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Again, a short story in warm up for my novel. Again, first draft; excuse any errors. Experimenting with repetition in this one. Please let me know if you feel it’s too overdone.

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Rain

There was a lone man walking in the rain.

It was the well into the night and she would never have seen him if she hadn’t been gazing aimlessly out the window. Raindrops hammered the house relentlessly, filling her ears with a sound like static. Her vision was hampered by the crisscross of the rain outside, driven at different angles by the wind. But a small patch of illumination struggled bravely under a streetlight and surely, there was a man walking through it.

What was he doing out in that kind of weather? It was getting dangerous.

The man reached the edge of a faint circle of light and melded into the darkness. She waited breathlessly for him to reappear at the next light.

As she waited, her eyes began to widen and her heartbeat began to race. It was so mysterious and exciting, and so very surreal. Surely, he knew what he was doing. Nobody in their right mind would walk through such dangerous weather.

Just as the man reappeared, a strong gust blew a sheet of rain into him. He staggered as she heard a crescendo in volume. By the time the sound faded back to its usual static, the man had disappeared again.

She felt uncertain now. Maybe he needed help? She couldn’t see him clearly but what reason could anyone have to be out at this time in the middle of a storm? What if nobody else had seen him except her? She could be the only one that could help him right now.

As she hesitated, a flash of lightning lit up the darkness. She saw the man hunched over a bundle in his arms. He was wide eyed, as if he were in panic, but determined to protect whatever he was holding.

He disappeared then promptly reappeared again at the streetlight right outside her house. She could see a tiny hand reach out of the bundle as he struggled on. The road was ahead of him; she lived on the corner of an intersection. He didn’t slow a beat as he continued on his path.

A peal of thunder crashed overhead, making her jump. It rang and crunched and crashed in her ears. It drowned out all sound for two long seconds as she saw a pair of headlights appear out of nowhere. They collided with the man and just as suddenly, both were gone from sight.

She screamed.

Running out of her room, she crashed into her mother who was coming in to check on her.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”

“There was a man! Outside, in the rain! He’s dead. He just got hit by a car!” Inexplicably, tears overpowered her and she couldn’t breathe. As she struggled to regain control of her heaving throat, her mother pulled her close.

“Even after all these years you still can’t forget how your daddy died?”

A moment of surprise hit her. Her dad had never crossed her mind. “No! I mean it; there really was a man outside!”

“It’s ok baby, it was a terrible experience for you. And it happened on a night just like this.”

Angry now, she shoved her mother back and ran to the window. It was too dark to see anything, so she pressed her cheek against the cold pane and craned her neck for a better view.

“I swear … I really did see him.”

Her mother shook her head sadly. “It’s just the rain, dear. It’s a horrible, strange rain that brings back bad memories.”

She heard her door click shut behind her but she kept peering out the window. Nothing. No sign of anything.

Maybe it really had been just the rain.

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I’ve seen this topic come up quite often among amateur writers and people tend to give a confuse mix of advice. So should you use a prologue or not? Well, that depends.

The biggest problem here is that the majority of people don’t know how to use a prologue, so the first step for us is to determine a working definition to use. There’s a variety of literal and technical definitions floating around the internet but I stand by my own (as I consider it the best amalgamation of the technical and practical). Before I give my definition though, let’s go through some history (so we can understand the technical side).

 

The term is from the Greek prologos formed by pro, meaning “before,” and logos, meaning “speech.”

 

In ancient Greek tragedy, the prologue was the part of a play that set forth the subject of the drama before the chorus entered.

Why is this so important? A lot of amateur writers are using their prologue to start telling the story. That’s not a prologue, that’s your chapter one. The prologue has to “set forth the subject”. What does that mean? It needs to introduce   the context of the story and it has to be separate to your story (otherwise it’s chapter one).

So what is a prologue? It is a distinct and separate entity that introduces a story by providing information necessary for the reader to understand the text.

By nature, a prologue should be a little bit of an info dump. To “set forth the subject”, you must provide contextual information. Other information acceptable in a prologue would be back story/history and any particular quirks of your world that will clarify things to the reader (if I start writing about angels, the reader would be confused why the floors of this city are puffy white clouds). It should never connect with your chapter one smoothly, if it does then your prologue is your chapter one.

Now, why are prologues bad? Well, first of all, if you’re using it the wrong way you cast doubt on your credibility as a writer. Not a good first impression. Even if you do use it correctly, since prologues are generally info dumps by necessity, your first impression still ends up being somewhat boring. Admittedly, I’m a fan of diving into the heart of things but that doesn’t mean you have to start off with an action scene, it just means you need to open with a hook – your reader has a plethora of other books they could read, give them a reason to read yours.

Finally, I’ve been informed by a few authors and editors that prologues are generally skipped by literary agents. Other readers also tell me that they skip prologues too (though personally I read them). The general consensus of the writing world is that prologues can and should be avoided where possible. If you don’t believe me, Google “prologue bad” and you’ll find lists of published authors, writing sites and editors supporting my statement.

Perhaps the most cogent example I can give is an example from the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripides. As prologues were basically invented at this time for these plays, this is a fitting example. The prologue to Medea features one of the nurses talking to herself (technically, to the audience through the fourth wall) and summarising the past events leading up to this very moment (Jason’s quests and how Medea has helped him, only to be met with betrayal). This back story is necessary for the audience to understand Medea’s grief stricken state, and the psychological damage required for her to eventually commit infanticide as revenge. Without this prologue, the play would just be about a psychotic child-killing mother, but with the prologue, we understand the emotional complexity at play, adding layers and depth to the story, climaxing at the point where Medea snaps under the pressure. The fact that the nurse is relaying this information as a soliloquy instantly sets it apart from the rest of the play, so we know it is a distinct, separate entity. This is what a prologue should be – so please, use your prologues correctly.

Foreword: So I was getting bored of writing my novel and wanted to blow off some steam. Short stories are definitely not my thing. I have a huge inability to confine a story to a small word limit as I feel it restricts me too much. Worse, this is only the second time I’ve tried a horror. I don’t believe monsters and killers are scary any more so I try to focus on the psychological side a bit more. I’m not sure how it turns out, but writing this did make me feel a bit paranoid (maybe because I was writing past midnight in the dark).

Anyway, this is just a throw-away to mix up my thoughts a bit for my novel. It’s a first draft and probably doesn’t resemble what was going on in my head. I tried to avoid using character names so the reader wouldn’t have to associate with a name and would be forced to focus more on his/her own psychology rather than that of the characters. Doubtful whether it works; teasing the mind requires time – something you don’t have in a short.

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Portrait

It was the strangest crime scene he’d ever seen. There was no blood, no corpse, no apparent problem at all, and yet they had been treating the case as if it had the markings of a psychopathic serial killer.

There was a victim though – or rather, there were two, but only one was at the scene.  The other? According to the unusually calm young lady, they had been sucked into a painting, but only she had made it out. The whole case would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t for the fact that the painting did indeed feature the missing girl, sprawled across the floor in a puddle of her own blood. The detail was incredible – too accurate to be a coincidence. It was undoubtedly her, but how?

A great man had once told him that detectives were not allowed to believe in coincidences. It was a sentiment that was beginning to prove unnecessary. Police had been on the scene for two hours now and many of them were beginning to show signs of distress. Tension hung thick in the air, charging it with an electric feel, as if the slightest disturbance would cause panic to erupt.

Why were all these trained officers scared? Because the more they figured out, the more the victim’s story seemed true. She had indeed entered the abandoned manor with her friend, and forensics identified their footprints in the fine layer of dust on the wooden floorboards. They led straight up to a large, gilded painting, but only one set of prints led away. There were no signs of a struggle; the girl had just disappeared. Except, her body was in plain sight. It was in the painting.

The only witness, the young girl who had ventured into the manor with her friend, sat wrapped in a blanket on the back of one of the ambulances. He approached her, grim and sceptical.

“Tell me again,” he said gruffly to the girl. “What happened after you got … sucked into the painting?” The last part was difficult for him to add. It sounded ridiculous coming out of his mouth, but at the same time, saying it somehow made it more true.

“The painting changed,” she replied, her eyes vacant but her voice unshakably calm. “Words appeared, scribbled across the surface, and then the picture turned into a picture of me. Like a portrait, except I was screaming. I wanted to take a step back but for some reason I stepped forward, right through the painting. Next thing I knew, I was right in front of the painting again, but facing away from it, and the house looked different. There were random words all over the walls and floors like graffiti. That’s when I realised that we had been sucked into the painting – there’s no way that could have been the real world.”

“Try not to let your own ideas affect your story,” he said curtly. He was disappointed. It sounded like complete delusion, but he still couldn’t explain the painting. Why was the missing girl in it? Reluctantly, he kept probing. “So, what happened to your friend?”

The girl didn’t object to further questioning. She seemed sluggish and devoid of any strong emotions at all.

“We walked around a little, trying to figure out what was happening. That’s when the door opened and a man walked in. He had a very welcoming smile and looked very proper. We started asking him questions as he walked towards us, but then I noticed he was carrying something in his hands. A small axe.”

He felt stunned silence descend around him as everybody within earshot froze. Forensics had taken a look at the painting of the missing girl and had concluded that the wounds in the picture looked to be inflicted by a heavy bladed weapon – most likely an axe.

The tension in the air was straining and he had to do something about it. He put on his most irritable, unconcerned face and barked orders to those nearby, sending them away. Soon it was just him and the girl.

“Please, continue.”

She looked up at him with a sudden jerk, a fast movement that completely contrasted with her vacant, languid movements earlier. Instinctively, he reached for his gun, but all she did was smile at him –insane and maniacal.

“Most people think the house is haunted. They’re wrong! It’s that painting. He’s in it. He kills them. Makes them disappear. We weren’t the first. We saw corpses, graves, dismembered limbs. They’re all over the grounds, near the trees. I left my best friend in the world, while he killed her, and ran back through my portrait. I got away.”

He’d heard enough. The girl was clearly crazy but the painting needed some more investigation.

“Take the painting down, I want it back at the station so we can have some people examine it more closely.”

As people hastened to obey, he heard a commotion. Rushing to the scene, he found himself skirting the trees near the entrance. A circle had formed around something, and he had to shove through to see what they’d found. It was a pale, lifeless arm, reaching up through the dirt where the dogs had been sniffing. Some officers were still digging, and they unearthed more and more body parts.

He needed to see that painting again. As he rushed into the atrium, he found himself already considering burning it. Goosebumps rose on his flesh and an incessant chill teased his skin. It was a feeling of danger.

There were men removing it from its hooks now. It was a large piece of work and the gilded frame made it very heavy. As he watched them take it down, he thought he saw movement near one of the windows in the painting. A man shaped shadow, observing. Cursing to hide his surprise, he waved the men off, yelling at them to load it into his truck. They hastened to obey, not even questioning his irrational agitation.

He looked at the wall one last time, now naked without the painting. There was a square of lighter, dust free wallpaper where the painting had been. The edges continued down in what he had first thought to be a purely aesthetic pattern, but with the painting removed, it looked a bit like a door. Could there really be somebody inside? A smiling axe murderer? He approached the wall cautiously, and touched the line. I was too perfect, too fine. There was barely a gap and no hinges in sight. He tried shoving at the square but it didn’t budge. Never mind, he was just being paranoid.

Thoughts, questions and answers chased each other around his head chaotically as he walked back to his truck. Try as he might, his logical deductions all carried an undertone of fear. He knew he couldn’t explain it but he kept trying. He clambered into the driver’s seat, feeling irrationally nervous and breaking into cold sweat. Finding an answer was so important to him because he didn’t want to accept the truth. That there was a killer somewhere, and he was most likely here, right behind him in the back seat.

He couldn’t let that thought go. Reaching up, he adjusted the rear view mirror to get a look at the painting. Within that gilded, square frame, his face stared back at him. Screaming. His name was scratched all over it along with the word “Portrait”.

Purple and Beige Prose:

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

– William Shakespeare.

I’ve made a post before that overlaps with this but in the interests of keeping things tidy, I thought I’d make a more extensive post specifically on this topic.

These are the two extremes of a spectrum of broad stylistic writing styles. That’s not to say your writing style is encompassed entirely as either “purple” or “beige”, but your style will definitely lean towards one of these in some aspects.

Purple prose is the most commonly known one out of the two as it is often used as a derogatory comment on the writing style (whereas not many people write with beige prose, and even if you do, it’s not entirely a bad thing). Here’s a bit of history first; the term “purple prose” originates from a quote by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) where he likened writing in purple prose to one sewing purple patches on to one’s clothing. The implication is that purple prose is too flowery and dazzling to fit smoothly into a narration of a story. It’s just overkill, like cutting your bread with a chainsaw. My favourite description of purple prose is “it’s as if the author made babies with a thesaurus”, but the easiest way to demonstrate what purple prose is would be an example. I’m very bad at writing purple prose because my brain rejects it, so I took an example off the internet and spruced it up.

The disembowelled mercenary crumpled lifeless from this leather saddle ornamented with brilliant red rubies, and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched ochre dust with crimson droplets of his precious escaping life fluid.

If you can’t see the problem yet, I worry for you. Let’s assume this needs explanation, for the sake of analysis. First of all, there are enough words in that sentence to make three sentences. Second of all, there are too many unnecessary adjectives and it just feels like you’re trying too hard (life fluid is hilarious). The true artist makes the difficult look easy – if you’re struggling to depict a man falling off his horse, you’re struggling as a writer. Finally, this sentence takes too long to read, destroying all sense of pace in the story. When you have a scene of someone dying so dramatically, you want as much impact and pace as possible, not a ridiculous essay about his death.

Beige prose:

At the opposite of the spectrum we have beige prose, which is really defined by a minimalistic style of writing – often with sentence fragments. It delivers short sentences with high impact, but over-use can lead to fragmented and disjointed narrative.

Beige prose? Witty when effective. Otherwise, dull. Use carefully.

Consistently writing in purple prose will allow the reader to adjust – typically the reader will just skim over your sentences for the general gist of what’s happening. Trust me, not many people will belabour every individual word. With beige prose, it’s not as easy to adjust. An entire book written in disjointed sentences will be jarring to the reader. I only use short sentences during scenes that require pace, such as action scenes.

The Sue couple are a negative feature in writing used to describe a poorly crafted character (where Mary Sue is the female character and Gary Sue the male – obviously). I just say Sue because it’s easier. Anyway, people are a little divided over the true definition of a Sue. I think the main reason there’s so much disagreement is because people are trying to identify specific traits that are representative of a Sue. It doesn’t work that way because writing isn’t so flat and two-dimensional that you can just say a group of traits is bad. Before I tell you my definition (which I think is – if not better – then at least more encompassing), let’s get some history down.

From: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue

The name “Mary Sue” comes from the 1974 Star Trekfanfic “A Trekkie’s Tale”. Originally written as a parody of the standard Self-Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always FemaleAuthor Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half-Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good For This Sinful Earth.

From that passage we can identify two things, a Sue is too perfect and is an “author avatar”, which basically means a character through which the author inserts him/herself into the story (most commonly in fanfiction). As a result, Sues have been categorised as having traits such as “too strong, too beautiful, too whatever”, which can collectively be considered as being too perfect. Others argue that Sues are when the author projects themselves into their story (refer to Twilight rant). By projecting themselves, I mean a writer who creates a character representing certain aspects of his/her own personality, and makes good things happen to that character to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy in real life.

These are very subjective measures though, hence the debate over the meaning of a Sue. The problem is that sometimes, your character may have traits that would normally be considered a Sue trait, but is not when placed in context of your story. Here’s how you can prove what I just said – take your most original character and do this test: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. You’ll find that you get a far higher Sue score than you’d think (try and be objective here and admit if you’re overpowering your main character).

Here’s a clearer explanation from me (the Sue test is just for fun – I make a lot more sense than it does). Just because your character has some traits that liken to Sue traits does not make it a Sue – it all depends on your story. For example, if you’re writing about a pickpocket-turned-hitman from the slums of a medieval setting, having him/her being ridiculously good looking, charming and the most sought after sexual target in the story is sort of pushing it. Not only is that ignoring the setting (hygiene was no where near current levels in medieval times), but it’s ignoring the fact that the character is from the slums. Even if you made the setting a modern day society, things get questionable when your character is far too attractive. If you throw in a few too many good traits, you’ll have a Sue. Next example: what if you’re writing about the political side of heaven, where angels debate whether they should interfere with the devil’s work on Earth or let things run its course? Well, it makes sense if your character is good looking because he/she is a freaking angel – they’re all meant to be good looking. 

As for Author Avatars, well, it’s one thing to take out your insecurities on a character and it’s another to base your characters off real human emotions. The distinction can be blurry to a reader, but I think the latter makes for a much stronger and more believable character. They key here is to include both good and bad traits – perfection is your enemy (unless you’re writing about angels)!

So, what is a Sue then? My definition is: A character that is unrealistic within the reality and mechanics of your fictional world. Unrealistic encompasses both perfection and a lack of emotional range. Realistic characters will have strengths and weaknesses. As a writer, you need to make your story engaging, and it isn’t when your character is unbelievable. This definition does not limit your ability to use supernatural abilities, magic, sci-fi technology or anything else “unbelievable” in modern day terms because these things are explainable within the reality and mechanics of your world. If you write a sci-fi, then technology is explainable. If you write about magicians, then magic is explainable. They are not unrealistic in your world. But if you write about cavemen, except your main character has a giant robot mecha suit and uses it to conquer the stone age, then yes, you’ve gone too far.

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