Deconstructing the Siege of Pale Aftermath Scene
As promised, here is the deconstruction of the scene. Because the chapter is thirty-two pages long, and because I intend to be very precise, I’m going to do only the first section. In truth, the aftermath to the siege of Pale as written in this chapter consists of a bunch of scenes, not just one, including an extensive flashback. The opening section, the scene that opens on the hilltop with Tattersail and Hairlock, and then Whiskeyjack, Quick Ben, Kalam and Sorry, sets up the flashback which continues in a loop to pick up in present time again at page fifteen (in this version).
Before I begin the line-by-line stuff, however, some opening comments on my decision-making processes on the structure of the chapter. I have in the past described my scene construction (and chapter construction, and novel construction) as elliptical narrative. This is probably a holdover from my short-story-writing days, although to be honest I’m not sure what led me to refine the approach the way that I did.
In short, elliptical narrative makes use of images, details, settings created at the beginning of the scene (or novel, or series), that establish a strong connotative subtext, and this subtext then becomes my target for the end of that same scene. In other words, I circle round to complete the scene. This makes it self-contained in a sense, like the closing of a thought.
To put it another way, imagine that, with some chosen detail at the beginning of your scene, you ring a bell. Now, as you write further into that scene, the tone of that sound carries you forward, until eventually it fades. At which point, recalling that original detail, you give the bell another tap, softly this time, and you repeat that when needed (or desired) until you come to the end of the scene, whereupon you ring that bell again. Only this time, if you’ve done your work – that is, if you’ve advanced the narrative so that the fictive world has, through the passage of the scene, been subtly altered – the tone of that final ringing will echo that opening tone, but not exactly. It’ll be subtly off. But not in a bad way: more like a reprise in an orchestral piece. The closing reverberation complements how the scene began; more importantly, it evokes something of the opening: an emotion, a sense of atmosphere.
Obviously, one should not be obsessive about this. As a crass example: you describe a tree your protagonist is standing under in the first paragraph of the scene. It’s leafless, possibly even dead. Or it’s a mass of thick leaves. Come to the end of the scene, somewhere in that last paragraph or two, mention the tree again. This time, the character (or narrator) takes note of new buds on the branches and twigs [a new hope has sprung!]. Or that verdant growth from the opening paragraph now appears, upon closer examination, to be blight and rot [bad times are coming!]. The direction of that echoing depends on where you want to take the story, and the character. Now, don’t bother doing anything as crude as that. This really only works if you stay subtle. The bell shouldn’t deafen the reader, and those intermittent soft chimes should be quiet enough so that most readers don’t even notice them: the important thing is that you do (you, the writer). Why? Because it’s the surest way to stay on track and stay focused while writing that scene.
Bear in mind that scenes exist to advance some element of your story. Some scenes can carry multiple elements, but for the detail you use as your bell to ring, pick one. Don’t try them all. If you’re ambitious, try two, and then see how they can be made to play off one another as you write through the scene. If you’re really ambitious, you can take that first ringing of the bell and spend the entire scene subverting it. The key here is to be mindful, because without that, you can get lost in the scene you’re writing. You can lose its thread, its thematic track. You can, in effect, lose control of your narration.
And we don’t want that, do we? This is how writing ends up being that strange, seemingly contradictory combination of mindful intent with spontaneous, unfettered creativity. What you, as writer, write is in essence your dialogue between the two, laid out on the page for everyone to see (but you first, since you need to become your own editor, to fix what needs fixing, to test what’s working and what isn’t working; to make it as perfect as you can make it).
Accordingly – and this is very important – don’t go desperately looking for that detail that rings the bell. It doesn’t work that way. Rather, as you open a scene, with details of setting, or words in dialogue or monologue, employ the details you need to give the reader a clear picture or at least a sense of what’s going on. Then, once you’ve got a couple paragraphs in, stop and look back over what you’ve written. Chances are, something in that description, in that narrative, is the bell waiting to be rung.
Bear in mind this is only one approach to narrative fiction. There are many others. The reason I’ve gone to such lengths to describe this particular approach should be fairly obvious: it’s what I do, and did, throughout the Malazan Book of the Fallen. In fact, it’s become so natural to me – as a mechanism to maintain cohesion and control over every scene I write – that I do it these days without even having to think about it. Nor do I always do it, either, but it remains as an option in the back of my mind. You can go to any scene in any of my works, and you’ll find something of this approach.
You want to write a fat book? A long series? A ten-million-word masterwork? How swiftly does intimidation and despair set in? Suddenly, your own ambition becomes an enemy, a sneering, mocking foe to your own creativity. In your head there’s a seven hundred page novel, and here you are, on page three. Struggling. Sweating. Dying.
The elliptical narrative approach is your sure-fire fix to this problem (and I’m sure there are others, too), because it circumvents the brutal truth of six hundred ninety-seven pages still to go. Instead, your task is constrained, condensed, to One. Single. Scene. Start writing, find the bell and ring it, write through to the scene’s end and ring the bell again, noting its subtle alteration (with grim delight). Come tomorrow, it’s time to start a new scene. And so on, and so on. Until surprise! You reach page seven hundred, and lo, your novel is at an end. And damn if that opening bell in chapter one (or the prologue, even) isn’t ringing one more time as you close out the final few paragraphs of the story. Congratulations: you’ve just written your first narrative symphony.