Writing the Big Scene
Synopsis of DEATH OF KINGS
The sixth of Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, DEATH OF KINGS finds Uhtred of Bebbanburg, along with most Saxons, Mercians, and Danes living in England near the end of the 9th century, waiting for Alfred the Great to die. Lots ride on this event for both Uhtred personally and for England. In the first part of the book a sorceress foretells that several kings will die in the course of coming events. Will they include Edward, Alfred’s heir, so that all that Alfred worked for will be lost?
And what will Uhtred do? Though he’s a Saxon, he was brought up by Danes. Given Uhtred’s long-time ambivalence toward the Christian king and the priests he supports, Uhtred might very well go home to reclaim Bebbanburgh, his birthright stolen from him by his uncle. I’m not telling the outcome except as expected, King Alfred dies.
The big scene
In a scene that completes a story line developed throughout the first half of the book, and just before Alfred’s death, the King calls Uhtred into his presence, along with about fifty blue million other characters, many with weird Anglo-Saxon names, including Æthelhelm, Æthelflaed, Æthelgifu, Æthelweard, Æthelnoth, and Æthelwold, plus Ælswith, King Alfred’s wife. Also mentioned is Ælfthryth, one of his daughters, who isn’t present. Given the number of characters whose names begin with Æ, her absence is a really good thing.
Now when I was reading DEATH OF KINGS, I was also at the point in my WiP where I needed to write a big scene with lots of characters. I was nervous about it. Throughout the draft of the book I’d whittled down the cast of characters for scenes to two and three as often as I could. But toward the end of the book it became inevitable that I bring almost of all of the characters together for the big show-down. (I’m just really happy that my characters’ names aren’t much alike, but hey, Cornwell had to work with what history gave him.)
Techniques I learned from Cornwell’s big scene.
Cornwell did very well in his big scene. For one thing, several of the Æthels are Alfred’s family members, so he worked them into the scene together. (FYI: This scene begins after the first page-break in Chapter Six, if you want to read along.)
The hall for this scene in the DEATH OF KINGS is crowded as is the town square where my big scene takes place. Cornwell groups some characters together like a half-dozen lords and members of Alfred’s council without individualizing them. I did the same for the town’s mayor and aldermen.
As Cornwell did with recurring characters, I added identifiers like relationship names and bits of description like to remind the reader of who my characters were. At times, Cornwell donates more than a few words to a character. For example, Uhtred’s son gets a whole paragraph.
Now, I’m writing the first book of two (probably), not the sixth in a series, so, unlike Cornwell, I didn’t have to remind readers of events that happened years before. But I did need to tie up some loose ends in my story from the past six months or so before I launched my heroine into the final confrontation with the villain of the piece. For this, I used a technique similar to the one Cornwell uses. For instance, one of my characters, a very small blonde, lost her glasses earlier, and in my big scene I told how she got a new pair before I quickly related her plans for the near future.
Though many of the characters in his big scene were familiar, Cornwell does introduce a completely new character, a scribe copying a document. Uhtred wonders about what the scribe is doing. It turns out to be an important turning point in the book. Following Cornwell’s example, in my big scene I parceled out some details to build tension and the reader’s curiosity.
I take one last lesson from this important scene in DEATH OF KINGS. Like Uhtred’s, my character’s heart is tugged in two directions, between her inner need to return home at once to her loved ones and the outer need to stay a little longer to help resolve the dire situation facing others.
I hope to show her doing this as powerfully and with as much grace as Uhtred does at the turning point of DEATH OF KINGS.
NEXT TIME: WiP Report # 9
Meanwhile, happy reading and writing. Best, Juliet