Every now and then a reviewer comes across a story that he aches to give high praise, and yet cannot. He reads the work of an author whom he has come to appreciate, and upon whom therefore he wants nothing more than to heap laud and honor. It is that moment when the reviewer's heart and the reviewer's head come most into conflict, and produces only angst for both critic who writes, and writer who is written about.
That is the problem "Wheel-of-Torture" presents to me. It is a good story by a good writer, but it lacks just one teensy-weensy little something that makes or breaks it as a story. So, before proceeding, let me apologize for what follows. It gives me no joy.
Cards on the table, based on what I have seen so far, I like Sharpshooter as a writer. He has a good grasp of the skill it takes to draw pictures with words. He takes care to build his scenes slowly and with attention to detail, and he has the surest sense of pacing and timing of any "Supernatural" fan fiction writer I've yet to come across. When he's good, he's good.
A step further - "Wheel of Torture" is good. Not great. Not spectacular, but solid and eminently readable. It is the story of two boys going out to play on a Saturday afternoon while their father works. The boys get into a little trouble - nothing out of the ordinary and perfectly realistic - and it ends on a mildly humorous note. So what could be wrong with that?
Unfortunately, it has one small problem. Despite what it says, it is not a "Supernatural" fan fiction story. Replace the names John, Sam and Dean with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and you have the same story. This is the story of any two boys with any father on any busy Saturday afternoon, and therefore the reader who goes to a "Supernatural" fan fiction site is left wondering, "Why did I read this?"
Let me be clear, there is no better "Supernatural" fan fiction, when it is done right, than "Weechester" and "Teenchester" fan fiction. First, because it takes skill. In the best of it, the author has to make Sam and Dean recognizable to those who know them very well, yet they have to take account of the fact that these are boys who are not yet the men that they will become. So, consequently, they have to be both recognizable, yet different.
(For a superb example of this, see the fan fiction short entitled "Where's Mommy?". In the boy Dean we can see in embryo the qualities that will make him the man he will become.)
Furthermore, when done very right, "Weechester" and "Teenchester" stories show us not just how the boys became men, they explain the mythology of the show. They are stories not just about Sam and Dean, but about the show itself. They either hint at, or explain outright, how certain things in the show came to be.
An excellent example of this in fan fiction can be seen in the story "Westscott Preparatory Academy." This is story where the author offers a psychologically complex - if no doubt unorthodox and perhaps controversial - explanation of things like why Sam splits from his father and gets into Stanford, and why Dean seems to think so little of himself. It is a story where we learn about both the characters and the show itself.
However, there is an even better case for "Weechester" and "Teenchester" stories than the skill it takes to write them or the exposition they give us about the show. It is rather, that they make Sam and Dean human and therefore more accessible to the reader. In this, "Wee/Teenchester writers are on to something. When Sam and Dean are like us, we empathize with them in a way that their unusual lives might otherwise prevent.
By showing that Sam and Dean had normality in what was an otherwise abnormal life. By demonstrating how much like us they are, "Wee/Teenchester" stories help the reader to understand Sam and Dean at a profound level. For all the macabre elements in their lives, suddenly we can understand who they are and how they came to be, because in spite of everything, it is not impossible that we could be them.
(Side note: That is why I dislike the "Sam with superpowers" sub-plot of the show and why I am positively dreading the upcoming episode where Dean goes back in time to see how his parents met. The former makes Sam too non-human.
The latter, I fear, if - and it is an IF - it attributes some suupernatural events to the early years of John and Mary Winchester, will take away the thing that makes the Winchester boys most sympathetic. Specifically that they came from an ordinary family and were thrust into an extraordinary mission. Suddenly, we will not relate to the boys in the same way because they will no longer be like us.)
So what does all of this have to do with "Wheel of Torture?' Frankly, it is too much of a good thing. Yes, this is Sam and Dean as ordinary boys on an ordinary day, but that is all it is. Again, change the names and we get the same story. Consequently, the story can lay no real claim to being "Supernatural" fan fiction. It's a story about two boys. It is funny. It is even pretty well written. Still, it is not what it purports to be and therefore does not advance the reader's understanding of Sam, Dean or the show in any significant way.
Also, strangely, and unusually for the generally skilled Sharpshooter, the characterization in the story is weak. That is always a problem in "shorts," but as this story is so conventional it is a special problem in this case.
In the story, John is functionally not there. In fact, given that we know from the show that John was a doting father and also a bit rigorous, to say no more, in the discipline department, the notion that he let the boys idle away most of their Saturday mornings, except when he was busy on a hunt, seems a slight stretch. That is a debatable point, and by no means a fatal flaw, but it does sort of pop up as one reads the opening of the story.
As to Sam and Dean, there is not even the slightest hint of anything to make them distinctively themselves. Again, this is the hardest thing to pull off in "Wee/Teenchester" fiction, but it is still striking. The action of the story does not really lend itself to allowing the boys to manifest their personalities, but even the tone of voice was missing.
At one point, in fact, it almost becomes possible to lose track of which boy is speaking. This is further complicated by a bit of unevenness in the portryal of Sam. He seems to get older or younger as the moment requires.
For example, compare, "Hi, I'm Sam and my big brother is Dean," to "Oh, well you get my point." The former sounds to the ear like a little boy, the latter an older boy with a bit of a wit. Well beyond the "look at my big brother" tone of the earlier line.
In a story where action alone will not help to shape character in the reader's mind, this is not a small problem. Again, it is tough to pull off, so Sharpshooter should not be held to too high a standard. Yet, it remains a significant story weakness and in this case suggests that Sharpshooter's reach may have exceeded somewhat his normally considerable grasp.
The lesson here for all "Wee/teenchester" fans is that you cannot write too much for yourselves, but must keep in mind that you are writing for an audience that wants to read about "Supernatural" and its characters. This does not require that every story be about the supernatural, nor does it require that every story be serious - as an example see a short fan fiction piece called "Daredevils." However, what it does require is some attention to the detail of the show and some obvious link to the characters beyond writing about two boys who happened to be named "Sam" and "Dean."
At any rate, in this case, the bottom line regarding "Wheel of Torture" is, to borrow a line: I paid for "Supernatural" and didn't get "Supernatural!" A timeless story of playground antics? Yes, but just not a "Supernatural" story.
Wow, thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this review!
When I wrote this story, and even while I was posting it, I was wondering what the feeling in the pit of my stomach was when I thought of 'Wheel-of-Torture'. And BAM! you just explained it to me.
I understand where you're coming from when you say 'replace the names John, Sam and Dean with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and you have the same story' for it is very true. (By the way, love the Sesame Street usage.)
This is something I'll keep in the back of my mind whenever I'm writing, because it isimportant to make sure that the reader is enjoying a Supernatural story, and not just a tale about two brothers who have the same names as Sam and Dean Winchester.
Again, thank you for taking the time to review my sad excuse for a Supernatural story and being gentle with your critisims.
P.S. Oh, and your words about Westscott Preparatory Academy make me want to hurry along and finish reading the story!