Gloves Off: Round XXXVI
Keep your objects present
Today we’ll take a deeper dive into Niles Express: Life in the Machine by Logan the Lobotomizer.
To read the story as originally posted, please Click Here.
Niles Express: Life in the Machine
By Logan the Lobotomizer
Isaac laid on the cold trailer floor in agonizing pain, surrounded by a sea of packages—loathing himself for his poor life choices and lack of ambition. Isaac’s back burned and throbbed; a lightning bolt of agony struck his spine with each movement. Boxes poured down the silly-slide-like shoot and filled the truck. Fear gripped Isaac as he stared at the machine gun turret mounted to the ceiling across the conveyor belt. Mom was right, he thought. If Isaac had stayed in college, maybe he’d be doing something that mattered.
My Comments: Just to be clear, do you mean to say he laid down or that he already lay? Be careful. Otherwise, I applaud your verbs: burned, throbbed, struck. Lots of active verbs. Still, I caution you against the abstracts of fear and ambition and right. Next, don’t name the machine-gun turret so baldly; let us see it gradually, mention the muzzle, the laser sight possibly, ideally you shouldn’t mention it unless it comes into play. Can it move to track him? If the reader grasps that it’s a gun before being told you’ll get a greater effect.
Bear with me, I want to bang on about unpacking stuff like agony and mattered. Whenever you use a general term like that you miss a chance to describe the POV character. For instance: … in kidney-stone-level pain minus the kidney stone. Rear-ended-car-wreck pain sans the car wreck. Mattered is easier. Just name a meaningful profession the mother would’ve lobbied for. Phlebotomist? The more specific you get, the funnier it will sound and the better it will stick in the reader’s mind so you can pay it off later.
The “road not taken” might be key to taking this story to another level. Just the mention of it creates a set-up for some bigger reveal/pay-off. Like Mom herself killing Frank.
Also, I suspect the packages are piling up as they continue to rain down. Show that and let us hear the process. Name the usual suspects of what people order, and that will allow you to use a list to create tension and absurdity. For example: Boxes poured down the silly-slide-like chute. Lego starter sets. Adult incontinence pads. Six-packs of LED light bulbs and cat litter and copies of Ivanhoe with Zombies! Connecticut Yankee Linen-Scented candles and DVD boxed sets of Downton Abbey and counterfeit Craftsman screwdriver bits and Little Mermaid costumes and… just keep piling up the stuff for better effect. This seemingly random flood of items might suggest to the reader the progression of a whole life—as if Isaac’s life is flashing before his eyes—and also reduce life to the products we buy. Just a thought. We’ll feel as overwhelmed as your character, especially if each new item occurs like a punch to the gut. Plus a metaphoric punch in the gut.
The light attached to the machine gun flashed red. Isaac lifted his water bottle to his mouth and drank. The water tasted like bleach. The smell of cardboard, plastic, and disinfectant saturated the air. Isaac threw up every morning before work; everyone had a morning ritual. Isaac’s ritual was hurling his breakfast five minutes after eating. The water washed away the post-breakfast vomit. A surge of energy, euphoria, and bravado networked through his veins and drowned his brain in dopamine.
My Comments: All good, but I’d rethink the five minutes. What is five minutes to Isaac? A disembodied sound—BRRRATATATA! —is tricky, so I’ll see where you go with it. If it’s a machine gun elsewhere, might it overlap with a scream?
Okay, the red light. To step on that detail and keep it in the reader’s mind, you might mention how the red light turns everything within the truck red.
Wails echoed through the warehouse. Three trucks down, someone failed to keep the light off. Isaac arduously picked himself up and got to work building walls of boxes.
“Isaac, you need to pick up the pace!”
My Comments: This raises the question of whether we can see from within one truck to another. And if the lights must be off, we should be aware of the dimness in this truck we’re in, right?
You might be more specific: someone failed to keep their red light off.
Consider that even a mystery quote can use attribution. For example: A voice said, “Isaac, you need to pick up the pace!” Better yet, consider introducing the sound. Then the quote, for example, A something, a sound. A voice said, “Isaac, you need to pick up the pace!” This readies your reader for the quote, so it’s not lost and it lands better.
Isaac turned around to see Frank; Frank was clean-shaven, his eyes surrounded by dark purple rings, and he wore a garish orange Niles Express polo.
Isaac grabbed his back and winced. “I need to report an injury—every time I move, I feel like I’m being electrocuted.”
My Comments: Nice. Now if you give us Frank’s stance or gesture, you can get to his shirt with a more interesting verb. For example, Frank stood with his thin arms crossed over his chest, his biceps thinner looking where the short sleeves of his orange Niles Express shirt bagged/flapped open around them. Purple rings circled his eyes. There’s always a verb more interesting then “is” or “has.”
Oh, and you need to show Frank with his baton before he can use it. That’s easily done if he holds it in one hand and slaps it into the palm of this other hand.
Frank gripped his baton and gnashed his yellow teeth; the veins in his forehead formed a ‘Y.’ “Did you get hit by a box?”
Isaac frowned. “No.”
Frank threw his bald head back and guffawed. “That’s not an injury—just wear and tear of the job.” He jabbed his club in Isaac’s chest. “I’ll motivate you!”
My Comments: To get the tension, never really answer a question, okay? If Isaac must respond, introduce a new topic or be evasive. For example: Isaac frowned. “I didn’t get lunch yesterday.” Or, “I got hit by about ten thousand.”
Isaac grinned wryly. “Motivation isn’t always a good thing—Timothy McVeigh was motivated—and look where that got him.
Isaac’s head jerked to the right; he swallowed a mouthful of blood and teeth.
My Comments: Be careful about making your reader do too much work. I’m still wondering about the last disembodied sound effect. A machine gun? Is this recent one the baton?
Did the red light turn off?
As always I’d urge you to avoid abstracts like right that force your reader to conceptualize. By using Isaac’s head jerked to one side; he swallowed a mouthful… you can make the action more immediate. You don’t force us to differentiate right v. left.
Frank rammed the tip of his club into Isaac’s gut. Isaac hunched over in pain. “The load rate is seven-hundred-twenty per hour!”
Frank brought the bludgeon down on Isaac’s back; Isaac collapsed face-first on the rollers.
“You should stack one package every five seconds!”
My Comments: Yeah, disembodied sound effects work in comics, but here…?
If you keep the shower of packages present you’ll add more tension and motion to the scene. The packages act as the sand in an hourglass.
Isaac’s nose flattened beneath Frank’s club. Crimson spilled from Isaac’s mouth and nose; tears bled from his eyes; Frank raised his club above his head. His chest heaved, and his teeth clenched in a sick grimace.
“I WILL TEACH YOU ABOUT PRODUCTIVITY AND EFFICIENCY!”
My Comments: Attribution please. And we’ve lost track of the packages spilling into the scene. Those constantly accumulating packages, now getting splashed with gore, would be a nice stressor to see. That, as well as a metaphor about people getting buried by the stuff they own.
As mentioned earlier, are the lights off in the truck? That would set this scene in near darkness, right? Or is the red light still on?
Isaac raised his hands defensively. “Ssshelp!” he mumbled through a broken jaw.
Isaac’s fingers turned in the opposite direction and broke, bones burst through purple flesh; he clutched his destroyed hand to his chest and rived on the ground.
Frank raised the club again. “YOU WILL BE EFFICIENT!”
My Comments: Let’s not forget the “gun” in the scene is most likely the machine gun. Will it bring this scene to chaos and an end?
And we need to see that Frank is old before he’s just suddenly old in the next paragraph, okay? You need to demonstrate “old” from the first paragraph. Otherwise you might force your reader to reevaluate Isaac’s age at the last minute—a tension killer.
Frank’s nuts ruptured underneath Isaac’s steel toe. Blood rolled down his legs. The old man dropped to his knees and cupped his groin. The club clattered to the ground. His face twisted in an expression of agony. The light turned red.
My Comments: Lots to unpack. What is an expression of agony?
As for the light, what light? If it’s an overhead light, the new red ambience would seem to erase all the blood. That would be a nice effect, seeming to return things to normal. But if it’s a light on the baton or the machine gun, we need to know that.
And, as this heralds the finale, can you have Frank poised to deliver a killing blow of some kind? You might as well.
Bullets punched through Frank’s chest and stomach. Jets of blood sprayed the stainless steel ceiling and walls. Frank looked like a bloody slice of Swiss cheese. His bloody lips quivered, and a tear rolled down his cheek; Frank’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and dropped forward. The bell rang, signifying the end of the day. Isaac’s jaw swelled to the size of a baseball. He rolled out of the truck, punched out, and ambled home.
My Comments: Bingo. I knew that machine gun was there to do something good!
Here you could get away with a sound effect.
But… dude, never rush through a glorious moment. Instead, milk it. For example, Something spit through the air. Little punches that whistled past Isaac’s face. Angry hot little farts of fire shot from the gun near the ceiling not even a beat before the fireworks blast of Fourth of July smoke. The gunpowder smell, the racket, it all sunk holes in the garish orange polo shirt while Frank danced a bug-eyed puppet’s dance… Keep this going as long as you can before you introduce the blood, then keep the blood going as long as you can. As always with Minimalism, keep your key objects—the polo shirt, the baton, the packages—present.
Beyond that, consider a more specific pay off. Maybe Isaac leans over and sees a package with his name on it, collects it, and leaves. Maybe he’s forced to wipe Frank’s blood from the label in order to read it. Or he spies a package addressed to his mother.
As a possibility, maybe you can call back to the “something that mattered” profession his mother would approve of. Can you bring that forward as your ending?
All in all, short and sweet.