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The Devil's in the Details · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Lost and Found
Living on the streets ain’t difficult.

Really, it ain’t. In a large city like this, I can usually get whatever I want, especially with the university nearby. If I need money, I’ll walk the subways, looking both tremendously sad and tremendously thankful — the Chinese tourists usually eat that stuff up. If I need food, I’ll use the money at a dining hall where the staff aren’t paid enough to care. If I need to look presentable, I’ll sneak into one of the dorms, where I get free laundry and showers. I’m sure the students won’t mind a couple ounces missing of soap and detergent.

Even sleep isn’t an issue. Blankets are awfully cheap these days, and if security doesn’t want me on the park benches, I can always pretend that the ground is just a big tatami mat, or something.

I’d like to think I look pretty normal most days, but sometimes you get the feeling that people know. There’s the quick glance followed by an averted gaze, the slight increase in walking pace. I’ve heard that a lot of people like to ask themselves if they’ve been good people, and if that reputation is hurt by not donating to the homeless. I find that rather amusing. There are no good or bad people in the world, just people trying to survive. Plus, it’s not like I remember any of their faces anyway.

One night, when I’m wandering the streets looking for rocks to kick, I spot a black cat. Most street cats would probably run or shy away, but this one’s different. It approaches me tenderly, meowing softly and staring up with expectant eyes. I feel its soft fur as it headbutts my leg, and it purrs softly as I give it a tentative head scratch.

“I don’t have any food for you, man,” I say, but the cat doesn’t seem to mind. It circles me once, twice, thrice — then curls up at my feet.

I allow a slight smile. Grunting, I lower myself to the ground too, sitting criss-cross with my back leaning against the wall. I stroke the cat’s back this time, eliciting more grateful purrs, and the cat closes its eyes and settles its head on a paw. If it’s a good enough sleeping spot for a cat, I reason, it’s a good enough sleeping spot for me.

People are still ambling about. I think it’s a Friday evening, meaning restaurants are open late to keep the students happy. Funny how a cat changes things. People seem a little more willing to look my direction, and they hold their smiles a little longer, too. Maybe I’ll keep the cat.

It is very late, and I am very hungry.

It’s a little odd, given my appetite has tanked this semester, but I’m not one to say no to a good meal. There’s a cheap little Korean restaurant near the front of campus that sells some really good bulgogi, and I need all the protein I can get for the night’s pick-up soccer game. Turning the final corner, I pick up the pace, eager to savor the rich flavor.

The first thing I notice is the small cat curled up in the corner. It notices me too, peeking through a semi-open eye before shifting around to go back to sleep. Its adorableness almost makes my heart stop. I’d pet it, but I don’t want to bother the homeless dude sleeping right next to it.

He notices me too, though, this time through both eyes. I don’t want him to think I’m some rude asshole for staring for too long, so I quickly hop into the Korean restaurant nearby and order my food.

Finding a seat is difficult; the place is packed with late-night diners. I choose a solitary chair by the window. There’s another nearer to the edge of the room, where I could probably hide my thoughts more easily, but there’s a piece of poop-shaped meat in the center of the chair which I’m hesitant to move. As I wait for my food, I gaze outside, staring at the flickering neon lights that make me feel like I’m in a thunderstorm. The window is translucent, and all of a sudden I realize I’m staring directly at the homeless dude from earlier. I internally curse. He’s probably looking back at me, too. I snap my head away and when the bulgogi arrives, I can only focus on maintaining eye contact with the dish at all times.

One of my rituals before going to sleep is reading the daily paper — it is free, after all. I’m on the comics section when the guy I saw earlier exits the restaurant. With anxiety written on his face and slow, jerky movements, he tiptoes forward before rapidly shaking his head and approaching me.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hey, I, uh —” He takes a deep breath. “Is that your cat and can I pet it?”

I scoff. “Go ahead. It’s not mine.”

I raise an eyebrow as he sits down beside me. With practiced motions, he gently cups the sleepy cat’s head, scratching its cheeks and chin. “I don’t see many friendly cats like this,” he says. “Most of the other cats I only see at like, four in the morning, and you can’t get within ten feet of them.”

“Yeah,” I reply. I don’t tell him about all the other things I’ve seen cats do at four in the morning.

“Anyways,” he continues. “I know people say you’re supposed to give homeless people food over money, so —” I feel him internally cringing at that statement, and I cringe a little too. “Okay, I’m sorry. I worded that completely wrong. Is it okay if I, you know, get you a hot meal for tonight or something? The restaurant I was in has some really good food.”

The last meal I had was yesterday’s dinner, and my stomach knows it. I stare hesitantly at the cat, though, and he notices.

“I can, uh, stay here and look after the cat,” he suggests. “Just… just get anything you want on the menu.” He stands up and fumbles through his pocket, pulling out a wallet. He quickly fishes out a twenty, and hands it to me. “Here, have this. You can keep the change.”

I size the kid up. He may have the social skills of a platypus, but at least he has a good heart. “Hey, thanks man. Much appreciated,” I reply, and take the twenty.

When he walks inside the restaurant, I sink to my knees again.

I’m so stupid. I’m so fucking stupid. That’s all I could think to say? I might as well just leave here, and the university entirely.

The cat shifts in its sleep again, dispelling my thoughts. I give it another tentative stroke, and lean back onto the wall. Resigning myself to missing the soccer game, I pull out my phone and mindlessly play some dumb word game. That way, as people pass by, they'll just see some random college kid who found a stray cat, as opposed to… you know.

Ten minutes pass, and he’s back outside with a takeout bag in his hand. Without a word, he places the change in front of me, and goes back to his original sitting spot.

I gather it up and place it back in front of him. “Seriously, take it,” I insist. “I mean, you don’t look like a druggie or anything. So it’s yours.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure? After the whole ‘food not money’ thing —”

“That was stupid,” I interject. “Just take it.”

“Thanks, then,” he responds, and puts the money in his pocket.

We sit there in silence for a couple minutes, and I watch him unpack his meal, quickly blowing on the Japchae. I recognize it as the cheapest item on the menu. It’s small, and it doesn’t take too long for him to devour everything.

When he wipes his mouth for the last time, I speak up again. “Is it okay if we just, uh, talk for a little bit? I guess I’m just curious, about everything. I guess I’d just like to know you better as a person.”

He shrugs. “Sure. Not like I have anything better to do.”

“Cool, thanks.” I smile. “So how’d you get here? I’d like to think that you’d be, you know, under care somewhere.”

“You’ve heard the story a million times before,” he says. “Parents were drunks. One day I decided I’d stopped caring enough about school to stay, so I didn’t.”

He’s right; I have heard the story before. It hurts to admit it, but the more it happens the harder it gets to care about each instance. I do my best to invest in the situation regardless. “Are you thinking about returning back to schooling?” I ask. “I mean, besides the university, there’s two middle schools and a high school nearby.”

“Maybe,” he replies. “But that would be kind of difficult, given my, you know, situation.”

We talk back and forth, until it’s too dark to see. As the cat snores away, I bid my goodbyes, sprinting towards the subway before the last train pulls away. It’s been the longest conversation I’ve had in months, maybe ever. Who knows, I think. Maybe I’ll see him again.

The black cat is gone by the time I wake up. I sigh. It was good while it lasted.

The next week, there’s a protest near campus.

It’s about a bunch of political crap that I don’t really care about, but I do care about the masked strangers that show up in droves. There’s conflict afoot, and everyone can smell it.

The city put up signs. “No bricks. No rocks. No pepper spray. No knives or daggers.”

There are a couple funny ones too. “No maces. No ice picks. No shields.”

Idiots, I think. I bet they’ll just bring bows instead. It turns out I’m half right. They bring a model trebuchet, as a political statement or something. It gets confiscated anyway.

As I walk away from the chanting, as if by divine luck, I spot the black cat again. It laps at some water spilled on the street before freezing as it notices me. It runs up to me again, headbutting my leg like last time.

“Hey again, buddy,” I say. “Sorry, but I still don’t have any food for you.”

The cat meows, and saunters away a short distance. Then it turns its head back, as if expecting me to follow. So I do.

It twists and turns through alleyways I’ve never been through before. When it comes to a halt, I see him again. He’s asleep on a park bench, backpack under his head like a makeshift pillow.

“Are you God?” I ask the cat.

It doesn’t reply, of course, but it does jump onto the bench and bat at his face. He jumps, and for a brief moment I see wild-eyed bewilderment on his face. He calms down, though, and laughs.

“For a moment, I thought you were Antifa,” he says. “But hey, fancy meeting you again.”

“Why are you just sleeping on a random bench?” I inquire.

He sighs. “School’s been a bitch. I get sleep when I can.” He pauses. “You know, I just found out the uni has sleep pods. I’ve found car seats more comfortable, but I guess I could sneak you into the library, if you wanted to try them out.”

I shrug. “Nah, I’m okay where I am.”

“Well, if you’re happy where you are,” he says. “By the way, I was thinking. Real quick, do you think you could take this test?”

He pulls out a laptop from his backpack and quickly types something. He flips the screen around so I can see, and I am greeted with a website embedded with so much clip art that it belongs in the nineties, probably.

“It’s a reading test,” he begins. “I just thought I could get you something to do, you know.”

The questions are easy at first, and I roll my eyes. I enlighten myself with the newfound knowledge that a small circular object can be called a ball. The test picks up, though, and I find myself struggling with the grammar before the website outputs a reading. I hand the computer back over to him and he looks it over.

“Anyways,” he says. “I gotta run to class now, but tomorrow I’ll start bringing some reading material for you. If you’d like it, of course. I’ll hang around the south side of campus for a while so you can find me. See ya.”

He takes off, and it’s just me and the cat again. I stare at the cat suspiciously. “You know,” I say, “you never answered my question earlier.”

The cat licks its paw innocently, but I swear I see it wink for a second.

Walking back to class, I tell myself two things.

One. I am an absolute genius.

Two. I am an absolute idiot.

For one thing, I’ve probably made a friend. I’ll read some books together with him, and we’ll talk about them together. We won’t have to find each other by chance anymore.

On the other hand, I haven’t read worth shit in the past couple years. It’s a miracle I even made it to college. Even worse, I’ve just committed myself to reading back at the sixth grade level.

Well, I tell myself, a deal’s a deal. The next day I’m back with two identical books in my backpack, and he shows up, too.

We start off relatively easy, and I get to experience the joy of reliving my childhood. First, we finish A Wrinkle in Time, which turns out to be splendid. Next is Eragon, which takes him a little over three weeks. Somehow, we develop a routine — every couple of weeks, we meet at a café, I buy him lunch, and we mull over literature. It’s a miracle I have the time or energy to do any of it, but I’m there regardless, and so is he.

Winter comes, and I develop a nasty cough. I have the month alone to myself; all the students are home for the break. It sucks, being sick and lonely.

It sucks, being home for the holidays. Christmastime is prime time for three syllable hunting grounds, it seems. Gee pee ayy, resumé, and dishonor seem to be the big ones this time around. My parents don’t seem to be a big fan of my acquaintances, either. According to them, I’m not supposed to be associating with people “lesser” than me.

The day after Christmas, I get a vision.

I wake up, hands trembling and legs quaking. I don’t remember much from the dream, but there’s not much that needs to be explained.

In the dream, the black cat is there, but it’s small. Dark shadows dance along cavern walls, and when I turn around, a raven the size of a house is there. It’s abstract, and I can barely see where its feathers start and end, but in its claws lies the shape of my friend.

Without hesitation, I take the subway all the way back to school. When I get there, I already see the black cat. It doesn’t surprise me, even though I haven’t seen it for months. Regardless, it leaps away, and I sprint after it, fearing for the worst.

Thankfully, that’s not what I get. He’s still alive, but the doctors say he has pneumonia. It takes him a week before he’s fully conscious again, and the doctors recommend he stays for additional monitoring.

Two weeks later, that diagnosis gets upgraded to cancer.

Living on the streets ain’t difficult. Living in a hospital sure is.

One time when I wake, the doctor and my friend are having an argument.

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no way your diagnosis is correct.”

The doctor sighs, adjusting his glasses with frail hands. “Again, we’ve run through all the tests, and I’m sorry.”

“I need more information, sir. Surely that’s something you can provide.”

The doctor notices I’m awake. It turns out that more information can be provided. Thirty minutes later and I’m done filling out the release of information form. It’s not like I understand what I have, anyway.

It’s the worst feeling in the world knowing that the tumor is malignant.

“They called it Pleuropulmonary Blastoma,” I say glumly. “When you were born, some of your cells mutated the wrong way. It was a small detail, but one that pushed its way to the surface eventually.”

He stays quiet.

“You can fight it, you know?” I plead. “There’s a saying. ‘When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them — it’s the fear.’”

Bullshit. People die of cancer because cancer kills people.

It’s the worst feeling in the world knowing that that the past couple months, and everything really, didn’t matter. In retrospect, it seemed like a joke. I’d accomplished so much, yet so little. In the end, it had just been a whisper, a breath in the ebb of time.

Tears stream down his face.

He yells, but his voice is steady. “You’re fifteen! Cancer isn’t supposed to claim fifteen year olds! Homelessness isn’t supposed to claim fifteen year olds! You’ve had this shitty, terrible life, and life is just finding one way after another to kick your ass.” He clenches his fist angrily. “If there’s a god somewhere out there, he’ll pay.”

All of a sudden, lightning flashes outside, and I realize it’s raining. When I regain my vision, the black cat is back, right outside my window, somehow.

My friend’s eyes widen, and his face morphs into an expression of pure, unbridled rage. “YOU!” he shouts. “It was you!” He dashes towards the window, and I can smell murder.

“Stop!” With my fading energy, I call out, and he somehow listens. I watch as the black cat, drenched in water, blinks slowly. “You’re wrong. When I was reading, I found a cat called Oscar, that always slept next to terminally ill patients who were about to… die. Maybe this cat just knew. Maybe it was a kindred spirit or something, who just wanted to offer me comfort.”

He relents, burying his face in his hands. “You’re only fifteen,” he repeats.

I gaze at his devastated figure. Just a couple months ago, I’d never met him. In a couple months, I’d learned to look up to him, and here he was, breaking down in front of me for the first time. Fate was funny like that.

In the moment, I feel a strange kinship with the black cat. “Hey, man,” I say. “I never had a chance to truly thank you for everything you’ve done.” When I first met the black cat, it seemed lost, and I took it in. “When I first met you, I was lost. You gave me something to look forward to, and I really appreciate that.”

“Bullshit,” he responds. “Do you remember how awkward I was at first? How insensitive? If anything, I should be thanking you, you know. You’ve been dealt all this crap, and you were living life regardless. I don’t think I could’ve done that.”

We embrace. When I look up, the black cat is gone.

I’m reminded of something else I learned about cats. Cats don’t fear death like humans do, partly because they don’t even have a good understanding of it.

Maybe I’ll just have to make do like that. And maybe, just like cats do, I’ll embrace it when it happens.

But maybe I won’t. Mother Nature gave cats claws and fangs to fight with, after all. Maybe that’s what the black cat wanted from me.

“I’ll fight it,” I finally say. “And I’ll beat it. We’ll get through this, together.”

Outside, the rain starts to clear up. It’s still afternoon, and the sun is starting to make another appearance. I offer a hand, and my friend takes it.

“Yeah. Together.”
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#1 · 2
· · >>_Moonshot
This story has a really strong sense of theme and message, which really does make re-reads all the more pleasant. I mentioned in the chat how I liked the use of the cat as a way to let our two main characters express themselves, outside of conversation with one another. It's a well-thought out way of giving us more opportunities to become invested in how the characters handle the theme of interpreting one's own circumstances.

In terms of critiques, I will have to mention that the perspective-hopping really threw me off initially. I got all the way down to halfway through the third scene before I realized what was happening. Up until that point, I was thinking that this was a story about a person working his way through college while not having a place to stay. I think the misunderstanding might stem from the tight first-person perspectives and the fact that both the 1st scene's ending and the 2nd scene beginning talk about hunger and food. It was natural for me to assume that both "I"s were the same person.

On a thematic level, I'm also not exactly sure what the homeless person being so young really adds to the narrative, other than cashing in sympathy points. I mentioned in the chat how this might be to contrast how longer people and older people view their lot in life, but it's still kinda unclear to me. On a fridge logic note, it's also a little tough for me to imagine how an unaccompanied 15 year old could drop so completely off the grid like this, but I don't know much about CPS or homelessness, so maybe I'm missing something.

So overall, I like the message of this story and I like how it handles its character interactions. But things like the perspective jumping and the slight out-of-the-blueness of the age reveal (I mean, he calls the college student "kid" at one point) really do impact my first reading. But the fact that this story feels that much stronger on my subsequent read-throughs really goes to show the great job you did with your high-level planning.

Thank you for submitting!
#2 · 1
· · >>_Moonshot
At first, when it hard cut to him saying that he was hungry, I 100% believed that he was going to eat the cat.


I didn’t mind the pov shift, but then again I usually don’t, or at least I didn’t mind until the last shift in perspective. In my opinion, if you didn’t go with the plot twist of him being fifteen, it would have made this story ten times better. For now it just confuses the reader and makes them feel less for the boy bc we feel like you want Miller points for including how sad it is.

I do love the importance of the cat and how it’s only circumstantial, like how cancer isn’t something with higher meaning, it’s just cancer.

A well put together fic with good pacing. Adios.
#3 · 2
· · >>_Moonshot
A short little slice of life with a good amount of pathos and heart. I will agree wholeheartedly with Bachi that I think the perspective swaps could be smoothed out a bit. The character voices are a little indistinct (especially given the revealed age difference) which makes it a little hard to tell for sure that you've bounced without a better flag at the start of a new section.

I also agree with Anon that I feel the reveal cheapens the story a bit? Aside from very much feeling like a manufactured revealed for added pathos, as someone who lives in in the Bay in California, I see a lot of homeless people on a day to day basis, and very few of the ones I see are kids. And, of course, making it a sadder reveal for it to be a kid... kinda takes away from all the other people suffering on the street, if that makes sense? Like this fairly tragic implication that if this were some 30 year old vet or something that it is inherently less sad (and thus his tragedy is worth less). I don't think that's your intention, of course, but it is kinda what happens when you structure this way.

The cat is a nice little weavethrough detail and the heart is definitely there. Maybe spend a little more time on their interaction so we can see the friendship grow?
#4 ·
· · >>_Moonshot
I think this story has a good bit of heart to it, and the pacing is decent, but it does have a handful of issues. Others have pointed it out, but the character voices could use with a bit of work to make them more distinct, which would improve the perspective hoping; while I didn't have issues with the perspective jumping, it would strengthen it. I do also think the cat could use a little bit of extra work, and a few more scenes with both of them before the illness reveal would help too.
#5 ·
· · >>_Moonshot
I'll echo:

Pretty much everything everybody else said. The 2nd paragraph gave me an image of our first character as someone who could pass as a university student, so finding out later that he was so young kciked me out of the story a little. But the character voices are distinct enough that I never had trouble telling who was being 1st person each time. It would've made a nice moment in their developing relationship, though, to see them actually tell each other their names. Good stuff, though!

#6 · 1
· · >>Bachiavellian
>>Anon Y Mous
>>Baal Bunny
Wow, totally didn't expect this much response to my story. Thanks to everyone for the criticism and the compliments (of which I was rather surprised to get, haha)

First off: Bachi's Lost and Undertones is the single greatest roast I have received in my life, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Ok, now on to how I came up with this story. This was not organized in any way, sadly; I started writing about 5 hours before the deadline and submitted 5 minutes before the deadline (sorry, no high-level planning here). I just happened to be doing some things just before writing it that seemed like an idea starter, so I ran with it, despite my infinite doubts. So yes, there was a Korean place near my university, and yes, there are a lot of homeless people near it. More on that soon. But first, probably the single most mentioned thing about the story: why is the homeless guy eventually revealed to be fifteen?

So, perhaps embarassingly, I wrote the two main characters as snapshots of myself from different timelines. Yes, now I realize that it probably counts as self-insert, so it probably wasn't a good idea.

What I mean by that is I wrote picturing myself if I had taken two different routes in my life, one more aligned with where I am today, and one a little less, and just sprinkled in some additional details. Upon retrospection, I think this had some benefits and drawbacks. One obvious benefit is that it isn't too much of a stretch to write myself in a different light, and it isn't difficult coming up with dialogue. Obviously, the drawbacks were much larger. For one, it caused the confusion in narrative change, because the characters ended up being so similar to each other. My initial goal when causing both characters to house similar thoughts was giving a feeble attempt at how people in different circumstances can be connected by the same thoughts. Obviously that's not how it panned out, and I acknowledge my mistake. Something I think some of the medalists of the contest did very well was giving each character an individual voice that was easily recognizable, and that's something I'll strive to do in my future entries.

So there were two reasons I made the homeless guy fifteen. One was my hesitation in how the "devil in the details" prompt worked. Given it was my first time participating, I didn't want to get disqualified for writing something not easily relatable to the prompt, so I threw in two very shaky details to accomodate for that. One was the cancer ("It was a small detail, but one that pushed its way to the surface eventually") that led to Andrew's "Proooooompt droooooooop" comment. The other was the age reveal, being the ultimate big detail reveal to the audience. I pushed that too hard, because I was afraid the readers wouldn't see it as a big reveal (let's forget about it just being a bad reveal for now), which led to me purposely attempting to misdirect the audience as to his true age. That's where Bachi's comment about him calling the college student "kid" came from. That was probably a mistake as well, and I could have executed it much, much better. The second reason why I made the homeless guy fifteen was because I'm kind of young, and I don't know how to visualize life as an older version of me. So as a surprise to no one except for me, a character who is homeless should probably cause the story to address homelessness as an issue even more. I'm dumb like that sometimes.

Now onto the main brunt of the issue: people didn't like the reveal, and I totally understand that in retrospect. (I also learned what Miller Points meant, too!) Funny story, Andrew, I actually live in and go to school in the Bay Area as well, so I'm familiar with a lot of what you're familiar with. Cheapening the character and plot was not my intent, and I totally missed the memo on this one, so I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by any misimplied theme. I have one defense, though (kind of), and it's that the characters were written to be flawed. So I'm not sure if college bro would initiate conversation with a random homeless guy on the street if he weren't a child. Perhaps that's something I could have touched on more in the story, but I don't know for sure. Final thoughts on this matter for Baal: I did consider giving names to the characters, but I chickened out because I wasn't sure if the names would add or detract to the story, especially if they were revealed later (and therefore would have to be more sigificant in meaning).

Maybe some of you are curious how the cat came in (but probably not, haha). There is a simple and stupid answer. I like cats, and I like anything about cats. So I wrote my own personal spin on a cat you might find in Japanese folklore, or something. Bachi and anon put it better than I when they said that the cat is just circumstance. My one elaboration I guess is that it wasn't meant to be understood.

Ok, reserving a quick paragraph for Bachi's thoughts on here and the Discord. As I mentioned earlier, the 15-year old was initially just envisioned to be myself if I'd made a few different life decisions, and nothing more, which turned out to be a mistake. I would agree and disagree with your "Younger people accept their circumstances more easily" guess at the theme, though. Agree in that technically it's correct, but as more of an elaboration, I tried to make it so that I would more accurately depict the emotions of a teen who is still maturing and who might not fully understand the scenario, but who still might offer valuable insight that a more mature person would not come upon ("kids say the darndest things"). It probably sounds unsatisfying (and also probably is), but I didn't really have an overarching message that the kid would project, and I left it open to the reader for interpretation.

Ok, onto my own thoughts. I appreciate the people who said this had a good amount of heart put into it, because I certainly didn't feel that way after writing the story. About an hour after I submitted, I kind of came to the realization that my story was just a shitty Fault in our Stars. There's much more character interaction that could have taken place in order to cement a better relationship, but I just didn't have time to properly flesh it out. Even if I did, one criticism I would have for myself is that I failed to make the story as interesting as I would have hoped, and I can't immediately come up with something that wouldn't drag the story out and make it less enjoyable. Even though I was writing alternate versions of myself, I found it incredibly hard to connect with the characters at times, and I was very worried that it would turn out the same way with the audience, too. I'm still not sure where you guys stand on this one. Finally, the ending was very rushed. The scenes got shorter and shorter, and I had less time than I liked to create a serious relationship between the pair. I absolutely despised the cancer reveal, to be honest, but I had nothing better that I could think of. That was the first out-of-the-blue thing for me, and I understand if anyone else was suddenly caught off guard by the change in tone.

I have a couple questions, if anyone is willing to answer. So if I fixed the 15-year old thing and made the characters a little more distinct, is there anything else y'all would have liked to see to make this a top contender? I'm new to writing, so I have very little confidence in my own writing style as well. I would sincerely appreciate if I was made aware of elements in the writing itself that didn't work, or perhaps more importantly, worked alright, but not enough to create impact.

Sorry this response dragged on for so long; I just had a lot to get out of my mind, I guess. If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I really appreciate it! :)
#7 · 2
So if I fixed the 15-year old thing and made the characters a little more distinct, is there anything else y'all would have liked to see to make this a top contender?

Okay, so this is just going to be me running my mouth about my own personal ideas about what makes sad stories sad. Because really, about 80% of what I write are sadfics of varying quality, so I've inevitably developed my own half-baked theories on what makes the good ones work.

Sadness, in my opinion, comes from character motivations. Specifically, it happens when the audience realizes that a character that they care about will not get what they want. For this to work, though, the audience needs to be (1) invested in some degree in the character's well-being, (2) understanding and sympathetic to what the character wants, and (3) successfully convinced that the character cannot have what they want.

Good examples of how this model works in storytelling would probably be every Pixar movie ever made. Taking Toy Story 3 for an example, what Woody and the toys want is for Andy to play with them again. The audience cares about the toys because they have memorable and charming personalities, and the audience is sympathetic to their motivation because everyone knows how important it is to feel useful and valued. And the audience is successfully convinced that the toys can't get what they want because they understand that Andy has outgrown them.

I think one of the issues I personally had with this story was that it struggled to define its motivations for the two main characters. What does the homeless boy want to do, both in the immediate sense and in the long-term? In the immediate sense, he wants to get something to eat, and he does get something to eat. But in the long-term, he actually seems strangely content with his place in life. He doesn't really want anything. Similarly, the college student also doesn't really have well-defined wants and desires.

So when the cancer reveal comes around, there are two things working against it. One, is that the audience doesn't quite particularly care that homeless-boy may not live to a ripe old age, because we don't really know what he'd do with his life if he didn't get cancer. The second is that suddenly revealing "cancer" does not do a great job at (3) convincing us that it is a good and inevitable reason to deny the character of what they want to do.

To bring things back to Pixar movies, they all add a great twist to the formula, which is that while they deny the characters what the characters wanted at the start of the movie, they always give the characters something different and new by the end. In the case of Toy Story 3, the toys get to go live with Molly.

So, to summarize, the foundation of making a sad story work is to make the characters feel relatable and motivated by clear goals.

I'm new to writing, so I have very little confidence in my own writing style as well.

Really, don't sweat defining a "style". Just read a lot, and imitate what you like. Pay attention to how your favorite authors and stories write sequences that immerse you or make you feel strong emotions. Doing something as simple as asking yourself at the end of every page why you feel the way you do is a great exercise.

I would sincerely appreciate if I was made aware of elements in the writing itself that didn't work, or perhaps more importantly, worked alright, but not enough to create impact.

Personally, I thought the cat was the best part of the story. I think one of the main reasons why it felt so strong was because of its vagueness that the cat introduces to our two main characters. Let me explain.

What some bad writers tend to do is that they choke their characters by trying to define each and every emotion the characters are feeling and explaining the thought process behind each and every word they say. Doing this doesn't make your characters feel complex; it makes them feel like robots. When each output has a very well-defined input, why should we even bother reading the rest of the story?

The best stories don't explain their characters, but instead leave enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about why the characters do what they do. This is what we do in real life after all—we create mental impressions of the people we know by filling in the gaps of what we don't know. No matter how close you are to your best friend or spouse, you don't know everything that goes on in their head, so you're left judging their character from your impression of what they say and do.

To bring things back to your cat, I think your cat did a great job of introducing uncertainty to what our characters did. A lot of conversation was generated in the Discord chat about why the characters seemed to treat the cat differently at different times, and I thought that it was a perfect indication that the cat was making the characters seem complex. When characters behave in ways we don't entirely expect, readers are intrigued and they ask themselves, "why?". Though of course, you don't want to overdo it and risk making your characters feel out of character.

Blugh, I hope all that rambling was vaguely useful. Let me know if I'm being indecipherable, or just completely wrong.