Chapter 10 is interesting to analyze in terms of its construction. On the surface, it seems like a pretty boring scene. It’s just Rahelu, Lhorne, and Dharyas chilling out over lunch in a tavern with the rest of the Ideth applicants.
Not much plot happens. That’s deliberate. In Jim Butcher’s scene-and-sequel terms (though I don’t think he was the originator of this particular framework) this chapter functions as a sequel. The scene—being the challenges—was in Chapters 6 through 10.
(I did not, however, follow Butcher’s suggested structure. I don’t actively refer to any particular plotting framework when I’m writing new prose. While I like using the try/fail cycle to figure out what should happen next, it doesn’t drive how I write the scene.)
We begin with three open loops that drive the scene:
- Who won the last challenge?
- What is Rahelu going to do with Lhorne’s pendant?
- Will Rahelu let Lhorne buy her lunch?
You can think of these questions as open Inquiry, Event, and Character threads respectively under Mary Robinette Kowal’s MICE quotient framework. Throughout the scene, we make progress towards answering each of those questions:
- Lhorne carries the bulk of the conversation during the post-mortem, though Cseryl and Dharyas and Rahelu make their own contributions. We fill in the leftover gaps with some introspection.
- Rahelu tries to return Lhorne’s pendant.
- Lhorne tries to get Rahelu to eat, despite her initial refusal.
You could also analyze this scene in terms of conflict. Despite this being a slower scene, there’s actually quite a bit of conflict present between:
- Cseryl and Lhorne (over his past decisions)
- Lhorne and Rahelu (over his attempt to buy her lunch)
- Lhorne and Rahelu again (over the loan of his pendant)
- Rahelu and Dharyas (over Dharyas’s ambitions and vague plans)
- Rahelu and herself (over whether she will give in to her hunger and eat the food in front of her)
- Rahelu and herself again (over whether she should stay for lunch or rush back to Market Square to help her mother as she promised)
Alternatively, you could divvy up this chapter into several arcs:
- Lunch which begins with Lhorne ordering food for everyone and ends when Rahelu scavenges the leftovers disposed of in the alleyway.
- The post-mortem which begins with Cseryl taking Lhorne to task for trusting Elaram and ends when Cseryl and the other Ideth applicants leave.
- The speculation around the audiences and the spheres which begins with Rahelu trying to return Lhorne’s pendant and ends when she agrees to borrow it for a little longer.
- The discussion around which invitations to accept which begins with a question from Lhorne and ends with Rahelu’s rant at Dharyas.
But how do you figure out when to end a scene? Well, there’s several ways. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the frameworks that I’m familiar with:
- In Save the Cat‘s terms, it’s when an emotional change has happened.
- In Steven Erikson’s terms, it’s once you ring the bell.
- In Brandon Sanderson terms, it’s when you payoff on your promise.
- In Mary Robinette Kowal’s terms, it’s when you close off each MICE thread.
- In Jim Butcher’s terms for a sequel, it’s when the character has made their choice.
All of this makes it sound like I’m a genius who plans out how all of these threads interweave together to build to a satisfactory ending of a scene, knowing the whole time where things are going before I write a single word.
The thing is, I don’t.
Sometimes I have vague ideas—“maybe there’ll be a moment where X happens”—but that’s it. I generally have no idea where a scene is going until I write it.
What I do is stick to the golden rules of improv: I start with a character in a situation, I utilize the “yes, and” rule to keep the scene going, and I build on what’s already been established.
This is the extent of my outline for this chapter. While I had some plot and exposition goals, I’m mostly heavily focused on how the characters are feeling:
Here’s a Naomi Novik quote I recently discovered from an old AMA she did on r/books four years ago:
I’m a discovery writer rather than an outliner or planner—character and setting work each other out as I go. I almost always start with a voice, in particular—what one specific character is doing or thinking or in the case of Uprooted and Spinning Silver, actually telling me in first person. It starts with a sentence and goes on from there, and what they’re seeing or feeling or in the middle of doing tells me something about the world, and that in turn builds the character, and so on. I think action is the best way to reveal character; what a character chooses to do in a given situation tells both me and the reader a lot about them, and the more I write, the more I get an inner sense of the character and what they WOULD do in a wider variety of situations, what it is they care about.
I don’t generally get writer’s block. What normally happens to me is I see too many different ways a story could go and I am paralyzed because I have to choose just one to write. (And then I write the novel length version and have my cake and eat it too!)—Naomi Novik on how she plans characters and writes, via r/books
It is exactly how I write!
Like Novik, I write a line in a specific character’s voice in a specific POV and I go from there:
- How will the other character/s respond?
- How does the POV character interpret that response?
- How will they/the other character/s respond to that response?
And so on and so forth until I get to the end of the scene. Which, for me, is when there is nothing else interesting that the character has to add. Usually this is when we’ve arrived at some sort of emotional resolution. For example:
- In Chapter 2, it’s when Nheras has destroyed Rahelu’s Petition. The emotional arc here is from hopeful to gutted, but not defeated. The next emotional arc begins immediately afterwards, in Chapter 3, when she has to convince Xyuth to help her.
- In Chapter 8, it’s when Rahelu and her teammates succeed in stealing the tokens. The emotional arc here is from dread to heady victory. I did not write out the chase sequence between the end of Chapter 8 and the beginning of Chapter 9 because there was no emotional arc there for Rahelu.
In this chapter, Rahelu digging through the trash for food scraps is an authentic character moment that serves as the obvious punchline for the end of the scene. Prolonging it further doesn’t do anything for her character or for the narrative.
Overall, the rough draft of this chapter came out pretty clean. (This is normal for me; XXX placeholders and some line level issues aside, I generally write very clean drafts.)
I only changed two things in revision:
- I expanded the scene by giving Dharyas a character moment and deepening her pre-existing relationship with Lhorne. The entire exchange about her plans to open an independent mage shop did not exist in the first draft.
- I also rearranged the flow of the scene by moving the speculation of what they were supposed to do with the spheres. Originally, it happened upfront but that raised the question of what Rahelu was doing hanging around instead of going to help her mother. Moving it to later in the chapter and linking it to her suspicions that House-born have insider knowledge smoothed out this inconsistency in her character.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how this chapter turned out!