established.

Once you established the timeline, you used backstory and internalization to develop character. This leads to exposition and often extraneous ideas interrupting the flow of your story. I’ve color-coded these in green, the basic story is left as is. The idea is to get you thinking about how to characterize and develop plot together.

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives. 

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4:58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

The story that is the action (plot) and thought that is true to a timeline, is actually very short when isolated on the page, and even in story time (a few hours). The story is the writing you have in past tense. Most of the other information is in backstory, memories (actually internalized backstory), and the future.  There are also mid sentence switches in point of view that need to be considered. The story information in green is important and good and your challenge is to incorporate that into the story present so that it integrates with plot without disrupting plot. You do that by widening the timeline. Maybe start the story with his saying goodnight to the kids, then write the scene of leaving the note, then dramatize the flight check, then the journey over the mountain, and the final act of starting the dive.

You have a lot of great characterization (below in yellow) but less plot-oriented info (in pink).

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

For this story, you should recheck your purpose. Is this story about the characters, or about the plot?  Which is more important. Chose. And then adjust in revision. In general, structure your story to meet your purpose.

Suggested References before we go on:

1. Use The Fiction Well to find answers to your questions. https://www.thefictionwell.com/

2. Start learning to write effective dialogue. https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/

3. Learn narration (it will take dedication to conquer). https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/narration-literary-stories/

4. https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/creating-quality-characters/

Critique

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”  In writing dialogue, it has to sound as if could be from a real human in the story world. This does not sound right. Pilots on a routine flight usually don’t say too much. And with check lists, this would almost never be said in this phrasing, or at all. If you’re not a pilot, you can fish videos out of pilots checking their lists. It’s important to be accurate. Here you have the narrator seem to tell the dialogue. Use the pilots.

You’ve got to make dialogue sound real for the story world. One way to do that is write in scene. More later.

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service [extraneous here, weave into story for characterization without interrupting story momentum  if important to you], tore [not the right word–shifted? turned? To use past of tear for an eye movement indicates the author has made a mistake and it will distract the reader from the story.] his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, [Why tell what will happen? This is your climax, keep till the end. Keep it in story present. Seize the opportunity for suspense.] if the plane departed on time. [You’ve given the exact flight time; it would not change if the plane was on time or late.] Planes always did, early on a Sunday. [This is a story about death. This sentence gives facts that have nothing to do with the story. You’ve got quite a few ideas like this, sort of author-fill, and I’ll point them out with green color coding.]

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”  Not credible. See dialogue reference.

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow.  [The underlined text is in Jack’s point of view (no “was,”) the first part of the sentence is the narrator.]  He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know[“She had to know” is a switch from narrator to Jack’s POV, too.]

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead. [? Humor. Do you mean the pilots checked her shoes or is this a narrator thought? If so, it won’t be humorous. And consider, in contemporary times, it’s a sexist comment that will irritate some readers.]

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex. [This needs action, or conflict, or something. It’s a cliché for dialogue and doesn’t do anything for story.]

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.” Not credible. See dialogue reference. To make this easily acceptable to a reader it has to seem to be real. No one would say this; it’s too obviously a known fact between the two pilots who would say something like “I’ve got it.” when the time came. And it is also an author using exposition in dialogue (when we reach the mountains) that makes it sound silted and not story-real.

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through  [?fall from] the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life. [These are good thoughts but they are the author’s, not the character’s, nor narrator’s even. It’s common in fiction for the author to express his or her ideas, even the purpose for, or the meaning of, the story. But for best-quality literary-fiction storytelling, the author dramatizes his or her ideas. Shows them by action and imaginative dialogue. It’s not easy, but you have the focus and the ability to learn!]

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. [Be careful when you subordinate an idea into a phrase, a clause, or an adverb that you don’t change the impact you want for the idea. Here, flying over the mountain is more important for story than the time.] Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton.[use “the clouds.”] [Don’t let the prose call attention to itself with inflation of the words. Keep the reader interested in the story.]  He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying [pushing? That’s the image I remember. That’s the image everyone knows. This is not insignificant. Most readers will pause at this and as an author you don’t want that. Think about word meaning and accuracy when you revise.] the boulder up the mountain once too often.  He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

Thanks for the submission!

  1. Thanks for yet another really helpful critique. A lot of backstory, now that I read it with your insights. One phrase stood out from your critique – “the author dramatises his or her ideas.” – That’s where I frequently deviate, I let the prose take over and it dilutes the action. I must let the characters do the writing!

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