I just wrote all this in one sitting with less than 3 hours of sleep, so please forgive any errors. At first, I wasn’t planning to comment, but Story B drew me in. Maybe I'm reading into it too much, and maybe the writer just wanted to write about incestuous brothers and my analyzing is all for naught, but it's too late. It's clear from the length where my vote is going (I actually wrote more examples but cut them out for the sake of space), so here we go.
Story A boasted distinctive characters and fun interactions that revealed the ease of their comradery, causing them to leap off the page. It provided steady pacing that matched the carefree, adventurous tone, and its vivid details painted bright, dazzling scenes that caused me to feel I was right there with them. The dancing fish, colorful corals, and spindly lianas all worked together to build a gorgeous world.
However, I felt its greatest strengths also served as weaknesses because it focused too much on fleshing out the world and characters. Although it might’ve worked in a longer piece, the time spent laying out the setting meant less focus on pushing the story forward. This resulted in a slow beginning that presented too much information at once and not enough of a hook.
In addition, the abrupt shift in tone left me confused for several reasons. First, there was not enough foreshadowing or tension to build up to the illness. Second, it lacked a transition between the hopeful venture into the island and the sudden period of unconsciousness. I had to reread several times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Third, relying upon Mr. Left to summarize the entire story caused me to feel like I missed out. It gave me a similar feeling as to being amped up for a field trip, only to fall ill and require my friends to relay the events to me.
All in all, it felt like the story had barely started before it abruptly ended. However, the gorgeous, crystal-clear world and bright descriptions balanced it out and left me wanting more of it. The feeling of camaraderie made me want to read more about the crew, and exchanges like the one between Thomas and Gangly felt lifelike.
Story B enthralled me with the conflict of two hunters, one of whom protected the beast he should’ve slayed. Starting off with an interesting hook, it quickly presented the main problem: the animalistic disease. However, the story’s theme also encompassed an underlying message about the dormant, sickly beast within Fergus.
One way this was shown was through his obsession with his brother. At the beginning, hints of his dominating nature emerged in the way he hugged and smelled him, just like an animal would scent their packmates. He almost treated him like a possession, worsened by the fact that the writer never named the brother. The (seemingly purposeful) lack of identity further established his status as an object, something that no one else could lay claim to but Fergus. It wasn’t so much about who he was but what he did for Fergus.
In addition, the deep intimacy was another tool that further drove the theme and narrative. It added an interesting layer to the brothers’ dynamics because the more animalistic Fergus grew, the blurrier his boundaries became. As his brother’s impending death strained his control, the intimacy further showed his weakening sanity and increasingly animalistic nature. His loyalty and deep bond became a danger to the child he was to protect. When his brother took the full brunt of his possessiveness, it made me wonder how much Fergus had been holding back throughout their relationship.
Another interesting aspect was the implications in the merchant’s dialogue. When he spoke of beasts and Fergus’s brother, his lines seemed to have a double meaning and darkly hinted at Fergus’s own inner corruption. For example, the line “the blood of children will make the beasts go wild” seemed to add foreshadowing about the fate of Fergus’s relationship and his animalistic actions. Another chilling line warned that “a beast of the night will be born”, but though it referred to the brother, it also foretold how Fergus himself would become beastlike and consume his brother with his idea of love. In addition, it was interesting how the story presented the merchant as dangerous when Fergus was the real monster the entire time.
Combined with vivid descriptions like “an unrelenting smile carved on his lips”, "the black of his pupil [spilling] out of its border", and “smells, images, and sounds blurred together into a blazing red”, this story weaved together a darkly beautiful world. It provided a consistent, grim tone that gradually escalated to a bloody ending, leaving my heart aching for the brother, whose guardian wanted no one else to have him, not even death.
I only felt there were several areas that could’ve been adjusted to further enhance the story.
First, the dialogue could have been condensed. Characters mostly spoke in full, long sentences when shorter phrases or fragments would’ve sounded more natural and improved the pacing. It would've also given more space/word count for action and longer scenes. To me, the merchant’s dialogue would’ve benefited the most from heavy edits. Specifically, he dumped a lot of world-building information in monologues, some of which could’ve been omitted, such as the line about the “old order”. In addition, more variety in his lines would’ve improved the story, as he repeated phrases about his abilities, scents, and collapsed pupils too often.
As a result, when the merchant confronted Fergus, his rambling weakened the mounting tension. He first opened the conflict with a long comment about the bridge, but realistically, Fergus would’ve spun around faster. Adjusting that might look like:
“Thought the woodwork would’ve lasted till winter.”
Fergus whipped around.
The merchant stood a few feet away, his gun at his side. He tsked, shaking his head. “Bad timing, what with all the beasts nearby.”
He swallowed, eyes trained on the rifle. “What’re you doing?”
Next, the info dump about their meeting and additional rambling about scents felt unnatural, especially since readers had already been given this information early in the story. In addition, Fergus’s lack of response caused the merchant to come across as one of those classical villains who give a grand speech before carrying out their dastardly evil plans. Even if Fergus didn’t have anything to say, splitting the merchant’s dialogue with Fergus’s thoughts and actions would’ve improved pacing, given a greater sense of back and forth, and provided readers with a glimpse through his eyes.
In the example below, I shortened the merchant's phrases to only reveal new information about tainted blood’s smell. I also changed Fergus’s focus to his brother rather than the merchant's “stupidity being the death to them all” because it didn’t make sense.
“Naive of me, to trust a stranger’s word. That accident you spoke of – it was more than a fall, wasn’t it?”
The hunter clenched his jaw. “I told you, my brother's –”
“Sick.” The man tapped his nose. “The beast's scent never lies. Only grows stronger.” Lifting his head, he closed his eyes and deeply inhaled the breeze. “Hmm. Even now, his odor wafts over.”
Fergus’s eyes darted to the wagon, to the coat that the child huddled underneath. He tried to move forward, but the man swung his gun up, and the barrel’s eye bored through him.
He slowly raised his hands.
“That child's blood is too tainted to hide.”
Here, the merchant reused lines about the collapsed pupil and the beast’s scent again. In the example below, I shortened the phrases. I also had Fergus give him a warning to build tension and hint at his growing anger.
Fergus’s nostrils flared. “No one’s infected,” he gritted out. “You have my word.”
A low laugh. Shaking his head, the merchant slowly stepped forward. “Your word cannot stop what’s coming.”
The hunter moved back. His eyes kept flitting to the wagon. “Don’t.”
Another step back, and something creaked under his foot. He turned. A dizzying drop yawned underneath the broken bridge, and the floods rushed below him.
Originally, Fergus snapped when the merchant pointed out his lie about the accident. However, since the merchant was threatening Fergus, I felt it was already implied he figured out the accident was a lie, so this revelation wouldn’t have been shocking. Instead, I moved one of your strongest lines (the beast being born) here, so Fergus would have a greater reason to attack the merchant since he threatened his brother.
The merchant’s gun came closer. Too close.
“Soon,” he called, almost in a singsong voice. “A beast of the night will be born.” A slow smile spread like cracks across his face. His eyes gleamed.
“And it will be slain.”
An additional area that could have been enhanced was the showing versus telling. I felt that readers were often being told what characters were doing rather than being shown, which caused it to read out like a grocery list or a summary of a script.
To combat that, you could try reducing telling lines, such as “he saw/felt/heard”. For example, “Fergus heard his brother gasp and subsequently felt the sharp pain of claws digging through his back” could become “His brother gasped. The sharp prick of claws dug into Fergus’s back.”
You could also try to remove redundant telling lines. One example is “As soon as the merchant finished his sentence, Fergus lunged at him.” After the merchant’s line, a simple “Fergus lunged” would suffice and show that. Another example is “Fergus shook his head, but his brother was left undeterred.” It’s already clear from the brother’s next line that he was undeterred, so that can be removed.
Another example is the fight between Fergus and the merchant, which is mixed with vivid descriptions and some telling sentences that detracted from the immersion. “His ears rang” Is a great line, but the long details about the bullet felt clunky. The detail about his stinging eyes was beautiful, but I would have liked to see how he persevered rather than being told he did. I also felt that the action scene ended a bit too quickly and could have benefited from a little more response from the merchant, as he didn’t even seem to try to defend himself after the first shot.
A crack rang through his ears. Something sharp and hot grazed his cheek. Smoky gunpowder stung his eyes, but he charged through the haze and grabbed at the gun. They both wrestled for it, scrabbling, tugging hard.
A heavy boot slammed onto his foot. Fergus bellowed. With a sudden surge of strength, he wrenched the weapon free and threw it aside. Meaty hands clamped around his shoulders, but he was ripping his saber out, thrusting it forward, burying it deep into the man’s chest until the glint disappeared.
Green eyes blew open wide. Helpless, trembling like a dying deer’s.
Fergus shuddered. Slowly, he drew his blade out.
And plunged it in again.
Another area that could benefit from improvements was Fergus’s dialogue, as compared to the others’ medieval-fantasy-like speech, his lines sounded too modern and casual. For example, phrases like “he was nuts”, “I get some doctors to patch you right up”, and “you can bitch about it” felt jarring when compared to the nobler, more formal lines of “Brother!” and “Belief cannot protect a person nor save a life.”
This impacted the tone of the emotional scene in which Fergus’s desperation clashed with his brother’s desire to die.
In addition, considering the fervency and high stakes of the moment, I felt that more response from the brother would have heightened the emotion, as well as dramatized the moment when Fergus’s inner beast clawed free and he gave into his desires. Breaking up the dialogue with actions that betray Fergus’s emotions and thoughts could also add more flavor to the text.
“It matters not what we become.” His murmurs were fervent, blazing against his brother’s hair. “The world can burn, descend into hell.”
“F-Fergus, you’re scaring me.”
“Shhh.” He smeared a kiss onto his scalp. “Shhh.” Another one above his ear. “The two of us – as long as it’s just us, I’ll die happy.” His arms tightened around him, and he squeezed his eyes shut until nothing but his brother consumed his senses, his world. The shift of his lashes on his neck, the heat of his breath, the thrumming of his heart against his chest. “I'll be happy, even –”
His voice caught and dropped into a dark whisper.
“Even if there’s no heaven left for me.”
He shoved his brother down and fell upon him.
The climax was when Fergus stabbed his brother so that he could "bind" him. However, the writing seemed to gloss over that and didn’t show much of the child’s response, considering he was just stabbed. I recently had an EMG done. When they shoved the first needle deep into my thigh and wiggled it, words cannot describe the agony, like a lightning bolt streaking through my nerves. If a needle could cause so much pain, I’m not sure a stabbed child would have the coherency to immediately ask, “Brother, how could you?” Showing the contrast between the brother’s agony (writhing, screaming, clawing at the blade) and Fergus’s satisfaction could further highlight the dissonance in their relationship, building up to a stronger ending.
The final area that could use improvement was the ending. I felt that it would have ended stronger with him falling into that dreamless slumber ("while hushing sweet nothings to him for what seemed like all eternity, Fergus’s eyes grew heavy as he fell into a dreamless slumber."). It would have served as a great contrast between the beast awakening in him, and now that he’s gotten what he wanted, it closes with darkness and dormancy. The ambiguous ending would have left a sense of mystery, leaving readers wondering if they died or Fergus’s brother succumbed to a worse fate.
Overall, despite the dark, uncomfortable nature of the story, Story B drew me in with its layered messages and grim details. The further I read, the more I wanted to see what would become of Fergus, and his mad possessiveness encouraged me to reread to see what I had missed. What further convinced me to vote was that the writer revealed little detail about the brother's appearance and focused more on the feelings he evoked. To me, the story reflected the writer's attention to detail and themes. It efficiently portrayed the irony of hunting a tangible beast when the real beast dwelled within Fergus all along.
TLDR: My vote is with STORY B for the way the writer creatively used the theme to focus on Fergus's inner corruption and not so much the physical disease.