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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility · She-Ra Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
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The Castle Courtyard
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#1 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny >>No_Raisin >>QuillScratch
Okay, second up at bat, The Castle Courtyard!

Compared with the other three stories in this round, Courtyard proceeds at a much slower pace. It covers years of character development, whereas the others focus on shorter periods of time (from a few days for Her Way and (Don’t) Let Go to apparently just an hour-or-so for The Master’s Tools). This lends itself to a more languid sort of story and fits the cold setting very well.

But before we talk about anything else, though, we have to shoot the elephant in the room -- the dialogue tags.

Let me start by saying that they’re not a huge problem. They’re not disqualifying. They’re odd and they’re apparently arbitrary, but when you think about it all linguistic conventions are arbitrary. The Japanese use 「 and 」 to denote quotations, and that works fine. There’s no reason a preparatory em-dash can’t work as well.

But we might as well ask the question: why? Quotation marks may be arbitrary but they’re an accepted convention. Changing them up for no particular reason (or, at least, any reason I can understand) seems to serve no purpose. It only confuses the reader (or me, at least) and sets them off in search of a reason, and in the end I think it’s just a red herring.

I felt like it was a bit of meta-textuality at first, especially coming as it did with this line:

Kindergarten came along, and with it just a bit of maturity for her. She grew a couple inches, and she could now use things like commas and apostrophes in her sentences with consistency.

And I thought at first that the narration itself would develop in complexity and detail, mirroring Sophia’s education and maturity. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The narration at the beginning feels just as sophisticated as the narration at the end. So in the end I think I just wasted a bunch of effort looking for something that wasn’t there.

Okay, that elephant’s dead. Let’s move onto the story.

I don’t think I’m being offensive if I say that the story here is fairly simple and familiar to us. We knew where it was going almost from the second scene (or, at least, I guessed where it was going). It can be summarized like this: Two girls become friends. Over the years, life draws them apart. One develops strong feelings for the other and is sad when that love is not reciprocated. The end.

This is a familiar story to most of us. We’ve all lost track of close friends, and all but the very luckiest of us have experienced unrequited love. It is, in fact, a part of growing up to experience these feelings and these losses; one who doesn’t experience them has missed out on a fundamental formative experience of most of humankind.

This is a problem in the sense that the story isn’t really presenting us with anything we haven’t already experienced ourselves. It’s a familiar story, told with an original character in a setting that I’m glad to see explored, but the story doesn’t offer me much of anything new. And I think that’s holding it back.

Entire libraries have been written about what makes a story ‘good,’ and I don’t think I’m going to break any new ground here by trying to explain myself. But I think for a story to really engage its readers, it has to present them with something to care about. It can do this many ways -- show them characters who they come to feel for, and then challenge those characters in some way. It can tell the story of characters facing a dilemma that in some way reflects a dilemma faced by the reader in their personal life. It can ask the reader a question and demand they provide an answer. It can present the protagonist with a difficult choice and implicitly ask the reader if they made the correct one.

Or it can do something else. There are a million ways to tell a good story, and I’m certainly not qualified to say what’s good or what’s bad. But I think this particular story has a lot of things we want to see -- sympathetic characters, an interesting and novel setting -- but the story it puts them through is so familiar to us that we come away feeling not much more than a bit of sympathy of Sophia (and, for me at least, Frosta). But that’s all I feel.

I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, author. A lot of this probably comes across as “Cold didn’t like it because Cold has very traditional and staid ideas about what a story is and this doesn’t fit in his mental square hole,” and that’s mostly correct (except that I do like it - just not as much as some of the other entries in this uniformly strong round). You may decide that you don’t want to change anything about it, but you’ll have to accept that some readers will ding you for your decisions.

After the judging is over and anonymity is broken, I’ll be happy to chat about specifics and answer your questions or hear your rebuttal.
#2 · 2
· · >>Cold in Gardez >>No_Raisin
>>Cold in Gardez

As I haven't seen:

The new She-Ra show and only saw a couple episodes of the original decades ago, I hadn't planned to comment on the stories here. But as a point of information, using dashes to mark dialogue became a bit of a thing mostly with non-English British writers after James Joyce did it in his writings. Roddy Doyle does the same thing in his books, for instance, and I think even the original book of Trainspotting used dashes for disalogue.

Mike, Trying in Some Way to be Helpful
#3 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny
>>Baal Bunny

We actually suspected that might be the case in the chat. It’s one reason I don’t think anyone is actively planning to penalize this story for the choice — it’s just odd enough (and never before seen on this site) that I thought it merited mention.
#4 ·
>>Cold in Gardez

One thing:

Using the odd orthography tells me immediately--and I haven't read more than the first dozen paragraphs of the story so I don't know if this turns out being the case--is that there's going to be conflict between the princess and the girl from the town and that the author's sympathies are with the girl from the town.

Because my understanding of the "dash vs. quotation mark" thing is that it signifies the political struggle between the English and the people they conquered in the British Isles. The English had the power, so when they spoke, they had a voice and they used quotation marks. The conquered peoples had no power, so when they spoke, they didn't have a voice and wanted something other than quotation marks to show this imbalance. So just by using the dashes, the author is giving the reader a signal as to how the author feels about the characters.

If I'm remembering right. It's been 35 years since I last took a class this kinda lit-crit stuff... :)

Mike Again
#5 ·
· · >>QuillScratch
Alternate Title: Lesbianism is Not the Answer 2: The Return of Jafar

I don't even know where to begin with this.

That sounds negative, but I actually dig quite a bit of what this story is going for, and how it goes about it. "What this story is going for" is part of the problem, though; a problem that has only inflated since I first read this entry a few days ago. The problem doesn't even so much have to do with the story itself as much as what the reader should take away from it.

And yes, I'll acknowledge the very... unique way the author decided to tag dialogue, just wait like a thousand words or so for me to get to that.

It should be kept in mind that this is the first time this round that I won't be the first to comment on an entry, from my perspective. I'll be replying to >>Cold in Gardez and >>Baal Bunny when I see fit.

I also won't be going scene-by-scene with this one, because goddamnit, there are eleven of these; I went from a story with two scenes to what seems like a minific boss rush, and I'm not going balls-deep into that. Sorry, author.

I will try, however, to unpack what is undoubtedly the biggest rival to "The Master's Tools" in terms of what (I suspect is) thematic density, combined with some recurring elements and bold stylistic choices. Unlike "The Master's Tools," though, which I have a bit of doubt about as to whether the author intended certain things to come out the way they did, "The Castle Courtyard" is more upfront and consistent in the core message it's presenting.

[spoilers]So if that turns out to somehow not be the case, I'll be in a world of shit.[/spoiler]

First, continuing a certain recent tradition in my reviews, let's talk about the opener. We're introduced to two characters right off the bat, no mystery, no rubber, just their names and their upbringings at the start of the race. There is an immediate contrast between Frosta and Sophia (a character who, like Keira, is also made from whole cloth), just in how their parents picked their names; we know right away that one was born to be important while the other was born to be normal.

This contrast in upbringings is further accentuated by the following line:

The two girls were born within a week of each other, during the summertime, in the wintry kingdom of Snows. Frosta was the daughter of the king and queen of this kingdom, and Sophia was the daughter of a soldier and a teacher.

We discover that Sophia was born under basically middle-class circumstances, and that for the rest of this story she would function as a sort of avatar for the average person. Compared to Frosta, her position in life is rather banal. This gap in socio-political backgrounds will drive much of the ensuing plot; you can argue this story is ultimately about a young friendship slowly decaying, and it is, but to ignore the socio-political undercurrent would be missing both a vital and obvious through-line in the narrative.

This is actually something where I think Baal's second comment is onto something. There's a part of his comment I'll get to later, because it has to do with the dialogue tags, but for now let's look at what he's really getting at here:

Using the odd orthography tells me immediately--and I haven't read more than the first dozen paragraphs of the story so I don't know if this turns out being the case--is that there's going to be conflict between the princess and the girl from the town and that the author's sympathies are with the girl from the town.

Baal's reasoning for this conflict, and the author's sympathies, is a grey area at best (I'll get to that, I swear) but he ends up being right about the dynamic between the girls and who comes out more sympathetic regardless.

For the entire story we're grounded in Sophia's perspective; we sometimes get insights into Frosta's way of life, and why her disposition changes throughout the story, but it's always from what Sophia knows. We are denied a direct link to how Frosta feels and what exactly she does when Sophia is absent, and I suspect that was deliberate.

As with "(Don't) Let Go" and how it makes us sympathize with Mara, even when we know she's being irresponsible, this story keeps us emotionally connected to Sophia by placing us in her shoes at all times. Except here it's even more pronounced because of how helpless our protagonist is; she is defined by her lack of power, as a normal kid who doesn't use magic and who comes from a relatively normal household.

That is not to say Frosta is entirely unsympathetic, though. If anything she's shown as being a victim of an upper-class way of life that sees her more as a tool for power than as an actual person. It's kind of tragic, and it explains why she seems so emotionally stunted when we see her in the show. I like how both she and Sophia go through defined arcs that can traced scene-by-scene, and how even though Frosta remains somewhat enigmatic, we're given reasons to like both characters and see their relationship progress. It's made clear from the get-go, though, as to which girl is destined for "greatness."

Consider this line, which sums up not only how Sophia and Frosta view each other but how people are likely to see them in terms of importance:

Sophia would act as a constructor type, working on the outline of the project, while Frosta focused on the little things that made all the effort truly worth it.

Sophia would do the grunt work, but Frosta as the "artist" would be who people are more likely to remember and respect. There is a consistent implication throughout the story that only one of these girls is "important," and whose actions matter. Sophia's futility in wanting to convey how she really feels to Frosta, in the end, is only the cherry on top.

It's clear that this is not just a story of two friends drifting apart, even though it's easy to read it as such.

I'll go a bit more into "what it all means, bro," when I get into negatives/reservations I have about this story, but I want to point out some things in the writing and actual execution that I like, because what the author went for here is at the very least novel, if not perfect.

For one, the prose is very childish. In fact for the first few scenes it's too cute by half, if we're being honest. On the one hand this almost leaves me feeling insulted as a reader with a fully-functioning brain (last time I checked), because of how simplistic these sentence structures tend to be, and how expository stuff is conveyed as if out of a children's fable. But then that would be appropriate, wouldn't it? This is a tale about two kids, from the time they're born to about eleven years old, and it's all written as though made with a child's understanding in mind.

Speaking of which, something I want to reply to in Gardez's comment:

And I thought at first that the narration itself would develop in complexity and detail, mirroring Sophia’s education and maturity. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The narration at the beginning feels just as sophisticated as the narration at the end.

This is true, although, upon re-reading this, I did notice that although the structuring of sentences remains as simple as in the beginning, the tone of these sentences changes by the end of the story.

Take this twee-as-fuck line from the third scene, for example:

Before she knew it she was back at the castle, with Frosta, who had grown as well. Both girls were now precious beyond compare, like flakes of snow that were given life and human bodies.

Now compare it to a line from the penultimate scene:

A lot of air left Frosta's lungs in a single hard sigh, and Sophia couldn't tell if it was out of discomfort, guilt, or something else. It was then that Sophia felt her friend's arms wrap around her, very delicately, like the wings Frosta would sculpt for a snow-alicorn.

There's still a bit of whimsy in there, but the description of the hug is considerably more downbeat. And that's not even getting into the final scene, where the whimsy has all but died out.

In short, I quite like the deliberation of the style chosen; it uses simple words to convey big emotions, and there's the occasional turn-of-phrase that catches my eye in a good way.

The dialogue also straddles the line between fable-esque and naturalistic, and ultimately I can't point out a specific line that I would consider a stinker. Actually, here's a particular exchange I'd like to highlight.

—It'll be my first time as a host for the Prom, said Frosta, with a single choked chuckle. —Obviously. I'm eleven.

—So am I, said Sophia, finally turning her head to look at her friend.

—Eleven and a tenth, said Frosta. —Or something like that. A small fraction, but it counts.

It's a nice call-forward to a line Frosta has in the Princess Prom episode, and even if you don't remember that line it still works in-story as indicative of her personality.

Now that I've actually brought up the dialogue, though, it's my turn to take aim at a certain elephant.

The author uses em dashes instead of quotation marks to tag dialogue. I don't even know why this is a thing. I'm not even gonna bother to find a meaning in it, because I don't think there is one. Going back to Baal's comment, if the em dashes were intentionally used to make a Joycean connection, to further drive home the central theme of the story, then it's way too opaque, and frankly I don't buy into it. It would be kind of a happy accident, though.

Also, after a bit of research, I've come to find that the dialogue here is not used like the way Joyce used it. That sounds really weird, because Joyce is easily the most famous author in modern literature to use this "technique," if you can call it that. But let's compares lines from two sources, and see if you can spot the difference.

First, a random line from Ulysses:

—That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.

Can you even tell how much of that is spoken dialogue and how much of it is action? I can't. I would have to think about it, and that's not very convenient. Granted, Joyce wanted such ambiguity, but that doesn't mean I gotta like it.

Now compare that to a random line from this story:

—Okay, said Sophia, rocking back and forth slightly on her haunches. —But then why do you not wear gloves? You didn't really give me an answer before. It might not feel cold to you, but it is.

Not nearly as confusing, is it? There's a clear separation between action and dialogue; you can tell when one starts and the other ends, and so on. That's because (and this is consistent, too) the author used an em dash every time a line of dialogue started up. So, if we were to replace the em dashes with quotation marks, the line would look like this:

"Okay," said Sophia, rocking back and forth slightly on her haunches. "But then why do you not wear gloves? You didn't really give me an answer before. It might not feel cold to you, but it is."

Easy, right? But that's why I can't give the author too much shit for this peculiar writing decision. Even though it's different, and probably arbitrary, I actually understand what I'm reading; in fact I'd say it's about as readable as if there were quotation marks used instead. It's consistent and readable, and I can't complain about that too much.

To take something Gardez said:

There’s no reason a preparatory em-dash can’t work as well.

It really comes down to the execution, in which case the em dashes are just... fine. They don't really benefit the story and they don't really detract from it either.

And that's all I've got to say on that topic, pretty much.

Now I've got some bad shit to say about this story. Not too much, frankly, but given the nature of these reviews I'm gonna spend a good amount of time bitching anyway.

First, little things that don't really matter, but to help the author polish the story:

Your my friend, Sophia, said Frosta,

A classic case of using "your" instead of "you're" and vice verse. A truly vintage mistake.

Frosta was the daughter of the king and queen of this kingdom

I don't even know if this is an error or stylistic, considering their titles are never capitalized, but I'd give it some thought.

in the wintry kingdom of Snows.

Basically the same with this.

Also, there's a certain scene that I honestly don't like for the most part. It's short (like even shorter than the other scenes, if you can believe it), but a few things here really bug me.

Her father tried to explain what the Horde was and why Bright Moon and her allies were fighting against it, but as Sophia would come to understand, the Horde was more a concept than a place.

I'm sorry, but the author really fucked up here. First of all, "Bright Moon and her allies" sounds weird; I get that people sometimes engender their home countries, mostly feminine, but this doesn't seem right. Also, given the chronology of events here... what did the author even mean by "allies?" Bright Moon was basically on its own, considering this took place before the start of the show, so if by "allies" you mean scattered forces that favor Bright Moon, you're fucking stretching it. I'll list it as a continuity slip-up.

Also, you're right, "the Horde was more a concept than a place." That's because the Fright Zone is a place and the Horde is basically an army, ya dingus.

Overall, I feel like the few instances where the story tries to hammer the conflict of the show into its plot is where it's at its weakest. You understand that you don't need to do this, right? The passive descriptions of what Frosta is like and how she evolves as a character are more than enough. The active attempts feel more forced.

Take this "gem" of a line, for instance:

Sophia sighed in relief and took comfort in knowing that even though Frosta was being trained to fight in a possible scenario where Snows would be at war with someone or something like the Horde, her best friend would probably never have to fight anyone.

It feels like the author winking really hard at the reader while also saying, "Boy, wouldn't it suck if something like this happened? I'm sure that will never happen, though... you've seen the show, right?" Come on.


She didn't know what to do with this queer type of pain, or how to express it.

It's not even technically the wrong word to use here, but let's be honest, given the context, it's pretty cheeky. It clashes with the overall languid (Gardez's word for it, not mine) tone of the story, and I can't say I'm a fan of it.

Something I'm also not a big fan of is this strangely paradoxical feeling that this story is both too slow and too rushed. I don't even mind the increasingly downbeat tone it takes on, or even the lack of big blowout emotional moments, but you gotta admit that this entry feels way longer than it is. It takes place over the course of like a decade, is 4,000 words long, and is spread across eleven scenes. There's gotta be a way to make all these things fit together more smoothly.

The easiest solution might be to make the whole thing longer, to beef up the scenes a bit and add a few more into the mix, but that might make the problem even worse, thinking about it. It's refreshing that we get to see such a gradual evolution of a relationship and of the main characters, but you could honestly write a novella out of what we've already seen here, given how much material is thrown at the reader's face.

Finally, there remains a difficult question: How banal should this story be?

It's a slice-of-life ordeal, obviously, but keep in mind that this is supposed to be taking place in a slightly surreal sci-fi/fantasy hybrid of a world where high-concept shit just happens on a regular basis.

I about half-agree with Gardez's assessment of this:

This is a problem in the sense that the story isn’t really presenting us with anything we haven’t already experienced ourselves.

I suspect the "realness" of events was deliberate, given the course the plot takes, but I think the problem is that there are so few references to the fact that this takes place in a high-fantasy world. Sophia's life is very earthy; she basically feels and experiences everything a real-life person has, which in one way is good, because it grounds her character and situation in believability; in another way, though, the fact that she's best friends with a magical ice princess is downplayed to the point where magic even being a thing in this world is treated as tangential at the very most.

I don't think the author wanted to write a fantasy story, or at least I'm under the impression that he/she wanted to anchor the fantastical elements inherited in a She-Ra fanfic in realism, and might've gone too far.

Well, that's about all I've got. I went down yet another long and winding road with this review. It's over 3,000 words long, fuck me. Was it worth the effort? Maybe. There was a lot to unpack here, and I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up being the most controversial entry; it's already generated some debate in the comments, and I know I'm not doing anything to help with that. I at least hoped I came close to cracking some code, though, because this entry is quite intriguing in some ways.

I can't even guarantee this story won't get bottom-spot on many people's slates, due to readers inevitably being reserved with some of the stylistic choices made here (thank you, em dashes). I would say bottom-slating it on that basis alone is unfair, though.

I enjoyed it, and both the story and comments from Gardez and Baal have given me something to think about.
#6 ·
Oh my god guys, stop talking about Joyce without me.

>>No_Raisin might not like the ambiguity that the traditional approach to em-dashing dialogue presents, but I sure as hell do—but then, I'm the person who writes writeoff entries without any dialogue punctuation, a la Cormac McCarthy, so maybe I'm not the best judge of sensible ideas. So it's taken me a while to come around to what you appear to be doing with them here: creating distance. I've always thought of dashes as a piece of punctuation that drags the eye away from something to focus on something else (which is why parentheticals have such different tones when punctuated with parentheses than they do with dashes), and to me this always creates a kind of separation. Maybe I'm reaching at straws, but to me the dashed punctuation here just helps to add to the growing sense of distance between the characters—but it also keeps the readers at a distance from them too. Honestly, I have no idea if it's the right choice, but I think it works and I wanted to throw in my two cents about how I reacted to that punctuation.

In my opinion, though, the dialogue itself is probably the weakest part of this piece. And that's not a huge fault, author: writing kids isn't easy. Little gimmicks to show particularly young children struggling with words (c.f. "Frost-a") can work, but sometimes are more of a hindrance than a help, and I think that's true here, but even putting that aside I found the dialogue really tricky to get into in this piece. Some of it felt forced, and some of it didn't tie in too well with the surrounding prose. Example:

—A princess doesn't need other friends, she said, almost under her breath, very delicately molding a snowball in her hands. —It's okay. I don't need other friends, she said, almost not believing those words.

I get the idea with the repetition, here, but I'm not convinced it works. It feels like the denial is being oversold and undersold at the same time, especially with the clumsy-sounding "almost not believing those words" finishing the line off. And again, I get the attempt to go for detachment (it's Frosta, after all), but this is a quiet moment of vulnerability and that doesn't really feel reflected in the text... but the repetition here forces the message through anyway, bluntly, and I for one was left feeling quite conflicted over that. It's a particularly bad example (the rest of the dialogue is much better than this cherry-picked line!), but I think it's the best demonstration of the general issues I had.

That said, this entry has such a strong structure that I can't help but enjoy, setting a slow but steady rhythm to the narrative that doesn't feel as broken up as the many, many strong scene breaks would suggest. And I like that rhythm because it builds a sense of inevitability (a sense that's very much backed up from the moment we read the word "Frosta" at the start of the piece, because canon context is a tool that you have used wonderfully here.) The predictability of the ages as the passages roll onward is nice, and I love that inevitable grind towards Frosta's canon age—and the feeling when we reach it is already bittersweet. That's a lovely touch, and I really liked it.

>>Cold in Gardez made a point about red-herrings, specifically with regards to the meta-textuality line, and I just wanted to chime in to say that I did exactly the same thing with that line. Maybe it's this particular audience, but with several people independently having that problem (and looking for something that would be hella cool if it was there), I'd honestly recommend looking to do something with that. And since Joyce has been name-dropped enough times in the discussion of this story, it might even be worth tying your excellent structure into something like that and going full on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Just saying. Something to consider. Definitely not something I was hoping for.

Despite its faults, I liked this piece. Like Gardez, though, I wished this piece did more than just present this familiar story to us. Honestly, even just something like playing with the meta-textuality and showing us this familiar story in an unfamiliar way would be enough to raise this up, or making those forced comparisons to the show Raisin mentions more nuanced and central. This piece feels very much like an unfulfilled promise, to me—enjoyable, but not quite all there. But then again, it was cute and it made me smile, and I feel like that should be enough. Perhaps with a bit of spring cleaning on the dialogue to help keep readers invested, it would be.

(Again, author, apologies for the somewhat rushed review here. I'm more than happy to discuss this story, and any of the others, in more depth after the round is over. Thanks for writing it!)

as the two were working on a snow-alicorn

i see what you did there
(On a serious note, that is playing to your audience. Nice one!)