In this short story I'm trying to describe an unexceptional scene in an exciting and compelling way. I want to make a common ritual seem strange and a bit surreal. Does this paragraph accomplish these goals? What could be done to improve it?

The Great Books Program

The desert sun lay shattered and abstract on a shimmering pond and the dry morning air spoke of an oppressively hot day to come. Slippery and speckled fish darted to the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony which played at high volume directly into Buck's two ears. All around him, tens of college students diffused casually through the golden cobblestone courtyard between the tall dormitory building and the forty-eight stairs which led up to Patton Hall. Some students walked alone absorbed by thoughts or squinting at the bright rock or rubbing sleep from tired eyes, others skipped in pairs and talked loudly about the day's news, parties, school work and other diversions. Each had a copy of Homer, Joyce and the Bible cradled with affection or tucked studiously under each arm. Buck shut his eyes behind his dark sunglasses to exorcise the pain from his pulsating forehead. When he opened them, a fish had paused for a moment as though to look up at Buck through a critical eye. Buck's left hand pressed a smoking cigarette to his lips and Buck inhaled deeply. Moments before the cold ichthyic stare would have shattered the sense of serene isolation that the morning brings, the fish slipped away into a blur of colorful pulsating streaks as if disappointed in what it saw. Buck took a sip of the bitter coffee which he held in his right hand, stomped out what remained of his cigarette, picked up his books which lay at his feet and walked off slowly toward the fiery sun with the supernatural ecstasy of Beethoven's strings and horns playing loudly in both ears.

Thanks a lot!

(My blog where I originally posted it)

  • 2
    To the person who voted to close this as off-topic: Why? Critiques are within our scope and (s)he asked as specific question about the piece and used the correct tags. Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 4:08
  • I once started a story with the weather and was immediately told that Elmore Leonard advised that you never do this. In fact in his Ten Rules of Writing it's number one. This is just a fact. Not an endorsement of his position. The only problem is that since he is Elmore Leonard other people who know the rule always point out you've broken it when you do... which is irritating. For all 10 rules look here: writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/304
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 8:02
  • Just to elaborate a little on my position re Leonard's Rules, I use prologues all the time.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 8:04
  • @One Monkey - that rule about weather is amusing. William Gibson's "Neuromancer" began with "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel", which just goes to show how silly rules like this can be! Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 9:33
  • 1
    @Ralph I voted to close before the edit, which added the specific question.
    – StrixVaria
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:19

4 Answers 4


First impression: too many adverbs and descriptions, and too much detail. As Stephen King notes, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

A few lines in, and I wanted to skip ahead. What's important to the story? The music he's listening to? Forty-eight steps? The people walking around? The pond? The fish? The coffee? The cigarette?

Everything is "shattered", "shiny", "dry", "loudly", "darted", "slippery", and so on. There is too much going on here, and everything becomes a bit "noisy". In fact, what you've written can almost be described as "purple prose". It's also largely meaningless: lots going on, but the majority tells me nothing of the character or the story.

You don't have to describe absolutely everything. Focus on what's important.


First, I would break it up into more paragraphs. That enhances readability.

Second, using the adverb abstract is strange, but you do not gain surrealism doing so. You kicked me out of the story before I reached the first full stop (period, if you are an American).

Talking about the story: There is none! justkt pointed that out already.

Overusing adjectives/adverbs will bring you nowhere. If you want it to be surreal, describe the scene from an LSD viewpoint (yeah, the drug).

Assuming the protagonist has a terrible headache and needs to go to the bathroom fetching some aspirin, you could write: "He was walking through honey and it sounded pink." Well, I wouldn't use pink, but you get the idea.


College student (is Buck a student?) smoking a cigarette in public unpunished and enjoying Beethoven's music sounds quite strange and surreal to me. Since the paragraph doesn't explain why students were carrying those books I am not able to decide wheter it was for their interest of classic literature or for those books were just from a required reading list.

It is good but what unexceptional can I see?

  • if a Mages Guild student is caught smoking, they are immediately reprimanded. The college in question could possibly be the one in Winterhold... but I have definetly never heard of a 'Patton Hall'. Perhaps it's some kind of House Telvanni arrangement Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 5:13
  • @Edward Rose: Trebonius was just pathetic, Hannibal was a coward and Savos ...? O tempora o mores!
    – Nerevar
    Commented Jun 4, 2012 at 19:37

Where's the conflict in this piece? I see it as a piece of descriptive writing, perhaps a study in describing a scene, but I don't get a sense of movement and plot. Even flash fiction should have some sort of movement.

To give a sense of the surreal cut out most of your adjectives and adverbs. Use them judiciously in an unexpected way so that a word like "shattered" really shatters the reader's sense of what should be and makes him or her sit up and take note. The words you've freed up can be used to provide movement towards a conclusion. Flash fiction is often best at providing an unexpected conclusion, so you may want to go for something that provides an O. Henry-like twist without being over-the-top.

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