Iron Writer Challenge 102 – Carried Away by a Moonlight Shadow

I won the Iron Writer Challenge 102 with the piece of flash fiction below. Thank you everyone for voting for me and giving me feedback and encouragement.

The Elements

  • An event that changes a character’s personality.
  • A measuring tape
  • Tetherball
  • Haggis
Haunted House by AreYoU
Haunted House by AreYoU

Carried Away by a Moonlight Shadow

His soul had been trapped in the jeweled box for a century. The hundred-and-thirty-year difference in their ages left gaps in conversation.

“We played tetherball in the Army in 1895…” he said, after she explained the Super Bowl.
“That’s not even a sport, though,” she said.

“I’m sure you would like haggis, my dear…”
“No, I googled that. I know what’s in it.”

She showed him Wikipedia and how to work the mouse with his semi-corporeal hand, and he spent hours filling the holes in his knowledge.

He never thought he would call a woman steadfast, but her confidence in her ability to release him from his ghostly trap earned it. Nothing about his old house (now her house) frightened her, either; not the bloody puddle on the stairs every morning, the measuring tape that turned into a snake and bit her, the rocking chair that wouldn’t stop. Or him, the ghost. She painted, swept, dusted, repaired until the house looked as it had when he had walked and breathed there.

She loved his square shoulders, the way he set a formal table and read books. He was handsome in a way that men weren’t anymore. He wasn’t sloppy, wrinkled or slouching. If she could finish the house, he would be freed, she was sure. Whether he would fall fully into her world or float to another was unclear, but regardless she had to work harder.

“Do you like this color?” she said.
“How do you live on your own?” he wondered.
“It’s my money. What could my parents say?” she shrugged, and painted.

His protectiveness was charming but like a blanket on a warm day, unneeded. Or so she thought.

Tattered curtains hit the dustbin, and the city beyond the windows she cleaned had transformed itself since he walked those streets. She had a party. He lurked at the edges, unseen. Her friends were like her, irreverent, charming and smart. In his age such women were loose. These women were jewels, and she was their center.

He almost surrendered despair. He almost believed he was free.

The trap she finally sprung with all her endeavors unleashed not him, but a terrifying smog. It billowed up from fragments of an old letter in the ashes she cleaned in the cellar. She thought it was a hallucination, but the very real teeth wrapped around her arm finally dislodged her fear. She beat it back and fled upstairs. He recognized the black thing chasing her, and for the first time she saw his anger. He stepped between her and the demon and fought. It overwhelmed him until he rose up larger — filling the room, a monster, his face a horrible mask of rage. He took the jeweled pin from his chest and lashed at the demon, and it exploded and disappeared.

Relieved, she sought his face, but he was still terrified. The evening shadows came alive and swallowed him whole.

No more puddle, rocking chair, tape measure or him. The house remained, and the jeweled pin, but he was gone.

The Iron Writer’s Challenge is a flash fiction writing competition where you construct a 500 word story using 4 assigned elements. Your story competes against 4 others and is judged by official judges and also voted on by the general public. Winners compete in a tournament and stories are gathered in a published anthology each year. It’s a fun challenge to get you to flex your writing fingers, learn how to make your writing as lean as possible, and work with some potential obstacles. I wrote about my planning for the challenge here

My approach to the Iron Writer Challenge

This week I’m participating in The Iron Writer challenge, (I’m in challenge 102) a writing competition where you write a 500 word story using four elements that are provided to you – examples:

  • An empty ATM
  • A talking tree
  • Toilet bowl cleaner
  • A meteor

or:

  • A Zombie Apocalypse
  • A 1936 Chevy Corvette
  • A Coyote
  • A Snow Plow

Once written, you submit your story and it competes against 4 others using those same elements for the prize. (The prize is esteem from your fellow writers and a chance to enter a tournament.)

The four elements can end up being setting, POV, actions, background details, or character elements. They can throw a monkey wrench into story ideas, set everyone up to write very similar stories or just cause a story to sound disjointed if it’s awkward to fit one of the elements in.

So of course I have to try to control the uncontrollable.

I decided I’d like to tell stories inside a framework that might allow elements to be swapped in without altering the overall storyline – flexible, but consistent so I could do more than one challenge set in the same universe. Also I can think up some story pieces ahead of time, like character and plot, so I’m not scrambling to do that in the four days I’m allotted when elements are assigned.

The framework I came up with is a ghost story about two lovers – she’s alive, and he’s dead. But they weren’t lovers before he died – she met him as a ghost, and the two fall in love with each other. Because he is dead, he can do all sorts of non-corporeal things – jump through planes of existence & back and forth in time, which I hope can account for some of the assigned elements. Because she’s alive, lots of action can take place around her real existence apart from him, and the conflict that creates with her maintaining a relationship with him. And of course, why is he haunting her? Is he haunting her, or is there some other reason why he’s here? Maybe he’s in purgatory and has to perform some action to move on, but because he’s fallen in love with her, he doesn’t want to move along. Maybe she’s there to help him get through something in purgatory that he has to accomplish, and she has to discover what that is. There are possibilities for moods that are funny (like the movie Topper) or sweet and wistful (the musical film Once) or mournful (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), forboding (A Good Man is Hard to Find) or just really frightening (The Others).

Haunted House by AreYoU
Haunted House by AreYoU

Partway through sketching out what this framework might look like, I was listening to old music in my library and came across “Moonlight Shadow” the 1983 song by Mike Oldfield, sung by Maggie Reilly. The lyrics of the song tell the story of two lovers separated, and he is shot and killed. She is unable to “push through” to get to him. Lots of the description – moonlight shadow, “The trees that whisper in the evening” “vision forming” “silvery night” “The night was heavy and the air was alive” suggest something going on that is mystical and hard to see – maybe a vision she might see of what is going on in purgatory, where he is, but she can’t form a picture of what’s really happening, or how to reach out to him.

That imagery is lush and sets a wistful sort of mood, and could fit with the framework that I was pulling together for my story. So I’m using that song as inspiration.

Yes, I will write fan fiction ghost stories based on an obscure 1983 pop song.

The danger is if I seem like I’m throwing away elements casually or just really trying to wrench them into a format that they don’t go with. If the elements really just didn’t work together with this theme, I could pants it and write something else instead. But I have some basics in place if the elements fit together.

So these were the elements I was given –

  • An event that changes a character’s personality.
  • A measuring tape
  • Tetherball
  • Haggis

I decided after a bit of tinkering that I could try to make those work in my pre-conceived framework, and I put my 500 words together and submitted my story today. When the challenge gets posted to the Iron Writer website in the next few days, I’ll link to it and ask that you read and vote for whatever story you think is best (which I hope is mine.)

It’s a Plot

Silent Movie Card

Larry Brooks at Storyfix has a good explanation of plot, and why stories need one [Novelists: Two Empowering Little Mind-Models That Just Might Change Everything For You]

Plot is the creation of character and dramatic dynamics that lead to, point toward, that call for, that require… resolution.

A story in any genre (other than literary) that asks the reader simply to observe a character or his/her life… a story that episodically tells the life story of a fictional character without it leading to something that must be resolved… a story that exists to show us eras of a character’s life, novels that read like a collection of shorter stories, moving from one period in that life to to the next… if they are in any genre other than “literary fiction,” the project is at risk.

One of those just crossed my desk, from a graduation of an MFA program, where the word “plot” is likely never to uttered aloud. It was a YA, and it was nothing other than “the adventures of” the hero. Unconnected “stuff that happened” to this protagonist, peppered with backstory and inner landscape.

There are magic words found at the bottom line of this issue: genre fiction needs to give readers something to root for… rather than just something to observe.

Ask your reader to care about where it is all headed. To root for someone and/or something, to fear something or someone that is antagonistic blocking your hero’s path along the core story spine. To engage them emotionally, not just because they sympathize with the hero, but because feel and relate to the stakes of the story.

Genre fiction is the antithesis of “slice of life” storytelling.

Plots are driven by stakes. Even in YA and romance, where any and all of the available sub-genres are available fodder.

Without plot, writing is little more than a literary exercise. That may be entertaining to the writer, and it may be impressive to literature professors, but if it doesn’t engage readers, then what’s the point?

Perils of Pauline still

Interesting read: Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors

Flavorwire: Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors
I have a stash of these types of images in my writing reference folder, but Flavorwire links to some I haven’t seen yet. Diving down into the individual [via] links to the original articles on each chart is a must – Without it I wouldn’t have landed on this cool page page of Faulkner’s maps of Yoknapatawpha County.

Mapping Yoknapatawpha

Pretty much everyone includes this chart of JK Rowling’s characters and stories, but I haven’t posted it on any of my own writing yet, so here you go:

J K Rowling's Chart

This Vonnegut video they include is nice, too: