Jilly: The Big Finish

Do any of your favorite books get wrapped up in a high-risk, high-stakes final standoff?

Michaeline and Elizabeth had opening scenes on their minds this week. I’m at the other end of my WIP. I’m deep in my writer’s cave, trying desperately to polish up the grand finale of Alexis Book 1.

There’s a dramatic setting, mortal jeopardy, the stakes are nosebleed high and there’s no obvious way out. All the major players are present—heroine; hero; scary otherworldly nemesis; powerful scheming old crone and her grandson, the heroine’s jealous, spoiled half-brother.

I’m trying to do the scenes justice, but I’m feeling a little out of my depth. I know what happens, and why. Stuff happens. Tension escalates. Somebody gets hurt. Somebody dies. The death is right for the story and I’m sure I want to make that choice, but I’ve never killed off a character before. This is a new challenge for me and I want to master it.

If I’m struggling with a story problem, I like to read other authors who’ve written something similar to see what I can learn from their example. I’ve been racking my brains to find a great scene or two to inspire me, and the best one I can come up with is towards the end of Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

The scene in question takes place in Constantinople, in the Seraglio of the Topkapi Palace. Dramatic setting, check. The hero, Francis Crawford, gets to face off against his deadly enemy Gabriel, a twisted former Knight of St John, in a bid to rescue his ragbag team of friends, relatives and dependants, including two young boys: one is Francis Crawford’s son, the other Gabriel’s. The boys look alike; they have the same mother (Gabriel’s sister, ew) and are close in age. Nobody except Gabriel knows which child is which.

After some treacherous political wrangling, the powerful and scheming Sultan’s wife proposes a game of human chess, with Francis as one king, Gabriel as the other, and their companions as pieces. The rules are: any human chess piece who is captured and removed from the board will be immediately put to death by the Sultana’s eunuchs. And the heroine will be given as a gift to the winning king, who gets to kill the loser, gather up his peeps and walk away free and clear. High stakes, double check.

The tension mounts as the moves are made and the good guys understand that their survival depends on Francis’s skill. It’s fascinating to see how the different characters respond to the pressure. A further complication is that the children are placed on Gabriel’s team, allowing him to put them in harm’s way and forcing Francis to try to avoid them. And in a stroke of absolute genius (I wonder how many games of chess Dorothy Dunnett had to reverse engineer to make this work), Francis finds himself in a position where he can win the game, kill Gabriel and rescue his crew—but he has to capture a pawn. Either pawn would work, but taking either would result in the death of the child, and he has to choose which child to condemn to death and which to spare. If he takes neither and spares both children, he loses the game and all the good guys die.

Jenny Crusie taught us at McDaniel that character is choice under pressure. One of the many things I love about this scene is the way Dunnett describes Francis Crawford making the ultimate hard choice, and the impact that his choice has on those all around him.

I doubt I’ll ever write a scene this gut-twistingly good, but I’m going to read the end of Pawn In Frankincense this afternoon with my writer’s hat on to see what tips and hints I can glean. Then I’m going back to my laptop to give Alexis my best shot.

Can you recommend any other good books with an especially powerful, high-stakes final confrontation? Any and all suggestions most gratefully received 🙂 .

8 thoughts on “Jilly: The Big Finish

  1. Good grief from me, too! I don’t see how that scene can resolve to any satisfaction. I wish I could offer some suggestions of other books, but nothing comes to mind at this instant—and certainly nothing with this much drama. Good luck with your ending! (And I think I have to rush off and get this series so I can read this one.)

    • It’s a heck of a scene! The repercussions form a significant part of Lymond’s arc, which runs over six books. Dorothy Dunnett doesn’t kill off many characters, but she seeds her books with a few shocking and important deaths. I really like her voice and I’d strongly recommend the series. The first book, The Game of Kings, has a crucial card game near the end that I like almost as much as the chess game.

      • I’ll look into it! Plus, I’m happy to hear that she’s got two books in the series ending in Games with Outcomes. I’ve got two books in a series ending in Car Crashes with Outcomes, and it’s made me a little nervous. I’ll worry no longer!

        • They’re very different scenes, but yes, both Games with Outcomes. Re: your car crash–perhaps the trick is to make it a signature, and have a grand crash in the third book, too?? It seemed to work okay for Stephanie Plum 😉

        • Every author has their themes! Car Crashes with Outcomes sounds fine. LOL, it’s better (to my taste) than the Heroine Gets Accidentally Pregnant theme, or Arrogant Hero Must Have One Final Burst of Asshattery Before the Climax theme. Note: I really enjoyed the several books I read by both of these authors. But I didn’t enjoy these themes.

          Reminds me of the Bowie song, “I’m Always Crashing in the Same Car”. LOL. Too, too true for me.

  2. Oooh, human chess. I do like that in comedies; I’ve never read anything where it was dramatically used.

    I’d like to say that the end of A Civil Campaign was very high stakes and handled with humor. The heroine of the scene needed to keep her job, her scholastic plans and to be able to see her boyfriend on a regular basis. Her sister, her nominal boss, and her boyfriend also had major stakes in her winning. I don’t want to spoil the subplot too much, but this was a book where the subplots also had a lot of importance. It was a major wrapping-up.

    The ending battle for this subplot involved a food fight, a sleepy and bewildered and quite handsome (and nearly naked) security guard who’d been called up while he was off-duty, and “villains” who were frightened of bugs.

    The whole book was a romp, so this fit in quite well with the book. After the battle, the boyfriend was able to show his bravery, and the boyfriend’s brother swooped in to save the day. (Brother’s girlfriend is the real hero-who-saves-the-day in the main plot, so it was nice that brother got a chance to show his special skills off.)

    It’s well worth noting that Lois McMaster Bujold had been writing for quite a long time by that point, and it sounds like Dunnett had paid her dues and put in quite a bit of writing time by that point in her career.

    Which is to say: just write it. It’ll be great experience, and aiming above your level with something you love will make you a better writer. (-: You’ll get it, and even if it’s not quite what you want, you’ll be able to punch higher with the next book!

    (I don’t take this from my writing experience, where I tend to get stuck too easily, but from my ukulele experience. Aiming for Bowie instead of practicing lots of scales and endless renditions of Amazing Grace and Buffalo Gals made me a much better player in a narrow field in the middle term. Who knows what it means for the long run? I know that I’m having fun now.)

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