Monday, January 03, 2011

What Works: Furs and Ice by Josh R. Vogt

Today's excerpt for the "What Works" blog series is not an excerpt at all, but an entire story--specifically a piece of flash fiction written by blog-buddy Josh R. Vogt for the Clarity of Night competition.

Furs and Ice
By Josh R. Vogt

All futures hide in the clouds, Father told him. Trap the sky beneath your feet, and walk what must come.

As Omen trudges onto the frozen lake, he scratches at the wolf pelts cloaking him. Oracles always wear stinking furs.

Such is our way, Father said.

Omen hates stinking furs. He smells the rancid unguent Father drank each morning, trying to ward off the bleeding cough. Its stench tainted the old oracle's breath, his bowels, the hide walls of their hut. Now it follows like Father's ghost, come to see the son's first foretelling.

He reaches the middle of the lake and stands amidst the gray reflections of cloud and twig and crag. Omen stomps. Ice shrieks. Its polish shatters into a maze of cracks. The reflections within no longer move, trapped for his scrutiny. Trapped, just as he is. Forever an oracle, wearing the stinking furs of a babbler.

Omen's feet are numbing. Skin sticks to the ice as he steps towards shore. He hunches, looking for signs to convey.

There, branches knot in a telling of early summer. Beside this, a rounded cliff predicts many births within the tribe. A step further--

Omen stops. Stares at the next frozen vision. A bird's spread wings reveal a chance for freedom, offered to those with the strength to grasp it.

The future within the ice groans for release.

He raises his foot for another stomp. It will be a bitter swim to shore, but faster once he sheds the furs.
I love this piece as an example of what to aim for in your writing because it's so short, and yet it demonstrates so perfectly how to structure a story.

As I've mentioned before, stories are about change. They start when the protagonist's life is knocked out of balance and they end when that life is brought back into a new, different form of balance.

Also, every scene in a story should revolve around a turning point--a moment of irrevocable change, one where the characters involved cannot step back from or undo what has happened. In a flash fiction piece, you only have time for a single turning point. In fact, the turning point is the entirety of the story; everything else in the work is there to support the turning point.

The first sentence of Furs and Ice begins to establish the world that the protagonist, Omen, lives in; foretelling is a real profession, and the protagonist's father taught Omen to give himself over to his fate.

The second sentence immediately establishes a tension between this lesson and the protagonist's own beliefs. Omen trudges, which implies a lack of enthusiasm, and he thinks the furs he has to wear smell terrible. This is not a portrait of person who is happy to accept his fate.

The third sentence underscores the internal tension by fleshing out what Omen's father taught his son, while the next paragraph firmly establishes Omen's distaste for the role he is supposed to step into. The line "... [the stench] follows like Father's ghost, come to see the son's first foretelling" makes it clear Omen feels trapped by tradition and familial obligation.

In just a few sentences, the author has set up a strong and relatable tension between what Omen wants and what his father wanted for him. This tension whets our curiosity; Omen's life is out of balance, and we know something is going to break. We keep reading to find out what.

The next three paragraphs show Omen seemingly acquiescing to his fate; he does the job he's supposed to do. He reads the fortunes of the tribe, and although his internal situation is unstable, externally, he gives the impression of accepting the status quo.

But then, the foretelling shows Omen a way out, and he doesn't even hesitate. The story ends right at its lone turning point--Omen's moment of irrevocable change. He chooses to stomp on and break the ice, abandon his tribe and his fate, fling off the hated furs, and swim to a new life.

A story, to feel complete, needs to take an unbalanced situation and restore it to balance, but in such a way that the protagonist's final state is different than his initial state.

At the end of this story, Omen has restored his internal balance and is mentally in a new place. His external life is very much in chaos, but given the author highlighted the internal conflict, not any external ones, this feels like a satisfying resolution to the story.

Now let's look at the work in another way.

A story's turning points are often called reversals. The protagonist's life is either in a good or a bad state, and the turning point changes it to the opposite status.

Right before the final, largest reversal, it's common for the storyteller to try to make the audience think this is the protagonist's final state. It's often called the "black moment" because this is usually a state worthy of despair--one seemingly without hope.

And, usually, the hero makes one last, valiant effort immediately after the black moment and saves the day after all.

In Furs and Ice, when Omen is foretelling for his tribe, this is effectively his black moment. He has apparently chosen to accept his fate even though that fate makes him very unhappy. But then the reversal occurs: Omen makes one last, valiant effort and gets what he wants after all.

In Summary:

What works about this piece is that it is about change, as all stories must be. Omen wants a different life and finds a way to get it. Despite the story being very short, it nevertheless bases itself around a compelling and satisfying turning point in the protagonist's life.

The work also establishes tension, a promise that in this situation things must change, which is what keeps readers engaged in the story.

This piece has a satisfying ending because it gives the protagonist what he needed, albeit at a price. The author builds up tension, then releases it via a solution to the protagonist's problem, and this release is what creates a feeling of satisfaction in the reader.

Of Interest:

Josh is a newly-agented writer with a book out on submission to publishers--wish him luck! He also just launched a new blog called Write Strong, which features technical discussions on the subject of becoming a better writer. I encourage you all to check it out!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: