You Bet Your Life

Maybe I’m not serious enough. Failure of seriousness can be, I’m guessing, a serious defect in a writer.

I don’t remember how The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold, landed in my Kindle. I think it may have been a limited-time Amazon freebie. It’s a straight-up Medieval fantasy, complete with horses, swords, and kings — not the sort of novel I would tend to buy. What carried me along through the first few pages was not an exciting opener. The plot unfolds very slowly. But her writing is good. That and sheer idleness kept me going.

The viewpoint character appears, at the start, to be a scruffy vagabond, though there are hints he’s more than that. As he’s sitting in the courtyard hoping to get hired on as a kitchen scullion, the beautiful young princess and her equally beautiful young friend ride in through the gate, and I’m thinking, okay, there’s going to be a romance here. In the end he’s going to Get The Girl. But even then, the action doesn’t jump into high gear. Gradually we’re drawn into a story of courtly intrigue, complete with nasty villains, sword fights, and just enough magic to stir the bubbling stew.

I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you what happens. Suffice it to say the book is a lot better than I expected. And it set me thinking about my own work.

As the destiny of the princess unfolds, as the curse of the novel’s title strikes the rest of her family and swirls darkly about her, both her fate and the fate of the scruffy vagabond (who by this time is her tutor, and somewhat less scruffy) are very serious matters indeed. The term “life-or-death” doesn’t quite cover the situation. Yes, death threatens, but it’s more than that. To borrow a metaphor from poker, the important characters have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table. They could have done nothing else. They have no life beyond or outside of the life-or-death struggle. It’s the only thing that matters.

This is an important lesson for me as a writer. I’ve been struggling with a few tough questions relating to the revisions of Book 4 of my epic. As I flipped the last page of The Curse of Chalion and switched off my iPad, it struck me that neither my heroine nor my villain has pushed all their chips into the center of the table. The outcome of their struggle is important to them both, yes, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

My heroine is betting her life, in the sense that she braves great dangers. But she could change her mind and walk away from it all. If she did that, would she feel a sense of personal failure and regret? Yes, certainly. But what’s driving her on is a sort of abstract sense of duty. There’s nothing inexorable about it.

Same deal with the villain. At any point he could shrug, say “Okay, you win,” and head back to his palatial estate in the foreign capital. He’s driven by arrogance and greed, but if he were to give up, it would be no more than a minor personal setback for him.

The first version of my epic, written more than ten years ago, was rather tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t very good comedy, but there was a fair amount of silly stuff. When I set out to rewrite it in 2015, I made it a lot more serious, but there are still a few comic elements.

Would you like an example or two? Happy to oblige. In one scene Madame Scraull, the strict and rather overwhelmed governess, has been temporarily blinded by a wizard’s spell. In a complex struggle in the aisle of a railway coach, she tries (unsuccessfully) to stab an ogre with her knitting needles. Does the ogre respond by breaking her jaw? No, he does not.

Here’s another. The travelers have been warned not to stay at Briarstoke Manor, but for reasons that need not detain us, no other inn will have them. Here is our first glimpse of Briarstoke Manor:

As an inn it had in its favor one characteristic: It was large. Several wooden structures of varying age had been appended to the main building with more ambition than architectural acumen, and outbuildings of varying decrepitude attended the assemblage like moldering handmaidens waiting upon a bride who is dead but refuses to lie down. Two of the windows were boarded up. In the front yard, tall grass had grown up around the wheels and through the floorboards of a rusting wagon. Even on a clear, sunny day the air was thick with a damp, unhealthy odor, which doubtless emanated from a pig farm that abutted the inn on one side.

I’m too fond of this paragraph, one of the very few surviving from the original version, to consider deleting or changing it. Briarstoke Manor is indeed a dangerous place, but it’s dangerous in a funny way.

If you’re writing comedy, I don’t think your characters have to be all-in emotionally. They don’t have to bet their lives. (The title of today’s little essay is taken from a comedy quiz show that starred Groucho Marx, so it’s by way of being a double entendre.) But trying to mix bits of comedy into a serious dramatic epic may have been a gigantic mistake on my part.

Comedy isn’t just about pratfalls: It has to do with a certain ironic distance that the author inserts between the story and the reader. Consider this tiny excerpt, from the very end of Chapter 1 in Book 1, The Leafstone Shield. A large and prominently placed statue has just uttered a prophecy. While enigmatic, the prophecy seems to have referred to Kyura, who thinks she’s a very ordinary girl buying supplies in an outdoor market. Oh, and while the statue was speaking, crows were flocking around it.

Worry, obscure but implacable, crept through her the way the veins of pale fire had tickled their way up and down the statue. Fortunately, crows weren’t buzzing around her head, those were only flies. She waved the flies away and went on about her business.

Those last two sentences create ironic distance. While not humor per se, they’re clearly comic writing.

I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all the ironic distance in my story. Nor would I want to do it if I could. The question, then, is how to make my characters push all their chips into the center of the table without changing the tone of the text and cutting out the fun parts. This is going to require some careful thought.

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