fantasy

#2: The Ladder to Inferna

‘Tales From Inferna’ is an ongoing web serial. Part writing exercise, part homage to the pulp-fiction genre. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about the scope and goals of the project. Below you’ll find Issue #2, but be sure to start at the beginning with Issue #1 

ladder

Yura couldn’t climb the ladder any further.

‘Guys,’ he croaked, his arms shaking.

His companions pace quickened.

‘Guys!’ Yura repeated, louder this time.

‘Quiet!’ said the man furthest ahead, climbing ever faster.

They were leaving him. Leaving him to die. He could feel the miles of nothingness below, prickling his back, willing him to fall. He glanced downwards, wondering if he might have enough strength to climb back down. But that path was madness.

‘Mikki, please! I need help!’

The man furthest ahead continued to climb, but there was another behind him who paused.

‘We can’t help you, Yura,’ said Mikki.

‘I can’t climb anymore, Mikki,’ begged Yura. ‘Please don’t leave me behind. You’ve got to–’

‘Shut up!’ shouted the man farthest ahead. He was now out of sight, hidden by the darkness of the tunnel.

‘What our charming leader means is, any energy spent talking is energy not spent climbing. So unless you want to decorate the floor a nice shade of Yura, I suggest you get moving.’ With that, Mikki started climbing again.

Yura found himself all alone.

When Yura was young, he and his friends would play in the tunnels pretending to be hunters. Sometimes they would dare each other to climb the ladder. Yura was the only one who ever made it to the top. Back then the top of the ladder hadn’t been very far; a padlock and a metal grill stopped anyone who shouldn’t be there from climbing too high. To a gang of children though, it was as if Yura had touched Inferna itself.

But this was no longer pretend.

‘Yura!’ came a voice from above. ‘We’ve found the last hatch,’ said the voice again. It came from the leader of the expedition, Koko. ‘Get your arse up here now.’

Yura began to climb, each movement a trial. His body protested in agony, any moment now it would fail and he would plummet to his death.

As his grasp started to waver, two pairs of hands seized him and hoisted him upwards through a narrow opening.

He collapsed. He heard his pulse thumping in his ears, and faintly, the sound of a hatch being closed.

They were so close.

He wished his old friends could see him now: Yura the hunter. It still hadn’t sunk in. He was going to have the adventures they had all imagined, live the life they had dreamed of once upon a time.

‘You still with us, kid?’

Yura opened his eye to see Mikki and Koko standing over him. In the dark, with their identical suits and masks, it was impossible to tell them apart.

‘I’m ok,’ said Yura smiling, holding up a thumbs-up. ‘I am ok.’

Koko shook his head. ‘This isn’t playtime. We’re here to do a serious job.

Yura saw Mikki roll his eyes. ‘I know the circumstances aren’t ideal, but it’s the kids first day. Let him have a little fun.’

‘We’ve got hundreds of miles to walk,’ Koko started. ‘Rough sleeping. Nothing but disgusting liquid nutrients to keep us going. All to find a needle in a haystack. Not my idea of fun.’

‘Come on,’ said Yura, smiling. ‘Any day walking on the surface has got to be better than a day down below.’

Koko was silent, for a moment. It was only now Yura realised how thick the mood had been.

‘Let’s not forget why we’ve been sent up here. Amorak is dead. A man I once considered a very good friend. For some reason it just had to be me they sent to find his remains.’ said Koko. ‘So no, to answer your stupid question. The days up here are not “better”. I, for one, want to get this done and go home. Shape up and take this seriously, or maybe you’ll die up here too.’

All day Yura had worn an excited smirk, only now did he realise how it had been grating on Koko’s patience. The verbal walloping caused his face to yo-yo from a deep shade of red to a sickly pale white.

Koko stormed ahead to the next room, muttering.  

‘He’s moodier than usual today,’ said Mikki, offering a hand to help Yura up.

‘I didn’t mean to upset him.’

‘You haven’t done anything. You’re excited to see the surface, no shame in it. The dead bloke we’re looking for, Amorak, is a sore subject with Koko.’

‘Why?’ asked Yura.

‘It’s a whole thing, let’s just leave it at that. Come on, before he explodes again.’

The followed Koko into the next room. One much larger than the tight tunnels and shafts the three had been navigating for most of the day. At the far end of the room, Yura eyed a giant metal door and did his best not to smile.

Koko was kneeling on the floor, spreading open a map. He patted the edges down as they bounced free and let out a frustrated sigh.

‘This is us,’ Koko said, pointing to a section of the map. ‘We’ll hang about here for a bit. It’ll get cooler when the sun starts to set, meaning the suits don’t have to work quite so hard—meaning we’ll save some fuel.’

‘Are you writing this down?’ said Mikki.

‘I… I didn’t bring a pen.’ said Yura.

‘He’s joking.’ muttered Koko stone-faced. ‘He does that.’

‘Oh crack a smile you moody old git,’ said Mikki.

Koko ignored him. His finger slid across the map, resting on a series of crudely drawn houses. He then traced it back an inch and tapped the spot. ‘This is as far as I’m hoping Amorak got. If he made it any further I doubt we’ll ever find him.’

‘We’ll find him,’ said Yura. ‘His family is counting on us.’

Koko and Mikki exchanged a look.

‘What’s that?’ asked Koko.

‘His family? We’re bringing the body back for them surely?’

‘Oh Yura,’ said Mikki chuckling. ‘You sweet innocent babe.’

Yura frowned, confused.

‘We’ve been sent to get his suit. Not the body.’ said Koko. ‘One of these suits are worth a hundred of me or you. The ugly truth of it is…by this point, with nothing powering the suit…there’s not going to be much left of him. You’ll need to prepare yourself.’

Yura didn’t understand. He’d seen a dead body before. Life below in the Empyrean was cramped and people died all the time. How fragile did Koko think he was?

‘I can cope with a stiff.’

Mikki and Koko exchanged a look which filled Yura with unease.

‘He won’t be stiff.’ said Mikki quietly,

‘Huh?’

Look,’ started Mikki uncomfortably. ‘Sitting out there in that ungodly heat. By now there’s a good chance he would have…liquefied.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah,’ nodded Mikki. ‘What’s more, if we find him we’re going to have to open his suit and, err, tip out what’s left of him…’

‘It won’t look pretty,’ Koko continued, ‘it’ll smell something fierce as well, that filter in your mask isn’t going to do a thing about the stench. I tell you this because if upon seeing the remains you throw up inside your own mask—you will not get an opportunity to take off that mask until we return. That is going to be one shitty walk home for you, lad.’

Yura’s stomach churned. He felt like he was going to throw up right now. Was he even allowed to take his mask off now? He’d been told to put it on before they’d started climbing. Yura swallowed hard and tasted bile slide back down his throat.

‘Paints a picture, doesn’t he?” smiled Mikki.

Koko carried on, explaining the finer details of the journey they were about to embark on, but Yura’s attention was gone. He could hear the surface calling him.

He’d waited so long to see what was left of the earth.

‘Turn your suit on.’ said Koko finally. He approached a control panel on the wall, and the hum of a huge motor roared into action. ‘It’s time.’

Yura’s heart thumped hard. He did his best to feign a grim look of determination.

The doors opened, slowly at first, then suddenly all at once. The dark, grimy room became illuminated.

There was a terrible light, and Yura found himself blind.

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How Not to World Build in Your Opening

Wularz was the youngest son of the prominent Backth family. They lived on Knaphi, and like many others made a good living trading in Abilia, in the warmer seasons at least. Life seemed good, but Wularz’s family were oblivious to his dark secret…for three months he had been a card-carrying member of the Scisac-Clan. Today he was set to be half-blooded.

This is not the opening to my next project. These are the prototypical first three sentences I read in many a novice writers efforts at writing science fiction or fantasy.

I get it. I really do.

The Backth family has a vast and interesting history which spans for generations, and the lore of Knaphi is so incredible you could fill a companion bible with its culture.

But I’m never going to read that bible. I’m not going to hang around long enough to find out that an Abilia is a sort of cow, and that the Scisac-Clan is a street gang, and to be half-blooded means committing assault on their behalf for the first time. And it’s a damn shame I’m not going to hang on, because that all sounds like it has the potential to be a good story.

But you’ve already lost me:

  • Dropping five jargon words in the first paragraph is a red flag.

  • Naming jargon, and then writing about it in a way which sounds like I should already know what it is, is a red flag.

  • Giving supplementary information about jargon, before I even know what the original jargon even is, is a red flag.

I only need one red flag and I’m putting down the book and considering if I’ve made a bad choice. If I get hit with three flags that quick; bang, bang bang – you’re either getting deleted from my Kindle or you’re going in the bin.

magic girl

You’ve put a lot of thought into your magic-system? Think maybe we can talk about that later? Pretty please?

Maybe you think the main problem with that opening is that it was telling all that information, rather than showing. Well, let’s see how showing the same quantity of gobbledygook is just a big a turn off:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

Drospe, a full-blooded, tutted.

‘Why are you even here Wularz, you’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy Backth?’

This elicited chuckles from the other Scisac-Clan members. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years tending Abiilia have given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, and if he passed, he’d finally be half-blooded.

This is a much better opening, but it’s still got too much jargon for my liking.

As a reader, I’m frustrated this blooded thing keeps getting mentioned and I’m still in the dark, it feels like I’m the last one to a party.

The sentence about tending Abiilia giving the character a fine right hook makes perfect sense to the author, but no sense to the reader.

We’re only seven paragraphs in and we’ve managed to overwhelm, exclude, and also confuse the reader.

tap

Your jargon is water coming from a tap. It needs to drip, any faster and the sink overflows, and then you then slip and die.

Let’s fix it. Cut the mention of the family name and establish it later. Cut the mention the blooded system, and establish it later. I might even cut mention of the Scisac-Clan, and establish it later. We have got a whole book to get this stuff in after all.

Let’s see how the scene looks now:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

‘Why are you even here Wularz,’ tutted Drospe. ‘You’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy?’

This elicited chuckles from the other men. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years working on his Daddy’s farm has given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, it would take a better man than Drospe to make him slip up today.

Now we’re rolling. Our jargon count has gone from nine words to three, but we’ve still got the exact same scene.

Of the three jargon words that are left; two are character names. Names are pretty important in prose, duh. If your reader is only going to remember one piece of jargon by the end of your opening, it better be your weird-ass character’s name.

Anyway, that’s the end of today’s lecture. If you liked the small taste of my writing why not check out Inferna – a  web serial/writing exercise hosted for free on this blog.

Have you got any pet peeves that bother you in the first couple pages of a story? Do you have any books to recommend which ease you into the world, rather than throwing you in the deep-end? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L