This chapter opens on a scene you probably expected: an announcement covering how everybody is doing in the tournament plotline; the fantasy novel version of the elimination episode on a reality TV show.
The main question we need to answer: does Rahelu get in and become a Petitioner or does she fail?
In the previous chapter, I tried hard to make both options plausible.
(Originally, this scene was placed at the end of Rahelu’s audiences so the second round of the tournament began and concluded within the same chapter. More on why I split the chapter later.)
But I’d realized early on, instinctively, that the right answer here is: Rahelu fails.
How did I know?
Because I didn’t want to write the scene where she succeeds.
Because it involved me writing lots of words to describe Rahelu showing up to the grand hall to be told “congratulations, you’re a Petitioner now, here’s how the next stage of Petitioning works”.
And that is not a scene. That is an exposition dump. It is boring. Nobody wants to read that, including me. That means I don’t want to write it.
So how do you turn exposition into a scene? You find the source of tension.
I really like the try/fail cycle framework because it forces me to pin down conflict in a very concrete way that makes it easier to translate the conceptual idea of what the conflict is into prose. If I’m clear on what the conflict is, it’s easy for me to slip into my characters and figure out what they’re perceiving, how they react, and therefore how they respond. And then it’s just a matter of going from perception to reaction to response over and over again until the conflict is resolved.
The try/fail cycle also allows for wins along the way, even in the first half of the narrative. Characters can succeed at what they’re doing as long as there is some “Yes, but…” consequence to keep the tension going. The obvious way to do this would be to summarize “Rahelu, you’re in!” as quickly as possible so we can raise the stakes by cutting to the next stage of Petitioning and introducing the next conflict.
So why didn’t I do that?
Because I still didn’t want to write the scene where she succeeds. It didn’t feel like the right direction. It’s a tournament plot, but the archetype modern readers expect is “reality TV show elimination episode” which means they expect some sort of drawn out production about who gets in and who doesn’t. Which works when you’ve spent six one- or two-hour episodes a week getting to know all of the contestants on the TV show but doesn’t work in novel form when we’ve mostly been inside Rahelu’s head and we’ve only really met a handful of other applicants.
The narrative has spent so much time establishing Rahelu as an underdog; by this point, she’s beaten the odds twice already—both times by unconventional means. Once is a datapoint; twice could be coincidence. Three times is a pattern (*Note 1) and Rahelu’s success becomes predictable.
As a reader, I’m not a huge fan of predictability. I love twisty books, but I hate twists that exist for the sake of having twists. Twists need to feel surprising, yet inevitable (*Note 2), otherwise they feel arbitrary and unearned.
So I decided to pattern interrupt. Rahelu fails. And both the scene and the story became so much more interesting. (*Note 3)
It also meant that I could fix four of the big issues my alpha and beta readers had identified with one sequence:
- I moved the scene with Onneja and her Augury from Chapter 1 to here, closer to the midpoint of the story, where it wouldn’t muddy up the story promises.
- Originally, after Rahelu discovers she’s been eliminated, she decides to go looking for answers on her own. It was fine, plot-wise, but character-wise, beta readers felt it was inconsistent. Having her seriously consider the available alternatives now that Petitioning is no longer an option went a long way to showing how desperate she is.
- Up until now, the evil cultist ritual murder in the prologue has been pretty disconnected with the main tournament plot. By putting Rahelu’s mother into Onneja’s Augury as a possible future victim, we get raised stakes, a convergence of plot promises, and a good segue into the murder mystery that forms the second half of book.
- In the next chapter, Rahelu tries to find a way back into Petitioning. Alpha and beta readers across the board were extremely confused about where she got her idea from. Having a cryptic parting comment from Onneja cleared this up.
As a bonus, I was able to show the contrast in power/skill levels in what Augury looks like.
The Onneja scene is an example of a structural revision that significantly improves the narrative but is relatively easy to execute because it didn’t have any flow-on impacts. All I needed to do was move the scene from very early in the book (in the middle of Chapter 2) to about the midpoint of the book and expand it.
The funny thing is, even though the idea of the scene (Rahelu goes to meditate with Onneja) never changed, just about every line of prose in the scene did—it’s practically a rewrite from the ground up. (You can check out the full tracked changes from the alpha draft to final published version here.)
Finally, what makes this chapter work as a turning point is the pairing of the two scenes. Splitting off the elimination scene into the beginning of a new chapter instead of including it at the end of the previous one both figuratively and literally signals the beginning of a new arc. We answer the question raised in Chapter 1 with a resounding “no” and in exploring the fall out from that consequence, we have a new inciting incident that brings together the story promise made in the prologue. And by changing the end of the second scene to have Onneja leave (in response to the results of her Augury) instead of Rahelu (in response to time pressure to submit her Petition), we kick the plot back into high gear with raised stakes and a page turning hook.
I’ve discussed how the rule of three can be very powerful in previous annotations but this is an example where I think following the rule of three detracts from the story. (back to text)
This idea of “surprising, yet inevitable” comes from Joel Derfner, a fabulous songwriter and composer. I had the great fortunate of learning from him when he was teaching musical theatre at NYU. I’d written a song that contained a harmonic progression he’d really liked; it modulated from the key of F major (I) through C major (IV) to Ab major (not a related key at all).
I did not know what I was doing at the time; I went to Ab major because I was sitting at the piano, trying out all the different keys, and Ab major was the one that gave me the sound I needed for that emotional moment in the song. (back to text)
Some of the themes explored in Petition is how the ideals of equality and meritocracy differ to reality and the idea of the immigrant dream.
Having Rahelu succeed here, as expected, would undermine exploration of those themes. It makes her character arc less complex. It reinforces the idea of “work hard and eventually you’ll succeed”. Rahelu becomes another example of a “success story” her society can parade around as an example of their ideals in action, when in reality things are rarely that easy.
I’ve been one of those lucky few whose path ran very smoothly. But there are many, many others who had more and greater obstacles they had to overcome before they found a way forward…and still others who never do. And thanks to the survivorship bias and our love of stories about triumphing over all adversity, we rarely hear their stories told. (back to text)