Friday, August 19, 2016

First Sentences in (Fan)Fiction the 13th

Recently, I decided--for no particular reason--that I ought to familiarize myself with the SCP Foundation--find out what it is, beyond "pseudo-creepypasta wiki."  Having done so, I have to wonder what the appeal is.

Don't get me wrong, I get the appeal of the shared universe and creatures/phenomena that define it, but what I don't get is the interest in the Foundation organization itself.  The entire setting is full of vastly more appealing groups.  There are deranged cultist organizations trying to bring about the end of the world, amoral (probably British) "procurers" who turn a hefty profit moving paranormal things through the underworld, evil clowns... you name it, there's a group that has a more interesting approach to these things than the Foundation's.  Heck, it's not even like the Foundation are the good guys to everyone else's villains (as best I can tell, the "good guys" are the UN-backed Global Occult Coalition, who have "ensure the survival of the human race," as their top priority)--this is a group that whose MO is "here's something incredibly dangerous, let's get some shmuck to poke it with a stick for us on penalty of death and see what happens, and if it doesn't kill him, we'll murder him at the end of the month anyway" (supposedly, those "D-class personnel" are all convicted murders off death row, but considering that 1) the Foundation seems to go through anywhere from a few score to a few hundred every month, and 2) pretty much all of them seem to be Westerners, I figure that's just a PR line).  I mean, it's not like there's nowhere to go with that, as the 2000+ entries plus various associated stories would attest, but... well, my point is that the Foundation strike me as assholes, and not even the exciting kind of assholes.  If I was one of those writers, I'd have more fun writing about the GOC trying to save humanity, or the Serpent's Hand trying to awaken some elder god, than about the Foundation.

That's just my opinion, though.  But hey, you're here for my opinion, right?  If so, good, because I've got a whole bunch more of 'em--this time, relating to ponyfic, and first sentences therefrom--below the break!

As a reminder, the first sentences here are being judged as first sentences, using my patented HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR ("how effective is this sentence in both preparing me for the story I'm about to read, and encouraging me to continue reading") scale.  On that scale, a five equates roughly to "immediately evokes a specific tone, prepares the reader for the rest of the story, and encourages me to continue reading," a one is "makes me less likely to continue reading," and a three is "a perfectly adequate first sentence, which neither inspires great excitement or great dread."  For each story, I'll give the title with a link to my review of it, and the star rating I initially gave that story.   
Note that, as part of my ongoing tweaking/developing of these posts, I'll be taking a fairly liberal definition of "first sentence," so some "sentences" may be two (or more!) sentences long; "first complete idea" might be more technically accurate, but it's not as catchy.  Additionally, the review of each sentence will be split into two parts.  The first part will be my thoughts after reading ONLY the first sentence, and the second, my thoughts on it after having read the story, graded as BETTER, WORSE, or THE SAME when taken in its larger context.

Rarity Loses Her Innocence In a Poker Game, by Mr. Numbers (story: 1 star)

The first line:  Twilight's new crystal castle was a feat of magical engineering unrivalled outside of the Crystal Kingdom itself. It was regal, dignified, beautiful; a work of serene art towering over the small town of Ponyville, like a delicate sculpture placed in an almost bare art gallery.

Initial thoughts:  This is the first paragraph, and it pretty much just tells me a location.  It doesn't even give me many specifics; the story could be at the castle, or anywhere within sight of it, or somewhere unrelated while Twilight reminisces on its appearance (you'd hope it couldn't actually be that last one, but I have seen stories start out on totally irrelevant character thought-tangents before!).  Also, the misused semicolon is a strike against.  There's a nice simile tucked in there, but given how at odds everything to this point--the entire first paragraph--is with the title, and how little it tells me, I feel like this has to be a one outta five on the trusty HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR scale.

After reading:  You might think that I cut that "first line" off in an unfair place, leaving out the punchline which would contrast the grand style of the introduction with something low, uncivil, or crude.  I did not; I would've had to make it four paragraphs in to the story to get to that particular turn.  When it comes, it's understated enough that the humor of it isn't really apparent for a moment.  And that humor is essentially the only point of those first paragraphs, which impart no other particularly relevant narrative information.  So, all in all, it's about THE SAME as it looked at first blush.

Schemering Sintel, by N00813

The first line:  The inn stank of sweat, alcohol and desperation.

Initial thoughts:  Like the story above, this one does nothing other than tell us a location.  There are a few key differences, however.  First off, we can infer the setting from this line much more effectively than from Loses Her Innocence's.  Second, describing the setting is more important in this case--we, the readers, already have a mental image of Twilight's castle to call on, but we won't know what "the inn" is like without the author's help.  Third, this paints a vivid picture which dovetails nicely with the story's description to help paint a picture of what kind of story we're in for, also in contrast to the other story's approach.  On the downside, saying something "stank of desperation" is treading dangerously close to cliche, and this doesn't tell me much of anything other than setting and tone.  Still, a high three from me.

After reading:  It's THE SAME, in that it's neither misleading, nor does it reveal any hidden depths as one reads on.  A good, solid first sentence--nothing more, nothing less.

Regarding The Need for Sex Education, by GAPJaxie (story: 3 stars)

The first line:  Ding-a-ling-a-ling chimed the bell above the door of Carousel Boutique. It was a very good ring, clear and energetic, making the whole shop just a little friendlier.

Initial thoughts:  Another "setting and tone" opening, this gives us our opening location, and sets a slightly deadpan, irreverent tone for the narration.  I'm not a big fan of opening a story with sound effects, but this is still a middle-of-the-road three.

After reading:  THE SAME.  WYSIWYG, and all that.

The Witch of the Everfree, by MagnetBolt (story: 4 stars)

The first line:  “Sunset Shimmer, I am removing you from the position of my pupil. If we cannot get past this, your studies end here. You are welcome to stay in Canterlot, but you are no longer welcome in the castle.”

Initial thoughts:  This strikes me as a strangely liminal example of an in media res opening; yes, it drops us right into the action, but it drops us into the action of a scene which we already know the general structure of, between canon and story concept.  As such, it kicks off with no real introduction, but the reader still knows exactly who's talking and what's happening.  I suppose I could call that clever use of canon, but I think that's giving a little too much credit for co-opting a scene from the comics... I guess on balance, I'll go three, on the grounds that this "neither inspires great excitement or great dread."  But honestly, I'm unsure how I "ought" to rate this.

After reading:  It might be slightly BETTER, in the sense that the story doesn't waste any time jumping off into its AU; an opening like this could reasonably leave someone afraid that the entire first chapter would be a rehash of Things We Already Know, and that's not what happens.

Pinkie Pie is an Eldritch Abomination, by PonyAmorous (story: 2 stars)

The first line:  Twilight opened her eyes feeling dizzy and slightly nauseated.

Initial thoughts:  I don't like it.  Oh, the content is fine, but the structure is ungainly, which is a big deal when one is evaluating a first sentence as a sentence.  A comma after "eyes" would help, but even with that, it feels backwards to discuss how she feels after describing what she does (at least, when the feelings aren't tied to the action; if she was feeling dizzy because she opened her eyes, that of course would be different).  As I said, though, it does a fine job of introducing character and state, so I suppose I can still give it a weak two.

After reading:  It's definitely BETTER, both because the writing is better in the story than one might be lead to believe, and (more importantly) because of the way the story ties back to this at the end.

Gods-In-Law, by Pearple Prose

The first line:  Princess Celestia smiled and drank deeply from her wine glass, relishing the homely, festive atmosphere of the Sparkle household.

Initial thoughts:  I like it.  It gives us a bit of context, both obvious ("homely, festive atmosphere") and implied (that Celestia is drinking deeply, rather than taking a dainty sip, which I believe is fandom standard for describing Celestia talking a drink).  Tone, characters, and location are all established elegantly.  The only problem with this sentence is that, for all that it accomplishes, it's utterly unmemorable on its own.  A four from me: good, but not something you'd go quoting to your friends.

After reading:  It ends up being somewhat WORSE, since it turns out that Celestia drinking "deeply" isn't a bit of characterization or setting-awareness, but rather a prelude to some stock "drunk Celestia" humor--likewise, the tone it sets is rather more warm slice-of-life-y than the goofy comedy (in the story's first half, at least) which we get.



    Of course I have to defend it. I do want to know how you approached the site: If it was by starting at SCP-001 and going in order, you'll definitely not be getting a good cross-section of what the site's capable of, 001 proposals aside. Starting with series II (SCP-1000+) is a better idea, or using the "top rated pages" function.

    That said, if the Foundation itself bores you... Well, first I'd say that's kind of the point. The Foundation aren't really the 'good guys' -- no one is. But they are the baseline, as far as reaction to anomalies goes. You've got all the GoIs -- MC&D, Wondertainment, Serpent's Hand -- who create and/or deal with anomalous things on a regular basis. You've got the GOC, who react by blowing them up. (I'd disagree with placing them as the 'good guys', since they'll kill anomalous humans regardless of how powerful or dangerous they are, no further questions asked.)

    Still, there are other ways to interact with the universe if you feel like you've missed out and want a different perspective. The Wanderer's Library has its own wiki which... Well, I can't say too much about it, because I've never really gone there. :B The people who run it strike me as considerably more pretentious and self-absorbed than I tend to want to deal with. (I was invited to participate back when it was first created and declined.) But I get the feeling it's a good bit more literary and, if nothing else, it's another way to look at anomalies from the Foundation.

    There's also the GoI-format tag on the main wiki. It's not exactly useful, since there's no organization beyond alphabetical, but there is now a plethora of formats for reporting anomalies, many of them occurring side-by-side with actual numbered SCPs. I'm a big fan of the Serpent's Hand format; clicking that tag in the cloud on the right might bring you some joy.

    Anyway, yes. The whole point of the Foundation is that they're kind of boring, and if you read enough of their articles, you start to realize that "throw science at it" is not the best way to approach anomalous objects. (I attacked this idea head on with SCP-2321, though it's hardly the greatest example of such.) The Foundation are in way over their heads, for the most part (and depending on author headcanon); their search for containment in the name of normalcy is a losing battle, and they quite often come off as delusional. I mean, you might start to think that anomalies are what reality is actually based in...

    1. I approached the site by reading a couple dozen of the most popular/ones that were coming up in an off-site discussion thread. I don't remember all the numbers offhand, but I'm pretty sure they were mostly under 1000, so it may well be that I wasn't seeing the good ones. Offhand, the ones that stuck out to me the most were an alligator-ish creature that can regenerate any damage, a machine with five settings that changes whatever you put into it into something else, a disc that takes you to a different dimension when placed on a mirror, a thousand-odd mile tall demon whose description includes different levels of redaction for various clearance levels, and an endless stairway with spooky stuff as one goes farther down.

      But like I say, my problem wasn't with the items. Honestly, it wasn't even with the format (though there are a lot of things wrong with the format; the demon one really drove home how bad the redacting is on many of these articles, since in that case, a lot of it isn't just pointless--it actively defeats the purpose of the articles themselves, as laid out in the O5 description!). It's just... if you want to write about these things from a scientific perspective, then the GOC strikes me as a better way to go about that than an organization where the response to the alligator-thing is "poke it with prisoners and other SCPs basically at random and see what happens," or where the exploration of the mirror-universes is more or less the exact opposite of "scientific."

      It's entirely possible I have the wrong idea about what the GOI is actually like, though. I'm going off of a single story about them I read (chosen by virtue of being the shortest one I could quickly find :P) wherein a GOI diplomat is trying to clean up a mess the Foundation made when they came in and kidnapped some anomolous wildlife that the GOI was trying to negotiate peacefully with, as well as the GOI's five-goal list, which seemed eminently reasonable. "Keep humanity safe, preserve the human way of life, protect individual lives" seems like a pretty solid top-three goals.

      I would actually really like something that was like the Foundation, but with more science and less LOLEDGY stuff, like the murdering a few hundred people at the end of each month and the sending people on suicide missions without any particular goals or even working hypotheses to test. Maybe the later articles are more like what I was hoping for?

    2. Read stuff in the 2000s (it's hard to tell when 1000s articles were posted), the murderdeathkill is a lot more frowned upon these days, and "terminated after a month" is generally interpreted as "administered amnestics". Like, it's supposed to be a faceless, heartless, purely rational organization, but that doesn't mean they have to needlessly waste human life, especially when they derive use from it.

      You can find some great, great writing in the finalists of the 2000 contest:

      I wrote one of them (2525), but it's not as great as most of the others.

  2. First heard about SCP from Present's readings awhile back. Kinda interesting, but not something I really got into. Seems fitting you'd lead this installment with that

    Schemering Sintel and Gods-In-Law are both missing their ratings. The latter's also missing a link. There were typos, but I've already forgotten where they were. Sorry. Blame the dog that keeps trying to play with me

  3. PP also got me into SCP, at least somewhat. I like to visit the site near the end of the month, and have a look at the top stories. The newer ones tend to be significantly better than the average pre-1000 SCPs, and even when the SCP isn't well written, they at least tend to contain interesting ideas. I think that my favourite ones are the tales about the Antimemetics division, starting from here:

    1. Antimemetics is just one of many fucking awesome, well-explored ideas on this wiki. :D