Fiction Archive | 7/1/2010
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Anatomy of a Scene
Unbroken Chain
Jaleigh Johnson

Author Introduction: Hello and welcome to the first draft of chapter 1, scene 1 of my novel Unbroken Chain. For anyone who has ever wondered what goes into editing a first draft from start to finish, I'm going to dissect the following scene and talk a little bit about my process of writing the book as well as give a look at how I worked together with my editor, Erin Evans, to bring Unbroken Chain from its roughest stages into a final, polished product.

I chose to examine this scene because not only is it the first scene in the novel--and the introduction of Ashok, a character I love--it's the first scene I wrote. My thought process when writing a novel is very linear. I almost never skip around in the narrative unless I'm completely stuck on a plot point and need to get my word count in for the day. I have to visualize the plot and the character development from start to finish, or I risk getting hopelessly confused.

So this scene is the introduction of Ashok and the reader's introduction to the shadar-kai, a race of shade-like humanoids that live in the Shadowfell. Surrounded by shadow, they seek out the most extreme forms of stimulation to keep their spirits from fading away into nothingness--a fate worse than death. I wanted to give readers a taste of what this means right off the bat and let them know that Ashok is no ordinary character. He's not human, his world is not meant for the average Faerunian, and his concerns and morality can't be measured on a human spectrum. So this scene has a lot to do in a relatively short span in terms of character development, establishing the setting, and starting the story off at a fast pace.

I've included my thoughts on specific parts of the scene as well as my editor's comments on the original draft (just roll over the blue text to view).

Let's see how it goes…


Chapter 1 (First Draft)

Nightal 18, The Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR)

"I will speak of shadow. The known world, Toril, has its mirrors and doorways--some that veil the way to another realm entirely, a dark landscape where the souls of the living and the dead entwine. We call this realm the Shadowfell. It exists alongside our world, embraces it, a dim reflection and a passage all the dead must take to their eternal rest or ruin. But I want to speak of the living, of the beings that breathe, think and feel within the nightmare realm. How can anything exist in a world of shadow? That was the question that haunted me, the reason I stepped through the Veil."
--Tatigan Carrlock
Collected Observations of Ikemmu
The Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR)

The shadow hounds chased Ashok across the plain to the base of Aloran Tor.

In the lee of the towering mountain grew a solitary tree, a gnarled mass of trunk and trident fork branches covered in black needles that were sharp to the touch and could cut, if raked over tender skin. It cast a discomfiting shadow and was called a kindling tree by Ashok's people, the shadar-kai, for its wood was only good to burn.

Ashok put his back against the tree and listened to the wind howl across the plain. With gaze and memory he traced the path he'd followed these last four days--the death run and the fight to outlast tooth and claw. How many miles had it been?

The Aloran Tor, always a thumbprint of distance on his longest journeys, and now he was in its grip. The plain yawned wide and hazy for miles, a colorless patchwork of scrub grass and cracked soil. Overhead, clouds hung oppressively low in the sky.

In the perpetual half-light of the Shadowfell, there was no day and no night, only a long stretch of sameness broken by dust storms or stinging rain.

He'd walked through both, and the hounds had followed.

Ashok clutched a dagger in his left hand and a spiked chain in his right. The former he used to draw a rough circle around the kindling tree. The eroded soil parted easily for his blade.

When he was done he pressed two fingers into the oozing bite wound in his thigh. Pain ran slick knots up his spine, but it wasn't strong enough to fever his brain. No, he was aware of everything, every sound in this private wilderness--the wind, his heartbeat and ragged breathing, the wing rush of a raven landing in the tree.

Ashok looked up at the bird. Its attention was fixed on the blood coating his fingers. Blood was the brightest color for miles. Ashok smiled.

"Not yet," he said.

He put a knee to the plain and pulled up his cloak hood to cover his face.

"For your feast, pups--" he traced the circle in blood "--have your meat, but come no further."

Still crouched, Ashok gazed across the plain to the west. Amid the howling winds he detected another sound, one he'd been waiting for--the baying of hounds. They'd run their prey to ground at last.

Four immense, mastiff shadows charged the Tor, their bodies drawing in what little light suffused the Shadowfell, until all Ashok could see were the creatures' eyes--metallic silver points buried in rolls of obsidian flesh.

"Come ahead!" Fierce, defiant laughter exploded in Ashok's throat. He pounded his chest with his fists and sprang to his feet, heedless of the pain and the blood oozing down his leg.

He sheathed his dagger and whipped the chain above his head. He launched one end into the kindling tree. The shadow raven cried out in deep-throated alarm and took flight. The spikes looped around a thick branch and caught. Ashok held the other end of the chain and braced his good leg against the tree trunk.

When the hounds reached Ashok's bloody perimeter, two of them vanished. The rest pressed drooling muzzles into the ground, teeth bared and craving, starved for Ashok's blood. The distraction bought Ashok a few breaths more to live.

The other two hounds reappeared in a shadowy vortex directly in front of Ashok.

Muscled hindquarters tensed, and the creatures sprang at him. Ashok used the tree trunk to push off and swung on the chain. His momentum carried him past the first hound and into the second. The force of impact was like kicking a stone wall.

Ashok let go of the chain and fell on top of the hound. Snapping teeth clipped his chin and neck, barely missing the tender veins. Ashok rolled with the beast, over and over, until he could grab his dagger from its sheath. He buried the curved blade in the hound's neck.

Howling, the hound teleported several feet away to die--leaving Ashok with a bloody dagger and the second hound, bearing down on him.

It hit him in the back, drove him flat to his stomach, his face pressed into the dirt. He could smell the gamey hound and his own blood from the circle. The hound bit him in the shoulder, fangs tearing through clothing and armor and flesh. Ashok felt the pain explode down his arm. His vision went white around the edges, and his left arm was suddenly numb.

He forced his body into a crouch, spilling the beast off his back before it could tear his arm off. The other two hounds shook off their blood frenzy and charged.

Ashok lunged to his feet and vanished.

He reappeared crouched in the kindling tree's boughs, his insubstantial form a hovering storm cloud, his cloak fanned over the branches like a veil. The remaining three hounds surrounded the tree, leaping straight into the air, fangs shredding bark and needles.

Ashok waited. In this form, weightless, he felt nothing--not his wounds, not the bone scales of his armor pressed against his chest, or the branches caressing his face with needles. He waited and watched the hounds tear apart the tree.

Slowly, it seemed to Ashok--when only a few breaths had passed--he felt his flesh solidify on his bones. Weight pressed down on the kindling branches--creaking, straining, but they held him. The needles opened small wounds on his cheeks, but he couldn't feel them. The pain in his shoulder and bent leg was too intense. Dizziness engulfed him at last, and Ashok knew the fight was almost over. He'd crossed the line from pain as a focus to pain that clouded the mind and slowed reflexes.

Boring down, forcing back the brain fever, Ashok grabbed the dangling chain still buried in the branches. He unwrapped the other end, jerked it free of bark and needle.

"Time to eat, pups," he said, and jumped.


Author Introduction: Here we have the final draft of the scene, which is a great improvement on the first draft. Also apparent in this scene: my embarrassing grammatical mistakes have been cleaned up and the text gone over thoroughly by the copy editor. Fortunately for writers, their editors are there to make sure they don't leave the house with their pants on backwards.

This draft contains my comments on some of the changes made from first draft to final. Enjoy, and if you like what you see, be sure to check out the rest of Unbroken Chain (edited and polished until it shines).

Chapter 1 (Final Draft)

Nightal 18, The Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR)

“I will speak of shadow. The known world, Toril, has its mirrors and doorways--some that shroud the way to another realm entirely, a dark landscape where the souls of the living and the dead entwine. We call this realm the Shadowfell. It exists alongside our world, embraces it, a dim reflection and a passage all the dead must take to their eternal rest or ruin. But I want to speak of the living, of the beings that breathe, think, and feel within the nightmare realm. How can anything exist in a world of shadow? That was the question that haunted me, the reason I stepped through the Veil.”
--Tatigan Carrlock
Collected Observations of Ikemmu
The Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR)

The shadow hounds chased Ashok across the plain to the base of the Aloran Tor.

In the lee of the towering mountain grew a solitary tree, a gnarled mass of trunk and trident fork branches covered in black needles that were sharp to the touch and could cut if raked over tender skin. It cast a discomfiting shadow. Ashok’s people, the shadar-kai, called it a kindling tree, for its wood was only good to burn.

The Aloran Tor, always a thumbprint of distance on his longest journeys. The plain yawned wide and hazy for miles, a colorless patchwork of scrub grass and cracked soil. Overhead, clouds hung oppressively low in the sky.

In the perpetual half-light of the Shadowfell, there was no day and no night, only a long stretch of sameness broken by dust storms or stinging rain.

He’d walked through both, and the hounds had followed.

Ashok clutched a dagger in his left hand and a spiked chain in his right. He used the former to draw a rough circle around the kindling tree. The eroded soil parted easily for his blade.

When he was done he pressed two fingers into the oozing bite wound in his thigh. Pain ran slick knots up his spine, and Ashok shuddered with pleasure. The pain sharpened him. He was aware of everything, every sound in the private wilderness: the wind, his heartbeat and ragged breathing, the wing rush of a raven landing in the tree.

Ashok looked up at the bird. Its attention was fixed on the blood coating his fingers. Blood was the brightest color for miles. Ashok smiled.

“Not yet,” he said.

He put a knee to the plain. “For your feast, pups,” he said, tracing the circle in blood. “Take this blood, but come no farther.”

Still crouched, Ashok gazed across the plain to the west. Amid the howling winds he detected another sound, one he’d been waiting for: the baying of hounds. They’d run their prey to ground at last.

Four immense shadow mastiffs charged the Tor, their bodies drawing in what little light suffused the Shadowfell, until all Ashok could see were the creatures’ eyes—metallic silver points buried in rolls of obsidian flesh.

“Come ahead!” Fierce, defiant laughter exploded in Ashok’s throat. He pounded his chest with his fists and sprang to his feet. His wound was on fire. He reveled in the pain and the blood oozing down his leg.

So alive . . .

Ashok sheathed his dagger and whipped the chain above his head, launching one end into the kindling tree. The shadow raven cried out in deep-throated alarm and took flight. The chain’s spikes looped around a thick branch and caught. Ashok held the other end of the chain and braced his good leg against the tree trunk.

Two of the hounds vanished as they reached Ashok’s bloody perimeter. The others pressed their drooling muzzles into the ground, their teeth bared and craving, starved for Ashok’s blood. The distraction bought Ashok a few breaths more to live.

The other two hounds reappeared in a shadowy vortex directly in front of Ashok. Their muscled hindquarters tensed, and the creatures sprang at him. Ashok used the tree trunk to push off and swung on the chain. His momentum carried him past the first hound and into the second. The force of impact was like kicking a stone wall.

Ashok let go of the chain and fell on top of the hound. Snapping teeth clipped his chin and neck, barely missing the tender veins. Ashok rolled with the beast, over and over, until he could grab his dagger from its sheath. He buried the curved blade in the hound’s neck.

Howling, the hound teleported several feet away to die, leaving Ashok with a bloody dagger and the second hound bearing down on him.

The beast hit him in the back and drove Ashok flat to his stomach, his face pressed into the dirt. He could smell the gamey hound and his own blood from the circle. The hound bit him in the shoulder, its fangs tearing through clothing and armor and flesh. Ashok felt the pain explode down his arm. His vision went white around the edges, and his left arm was suddenly numb.

He forced his body into a crouch, spilling the beast off his back before it could tear his arm off. The other two hounds shook off their blood frenzy and charged.

Ashok lunged to his feet and vanished.

He reappeared crouched in the kindling tree’s boughs, his insubstantial form a hovering storm cloud, his cloak fanned over the branches like a veil. The remaining hounds surrounded the tree, leaping straight into the air, their fangs shredding bark and needles.

Ashok waited. In his weightless form, he felt nothing—not his wounds, not the bone scales of the armor pressed against his chest, or the branches caressing his face with needles. He longed to feel them. With the pain gone he was an empty shell, adrift on the barren plain. He waited impatiently to get back in the battle while the hounds tore apart the tree.

Slowly, it seemed to Ashok—when only a few breaths had passed—he felt his flesh solidify on his bones. His weight pressed down on the kindling branches—creaking, straining, but they held him. The needle branches opened small wounds on his cheeks. The pain in his shoulder and bent leg had reached a peak. Then dizziness engulfed him, and Ashok knew the fight was almost over. His body had reached its limits at last. Soon the pain would give way to oblivion.

But he would enjoy every breath he had left.

Ashok grabbed the dangling chain still buried in the branches. He unwrapped the other end, jerking it free of bark and needles.

“Time to eat, pups,” he said, and jumped.

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