Looking back and getting better: Discord’s Secret, scene 1

Learning from our mistakes is a big part of getting better. And every writer has an embarrassing old story or twelve they never want to see the light of day; a story they have moved far beyond, a story that they look back at and shudder.

Well, mine is seeing the light of day. Or parts of it anyway. In a series of blog posts over the next however long this will take (don’t worry – it won’t be the only thing I’m posting) I will look at a story I was writing back in 2006-2008 and examine the problems with it and draw lessons from it.

I’m not sure if this is the first draft or not – there might have been a handwritten version, but if there was it’s long gone. So I’ll be using the first typed version, last modified in April 2008. At 53,000 words, it became fairly substantial, though I never completed it. It was called Discord’s Secret.

Today’s post looks at the opening scene, in which one of the four main characters is introduced and his journey kicks off. Here’s the first paragraph of it:

A fool could see the way the battle was turning. The Tengrashis were being pushed up hill by the greater numbers of Marrakans, and the gap in numbers between the two armies was growing minute by minute. Yet on the ridge behind Tem the commanders sat astride their mounts and the horn was silent. General Skeab’s reinforcements had not arrived and there were fewer and fewer Tengrashi soldiers on the field as one by one they were cut down. A group of twenty had formed a defensive ring to Tem’s right; to his left the remnants of the cavalry reformed to aid another knot of fighters.

Oh dear.

The only praise I can say about this paragraph is that it does clearly show the shape of the battle – where other players are in relation to Tem, and that the topography is. But the style is rather formal, detached, not at all suitable to reflect the chaos of battle, but more like a sensationalised documentary. The opening sentence is clichéd and uninteresting. It took me until the third sentence to mention a character.

It’s not at all clear from this who Tem is. A soldier, sure, but it’s not even entirely clear which side he’s on yet. And at the moment, he feels like an observer, not a participant – he’s got all this time to look around, he knows about reinforcement movements, he’s even got time, apparently, to do a quick count of people in another group. There’s nothing to say what kind of a person he is, what he wants in the here and now like survival or victory, how he feels about what’s going on. No emotional attachment, no physical attachment. He might as well be a ghost from five hundred years ago whose grave was disturbed by a battle.

Let’s move on to the next bit:

Tem fought back to back with a soldier he’d never met before the battle. There were four Marrakan soldiers attacking them, forcing them to react swiftly.

This follows on directly from the first paragraph, and belies what we’ve been told: Tem doesn’t, apparently, have the time to observe all he’s observed because he has to act swiftly. So the first paragraph now feels like he was daydreaming, then got pulled back to the real world, fighting against enemies (and we now know what side he’s on).

Tem’s unknown comrade is also problematic. I probably imagined at the time that in the chaos of battle (not actually demonstrated elsewhere), Tem was separated from his friends or they died, and he ended up fighting with a guy he’s just met whose name he doesn’t, apparently, know. But I haven’t established that. There’s no lead up. And because of that there’s still no emotional attachment. How would Tem feel about his buddies getting cut down? We don’t know, because I didn’t write it. He is friendless. And if there’s no emotional attachment for Tem, why should there be any for the reader?

The rest of the paragraph sees some fighting, in which an opportunistic move by Tem to kill one opponent leads to his comrade getting killed, and Tem facing off against the three remaining Marrakans alone. To even the odds, one drops back from exhaustion and Tem then dispatches the other two. Here’s one of the sentences:

Parrying a deadly swing Tem ducked under another and kicked a Marrakan’s knee, slamming his sword into the soldier’s throat as he grabbed the man’s sword with his left hand and used it to deflect a fresh attack from the last soldier standing.

How long does that need to be? In fact, a lot of what I’d written to this point involves long, drawn out sentences. The pacing is slowed because the sentences involve large or complex sequences rather than single actions. General advice with fight scenes is to use short, punchy sentences, though I prefer to let the action dictate the structure – if movements are graceful, easily flowing from one action to the next, a longer sentence is suitable. But when the sword stops – so does the sentence. This way the prose reflects and emphasises the action.

In any case, there aren’t any graceful flowing motions here. It’s the tail end of the battle. Tem should be exhausted. One move, take a breath, step back. Block. Duck. Especially since he’s outnumbered: they can step back to catch their breath while their comrades keep Tem busy. Or, because they outnumber him and are exhausted and don’t want to die, they might even try to tell him to surrender. But like the lead-up, this battle is without emotion or really any hint that the players are human except for the one who is exhausted.

Note also the gerunds here – parrying and slamming. If I had broken up the sentence I could have used more active language. These aren’t the last gerunds in this scene either.

After Tem kills the third of the Marrakans, he turns to retreat:

Now he had only to flee up the hill, but as he turned to do so the fourth Marrakan rose from where she had slumped, her sword arm shaking, blocking his way up the slope.

The Tengrashi soldier glanced around him. Many of his countrymen were fleeing, while others were still fighting, their escape blocked by the enemy. A quarter mile away on the opposite ridge Marrakan cavalry in black and bright blue uniforms thundered towards him, the reason for the retreat. Above him, beyond the young Marrakan, the commanders wheeled their horses and galloped away ahead of their soldiers.

I told you there would be more gerunds.

But here again Tem has time for a nice little look around. He can see what’s going on, without having to worry about the final Marrakan attacking him for no better reason than that I wanted to make sure the reader knew more of what was going on than the point of view character had a right to know.

The scene continues:

Tem didn’t have time to fight this exhausted girl, he had to flee. Panic welled up in him and he tried to move around her, but she moved to block him again, her sword held ready, her battered shield in place on her left arm.

When I first read this for the purposes of this blog post, I cringed at “exhausted girl” – how patronising. She’s in the army, she’s a grown woman (unless there are child soldiers here? Nope). But actually, this could work: the Tengrashis have a patriarchal society, whereas Marrak is more equal – something I intended to preach about, I’ll admit, with Tengranash the bad guys and Marrak the good guys. While that side of things would need work, assuming the gender issues originally planned were to remain then Tem, brought up in a patriarchal society, might be rather condescending to his female opponents. Though not, apparently, bothered about killing them – one of the dead soldiers was a woman.

So that’s something I clearly didn’t work out well enough.

Panic welled up in him and he tried to move around her, but she moved to block him again, her sword held ready, her battered shield in place on her left arm.

This is the first time we see any emotion at all from Tem: panic. And I’m telling, not showing. Now, for a battle scene pacing is important, so there’s not much time to dwell on showing, but it wouldn’t take long to talk about Tem getting short of breath, maybe tunnel vision, or maybe just showing in his actions as he fights her – or through dialogue – what he’s feeling.

Tem fights this Marrakan and forces her to drop her sword; but as he moves to get past her she matches him, bearing only her shield now.

Tem lowered his blade and sidestepped left to go past her, but as before she matched him. They could hear the cavalry drawing closer with every second, and she defied him to escape death. He had no choice; he attacked again, holding his sword two-handed and sweeping it down from above his head. It thudded against her shield, cracking it down the middle. He brought his sword down again, harder, and this time the shield broke apart and the sword buried itself in the arm beneath, wedging in the bone. The Marrakan cried out in pain and retreated, taking Tem’s sword with her.

The thing with this is that Tem did have a choice; if he’s so desperate to get past, he could have shoved her, or talked to her to tell her to move, or just tried running along the contour until he outpaced her sidestepping attempts to block him. Neither does she talk: what’s her motivation here for risking death with no weapon to stop him? “You killed Erin and I’m not letting you leave here alive” would suffice; it is, in fact, the truth.

This character is Willenar, and she is due to return later in the story. She recognises Tem when she sees him, too – months later. While I didn’t want anyone to know that from the first scene, so perhaps the shouted “You killed Erin” bit might not be the best bet, I think it’s probably very easy to forget this scene ever even happened by then (since it’s so unremarkable) but even then, a reader might think “but they only saw one another for minutes; surely she can’t remember that after so long?”

So I would want to put in more time for them to look at each other, maybe a brief conversation to establish Willenar’s motivation for blocking Tem’s retreat, and enough time to be able to recognise one another later on.

Also, argh the gerunds.

Finally, the scene ends:

Not wanting to delay another second, Tem circled her and half stumbled, half ran up the hill, her eyes haunting his memory as he fled the blood-drenched battlefield.

He never returned to camp.

I haven’t really established a strong emotional reason for him not to return to camp. In fact a reader might be forgiven for thinking Tem’s injuries left him dead before he got to camp, or the Marrakan cavalry rode him down and captured or killed him. It’s rather too vague. As it was, he just deserted. I have it look like Willenar’s haunting eyes are the reason, without actually establishing that she has haunting eyes until after she’s gone from the scene. If I were to write it again, I’d give Tem some friends and emotions to justify his decision to desert, and then actually establish that he does desert, and not just vanish into thin air.

That first scene was 699 words. And it reads like a prologue: detached point of view, ambiguous ending, no emotional investment, and no indication that Tem will actually be a main character here.

It’s full of linguistic and storytelling no-nos – gerunds, passive sentences, a tone too formal for what’s going on, sentences that don’t match the pacing.

Overall it’s very weak. If I were to write it again I’d start earlier in the battle, when Tem’s friends are still alive, and the Tengrashis are winning. I’d show Tem’s emotions change from naïve optimism to horror, grief and fear. I’d include more chaos and less overview. I’d also drop the whole reinforcements bit, as they are superfluous – they never appear anyway, so Tem not expecting any won’t change the outcome of the battle or how he fights.

Tem would try to retreat without needing the horn to tell him it’s okay, because his fear would be greater than his discipline, and it would make him feel more of a coward – a point which comes up later on. I would give Tem’s interaction with Willenar more time and establish her appearance a little bit within the context of Tem looking for the best course of action. This would pay off half the book later when they meet again.

So that’s scene one of Discord’s Secret – what I did and what I might do if I were to write it again now. In the five or more years since I wrote this, I have learned quite a lot about writing, so I feel pretty good about that, but I bet if in 2018 I looked back at what I’m writing now I’d find just as many ways to improve. It’s also given me a good opportunity to practice editing without having to write anything new first.

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