A happy ending? In my short story!? While I never! That said, I do vote for B.
Story A plays a few things as one would expect, the lovebirds that want to but can't have a kid, the witch that does some 'evil cackling', etc., but I don't consider this a problem. It can serve as a shorthand so you can focus more on what matters, and the way these elements were setup reads clearly.
The opening did get me paying attention, so I'd say it done what it needed to. The in media res could probably be tightened up to be stronger tho (just take on Gryphon's feedback, should be enough to help push the story towards even being great).
I will comment on two things Gryphon mentions:
Story B felt more emotional. I think Louise was handled pretty great, the story ends up feeling personal which got me more invested. Only fair if I continue being reductionist by pointing out the wounded soldier returning from war isn't the most original idea, but again, I don't consider it a problem. Being later in the text also stopped me from predicting it. The way it is presented through Louise view also made for a strong scene.
Regarding Gryphon asking about who looks after Louise if her parents are missing, you did mention 'her grandparents' when the knock came. I will say, when I got to the part about the mother also having left, it did come across as painting Louise as being alone (despite the grandparents being mentioned earlier). Maybe reworking it slightly to show that Louise considers herself alone without her parents (despite not being literally alone) or something of the kind could make this tighter. Maybe just mentioning that she lives only with her grandparents earlier could also work (as there was still room for the mother then, but come to think of it, if she was there she likely would've been mentioned in that excerpt). Or maybe showing that the grandparents don't have much time for her (which tending the fields in the morning already alludes to).
Overall, good work to both contestants, but gooder work to whoever wrote B (this is a duel after all)!
Story A: Decently written but didn't really like the "twist" or whatever at the end. That the arguing turned to madness and death just felt a bit rushed.
Story B: Enjoyed the setup and the interplay of the children. The dialogue was well done and I thought it seemed paced pretty well also.
Vote is for STORY B
Story A: Overall, the prose is pretty good, and the premise is decent, albeit slightly generic. The narrator says "let's start a little further back" and then follows it up with a summary of their entire lives, including a 10 year time skip. Doesn't seem little to me, but maybe the MC's sense of scale is a little different. All of this is just exposition for the conflict of "couple wants children but can't have them", not providing them with any real characterization along the way. Also, why does an "unknown" town in the middle of the countryside have "well-kept streets made for easy travelling" and many shops. That seems a little contradictory.
These were my main gripes with the story--up until the couple goes insane. If a sky changing colors is enough to drive them insane to the point that the MC kills his wife with his bare hands, then their relationship must really not have been that rock solid, or this limbo dimension has a lot more sway over mortal minds than it seems. In either case, these things aren't established very well at all. The transition from a welcoming realm to a horrifying one seems very stark, and doesn't convey the length of their tribulations properly. At no point did I feel worried or concerned. This alternate dimension just didn't provoke any feeling in me that would coincide with what the characters were feeling.
Story B: First of all, the child POV is so spot on here, that I feel like it was written by one... The overactive imagination was a great touch. The only thing that felt a little incongruous were the details that Louise was forgetting about her father. What child thinks about the twinkling of their parent's eyes, or how many times they were twirled. It would make more sense if she tried to remember his intonations, since his voice is brought up later on. Another thing that confused me a little was the descriptions of the father's prosthetics. I figured that they look very alien from a child's POV, but their descriptions made me think bioshock/steampunk rather than WWI. I also feel like the father probably wouldn't survive with such gruesome injuries, but that's neither here nor there.
Other than that, I saw few flaws here. It had a very grounded, wholesome conclusion, and some excellent dialogue. The prose was descriptive and evocative, without jeopardizing Louise's childish nature.
Random side note! These thunderdome stories have actually gotten me to value dialogue a lot more, because I feel like most dialogue-driven submissions end up being more interesting and impactful (duel with Dark is a good example, funnily enough)
This is another good example, because Story A doesn't have much dialogue (in fact, Thalia doesn't even speak once), while Story B has plenty. It progresses the plot, and gives characterization, whereas Story A almost feels like a summary.
My vote goes to Story B!
This got long, so I'm just going to post my review of Story A. I'll review Story B later, and vote separately.
= I like the opening line.
= I wouldn’t bother with the line about the cursed portal yet. The current hook is fine, and it just confuses the reader about the timeline.
= “As though we were beholding a mansion.” Something about this seems weird to me. I’m not sure you used ‘behold’ correctly.
= Treacherous? Maybe just “difficult”?
= The beginning of the story is confusing in terms of timing. You mess up on tense a few times, which made me think some events happened in the wrong order at first. It’s also not clear why the story starts at them buying their house, since it doesn’t seem relevant to the events that follow. If it becomes important later, you can probably just describe it then.
= Another problem I’m noticing: show don’t tell. Right now, the narrator is basically just describing their past history with & feelings towards Thalia. I like the attempt to weave this into the present narrative by using the house description to prompt memories. That’s a great technique for delivering backstory. Unfortunately, I don’t think you quite pulled it off—there’s not a clear reason why arriving at the house is prompting this reminiscence, so it’s not tied to the present in the way it would need to be.
= I think the main problem is that the narrator seems to detached for these thoughts to be natural. If you go deeper into their head, it will seem more natural for them to be just randomly thinking about their wife.
= Another option is dialogue. Instead of just telling us Thalia always inspires them to do more, the narrator could verbally thank Thalia for everything she did to inspire them into being able to achieve this (getting their own house.)
= The narrator describes themself as being inspired by Thalia’s looks. That’s not inherently bad, but it’s a little weird. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Thalia’s personality to have this effect? Right now it makes the narrator come across as kind of shallow, and Thalia as a one-dimensional generic wife character.
= I don’t think I like the overly dramatic writing style. “Trecherous task.” “Auburn locks of shining hair.” “Stunning emerald eyes.” “Blessed with each other’s company.” “Tainted by unmistakeable longing.” “Fevered search.” This isn’t inherently bad, but it’s just rubbing me the wrong way. It’s coming across as really over dramatic, and making the narrator seem very distant and inscruitable. It might just be personal taste, so I’d encourage you to get feedback from others.
= The hag is described as “cunning” before the narrator has spoken to her. Since cunning isn’t a visual description, it shouldn’t be treated like one.
= Having gotten this far down, I’d suggest restructuring the story so that instead of a narrated reminiscence, you start with a short scene featuring the narrator and Thalia as they search for and locate the witch. You can cover through their dialogue & the narrator’s thoughts all the history you just gave in a way that’s much more integrated into the present story. This also has the advantage of giving you a chance to show Thalia & the narrator’s personalities—right now they’re both pretty flat.
= I still like the opening line, but I honestly don’t think the first-person-retrospective approach is doing you any favors. This story might be better if you just told it in order.
Eh. Didn’t do it for me. I get there’s supposed to be the lesson about not taking people for granted, but the witch clearly said “object”, and even if she hadn’t, the implication was clear that they were supposed to find something in the world.
I don’t think you pulled off the eldritch location thing. It’s supposed to be a weird place that makes you go crazy and kill the people you’re with. The description just doesn’t pull it off. Again, you just inform us that the narrator and their wife have gone nuts and are arguing, but the description isn’t enough to make it believeable. I think this is mainly a limitation of the wordcount. If you want to show a pair of people slowly going insane, you need space and time. It’s not a concept you can cover in only a couple hundred words.
The biggest problem is I didn’t care at all about the characters. They had pretty much no personality beyond loving each other and wanting a child. This story sinks or swims on their relationship, so I strongly recommend giving each of them a distinct personality—and then working that personality into their dialogue and actions rather than just telling us about it.
Ask yourself what the point of this story is. I’m going to hazard a guess and say the point is what the witch says at the end about taking people for granted. That’s good, because I think you actually have the groundwork for that in the story already. Here’s some things you could change to hone in on that theme:
!) Thalia and the narrator’s personalities. For this theme to work, they need to have clear personalities, while simultaneously taking each other for granted. You already have some good groundwork here, with the narrator only ever focusing on her physical appearance and the impact she has on them. Thalia’s personality should come through her dialogue and actions, but it’s fine and great if the narrator fixates on other things about her that are less defining. Thalia may be doing the same thing with the narrator.
!) Wanting a child at the expense of what they have. Thalia and the narrator have an apparently loving relationship, but find that they can’t be happy without a child. There’s a sense of absence in their lives that they believe only a child can fill. You can lean into that to show how they’re actually taking what they have now for granted. They’re incapable of being happy with only each other, and seeking to fix it externally. Maybe they’re really neglecting each other and the relationship, and really want a child out of the desperate hope that it will save their marriage.
!) If the narrator is the one to kill Thalia, maybe emphasize this for them especially. Maybe Thalia wants to try and be happy with the life they have, but the narrator is too focused on the idea of a better life to appreciate what they actually have. Maybe he resents her, and blames her for their fertility problems. Maybe she tries to persuade him to give up and go back, or to not seek out the witch at all, but the narrator drives them forwards.
Still not sure how you can fix the ending. Some of that might be length. I’d recommend leaning into the idea of marital problem the couple already have than just saying ‘uhh evil flowers made me do it’. Have the location be an amplifier for what already exists. Then, when the narrator snaps and kills Thalia, it’s a character moment rather than something random.
This is just one direction you could take the story to make it more narratively cohesive. If some other part of the story was more important to you than that moral lesson, my feedback would be different.
= After only a sentence and a half, I already feel strongly that this story is written from the perspective of a child, and it turns out I’m right. Great job nailing the voice.
= I like the way she calls the stick a sword, and I like the way you introduced that through the boy’s dialogue.
= Good imagery with the poppies.
= The description of prior events is paired well with the action, making it feel relevant and not just an infodump.
= This phrasing might be better: That dumb boy. “You forgot the most important thing.” <= This avoids repetition.
= “…and one for the flowers.” Nice.
= The transition into the flashback bit is smooth, and doesn’t feel forced. You do a good job using concrete examples to show the narrator’s feelings rather than just telling them to us. Her thought patterns help us get a sense of her personality too.
= If her father and mother are both gone, who’s looking after her? She doesn’t strike me as old enough to look after herself. You might want to clarify that. EDIT: I missed this, oops.
= Using ‘it’ to refer to her father is a nice touch.
= I think this story strikes a good balance of hitting the emotional moments without dwelling on them too much.
= Good use of the four-leaved poppy.
= Yeah, him not writing letters is pretty inexcusable. You might want to take that out on a re-write. He’s much more sympathetic if he has been keeping erratically in touch, and did warn Louise about his injuries & return, but not in such a way that she understood.
= The conversation about his injuries & such seems a little overly casual given the heaviness of the situation. I’d expect it would take more time for them to get here, but then, you do have a word count limit.
= I like the way you focus on recurring themes in your description. I also like the way you focus on actions as a way of communicating emotions.
Good, a simple concept that could be executed pretty well given the word length. The backstory is weaved fairly well into the action. I don’t have any major complaints or restructuring advice, this is pretty good considering the length, time frame, and prompt.
Characterization is fine. Louise’s narration clearly communicates her personality. Her father is less developed, but that’s only because we’re seeing him through Louise’s distorted lens. Even the boy in the first scene has a fairly solid character. You do a good job portraying children.
It does seem like the confrontation and resolution happen unrealistically fast and casually. With such an extreme reaction, it doesn’t seem logical that Louise would calm down so fast about the situation. Again, that’s a limit of the word count. I might have resolved the story on a more ambiguous note, but what you did is fine.
I’d also recommend leaving out the bit about him not sending letters. It makes him much less sympathetic, and it’s not really important.
Thanks for the write up and announcement and thank you Gryphon, Zake an Wizzy for being so thorough! Haha the reason why I had the dad not write any letters was to trick the reader into thinking he was dead and also to make Louise's smackdown more sympathetic and understandable, but I see now that it would make the dad a bit of a dick. I did like people theorizing that story B was written by a child lol due to it having a child pov lolol.
Fresh, I still don't why you wanted to duel me, but you did well! Was almost afraid I would lose to a teen girl.
And I finally won after three defeats!