Behind the Scenes of “The Prophet’s Burden”

My latest flash fiction story, “The Prophet’s Burden,” is now available to read on Havok’s website. And, since I’m a volunteer editor, there’s no 24-hour time frame—it’ll always be available, whether or not you’re a Havok member. To celebrate its publication, here’s a short look at how I wrote it.

If you’ve already read the story, you may have guessed that it follows the same exploits of the adventurer from “Sword of the Stones” or “The Tomb of the Ophidian Scepter.” I’d been thinking of writing about another of his expeditions, and the “sixth sense” theme for October 2020 seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

So in a way, the “sixth sense” theme wasn’t exactly the seed for this story, but it did help focus it. I thought it would be cool to feature an artifact that would allow the adventurer to sense the future—an extremely valuable skill for someone in his line of work! The idea was that the artifact would allow its wearer to discern the future as long as they were wearing it in that possible future. I wanted removing the artifact to feel particularly weighty, because that is the only course of action that can’t be predicted.

The madness element of the talisman (since that was the type of artifact I settled on), evolved naturally as I wrote the story. It made sense that trying to comprehend a multitude of experiences all at once would be overwhelming. I didn’t quite have the word count to delve into this aspect, but I envisioned the talisman grants/forces its wearer to experience the future in all five senses. So you don’t just see what happens; you feel, hear, smell, and (sure) taste it, too. So the adventurer’s brain was telling him that he was being stabbed, crushed, eaten, hearing his partner scream and animals roar, smelling burning flesh, tasting noxious gases, etc. all at once. Not a very pleasant experience!

I don’t really go into that in the story though. What was interesting was composing scenes from the main character’s future-perspective while considering what was actually going on in real-time. I wanted to give readers the option to re-read the story and understand what Alma was seeing/hearing. For example, the first “real” dialogue after the adventurer puts on the talisman is him answering Alma’s as-yet unasked question, which is why she just stares at him for a moment. It was a unique challenge, but I think I pulled it off.

In terms of the actual writing, the first draft started right with the adventurer putting on the talisman. Herein lies a tip for writing flash fiction. The story really picks up when the main character puts the talisman, but that moment doesn’t offer any backstory to help ground readers. Nevertheless, I wrote that scene first because I knew I would need to get to it quickly.

Later, after writing the majority of the story, I went back to write the intro. This offered several benefits: 1) I knew how many words were left to write the opening and keep the story under 1,000 words. 2) I was already in the writing groove, so instead of spending a few paragraphs warming up my “writing voice,” I was able to jump right in. And 3) I knew what moment I was writing toward, so I knew which information had to be relayed, and which stuff could be left out. The resulting “opening” section lasts approximately 120 words, but it moves toward the inciting incident pretty quickly (compared to what I would have likely done without the constraint).

Because the crux of the story always lay in the scene where the characters finally grasp the talisman’s power, I knew the ending would have to be similarly fast-paced. I wanted to include another scene showing the different futures that could result from an encounter with an enormous crocodile, but the word count just wasn’t there.

Since I didn’t have the space to describe this scene going into further detail about the artifact’s effects on the wearer, I opted for a broader overview as the adventurers exit the temple. Even though I think it could have been interesting to dive into this aspect, I think the end result fits well with the main character’s inability to focus.

The ending was a little tricky. As I mentioned above, taking off the talisman was meant to be a significant gesture and indicate that the adventurer could accept not knowing the future. But since this story felt a little heavier than other installments, I wanted to reintroduce just a little levity at the end. My first draft had the main character commenting about what drew the ancient civilization mad (an idea that didn’t make it into the final story). However, my editor Lisa encouraged me to push this a little more. I’m happy she did, because the end result gives the characters a little more good-natured banter. And adding banter is always a good call.

Of course, you’re invited to add a little banter here in the comments or over on the story itself! I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into how “The Prophet’s Burden” came together. Thank you for reading!

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