Thinking Out Loud

When you’re working on a large creative project — a novel, let’s say — it’s hard to find someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth. When you find yourself stuck, laying out all of the factors in the stuckness can take quite a bit of time and effort, even if you know someone who has the patience to listen. As a result, brainstorming becomes a private business, and groping your way out of a blind alley can be endlessly frustrating. Even if your listener has no brilliant ideas to offer, not infrequently it’s when you’re explaining a knotty problem to someone else that the problem untangles itself.

So we’re going to try that here. I’m going to explain what has me baffled, and you can listen or not, your choice. I’ll pretend you’re listening, and try to lay out every relevant piece of the puzzle for you without burdening you with too much that’s extraneous.

I’m doing a rewrite of Book 3 of my four-volume fantasy epic. The basic plot premise of the story is that a young woman named Kyura has discovered that she’s not just an ordinary innkeeper’s niece. No, she’s the hereditary ruler of the distant land where she was born. The land is currently ruled by her cousin Tornibrac, who is a malevolent tyrant and quite possibly crazy. Also, he’s only a puppet ruler — the real villains are powers behind the throne, and Kyura is going to have to deal with them too.

She has now, after overcoming various dangers on the road, arrived in the land of her birth, and she’s trying to figure out what to do. In my previous draft, somehow it all worked out even though Kyura didn’t really take a lot of bold actions. My editor objected. “Kyura is too passive,” the editor cried. “You need to make her more active.” So okay, I’ve been giving her some actions. She has no army, unfortunately, and no way to raise an army, so an armed uprising — a revolution — would be difficult to mount even if she were a skilled general; and she’s not. She and her friends can engage in some significant sabotage, however, in order to create turmoil and tip the scales in their favor, and the sabotage is on their drawing board.

But because Kyura is a Good Person, she is not willing to carry out the sabotage until she has first spoken to her cousin face to face and asked him if he’s willing to step aside voluntarily and let her take over as the ruler. If he refuses (and of course the reader can readily guess he will refuse), she will feel justified in taking other action. She’s sure he will refuse; for one thing, he has already tried to kill her twice. But she feels honor-bound to ask.

The first question that this raises is, what on Earth is she planning to say to him? If she can make no proposal that sounds plausible to her and to her friends when they rehearse it, confronting him would just be silly, and she shouldn’t bother. Not being stupid, she will know that it would be pointless. He won’t budge unless she has a lever to pry him loose. Saying, “Pretty please,” is not going to work, and it’s not going to make readers happy either. Having your hero act like a complete idiot — not a good tactic for the writer.

The second question is, how exactly is she going to arrange to confront him face to face? He’s in his castle, and well guarded. She’s in hiding in the city. She can sneak into the castle easily enough; I’ve set that up without trouble. But what then? If she pops up in his bedroom wanting to chat, he’s just going to holler for the guards, and she’ll be arrested and have her head chopped off, and that will be the end of the story.

For the same reason, she can’t send him a message offering to meet him somewhere on neutral ground. He’ll just send guards or lay a trap, she’ll be arrested, the outcome will be no different.

If he’s traveling around the city in his lovely gilt-painted horseless carriage, she and her friends could possibly hijack the carriage. But this puts the forward movement of the plot on a bad footing. The good guys might have to wait weeks, twiddling their thumbs, until Tornibrac decides to take a little jaunt. Could they create an emergency that he would have to take care of personally? No, he has people to take care of emergencies. Hands-on supervision is not fun for him.

What’s worse, as Kyura plans this encounter, she has to contemplate what would follow in the unlikely event that Tornibrac gracefully agreed to step aside. She would then have to deal openly with the powerful men who have put Tornibrac on the throne. Unless she has a plan for how to do that, buttonholing Tornbrac would be about as useful as drinking a glass full of strychnine.

But let’s not worry about that quite yet. Let’s stick with how the confrontation between Kyura and Tornibrac could be arranged. The one slim hope that I can see is this: There’s an older woman, Siallon, who is apparently one of the bad guys, at least as far as the bad guys are aware. (She’s the aunt of the chief villain, who is Tornibrac’s mentor and the power behind the throne.) But way back in Book 1, Siallon allowed Kyura to escape from a cell by not blowing the whistle during the escape, instead telling Kyura, “Go, quickly!” Might Siallon be able to help the good guys by luring Tornibrac out of his castle? Yes, she might be willing to do that.

That’s my best idea so far, but it’s riddled with pitfalls.

First, the good guys don’t have any assurance at all that they can trust Siallon. If Kyura’s friend Roma even approaches Siallon and starts hinting about it, for all they know Siallon could have Roma arrested and tortured until she tells the bad guys where Kyura is hiding. The good guys may think or hope they can trust Siallon, but they don’t know her well, and she’s certainly hanging out with the bad guys, so approaching her is very risky.

Second, Siallon is a houseguest in the mansion of the evil wizard, Posthilnueze. Even if Siallon is inclined to be cooperative, the good guys have no way to insure that Posthilnueze or his servants won’t be eavesdropping on the conversation between Roma and Siallon, which would be disastrous.

Third, even if Siallon agrees to try to help, how can she lure Tornibrac out of his castle to a meeting with Kyura without in the process revealing to the bad guys that she, Siallon, is a traitor to their evil cause? “Oh, what a coincidence! Here’s Kyura. Maybe you and she should sit down and have a nice talk.” No, that’s not very believable. And I need Siallon to stay in the bad guys’ good graces, because near the end of the book she’s going to have to rescue Kyura from a very nasty situation, at which point she does finally reveal to the bad guys that she has switched sides. Having her visibly change allegiance at an earlier point in the story would create deep plot problems later on.

The next sound you hear will be the author making soft whimpering noises.

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