"Expedition's End" (~3000 words)


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    "Expedition's End" (~3000 words)

    This is one of my earlier contest works, a short story that probably classifies as steampunk which didn't win what it was intended to but which has been sitting in the back of my head since, and to be honest I feel bad that it's taken me nearly eighteen months to revisit it. I approached this one with absolutely no planning at all, as an experiment, and thus where it went was somewhat beyond my control. That being said, I will let the studio audience (that's you kind folks who read it) decide whether that improves or detracts from the piece. It's also a good deal more light hearted than my norm, more because it was written earlier than my later trend towards more serious writing.

    I would appreciate thoughts, suggestions, etc. - This piece was extremely fun to write and didn't bore me when I read through it a dozen times to make corrections and edits. However, since it didn't really get any traction in the contest to which it was submitted, I have to assume there's something wrong with it, and I am trying to figure out what it is, so as to repair the piece.

    Thanks in advance for your time.

    (I will modify the text sporadically as I edit the piece.)

    Expedition's End
    by "The Jaded"
    [~3000 words]

    Leon sucked in a breath and tried to concentrate past the fact that beyond the boulder behind which he was currently crouched, three men with guns were trying very hard to make him dead. Three feet from his knees, the rocky dirt ended in a sheer drop - the verge of this island. Ten feet past that, the metal-ribbed canopy of the zeppelin Wednesday in Ghenna drifted. All Leon needed to do to avoid getting cornered and killed was jump onto the airship. Jump, not miss, grab one of the handgrips, and not get shot.

    Gunfire rang out above him. Someone in Wednesday had climbed the ladder to the dorsal access hatch - and brought a rifle. Based on the person’s loose, wind-whipped brown hair, Leon decided it was Sarah. He knew that the thugs wouldn’t be more distracted than they were at that moment, and scrambled to his feet. The four feet of turf gave him a tiny running start to the jump, otherwise it would have been impossible to make. A few bullets hissed through the air as his feet left the ledge, but they went wide, likely because the shooter was more interested in not getting shot by Sarah than he was in killing Leon. They probably hit the airship’s canopy, but Leon knew that the self-sealing envelope would handle such small leaks.

    Leon hit the zeppelin midway between its metal ribs, and swung his hands wide, scrambling to find one of the leather-strap handholds. He didn’t find any. The elastic surface cushioned most of the impact, but now Leon was sliding down the side of the cigar-shaped craft. Sliding down, falling -

    Leon heard a blast, like a shot from a cannon, and found his fall arrested by a light mesh net. He was now swinging from a rope that hung out of one of Wednesday’s little used gun ports. “Gotcha!” The voice was James’ - one of the man’s inventions had made itself useful, and none too soon. Leon breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been looking forward to a fall of several miles.

    Three minutes later, Leon dusted himself off as Wednesday moved to a safe distance from the island. James, the crew’s bulky, stoop-shouldered engineer and equipment man, busied himself by folding the net carefully and packing it back into the launcher while waiting for Leon to speak..

    Sarah, dropping into the lower deck behind Leon, broke the silence. “So this is the place?” She arched an eyebrow in annoyance. Leon did not fail to notice for the hundredth time since Rim that she was the type who was far more attractive wearing just that sort of expression. It helped that the wind had thrown her usually tied-back hair into unrestrained chaos, and Leon liked her looks better with a little disorder about them.

    “Why else would three unfriendly men with big guns be up there with no ride?” Leon gestured back to the flat-topped, jagged-bottomed island outside. “Someone found the Kinecrite first, and left his guard dogs chained to his treasure.”

    Leon’s mind drifted for a moment back to Rim, where he’d paid a few coins to a self-described divining witch, asked a pointless question, and inadvertently found himself a new adventure. That was almost two months ago. Doubtless he’d just been given the same “fortune” as someone else, but that couldn’t be helped now.

    “We could beat ‘em.” James’ voice and gesture to his net launcher snapped Leon back to the present. “I could make this fire blades, or acid, or - ”

    Leon cut him off. “They’ve got the cave entrance fortified, and there might be more inside for all we know. Let’s try this my way first. It is after all my boat.”

    “Wasn’t your way just landing on top and walking in, and didn’t we just try that?” Sarah folded her arms.

    “My other way, then. Go tell Marcus to turn us around and bring us in from below.”

    “Below?” Sarah asked, clearly uncertain what Leon had planned.

    “Ever wonder why Wednesday has an access hatch on top?” Leon smirked.

    James, always practical, responded to the rhetorical question literally. “To make cleaning the bird crap off easier?”

    Leon put a palm to his face. “Well... originally, yeah. But I prefer to think that it was designed for what I have planned.”

    Sarah suppressed a smile. She always did enjoy watching Leon’s flair for the dramatic run headlong into reality. “Don’t let him do anything stupid before I get back, James.”

    Leon watched the woman climb the ladder up one level and listened to her footsteps echo toward the pilot’s station. After a moment, he returned to the task at hand. “So. Do we have a grappling hook?”

    James thought for a moment. “...Not as such, no. But...” He vanished into the workshop/engine room at the back of the undercarriage, returning after a moment’s loud rummaging with a simple bar of metal, studded with conical rivets. “I’ve been working on this one for a while now, should work as a grappling hook.” James tied a rope to the ring on one end and tossed it at the floor. On impact, the device made a clank as loud as a gunshot, and the rivets exploded out into curved spikes.

    “It’ll do, James.” Leon adjusted the empty bag slung over his shoulder and climbed up one deck, carrying James’ spring-loaded device. He was afraid to ask what its original planned use was.

    Sarah was waiting by the access ladder. “I’m coming with you this time.” She was standing so that Leon couldn’t get past her to the ladder, looking quite serious. That was another look that complemented her, and Leon couldn’t help but smile back.

    “When you put it that way, how can I refuse?” Leon handed her the bag. “I’ll go first, follow right behind me.”

    Sarah frowned, probably wondering why convincing Leon was always so easy, but stepped aside to let the man climb first.

    As Leon opened the hatch at the top of the access ladder, the zeppelin was just slowing to a stop about a dozen feet below the island’s irregular underside. He mentally applauded Marcus’s skill in getting the zeppelin so close without actually colliding with the rocks.

    Then, of course, the wind picked up, reminding Leon that if Wednesday stayed here too long, a fluke updraft could smash the craft. He scanned the rocks for a moment, and found what he was looking for - an exposed cave entrance. Bracing himself against the open hatch, Leon swung the hook, and missed the opening. Only then did he realize that the hooked bar could tear the zeppelin’s envelope -

    Leon sighed in relief as the bar clanged onto one of the metal ribs. Winding it back, he tried again, and this time the hooked bar disappeared into the hole in the rock. Leon tugged on the rope, and it held.

    “I’m going up. Hold onto this.” Leon yelled down to Sarah, dropping the coil into the hatch and starting up.

    Climbing barehanded on rope was harder than Leon remembered. Perhaps, he groused on the way up, his short, wiry frame had picked up a little cargo around the midsection since the last time he’d had to pull a stunt like this. Even so, with no more injury than blisters and sore arms, he made it into the cave. Soon Sarah joined him, looking far less troubled by the climb.

    “So.” She asked after a moment. “How are we going to get back?”

    Leon peered down at the zeppelin, already moving off for safety. “I hadn’t thought about it... Hmm.”

    Sarah groaned. “Leon, please, if I ever ask to go with you on one of your half-baked - ”

    “I know. Don’t let you come. But how am I supposed to say no to you?” Leon smiled again. “Besides, each time you worry we manage just fine. Now, let’s focus. First, let’s get the crystals. Then, you can have my hide about getting back aboard Wednesday.

    Sarah rolled her eyes. “All right.” Something occurred to her, then. “What about the pickaxes?”

    Leon winced, realizing that neither of them had thought to carry the pair of pickaxes that they’d bought just for this expedition. “We’ll have to make do. Come on.” Leon fiddled with the object strapped to his wrist - another of James’ inventions - and soon a blue-white light shined forth from its glass face. He raised his wrist toward the darkness beyond and started climbing upward along the cave’s slope.

    Sarah shook her head, but followed. Leon was right, she knew - they always seemed to figure something out.

    The cave stayed tall and wide enough to walk in all the way up to their goal - a high-domed cavern at the island’s center. A dozen or more other tunnels branched off from it in all directions, including up - in one of these upward tunnels, Leon noted, someone had fixed a rope ladder to the rock.

    And of course there were the crystals. Translucent, glowing blue-and-white spires of Kinecrite seemed to sprout up from the cavern floor, stretching toward the roof two dozen meters above. Some of the crystals were twice as tall as Leon, and as big around. Leon’s eyes widened, as did his grin. Even the thumbnail-sized piece of Kinecrite in his wrist light was quite expensive. This island housed a fortune. No, several fortunes.

    “Sarah...” He turned back to look at her.

    “Yeah, Leon?” From the woman’s expression, she’d come to the same conclusion as Leon had.

    “We’re gonna need a bigger bag.”

    “I’ll settle with filling this one, Leon.” Sarah dropped the bag. “Let’s hurry up before your thugs up top decide to come down for a look.”

    “Good point.” Leon cast about for something to break the crystals with. Kinecrite was hard, but brittle, so any old heavy object should do the trick. He spied a loose rock about the size of his foot near the wall. Obtaining it, he headed for the largest spire of glowing crystal, watching his reflection in its lustrous surface seem to advance toward him. Selling that crystal alone would be enough for Leon to buy himself a city -

    “Leon. No. Smaller piece.” Sarah put her hands on his shoulders and spun him to face a cluster of more manageable crystals, suppressing a smile.

    “Okay, okay.” Leon heaved a disappointed sigh, though a part of him knew he’d never break that crystal loose - even if he did, they had no way of bringing it with them. With a forlorn look at the huge central crystals, Leon started working on the indicated set.

    Sarah, meanwhile, found a rock of her own and carefully tapped a handful of finger-sized crystals out of the floor. As soon as they were all free, she moved to another cluster, working far more quietly and efficiently than Leon himself.

    In twenty minutes the pair had filled their bag with the glowing crystals. “Okay.” Sarah glared at Leon. “Now, have you figured out how we get out?”

    “Not yet. Let’s get to our exit first.“ Leon spun a full circle, and realized that he’d forgotten which cave they’d come in through.

    “Umm, Leon?” Sarah sounded uncertain.

    “You don’t remember which one we came in either, do you?” Leon looked to her, smile drooping.

    “They all look the same.”

    “Yeah.”

    “We’re lost.” Sarah’s tone indicated that she was mentally kicking herself for the oversight.

    “Looks that way. Pick a cave, any cave, my dear.” Leon decided not to about it too much - after all, the thugs guarding this treasure trove still didn’t know they were here, and Wednesday in Ghenna could wait a little while.

    Sarah stood for a moment, then pointed to a tunnel. “This one should - ” Sarah was interrupted by the echoing sound of gunshots, followed by a ricochet from uncomfortably close to her feet and echoing shouts from above. Apparently, the guards had noticed Leon and Sarah, and they didn’t seem interested in taking prisoners.

    Leon wasted no time sprinting for the tunnel she indicated, pulling Sarah (and the bag of Kinecrite) along by the elbow. “Let’s hope you’re right, then.” Leon gasped out, as soon as the two were around a bend.

    “Leon, I wasn’t.” Sarah set down the bag and pulled her Judicator from its holster. “This is a dead end.”

    Leon saw that she was right. The cavern continued - but it continued vertically down. Without so much as rope, they had no hope of climbing that.

    Leon likewise drew his Holdout. It was a lightweight little thing, extremely pitiful-looking next to Sarah’s large-caliber revolver - but it had more bullets.

    “Leon, any thoughts?” Sarah asked, tiredly, as the sounds of pursuit drew closer. From the sound of it, the men knew that this wasn’t a valid escape path.

    “Only that I think my father would be proud to see me dying with a gun in one hand and a pretty woman in the other, Sarah.”

    Despite the situation, she smirked a little at this. “No clever way out?” The men were close now. They had perhaps twenty seconds.

    Leon tried to remember what the thugs were armed with. Millitary-grade Longjacks, if memory served - devastating close-combat repeaters. They were outgunned horribly, unless they could manage a diversion. If only James were -

    “Wait!” Leon grabbed a spherical brass object about the size of a human eyeball out of his coat pocket. A single red-glass button protruded from its surface. “James to the rescue.”

    “What is it?” Sarah sounded hopeful.

    “No idea. Wasn’t listening when he explained.” Leon heard footsteps in addition to shouting now. He estimated how close they were, and wound up to bounce the object off the far wall and around the bend.

    Sarah’s shoulders drooped in defeated exasperation. “Worth a shot.”

    Leon shot her a sidelong grin, depressed the object’s button, and made his throw.

    The men noticed it. One of them shouted out danger, and they stopped, probably expecting the metal marble to explode, or do something nefarious. From the sound, it didn’t.

    “Idiot. It’s just a bearing.” This gruff voice must have been the trio’s leader. Leon’s heart fell.

    “Guess not.” Sarah sighed.

    Leon guessed by the sound that the leader had retrieved the object, and was holding it up to show his comrades. “Look!” The leader’s voice snapped. “It’s nothing but - ”

    The mechanical, high-pitched whine of clockwork started just before his scream. There was a sound not unlike that which Leon remembered from a meat-packing plant in Rim - the sound of saw teeth meeting flesh. The screams lasted for a long time - Leon counted thirty-four seconds before the man was finally silent, and no other noise issued forth from around the bend.

    Sarah looked green in the light from Leon’s wristpiece. “James to the rescue, eh?” She sat down weakly.

    Leon peeked around the corner after the silence persisted for several seconds. He saw nothing at first, but a lump in the floor soon resolved itself into the prone form of a large man, heavily lacerated and leaking a puddle of dark blood. The man’s compatriots were gone, probably fled. Also missing was the sphere - and Leon was glad for that. He didn’t want to get anywhere near it now, and shuddered to think of it having been in his pocket.

    Leon heard Sarah stand, and turned to face her. “It’s clear. Let’s get out of here before they realize we only had one, hmm?”

    Sarah nodded. “Yeah. Remind me to have a chat with James when we’re away.”

    “As long as your chat doesn’t involve large-caliber guns being pointed at my engineer.” Leon countered.

    “Okay, fine. What’s your stance on crowbars?” Sarah mimicked a two-handed swinging motion as the two moved.

    Leon rolled his eyes, shook his head in amusement, and escorted Sarah and her bag full of Kinecrite back toward the main cavern.

    With the other two guards likely cowering above, afraid that Leon had more of James’ brass spheres, Leon and Sarah eventually found the right passage, and when they got to its mouth they found James there, goggles pushed up to his forehead and a bag at his feet.

    “James!” Leon greeted him with a strange look. “About that little brass ball thing...”

    “How did you get up here?” Sarah interrupted Leon, with an apologetic glance at him after the fact.

    “Same way you did.”

    “Any thoughts as to how we get down, then?” Sarah asked expectantly.

    “That’s why I’m up here. I expected that Leon left without considering the return trip...”

    “Guilty.” Leon bowed sweepingly. “About that brass ball...”

    James continued smoothly, ignoring Leon’s attempt to change the subject. “...So I grabbed three of the escape harnesses and climbed up here.” James kicked open his bag, revealing the three harnesses inside. Each harness attached to a clockwork contraption on the back and a trio of folded, metal-and-leather wings.

    “Good thinking, James.” Leon grabbed one pack.

    “It’s what you pay me for, boss.” James replied, and started putting on one of the harnesses himself. “I’ll go first, and get my net launcher ready.” James strapped on the device and stepped toward the hole. “Marcus is circling a few hundred feet below. Plenty of room to maneuver.”

    “No confidence in my abilities, James.” Leon nevertheless smiled. “Now about the little - ”

    But James had already jumped. Above the sound of the wind, Sarah and Leon heard the whine of the slow-fall rotors on his escape harness. Leon imagined James steering through the air toward the ovoid canopy of Wednesday.

    “If James had confidence in your ability to save your own life, you’d be a red stain somewhere in the Wastes right now.”

    “I don’t think so, my dear.” Leon waved a finger. “I might still be falling. And I’m fairly sure I merit at least a crater.”

    Sarah rolled her eyes. “Right. See you on Wednesday, Leon.” She leaned in to plant a brief kiss on his cheek before jumping out with the bag of crystals.

    Leon stood at the edge of the hole for a moment, rolling up the grappling line, a wisp of a smile on his face. After a long moment of leaning out over the edge, watching Sarah’s escape harnesses pinwheel toward the zeppelin, and watching her land smoothly on its envelope, Leon leaned out over the edge, took a deep breath, and followed her down.
    Last edited by The Jaded; August 21st, 2012 at 03:04 AM. Reason: Updated version
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  2. #2
    Member Segrotlo's Avatar
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    I enjoyed that story and I liked the characters, the names were simple and it just worked.

    The story stalled a little here and there as though you had time but it betrays the idea of ‘short story’ – you got to cut it back. I have a long reply here but I thought it was worth it.

    “Wednesday in Ghenna”? I’m not sure what this reference was when I got to it – maybe introduce it as a zeppelin instead of just naming it – I stumbled at that point. As for the name it is cool but cumbersome especially in a short story.

    “bullets hissed halfheartedly through the air”? – Not to say this is wrong – I’m just wondering if bullets could ever be described as ‘halfhearted’.

    James’s (James’) typo

    “one of the man’s inventions had made itself useful, [apparently].” Word not needed. Another thing to point out is that it is inconsistent for Leon to imply that James’ inventions were not reliable when every invention in the story worked and was essential for their escape. You could fix it real quick by having Leon comment just the opposite and that then portends the fact that they do work quite well.

    I liked the net and the grapple and the ball and the rescue harness – good save! It seems that many of James’ inventions pulled Leon’s butt out of a sling.

    “She arched an eyebrow in [attractive] annoyance, and Leon smiled [reflexively].” I see what you were going for but it was awkward to say. “in annoyance” rolls off the tongue.

    “unfriendly men with [very] unfriendly guns” – see if that gives a better effect.

    “island’s [jagged], irregular underside.” You already described it as ‘jagged’ before and that was a good word, now, irregular does a good job by itself of reminding us of its shape and it is also a fresh description.

    “Leon pulled on the rope, and it held. - [his grapple seemed to have found purchase.]” ‘And it held’, says it all.
    I am pointing out these places where the wording doesn’t add anything more to what happened. It will be more concise, as it is a short story.

    “Obtaining it, he advanced on the largest spire of the glowing crystal, watching his reflection in its lustrous surface grow.” “Obtaining it, he advanced” – Is not necessarily wrong but it seems out of place for this rugged “Indiana Jones” type character.

    “With stone in hand, he picked the largest spire of glowing crystal; the lustrous surface mirrored his moves.” See, you get the same idea in fewer words.

    “Leon decided not to [worry] about it too much”, missed word?

    "Leon [wasted no time sprinting] sprinted for the tunnel [she indicated], pulling Sarah (and the bag of Lucrite) along by the elbow."
    Think about the urgency of this moment. As you wrote Leon “wasted no time” but if you waste time telling about it then the moment gets slowed down for the reader.

    You could have said, “They darted out with loot in hand.” It will be assumed that they went the path that Sarah chose.

    “No idea; wasn’t listening when he explained.” This line is great – It is short and classically Leon. It also makes you feel that Leon really had confidence in James so much that he assumed it would work when James gave it to him.

    “Leon’s heart[y] fell.” typo

    “The fourth tunnel they took was the right one. Luckily, they didn’t have to risk relying on Leon to think of a plan - James was standing in the mouth of the cavern, a pair of flight goggles pushed up onto his forehead and a pack on his back.”
    Try this:
    “Their escape was evident, when they saw James standing there, a pair of goggles on his forehead and toting a backpack."

    “[Leon, if he] If James had confidence in your ability to save your [own] life, you’d be a red stain somewhere in the Wastes [right now].” It will be understood that she was talking to Leon as James was already gone. But Sarah does make an excellent point and she is a good sidekick to Leon!

    There are many other things you can do to crunch this down. You have the story clearly in your mind it seems, so, rework it cutting out anything that is not essential. Then, if you cut enough - go back and tell me more about this mysterious land – it sounds neat.

    Writing is rewriting.
    Last edited by Segrotlo; July 29th, 2012 at 01:40 AM.

  3. #3
    Thanks for your time and feedback. I know that historically I have a problem with over-wording, that this piece (being 18 months old) has such a problem does not surprise me. I will see what I can do about that.

    The name of the airship is indeed cumbersome for repeated use, but I can't think of any craft named by Leon as patterned here having a short name. I tried to alleviate the name length issue by shortening it to Wednesday (rather than Wednesday in Ghenna) for almost all of the uses. The name is a reference to nothing directly - Ghenna is my own degradation of the biblical term Gehenna, which is the name of a real place that was used metaphorically to mean Hell and/or Purgatory. If I were to advance this world farther, there would indeed be a place called Ghenna, a place so bad that its name had become the common term for an unpleasant afterlife. Obviously, none of that has any bearing on the story at hand, of course. I didn't have the words to try to sneak in an explanation, and doubt that if I did it would be a good idea.

    That the relationship between Leon and James (specifically dealing with James's inventions and creations) is unclear means I need to work on those sections a bit is all. I will do so.

    And lastly, yes, I know how it goes. I have rewritten some of my pieces dozens of times, and altered wordings in certain places a hundred times or more in some of my longest-running projects. A few re-write cycles isn't going to scare me off a piece that (at least to me) seems to have potential.
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  4. #4
    Member Segrotlo's Avatar
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    I suppose that's why I spent the time on it - I didn't want to go.

  5. #5
    Hi there! I thought your story was fun, and I know it's short, but I couldn't really see any of the characters in my head, you know? It reads like a chapter from a larger piece, but a fun chapter. There's a lot of characters for a story this size. I'd be interested in a solo story about the protagonist, that way you could really sketch him out.

  6. #6
    Member Rellek's Avatar
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    Enjoyed the story mate, it was easy to read and the character dialog felt fluid, natural. Definitely one of your strong points. I do have to point out though... lucrite is a polymer plastic we make right here on good ole planet earth right now.
    "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center." -Kurt Vonnegut

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Rellek View Post
    Enjoyed the story mate, it was easy to read and the character dialog felt fluid, natural. Definitely one of your strong points. I do have to point out though... lucrite is a polymer plastic we make right here on good ole planet earth right now.
    Haha, I did not know that. Though chances are most readers won't either. I will experiment with other names all the same, see if there's anything else I can make fill that name slot.

    Ironic, perhaps, that the hugely valuable fake crystal in this world has the same name as a plastic. Ironic, and a direct result of my not doing a Google search on the name before using it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Arcopitcairn
    There's a lot of characters for a story this size. I'd be interested in a solo story about the protagonist, that way you could really sketch him out.
    Strange, four names did not strike me as too many. The only names given are Leon, Sarah, Marcus, and James, and Marcus only in that he is acknowledged as the pilot. He's never on-screen. Really, there are three characters here, and the perspective is almost entirely centered on Leon. If you are referring to physical descriptions, I did not (or at least tried not to) include them for any one or any thing unless they came into Leon's focus (both not to lose pace and to keep word count down).
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  8. #8
    Really liked this. The first paragraph is brilliantly written, I think. It sets the scene perfectly and draws you in to the action right away.

    I agree with what Arcopitcairn said about the characters. There isn't really any description of them, so that could make them forgettable. However, as part of a larger story where descriptions would already have happened this isn't a problem.

    Really like your writing style though. Very nice.

  9. #9
    Member Segrotlo's Avatar
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    lucrite is a polymer plastic we make right here on good ole planet earth right now.
    I thought I had heard of that - ha

    Something I do to avoid that is when I make up a word - do a search and as in this case you can modify it.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Jamie View Post
    I agree with what Arcopitcairn said about the characters. There isn't really any description of them, so that could make them forgettable. However, as part of a larger story where descriptions would already have happened this isn't a problem.
    If there is to be a longer piece associated with this text (it was originally written to stand alone), the story continues after the events presented. I'm not sure that I will ever develop it, though - I like the characters, and have thought a great deal about their strange world, but I have always been better off sticking to short pieces. I have concepted, and may eventually write, more short stories rejoining the adventures of this character set, but they will always be standalone pieces that just happen to have the same characters. Of all my character sets and worlds, this one I think has the best chance of thriving if given that treatment.

    As to descriptions, I have always thought that in a short story (especially one this size), peoples' specific physical descriptions were not all that necessary. Personality is established by showing rather than telling, here mostly Leon's and Sarah's. I could add physical descriptions because I know exactly what they look like, but since it has no bearing on the events presented, for the most part, I did not. Do you think that would improve the piece? Where and how to include physical descriptions is often something I struggle with, I will freely admit.
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