Writing short fiction is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. If you’ve never done anything like this before, it could have you spending most of the Furious Fiction weekend asking yourself “what’s it going to be then, eh?”
And so it was, to celebrate the launch of our new Fiction Essentials: DIALOGUE course, that we threw a trio of random lines of dialogue at you for April’s competition – asking you to somehow knit them together into a comfortable and attractive piece of prose. A tricky task! These were the lines:
- “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
- “He’s never done anything like this before.”
- “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
We felt your pain. It’s not easy using someone else’s words, let alone three different sets of quotes. But challenges are what we like, and we have some lights to shine on the stories that caught our collective eyes this month.
Big congratulations to this month’s $500 winner, Mick Wiley of Queensland. You can read his story and a selection of shortlisted others from this month below.
APRIL 2019 WINNER
UNTITLED by Mick Wiley
Her four-year-old was dry humping the tyre swing and waving his arm over his head like a cowboy. Christine didn’t move a muscle, but her eyes ran frantic laps around the playground; the headmistress, her child, a hiding place inside the yellow-covered slide, the sandpit at her feet, a trail of ants circling half a muesli bar on the ground…
“He’s never done anything like this before…”
The clouds were furrowing grey brows above them.
“… I mean… his admission test score was really high…”
Her four-year-old dismounted the swing and was chasing a small gecko across the pine sleepers yelling ‘here doggy’. She turned to see the full face of the Headmistress.
“I mean… I didn’t even know scores could go that high?”
The Headmistresses lowered her head just enough to look over her glasses at the child. An ant was climbing Christine’s ankle. Grey cloud hovered as the Headmistress spoke.
“Well Mrs Chambers… Igor Stravinsky did stand on his head each morning for 15 minutes before composing. And Lord Byron did keep a live bear in his dorm room at college. However…”
Cloud so low it threatened to suffocate them both.
“… Van Gogh cut off his ear and committed suicide at age 37. Genius, Mrs Chambers. It is a beautiful and terrible thing and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
Her four-year-old, at this point, decided it was appropriate to stroll to a passionfruit vine, drop his pants to his ankles, and pull his shirt up to his armpits.
The ant was at Christine’s knee, but she stood rigid as the Headmistress looked up and down her full length with overstated movements of her eyes. They dragged the weather when they moved. And her questions hung like fog as she turned.
“What’s it going to be then, eh? Will we be welcoming your son to Saint MacKillop’s?”
The Headmistress walked calmly to the boy, quietly spoke to him, and they moved together to the children’s vegetable garden. Then, with only the slightest nod of her head towards each vegetable, the diminutive child obliged.
“Capsicum… cucumber… eggplant…”
The ant was at Christine’s thigh. With the Headmistress turned away, through a rapidly closing window of opportunity, Christine broke her statue and flung a hand under her grey skirt – not too tight to be immodest, not too loose to be whimsy, length below the knees-
-but her feet had been fixed too long, the clouds were much too low, and the questions were dizzying. She overbalanced; her leg jerked into the timber framing of the sandpit and the Headmistress turned back only to watch Christine’s entire being topple sideways into the sand; all the time with an arm lost somewhere up her sensible skirt.
The Headmistress slowly turned back to the vegetable garden and spoke; half to the child and half to the clouds above.
“Genius, Tom… It is a beautiful and terrible thing and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
What we loved:
This had easily one of our favourite opening lines of the month – strong, evocative and funny. Throughout, there was great use of imagery, from the clouds as “furrowing grey brows” through to the trail of ants circling the muesli bar – lovely descriptive details that really bring the scene to life. We received a lot of school-based stories this month (and definitely a lot referencing children in some way through the lines) but this one had a great blend of humour, characterisation and description.
OPENING ACT by jdfcarradice
As the curtain went up, the lights went down, and a solitary figure stepped into a single spotlight in the centre of the stage.
“What you are about to witness, ladies and gentlemen, is an act which no man or woman has ever attempted before,” the lone performer announced, “On stage or in the privacy of their own home.”
The announcement was met with silence. Not a stunned silence, but a silence that spoke volumes about the audience that was being addressed. To put it simply, they had no idea what was happening.
“It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” the presenter continued, “And should anything go wrong, not that you should have any reason for concern, the terrible beauty of the act will be forever embedded in your collective memories.”
The audience began to murmur, quietly, in the darkened room. A second figure stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight which appeared to double in size.
“Now I must warn you. He’s never done anything like this before,” the speaker cautioned the audience, “So he will need your unwavering support.”
The audience, who had no idea what they were about to experience, remained silent.
“After all, we wouldn’t want to see anyone get hurt now, would we?”
The stillness of the spectators seemed to embolden the performers, the speaker’s voice growing in confidence and volume as the crowd continued to withhold any reaction.
“And so, I will leave you with this final warning, before our esteemed player indulges you with a presentation that will leave you speechless,” he finally pronounced without a hint of irony, “Whatever is to transpire in the next 3 minutes and 14 seconds, please hold your applause until the very end. Please refrain from any and all interaction with our revered artist, and please, under no circumstance, do not attempt to leave your seat.”
The sustained quiet told the orator all she needed to know, and she hastened off-stage, the spotlight remaining on the remaining figure and shrinking until only their head was visible.
For nearly two minutes, the person on stage remained as still and as silent as the audience had during the introduction until eventually there was some agitation amongst the assembly.
After two and half minutes someone towards the back finally spoke up,
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
It was yelled with an abrupt aggression by someone who knew that they were breaking the rules. A minor commotion broke out where the voice had originated but the performer remained steadfast and the audience dared not turn to look.
At three minutes and four seconds a screen lit up, behind the person on stage, and a 10 second countdown began.
As each second ticked away the remaining members of the audience held their breath in terrified anticipation of what was to come.
The timer hit zero and the room went dark. It had been another successful show.
What we liked:
Arguably the trickiest line of dialogue of the three was the longest one – and it often found stories out with how they attempted to shoehorn it in. Not so here, where that troublesome dialogue works perfectly with the setting to allow it to seamlessly weave into the story. Unusually here, we see dialogue that isn’t used in the typical back-and-forth style. Rather, it’s all one-way traffic as we the reader are also sat with the audience, listening, watching and waiting expectantly as a nice parallel.
RESURRECTIONIST AND MURDERER by Lindy Gibbon
It was a night designed for hiding dark deeds and dark deeds were to be done this night. There were two of them, one skilled now at the filthy art which he had committed many times, the other new to it, and frightened. Watchful, ears straining in the thick fog which whorled about them, they crept silently to the grave they intended to rob.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” Fred whispered.
“Use the metal spade; there ain’t no one ‘ere to ‘ear us, night like this. Reckon we can git the job done in ‘alf the time.”
John, with practised ease, removed a square of turf some 15 feet away from the grave and placed it on a tarp. They worked in concentrated accord digging a tunnel down toward the grave. Fred’s spade struck wood, the sound reverberating through the graveyard. The men froze; every sense alive and straining for fear of discovery. Nothing.
“Quiet, you fool,” John hissed, “Quick, get that coffin end off and tie the rope ’round the body so we can grab it.”
Fred, heart thudding, groped around, his hands feeling the wooden edge of the casket. He was puzzled, there was no coffin end. He reached in and pulled out the corpse’s clothes, showed John. The grave had already been robbed.
“If that bastard ‘as set me up. I’ll ‘ave ‘im for this, see if I don’t.”
“Who, John? Who’s set you up?”
“He’s never done anything like this before.”
“Who’re you talkin’ about?”
“It ain’t like ‘im to do this neither. I dunno know, some’at’s wrong ‘ere. Come on, let’s get this ‘ole filled in. I dunno what Dr Cole’s gonna say when we come back wiv no body for ‘im.”
The lecture theatre was crammed. Dr. James Cole, celebrated anatomist and surgeon, was giving a lecture and demonstration at the University Hospital. He had worked tirelessly to change opinion amongst the general public for whom dissection was an abomination. He stood now at the lectern surveying the eager medical students.
“Gentleman, my learned colleague, Charles Knowlton, says ‘the value of any art or science should be determined by the tendency it has to increase happiness, or to diminish the misery of humankind’. If we are to progress then we must be prepared to enact what, for many, is a disturbing and abhorrent act. Dissection can offer us much in the way of understanding the human body and its diseases. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. And respect.”
He nodded at his assistant, who, with a flourish, removed the sheet which covered the corpse and handed Dr. Cole his scalpel. Stepping up to the table and seeing the body for the first time, Dr. Cole was struck momentarily by a sense of familiarity. The corpse looked remarkably similar to that of the man he had recently paid for procuring bodies.
“Let us begin.”
What we liked:
Dark deeds indeed! From the wonderful rhythm of that first line, you can’t help but be drawn into the fog of this opening scene. The dialogue snippets are placed carefully into the story in an efficient way, each perfectly fitting the character who speaks them. We also have a genuine sense of time and place, despite it never being explicitly outlined. And ultimately it sticks the landing with a simple twist that doesn’t scream for attention.
HUMPHREY’S LAST PERFORMANCE by Charles Duncan
“HUMPHREY ENTERS STAGE LEFT. TAP-TAP-TAP GO HIS SHOES ON THE POLISHED TIMBER FLOOR. HE PAUSES, THEN, ON CUE, THE CURTAIN RISES.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re on stage.”
“I can see that, but why? And who are you?”
“I’m the Narrator. You are Humphrey, the Main Character.”
“Oh. Nice! I’ve always wanted to be the Main Character. That means I get to do stuff, right?”
“Only if it’s what I say.”
“Huh? If I’m the Main Character, I’m the Protagonist. I get to drive the story forward.”
“And I’m the Narrator. I tell you what to do.
“I’ll run around in circles if I want to.”
“Go ahead. Try it.”
“That’s because I let you. Watch this – HUMPHREY TAKES A STEP FORWARD.”
“Whoa! How did you do that?”
“I told you, I’m the Narrator. You must do what I say when I use my Narrator voice. HUMPHREY TAKES ANOTHER STEP FORWARD.”
“Hey. Careful. I’m at the edge of the stage. I’ll fall if you do it again.”
“Cool, isn’t it.”
“No, it’s not.”
“HUMPHREY SLAPS HIMSELF IN THE FACE.”
“That’s for not thinking I’m cool.”
“Stop it! You can’t be mean like that. The audience won’t like it. They won’t come back.”
“See if I care.”
“But…the ratings will be awful…you won’t get paid.”
“You’re confusing me with the Author. He might care. I don’t. I’m just the Narrator.”
“He won’t ask you back.”
“This production is a bit of an experiment for him. He’s never done anything like this before. Look, I have another hundred of these to narrate today, and then there’ll be another lot next month. In fact, my calendar is so full, I’d really like to end this little piece so I can get onto something more entertaining. Look up.”
“No! I don’t think I want to.”
“Come on. It’s a cracker. You can do it yourself or I can use my narrator voice again. What’s it going to be then, eh?”
“Alright. HUMPHREY LOOKS UP.”
“Whaaaaat! How did…why is there a grand piano hanging by a rope above my head?”
“It’s the climax. I said you’d like it.”
“Why does it have spikes on the bottom of it?”
“That’s to guarantee the right effect once it falls. No. Don’t move.”
“I jolly well will.”
“HUMPHREY’S SHOES ARE GLUED TO THE FLOOR. You won’t now…oh, nice try. HUMPHREY FINDS HIS SHOELACES ARE IMPOSSIBLY KNOTTED TOGETHER.”
“No, I simply bear the title of ‘Narrator’. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. And even greater respect, might I add. THE ROPE BEGINS TO FRAY.”
“I’ll sue you if that falls.”
“How? You’ll be dead.”
“Workplace Health and Safety will get involved and the police. There’ll be a lawsuit!”
“You’re forgetting – I’m the Narrator. THERE WILL BE NO LAWSUIT.”
“Do you have any final words?”
“I hope you get laryngitis.”
“SNAP. SPLAT. THE END.”
What we liked:
The “meta” style of this one had a playful style reminiscent of the internal dialogue a writer would have with themselves when toying with their story’s components. A word of warning – this approach can go awry very easily, but here it works, thanks to the sharply written non-stop performance (seemingly Humphrey’s last) that simply doesn’t let up. For a story made entirely up of dialogue (which many were this month), it had just the right dollop of entertainment to keep you wanting to read on.
DEFLOWERING DAY by Haley M. Hwang
The handsome servant boy’s breath tickled Yoon Hee’s neck.
He sat inches away in her inner bedroom, and the closeness made her hesitate. She had summoned the boy because he had made his presence known after his arrival at the palace the day before with a lingering look that had outlasted the moment of propriety.
“How do you want to do this, eh?” The boy’s rough words pricked Yoon Hee’s tender nerves as he tugged at the sash of her hanbok dress with one hand while sliding his fingers along her bare legs under the layers of her silk skirt with the other.
The following night, Yoon Hee would lose her virginity to the highest bidder — a 50-year-old merchant with a fetish for young girls. At sixteen, Yoon Hee was pushing the boundaries of youthful desirability, but her healthy girth and unspoiled innocence had commanded the highest price among the new courtesans offered this year.
Yoon Hee didn’t cry when the king’s ministers confiscated her family’s metal workshop, making the family destitute. She didn’t cry when her parents sold her off so they could feed her younger brothers. And she didn’t cry when she found out about her deflowering day.
Instead of crying, she resolved to bed a man of her own choosing. The older courtesans whispered instructions, slipping her a jade knife. A shallow cut on her inner thigh at the right time would fool the merchant into believing that it was her first time. All the courtesans had done it, getting the last laugh over these disgusting old men with wallets as fat as their bellies.
But in this moment, with the uncomfortable proximity of the servant boy, Yoon Hee’s courage dissolved in the heavy air that swirled around her, making her dizzy.
“Wait,” Yoon Hee said, stopping the boy’s hand from completely unknotting her sash. “I won’t give up my innocence like this. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Innocence, eh?” the boy mused as his face darkened. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
The words echoed in Yoon Hee’s ears, sounding strangely unlike those of a boy of his station. He pulled away, allowing Yoon Hee to swallow much-needed air.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
“I…I don’t think I can do this. You may go.” Yoon Hee gathered her skirt around her in modesty.
The boy smirked but shot up and pushed past the surprised handmaiden, who stood guard outside the bamboo door.
The next night, Yoon Hee was resplendent in the finest white silk hanbok, which intentionally accentuated her purity.
When the time came, the maid slid open the door to reveal two men, not one.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” the older man said, pushing the younger one through the door. “Please turn him into a man.”
Yoon Hee gazed up to meet the mischievous eyes of the handsome servant boy, dressed very differently now as the wealthy merchant’s son.
What we liked:
With a strong beginning that places us immediately in the middle of the action, this story gave us a welcome new perspective on the dialogue criteria. Along the way, the narrative peppered lovely details throughout for a sense of authenticity, such as the jade knife, bamboo door or descriptions like tugging at the sash of her hanbok dress. And it wrapped it up with a satisfying reveal at the end.
THE LIFE CHANGER AND THE UNFORGETTABLE STRANGE WAY THE WORLD FOUND OUT ABOUT IT by Thutat
Last Saturday, the central park skating arena, open for the holidays, hosted the most undeniably strange show the town had ever seen. An octogenarian man was skating vigorously like international figure skating competitors. He was performing triple Lutz and quadruple Toe Loop jumps like they were nothing, energized by some mysterious force.
Social networks’ buzz spread fast. People from all over the town arrived to witness the unusual spectacle. News stations looking for a hit, politicians promoting themselves, artists wanting inspiration and simple citizens gathered around the arena, battling for the perfect spot. The old man’s daughters, both in their fifties, were puzzled.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” one of his daughters said. “Not even when he was young!”
The old man startled the crowd once more when he took a break and spoke.
“It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” the old man said.
“What are you talking about? How are you able to move like that, on ice, at your age?” the crowd said.
“How am I able to … well quite effortlessly!” the old man said.
“Are you high? What did you take?” several teenagers said.
“Tell us the truth! What happened to you?” a group of old people said.
“The Life Changer, that’s what happened to me!” the old man said.
“The what!?” people said.
“Okay, hold your horses… I’ve discovered an entity – well, it’s in the shape of a rock, but it’s an out-of-space entity – who talked to me last night. Told me it’s the Life Changer. Asked me if I wanna be someone else. I said ‘Hell, I’m 85 and half dead, make me a figure skater! How’s that for a change?’ I laughed and went home. This morning I felt an urge to come to the rink and you know the rest.”
“A talking alien rock!? You’re nuts, but you think we’re stupid?” the people said.
“See for yourself! 55th Street and Madison Avenue. Go change yourselves! I’m going back on ice,” the old man said.
In the blink of an eye a river of human bodies hurled away curious, furious, anxious from the park and to the intersection the old man mentioned. And there it was.
“I am the Life Changer!” said the rock. “I’m on a galactic tour and visiting your planet. I’ll be in your town ‘till sundown. Come on, get closer!”
One by one, all the people told the rock what they wanted to be: “artist”, “painter”, “lawyer”, “brain surgeon”, “superhero”, “superstar”, “mother”, “father”. It complied. People went home with their dreams fulfilled. One child remained. He approached the rock with small steps.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” the rock said.
“Nothing, sir! I’m happy just the way I am!” the kid said placing his hand over his chest as if he was taking an oath.
“Sure, kid! See you back in fifty years!” the rock said.
What we liked:
You know what? Sometimes stories can take themselves just a bit too seriously. But we enjoyed the fact that this story – right from the ridiculously long title – was happy to try something a little wacky and have fun with it. No, it’s not a sophisticated piece, yet the absurdity and unpredictability of the storyline is great. And you know what, every now and then it’s a good idea to zag when the other 99% are zigging.