Pueri Alleynienses

The May issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrived two weeks ago, but I’m so far behind in my reading that I’ve only just finished the April issue, which contained the delightfully well-written story,  “Pueri Alleynienses” by Stephen Ross. It opens with a wonderful example of how to grab a reader’s interest and hold it:

“Whatever happened to Tupper?” I asked. We had been chatting idly over a bottle of claret.

“I murdered him,” Coates answered, with all sincerity.

I believed him.

In four sentences, Ross establishes a lot of character and plants several questions: Who is Tupper? Why did Coates murder him? Why does the narrator believe him? Why does Coates so blithely confess?

The first and third questions are answered deftly and quickly, and the answers develop both Coates and the narrator, reveal their history of mutual animosity toward Tupper and each other. The other two questions, and their corollaries, aren’t answered until two masterfully executed twists near the end. There is very little action and yet the story is fascinating, filled with tension. This story was a great example of why I subscribe to Alfred Hitchcock.

 

Criticizing fiction from a writer’s perspective

When criticizing fiction (whether we’re talking about published work or material for a critique group), it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking “Did I like this?” The subject of that question is not the work, but the reader: “I.” These are some of the questions we should ask instead:

  • What work does the first line do? Does it set up what’s to come? Does it provide a hook for readers so that they’ll be curious enough to continue?
  • What viewpoint is used? How does it affect the story and the reader’s expectations or experience?
  • Who is the protagonist? What does he want in this story or scene? What is stopping him from getting it?
  • Who are the other characters? What do they want? How do their desires interfere with or complement the protagonists?
  • What’s important about this story or scene? What’s at stake for these characters?

Examine what’s in the work rather than whether you like it. You’ll understand it better and provide better criticism.