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But First, We Need to Talk About Parallel Universes · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 400–750
King Laius
You ever spend $5,000 on a backpack? I have. Worth every penny.

It’s stylish canvas with leather-reinforced corners and double-stitched nylon seams. Tough as hell and holds four textbooks, a laptop, sandwich bag, and all the random junk that accumulates during a college student’s day. I had an embroiderer attach one of those cloth nametapes the military uses, which not only gives it a nice accent, but reminds people who I am in case they forget and can only see my backpack for some reason.

It’s also the local anchor point for a semi-sentient, multi-dimensional wormhole that scans billions of alternate universes, many of which are a bit further along time’s arrow than ours, and every morning it automatically fills itself with a single item that I will need at some point during the day. Like, last week, it had a packet of wet-wipes when I woke up, and sure enough at lunch I spilled grape juice all over my hands, leaving them a sticky, sugary mess. The wet-wipes were exactly what I needed. Thanks, wormhole! $5,000 well spent.

I opened the backpack when I woke up this morning, just like always. First thing I do.

There was a gun inside.




Let’s be clear about something: I don’t know the first thing about guns. I’ve never shot one in my life. Never wanted to.

After the initial shock faded, I reached out and gingerly lifted the weapon. It was heavy, much heavier than I expected, and painted solid black. Tiny letters stamped on the side named it a Beretta M96 and warned me to read the manual before use.

I checked the backpack. There was no manual.

“Okay,” I put the gun down and pressed my palms against my temples. “This is fine.”

One of the favorite tales of the ancient Greeks was King Oedipus. Oedipus’s father, King Laius, heard a prophesy that his son would grow up to slay him. To avoid this, he abandoned his infant son to die. But shepherds found the boy, and raised him, and in time Oedipus grew and went out into the world, and on the roads he one day encountered his father the king, and not knowing him slew him in a quarrel. Thus, by Laius’s own actions the fate he sought to avoid came to pass.

It’s weird the things you learn when you have a semi-sentient wormhole backpack. My Google search history has some crazy shit in it.

Anyway, all this is to say I already know what you’re thinking. Just stay home. Skip class, and you’ll miss whatever crazy thing that was going to happen that your backpack thought you needed a gun for.

But that’s what Laius would do. He thought he was smarter than fate. If I stayed home, it just meant the backpack thought I’d need the gun here instead of out there. Would that be any better? Good question. I thought about it long and hard while hunched over the toilet, hyperventilating and trying not to be sick.

I need a gun today. The thought burned like flare in my mind. I tried to imagine all the harmless reasons a computer science undergrad at Arizona State University might need a gun on a Tuesday. That lasted a few seconds. Then I started thinking about all the realistic, shooty reasons a college student might need a gun. Then I threw up.

I rinsed my mouth and went back to the backpack. There was nothing else inside -- not even a concealed carry permit. But then, the backpack could only ever give me one item, and apparently the wormhole controlling it figured I’d rather have a gun and no permit than a permit and no gun. Fuck, why couldn’t it just have given me a bus ticket to Flagstaff?

Answer: because a bus ticket out of town wouldn’t be as useful. I hunched over, breathing hard, trying not to pass out.

I thought of my grandfather, who fought in Europe during the war. Was this how he felt, the night before battle? Did he cradle his rifle, pondering all the events that led him to that moment, waiting in a foxhole, unable to sleep, dreading the dawn? Was it reassuring to him, knowing why he had a gun? Why he needed it?

I could only wish for such certainty. I slipped my textbooks into the backpack, nestling them around the weapon, concealing it from casual observation.

I was not King Laius. I walked out the door.
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#1 ·
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This is a compelling little piece. I wish the author had had the space to take it to a conclusion. Upper tier.
#2 ·
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first question: did the gun come with ammo? or do cartridges count as additional items?

fascinating concept here. I like that it's explained quickly, up front. It kinda resembles PKD's story Paycheck, though the gun makes it less subtle. I'll let it slide, it's still interesting.

second question: why not a bigger gun? or a single-shot derringer? yet the wormhole is certain the beretta is perfect here...

ok, I'm being facetious with those questions, but it does make me think that as charming and vivid the story is, it's a little too vague. the open-ended... ending.... makes me impatient for more, rather than pondering big questions about destiny and changing fate. I think there's too little information (compared to the oracle's misleading fortune) to even know if this was a meaningful choice or not.

This is still really strong, but borrows too much from the quoted King Laius story for its conflict, so not much originality.

or maybe I would've preferred the Paycheck-style story, so it could just be me.
#3 ·
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Argh. This is a stupidly squandered wonderful idea. I don't pretend it's original, because I'm sure we can find it elsewhere, but it's great.

And what do you do with it? Nothing! Instead of giving us bang for our bucks, you wallow into a lecture about Oedipus that doesn't make the plot advance in the slightest, and then proceed into an introspective contemplation we don't care much about either.

At the end of the day, I still don't know why the gun appeared, which is precisely what I wanted to know, and what the nub of the conflict is about. Thanks for telling Oedipus's story, but this is a story, not a class…

So payoff = zilch.

Bummer.
#4 · 1
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I hurt my arm, so I'm recording reviews instead of typing them.

Listen at this link.
#5 · 3
· · >>horizon >>AndrewRogue
Have I talked about the MICE quotient? I think I have. Here is some people who are better than me talking about it:

http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/08/07/writing-excuses-6-10-scott-cards-m-i-c-e-quotient/

To keep it short, since I'm sure I've talked about this before, the MICE quotient is a sort of breakdown of story concept: milieu (a story about your world), idea (a story about a concept/question), character (about a character changing), and event (a story about a thing happening).

So why do I bring this up? Because satisfying stories are constructed with this in mind, starting and ending with the same element. This isn't to say that you can't include multiple elements, it is just often that you nest them, such that things resolve in a satisfying order.

So why am I bringing this up here? Because I think that's where this otherwise solid story goes wrong. You start us out with an idea or event story (depending on how you take the information), but you end on a character story, which creates a rather unsatisfying arc. You have set it up so that we, the readers, expect payoff for the gun story, but instead we are hard swung into a very personal character story at the halfway point. Which is really unsatisfying, because that's not the story you prepped us to expect.

Had you led with the character stuff, the conclusion being his decision to face things down would be much more satisfying, but instead we're left wanting you to actually resolve the story you presented at the beginning. The nested character story resolves fine, but you still leave the event/idea story hanging.

I'm also a bit unsure of the allegorical Laius comparison. I mean, in part, the difference is that our lead here goes off to face his fate rather than try to avoid it... but that's kind of the issue of fate here. Neither of their decisions really matter. What they do is guided by fate regardless. That's kind of the issue: once fate exists, it doesn't matter because you aren't really choosing anymore. Going to meet whatever he needs the gun for is the same as Laius choice to try and avert his fate, because ultimately choice doesn't exist.
#6 ·
· · >>Cassius >>horizon
Okay. But why'd the protagonist need the gun? I really want to write "Thanks for writing!" and end there, because the other comments hit all the obvious points, but let's see.

Is this really the strangest thing the magic backpack has ever provided? Did the protagonist not forsee something like this as a possibility when purchasing? Why so much fuss about a simple Beretta? (Guns mean different things to different cultures, but Arizona State University, USA is specified here. That's right in the heartland of American gun culture. Most people in Arizona have probably learned firearm safety and fired a gun at some point in their lives.) Is it even loaded? What eventually happens?

These are all things I would have liked to see answered, instead of the Laius stuff. I realize the author was probably intending to center the piece on the backpack, and the whole philosophical fate avoidance thing, but, well, that just isn't very compelling compared to the immediate realities of the gun and the life of the character holding it. It's hard to step back from a concept once you've started writing, but sometimes it's worthwhile to step back and think "am I really approaching this from the most interesting direction? Do I have a strong story arc?"

The writing's vivid enough, and the author clearly has technical chops. Probably enough to take this reasonably high in the "concept but not quite a story" tier. Just apply a bit of work on direction, and we'll be in there. Thanks for writing!
#7 ·
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>>Ranmilia

I just noticed that "Arizona State University" is USA backwards. COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT.
#8 · 1
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I might come back and review this thing in its entirety, but I feel this story is sadly underappreciated both for its technical chops and premise, and while it doesn't undergo the most interesting arc that it could have, it still blows a lot of the competition out of the water in terms of presentation.
#9 ·
· · >>Trick_Question
You ever spend $5,000 on a backpack? I have. Worth every penny.


OH GODS SOMEONE FINALLY UNDERSTANDS MY BACKCOUNTRY HIKING OBSESSION--

It’s also the local anchor point for a semi-sentient, multi-dimensional wormhole...


... oh

Hot damn, this is a fantastic hook though. Only two-thirds through my initial slate but I'm confident I won't read a better one this round.

And after reading through, this is rocketing to the top of my slate and I suspect it will be hard to dislodge. Well done, author!

That's not to say that this story doesn't have its flaws. The digression into the titular king, for example, cuts away from the immediate and gripping problem in a way that feels far too abstract and distant. The tension of the story comes from the narrator's panic about the consequences of the gun. Him stopping to explain the analogy undercuts that tension significantly. Consider reframing that section explicitly as the narrator's attempt to distract himself from the problem at hand -- and have it come up naturally in the context of thinking about ways to circumvent whatever the gun will be useful for, rather than out of nowhere. (i.e., have it follow the analysis begun beneath it.)

I do feel like I have to comment, as well, on the "not quite a story" complaint that >>Ranmilia offers. I just passed my three-year Writeoffversary, and after extensive study of the minific format I would like to offer a modest opinion that you are wrong forever and all your opinions are invalid at this wordcount length, using "is this a complete story with a full narrative arc?" as one of your primary metrics for minific ranking is an exercise doomed to frustration [1]. I think there's a lot of babies that get thrown out in that bathwater.

I've talked a lot in previous rounds about splitting entries into three loose classes: stories, scenes that want to be stories, and scenes that want to be scenes.

My personal ranking of Writeoff minifics is based on what impression the entry leaves as a standalone reading experience, arc or no. If an entry introduces and resolves an arc, it's great that the author managed to complete a full story in 750 words, but at that length resolving a narrative arc is basically the only thing you can do well. (See e.g. medalist Cold Comfort, whose exposition and characterization were slashed to the bone to squeeze into 750.)

Stories can be great for reasons that don't have anything to do with their arcs, and if a minific spends its words on those other factors, the arc is necessarily gonna be shortchanged (and vice versa). If a poor narrative arc is a dealbreaker for you, it's perfectly legitimate to vote accordingly -- but I would suggest that minifics just aren't ever going to make you happy and you might want to save yourself the ongoing disappointment. (I've largely stepped away from minifics myself; I'm mostly doing deep reviews this round out of guilt that I didn't do so in the short-story rounds last month.)

Other entries abandon the idea of exploring an arc in favor of exploring a moment in time, and exploring the emotional resonance of that moment -- this is what I mean by "scenes that want to be scenes". There's no ambition of giving you a three-act conflict, because that's not the punch they're throwing. I think the most famous, and well-realized, of these moment-stories would be Cold in Gardez's "Lost Cities", which started life as a Writeoff minific. ("The Red Forest" was my own experiment in the genre, though with a specific message grounded in a real-world context, and probably one of the OF minifics I'm proudest of: among other things, it's quite possibly the first medalist under 500 words.) And then there are the experiments: If we grade primarily on narrative arc, where does that leave acclaimed stories like the runaway gold-medalist 4th District Court, Canterlot, 11:35 a.m.?

(n.b.: I was looking for more examples, including other people's medalists, but there's something weird about the scoreboard story listings and I just filed a bug report on the Writeoff github)

If a minific provides a self-contained reading experience which makes me feel things, I think it has done its job as a (complete) story -- completed narrative arc or not.

That said, this fic does somewhat straddle the line of "self-contained", in that it's sort of have-cake-and-eat-it-too-ing with the gun bit. (That was >>AndrewRogue's bait-and-switch complaint.) I want to know more about what happens! (If the story is otherwise strong, which it is, then that's a pretty good problem to have.)

I disagree that it's a dealbreaker problem like Andrew makes it out to be, because as good as the MICE advice is, I think the problem isn't a MICE issue. The gun thing establishes tension, and the core of the story is about exploring that tension, which is fundamentally a Character core; the first scene is there to set the hook and all of the story's meat comes after the wham line which ends it. That said, I think there is a sense of gear-switching, if not the one he identifies: there's definitely some emotional gears which flip in scene two. First gear is tension and freak-out. Second gear is the calm resignation with which the piece ends, and I don't think we really get to follow the narrator smoothly across that gap.

All that said, it's great to see some informed critiques on this story which which I can vehemently disagree with their wrongness engage in dialogue, and I'm excited that I've got a story on my slate which is both an entertaining read and robust enough to launch those debates.

Tier: Top Contender




[1] However, I am 100% with you on the complaint that 750 words is insufficient to write robust stories with full narrative arcs, and I hope you will join in my longstanding crusade to get a minific round implemented with a 500-1000 word limit rather than 400-750. That allows enough breathing room to add depth to a story which manages to cram a narrative arc into 750, but isn't enough of an expansion that authors can afford to waste words. (Seeing what can be cut and what's essential is a really valuable skill that the minific rounds have taught me, but as a reader I feel like even winning stories from consistently strong authors feel too aggressively constrained.)
#10 ·
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Re: the horizon megapost, I responded mainly in Discord; might put something in the general discussion thread later. I did want to note here, though, that it's a little odd that was sparked about this story, and that's my fault for being unclear in my initial comments on this and apparently coming off much more negatively than I actually felt.

When I say "not a story" I'm being slightly imprecise, there are actually several sublevels of that, and King Laius here is only a minor offender at most. Now that I've finished the entire field and am moving final votes around, this makes my top 5, so uh, don't think I didn't like it!
#11 ·
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I'm not ejaculating as hard as ( >>horizon ) is, but this is a well-written and interesting minific.

The hook was amazing, but unfortunately it was the high point of the story. The rest was largely internal monologue, and something—anything—hinting about potential dangers or possible solutions would have made this more worth reading for me. I think this actually works better as a microfic: just lose everything after the words "gun inside".

I struggle to identify with the narrator's logic. He thinks he's smarter than Laius, yet he fails to realize that having the fated confrontation would be more dangerous in a campus environment (not to mention adding peril to all the other students who could get hurt). He also runs the risk of getting in trouble with the law, which he even points out, whereas using the gun in his apartment against an intruder wouldn't affect him at all. Even if he did do something illegal with it, the gun will vanish tomorrow, presumably; otherwise this backpack would be generating free stuff every day and thus be worth waaaaaay more than five grand.

Going to class makes no sense at all, not because the protagonist is trying to avoid fate, but because they fail to consider how much more dangerous they're making their day. A truly intelligent protagonist would engineer a safe situation where a gun would be helpful, and that would have made for a much more interesting read.

All that said, this kind of falls into the "very well written, but great idea squandered" bin for me. But wow, everything before the break was perfect.

Also, the break serves no purpose whatsoever except to add weight to the hook. It's a cheap gimmick, or else I don't understand why it's there. There is no break in the action or train of thought of the main character whatsoever, so why is there a literary pause?
#12 ·
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This is good. Our narrator's reaction to the gun feel perfectly justified to me.
#13 ·
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This was actually a pretty intriguing fic. The idea of a very genre-savvy character realizing that he can't fight fate provides an interesting mental conflict (all to prepare for a physical conflict). I also liked how the story focuses more on the result of one of these wormholes than taking too much time to set up the story. Just give 'em the MacGuffin and get going, that's my motto!

There were a few downsides, though. For starters, do you really have to explain the entire concept of Oedipus Rex? I get it's to illustrate the conflict the narrator has, but the amount of detail feels gratuitous. Oedipus Rex is one of the most popular tragedies of all time; I doubt you need to explain it in full to people who are known readers. Also, if the narrator is so savvy, why didn't he check the magazine? If the gun had no bullets in it, that could drastically affect his interpretation of the coming events. I know this is a nitpick, but it's frustrating to see such a competent character fail to do something so obvious.

7/10, fire your deans, not your guns
#14 · 1
·
Late to the party, but:

I felt like this could be nicely rounded out with a punchline. I mean it obviously wasn't trying for comedy as-is, and a longer wordcount would allow for some great drama and intrigue, but when I finished reading I just had this image of his college professor beginning the lecture with "Today we're having a surprise show-and-tell on guns!"

(I mean obviously use a punchline that's actually funny but you know what I mean)
#15 · 3
· · >>Trick_Question >>Trick_Question
King Laius

Congratulations to all the finalists and the other medalists, particularly AndrewRogue.

The reviews on King Laius didn't have leave me expecting such a decent placement. But apparently some people really liked it, and the people who didn't like it still ranked it somewhere in the middle of their slate. And that all somehow added up to a silver medal.

Some reviews pointed out that there didn't seem to be a complete story here. That there was no payoff at the end. To that criticism I would say: I understand why you feel that way. The reader, given such a shocking hook as this story's, naturally wants to find out what happened to them.

Problem: That's impossible in a 750 word story. I spent hours puzzling over it and finally concluded there was simply no way to do it. No way to write a complete story with the hook, the plot, and the resolution in 750 words.

So instead I wrote a story with a different conflict -- what the character's decision was after discovering the gun. Does he hide in his house, hoping to avoid fate, or go about his day, expecting to meet it? That's a story I can tell in 750 words.

If I ever get around to rewriting this, however, it'll be the first kind of story. Obviously it'll be a lot longer. And I think I'll retitle it Oedipus's Gun.

Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed it.
#16 · 3
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>>Cold in Gardez
I think I'll retitle it Oedipus's Gun.


hot
#17 ·
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>>Cold in Gardez
For my perspective, getting "this is nice" reviews with few nitpicks doesn't generally mean that a story is top shelf material. My most glowing reviews usually mean a story is going in the middle of the slate. If I feel passionately enough about a story to argue it to death, that probably means I appreciate it for its potential.

I had a lot of complaints about your story, but it still ended up number 4 in my slate (and I reviewed every finalist), primarily because I thought the three I placed above it were a little more creative in their inception (yours was easily the most well-written among my top five). The idea was excellent, I just wanted for it to be extended further. I think there are ways you could have done this in 750 words, but that doesn't mean you should have done so: you had a specific story you wanted to tell.