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 🙂 .