Thursday, October 25, 2007

Death Wish

Autumn Foliage,
Tom Thomson,
Art Gallery of Ontario.

Again, someone has pointed out that an impressive number of entries in Nathan Bransford's First Paragraph Challenge/Contest are concerned with death.


I believe one of my (two) entries is guilty of that reference -- and the other (by use of the word "assassin") -- suggests it.

Dear me.


And a little puzzled.

Since death, whether inevitable or unnatural, passive or active, is one of mankind's fundamental fascinations and the fount of many fears.

A worthy entre, in other words.

Death, of course, is one of those subjects some people don't wish to read about or contemplate. The mere mention of mortality makes them uneasy.

So one could view the comment as an exercise in hem-withdrawal.

Or merely as mountain-top , head-shaking on back-sliding commentary about a perceived, unhealthy, societal obsession.

But I had to wonder, since this is a contest -- and some people are preternaturally competitive -- if the observer intended to delicately denigrate other entries by suggesting a consortium of cliches.

A gentle nudge, just in case the judges didn't notice.

Most likely, it was just an observation.

Nothing more.

We are inclined to calculate, to sort by type, to assess by numbers. Writers, particularly, because of our need to be individual, to avoid the mundane. For our work to stand out from the slush.

And then I wonder if -- by using death, dying, murder or mayhem to open a story -- we are indeed lacking in literary subtlety and guilty of faux shock.

I suppose, as always, it depends on genre and on skill whether the charge should stand.

The consumption of alcohol may create the illusion that you are tougher, smarter, faster and better-looking than most people.


Church Lady said...

I didn't go on Nathan's blog yesterday, but I think I've read up to 350 or so.

I remember that nay-sayer from the first-lines contest. I was ticked.

As our dear Miss Snark would say, there are basically only 6 plots. Therefore, it's all in execution.

And I liked her crapometer much better. You weren't really competing with others. You were just being told whether or not *your* writing was a piece of shit or not.

Anyway, I did enter his contest, and I think it will be fun.

Except for the poopyheads.

Sam said...

I trotted over and read a few entries.
It looks like the judges will have their hands full trying to wade through them! Some are really good and made me want to read on. I guess that's the only criteria for me.
I spotted a few death ones, but didn't really clcik on them until I read your post.
Maybe writers are looking for a dramatic, attention grabbing entrance?

Bernita said...

I agree, Chris.I was annoyed a little too.
One has to wonder about the poo-poo, but I'm trying to be fair.
I don't see this one as a competition either - just a very interesting and informative display.

Yes, Sam, a great number made me want to read on.
And it's always useful to "analize" why or why not.

SzélsőFa said...

I have not read all the entries (the last time I checked his site the # of entries was above 509), but I noted to myself: hey, what's up with death? dead people speaking?
It appears that other people have noticed that too...

Some of the entries made me want to read more. Some were difficult to read in one go.
I think these occassions are useful experiences for anyone interested in writing.

StarvingWriteNow said...

IMO, starting a story with murder/mayhem isn't cliche' or anything. It's called "throwing the baby out the window." Get your reader involved right away. Make your reader give a crap quick or you'll lose them.

And maybe the reason why stories today are focusing more on death is because of our current world situation. War, famine, etc... and the endless newscasting about it kind of leads your mind down that path, I would think.

Travis Erwin said...

Death is always a comon theme att he beginning of stories because it ahs the power to brign about great change.

I do not see it as a problem.

Bernita said...

I prefer it to a subject like taxes, Szelsofa!

I was startled by the sheer length of some of the "paragraphs."

A case of natural drama, Starving, I agree.
One could argue, though, that only the secure feel that death is dramatic. To others, it may not be considered remarkable.

Nor do I, Travis, for precisely your reason.

Robyn said...

If you look around, you'll notice a lot of death, and undeath. TV, books, and movies, I have noticed, are focusing more and more on these themes. Some of it may be the popularity of paranormal stories, and some of it may stem from what Starving suggested- dealing with the current world situation through fantasy.

Charles Gramlich said...

Guilty as charged. But death is high drama, at least in the imagination, and I suppose that makes it quite common for fiction both written and film.

SzélsőFa said...

I have no problems with death, Bernita, being it written or my own, I just wanted to say how surprised I was by the proportion of death-related entries.
But again, as Travis and you also said it has power and is interesting and so on...

The trap is that it is not easy to talk about death in an interesting manner. Without cliches, and such.

Bernita said...

And possibly a reflection of its counterpart, Robyn, the emphasis on living longer, living younger.

Certainly, it's a crucial pivot point in events and relationships, Charles, and a kind of ultimate conflict.

Bernita said...

"The trap is that it is not easy to talk about death in an interesting manner. Without cliches, and such."
And there, Szelsofa, is the important point.Thank you.
Not the frequency, but the treatment.

Ello said...

I too am guilty of having death in my opening. But it's funny cause I never noticed the preponderence of it until someone else points it out. I wonder why it is such a big deal to that person? Death is such a major plot line for nearly every story ever told. Where there is life there is death. I think it would have been more unique if a majority of entries contained pigs dressed in drag dancing the irish jig. Now that would be a big deal.

Bernita said...

Perhaps they preferred to not be confronted with it first thing, Ello.
But you're quite right.
Or if a preponderence has mentioned death by suicide, it might be worthy of note.
However, I think any such casual statistic may be more an indication of quanties of certain genres than anything.

Scott from Oregon said...

I noticed the preponderance too after glazing my eyes through the whole pile.

I was glad my best entry started with something as arcane as big boobs and talking parrots.

I still maintain that reading should not be a deja vu experience. It usually is, but it shouldn't be.

One of the blowback problems I see with all of the "how to" websites handing out formulas for success and such, is that you get too many followers.

Then you get too many bodies on the first page, and often, in the first paragraph.

Bernita said...

The pile is bigger now, Scott.

There's some truth in that.
For some, a "hook" means blood and bodies.
On the other hand, many murder mysteries do require a corpse.

The Anti-Wife said...

Death is a guarantee. Authors have been writing about it in various forms since they first developed alphabets. No big deal.

Jaye Wells said...

Actually most of the entries are about the undead. Not surprising given the popularity of these types of stories in the market. However, to write them all off as cliched because they might marketable is silly.

Bernita said...

Indeed, AW.
I wonder how many titles include Death or a pseudonym.

Jaye Wells said...

Sorry I meant last time they were abotu the undead. I haven't been keeping up with this current contest.

Bernita said...

I didn't tick off a genre list, Jaye, but I imagine a large number involve the paranormal.
Something lke blaming a dog for being a dog.

Gabriele C. said...

It's not the number of post dealing with death, but the number of dead MCs that struck me - a veritable plethora of zombies, or a Moaning of Zombies.

What struck me more was how few of the entries did make me want to read on. Am I too picky? Sure, some were genre related (I'm not big into YA and mysteries, and definitely not lit fic) but if something is really good, it will transcend genres for me.

Bernita said...

Are first person zombies the new black, Gabriele?
I suppose some were ghosts or vampires, alas.

Shesawriter said...

"The consumption of alcohol may create the illusion that you are tougher, smarter, faster and better-looking than most people."

Words to live by...

Shauna Roberts said...

I judged a contest (first five pages of a romance novel) a couple years ago and was startled by how many of the entries started with a murder.

In some cases, the murder was relevant to the story. But in other cases, the murder appeared to be there only to grab attention, which bothered me, particularly in a romance novel. And when the murder was described in loving detail and one wasn't in the bad guy's point of view. . . well, that just gave me the creeps.

LadyBronco said...

"Warning:The consumption of alcohol may create the illusion that you are tougher, smarter, faster and better-looking than most people."

Oh, but it also gives the illusion that the person you are presently flirting with is tougher, smarter, faster, and better-looking that most people.

Dangerous stuff, that.

Bernita said...

But the illusion is so pleasant, Tanya - while it lasts.

I think it would, Shauna.
And I'm so glad to see you.
~ rubs hands in anticipation of reading Shauna's archives~

Really dangerous, Lady B!