Hand-Waving at Plot

If you read books about how to write fiction, or attend workshops, you’ll pick up lots of bits of useful advice. The trick is in understanding how to apply what you’re learning.

A few people had recommended Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, so when the Kindle edition was offered on Amazon for two bucks, I bought it. Yesterday I finally got around to starting it.

It’s dreadful. But not in any immediately obvious way. I had to mull it over to try to figure out why I’m not connecting with the story. What seems to be amiss is that Shannon is using the trustworthy elements of effective plotting without understanding how to actually do plot.

Both chapter 1 and chapter 2 begin with dramatic confrontations that ought to be exciting. And yet they’re not exciting. I’m tempted to quote the entirety of the short scene that opens chapter 2, but let’s see if I can summarize.

An assassin is creeping toward the queen’s bedchamber. He has acquired a key and sneaked past the sentry. (How he managed these coups we’re not told, though it’s implied that the sentry went off to relieve himself.) Shannon wants to start at the most dramatic moment, and starting at the most dramatic moment is often a good idea. So he already has the key, he has got past the sentry, and here he is, is inserting the key into the lock.

As he opens the door, another character drops silently behind him from her perch in the rafters. (Rafters? Let’s not worry about that.) He steps into the queen’s bedchamber. The other character — her name is Ead, she’s one of the primary characters in the story, and this is the moment when we first meet her — covers his mouth and stabs him in the ribs. Somehow she manages to do this (a) in complete silence and (b) without letting a drop of blood spatter her. He dies. She slips away “into the shadows.”

Well, there you go. That’s bound to be exciting, isn’t it? But let’s step back and look at a few weak spots.

First, Ead is the primary character, but the scene doesn’t start in her point of view. The point of view in the opening paragraphs flops around a bit. Some of it is omniscient, some seems to be from the assassin’s POV, and then toward the end of the scene we’re in Ead’s POV. At this point the reader has no idea that Ead is an important character. To establish that fact — to anchor her in the reader’s mind — the entire scene really ought to have been from her point of view. On top of being structurally better, it would have been a more dramatic scene.

Second, let’s consider the very first sentences in the book. “He was masked, of course. They always were. Only a fool would trespass in the Queen Tower without ensuring his anonymity….” This is flatly absurd. There are no surveillance cameras in the story: This is a late Medieval scenario, with daggers and muskets. And here’s a masked stranger wandering around in the queen’s private rooms in the dead of night. If anybody sees him, they’re more likely to raise the alarm if he’s masked than if he’s not. And if a guard apprehends him, the very first thing the guard will do is rip off his mask. The mask won’t help him at all, unless he has been apprehended and is running away — but it’s night! There’s no light. No, the mask is just Shannon’s flimsy attempt to add suspense, even at the cost of lost credibility.

Third, it soon becomes apparent that Ead is a sort of secret agent. She’s a good guy, but nobody knows she’s secretly protecting the queen. Somehow she has learned that an assassin is approaching. We’re later given the impression that she has magical senses, so that’s all right. But why wait until the assassin has opened the door of the bedchamber? Why not stab him five minutes earlier, as he’s coming down the hall? Because the scene is not yet in Ead’s point of view, the author is relieved of the annoying chore of having to explain that.

Waiting to stab him until the last possible moment is an attempt to add plot excitement. But consider the implications. What if the guy bites her hand when she tries to cover his mouth, and then shouts, waking the queen? At that point Ead’s double identity as a secret agent will be exposed. Ead is taking an awful chance here, but there’s no explanation of why she had to take the chance. I usually refer to this sort of situation by saying, “She knew it would work because she had been looking over the author’s shoulder and reading the plot outline.”

Fourth, when a stranger is found stabbed to death in the queen’s very bedchamber, there’s no follow-up. The queen never summons the guards and demands that they search the palace for other intruders. The question of how the assassin got the key to the bedchamber is never investigated. The question of who stabbed him — the queen doesn’t seem to care about that. Incident over, assassin dead, case closed.

Fifth, Ead herself is never in any trouble in this scene. The way to create excitement in your plot is to put your main character in jeopardy, but Shannon failed to do that.

Sixth, there’s too much rhetorical distance in the scene. Not only is more than half of it in omniscient, but when we drop into Ead’s POV we never get a word about her thoughts or feelings. She has just killed a man! How does she feel about that? Remorseful? Triumphant? Guilty? Does her gut quake at how nearly she blew it this time? Is she sweating? Trembling with relief? Breathing hard? The author fails to tell us.

Seventh, there’s very little visual detail. Is the assassin wearing a Lone Ranger mask? A ski mask? An Old West kerchief over his mouth and nose? We’re not told. More significant, this scene is set indoors in the middle of the night, but at no point are we told either that there are light sources or that it’s dark. Visual details are vital for anchoring the reader in the scene — far more important than a random authorial intrusion such as this: “With the other hand, he unsheathed a blade. The same make of blade the others had used.”

What difference could it possibly make what sort of dagger the assassin was carrying? There’s no follow-up on that. A reasonable inference would be, it doesn’t actually matter. The author seems to have tossed in that sentence fragment as a feeble way of letting readers know this isn’t the first attempted assassination. Not that that matters much either, as there’s no subsequent indication of why sinister forces are intent on assassinating the queen.

This isn’t self-published fiction, folks. I wouldn’t bother dissecting it if it were. It was brought out by a large indie publisher. How the editors at a publishing house could have let this mess slip past them — it’s a sad commentary on the state of the industry, really. But at least I only wasted two dollars, and I got a nice blog post out of it.

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