Short Story Workshop
Round 1: Workshop - Short Story: Excerpt 5
Each day this week we will be posting an anonymous excerpt from these five short stories currently being readied for this year's competition.
Riley is glazed and coughing up blood. I want to tell him everything's going to be OK but it isn't. However, they do good work up at the Royal and I've seen these things get fixed in the past. My combats are filthy with blood and fecal matter and bits of bone embedded but I'm too hyped to vomit. I feel so inadequate. Your brain runs all the protocols but in the end you're just left with a dying man and it's always your fault. It has to be your fault--that's what they pay you for.
Sirens in the distance. I have Riley taped up - he's clutching me and wheezing . . . I'm trying to get him into the recovery position without spilling his guts onto the lawn.
"Jesus Boss," he says . . . "Jesus Boss."
"It's OK sarge. They'll have you shipped in no time."
I love him. He's a West Country man - unflappable - he knows how to work the boys - when to hurt them--when to let up - when to diss them - when to drop a kind word in their ears. We're a group of terminal cynics. We have this constant love-hate thing. I try to distance myself from it all and let Riley do the close-in work.
You have to keep your distance from the men because all they do is bitch and moan and if you get with them before you know it you're bitching and moaning yourself. We only allow bitching two ranks up. The men bitch about sergeants. Riley bitches about captains . . . I bitch about majors and colonels.
This excerpt comes from a story titled "Sergeant Riley."The opening (not seen here) is visceral and filmic; a sniper scene in what appears to be Northern Ireland. Sergeant Riley is gut shot and the narrator, unnamed, is caring for him, aware that Riley won't live. The voice is snappy and quick and strong:
"The sergeant's belly blew out just as he turned to speak to me. He'd taken a tumbling 7.92 AK round from an IRA shooter whom I guessed was up in the roof space of the derelict houses across the street.
The problem was to go to ground within seven nanoseconds without making the sergeant's plight any worse. But I just fucking pushed him over a hedge into a garden and jumped in after him."This is good. There is no explaining going on, just the action. But when we get to the excerpt, right after the first line, the narrator starts to explain. I would suggest dropping the lines:
"I want to tell him everything's going to be OK but it isn't. However, they do good work up at the Royal and I've seen these things get fixed in the past."These words deter from the immediacy of the story. And then the line, "I feel so inadequate." Don't tell us this, show us the inadequacy. Same goes for "I love him." I want the love to come out in what the narrator says to Riley, what he does, or doesn't do. This can be a much stronger scene, and a stronger story as a result. Contrary to the title, which implies that this story is about Riley, it's really about the narrator, and the helplessness of the narrator, and the desire to hide that helplessness. One way to do this is let the narrator ramble, either in his head or in real time to Riley. Why does he love him? Is he older than Riley? Did Riley save him in the past in some way? Does he owe him, and he knows he will fail to repay the debt? These are simply questions, meant to get you thinking. The story starts out strong, with a great voice, and then it descends, especially at the end of the story (to which our readers are not privy) into an explanation of rank in the British Army and an exploration of heroism. What is the story about? I think it's about a relationship between Riley and the narrator, and about the narrator's sense of luck, and it's about responsibility and failure. In the excerpt, show us, either through a run-on monologue, or a disjointed conversation (probably one-sided as Riley is dying) the relationship between these two men. Or, if that's too clichéd, stay physical and show us the narrator's relationship to Riley's body. His guts are spilling. Did they just eat lunch together? Does the narrator see the lunch on the ground? Pare it down. Stay visceral. Give us more of the senses. Smell, touch, aural. You've got a great start.
Finally, unless you have a reason for the wide spacing for new paragraphs, reformat so that you double-space and indent for new paragraphs. And, keep everything in the present tense, unless you're flashing back (this refers to the opening paragraph).Read all excerpts from the Short Story Workshop with David Bergen »