The Scene That Gave Me Fits
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
I said I would talk about scenes in The Kheld King that either gave me fits or were a hoot to write. Well, that time has come.
This is another post with SPOILERS.
If you haven’t read The Kheld King yet and don’t like knowing what’s going to happen before you get to it, skip this blog post.
SKIP TO AVOID BEING SPOILED
This is post about writing. I’m going to start with a sequence of scenes that gave me fits to write. The big reason for starting with these scenes is because they led to the scene that was the biggest hoot. More about that later.
This fit-giving string of scenes took me four months to write. Part of that time was spent staring at a blank computer screen and willing pixels to appear. Usually when I write I have scenes in my head. All I must do is unspool them and type. This time, though, all I had was an idea. I knew it was a good idea, because it excited me (I’m an experienced old bird) and I could see parts of it.
Parts are good. But parts aren’t a whole. I knew what I wanted to happen, but not how it would happen.
How is important because for me a story must hold together: the plot and characters must make sense.
So in the case of this set of scenes, what did I want to happen?
I wanted Cullen to be loyal to Stefan and go to Gignastha. Once there he would serve as POV to reveal to the reader some of Gignastha’s ugly undertones, after which Cullen gets caught up in the horrible aftermath of Stefan’s attempt to assassinate Dorilian… an attack about which Cullen knew nothing.
I also wanted Cullen to directly encounter characters from Sordan, one of the few Esseran characters, and the only Kheld, in the book to do so.
And then I needed to have Cullen realize that Stefan—his king, his cousin and best friend—is responsible for his misfortune and the outbreak of a war. Of course Dorilian retaliated!
That’s a lot to put on a few scenes and a secondary character not quite destined for star billing, but I knew Cullen was up to the job. Truth is, Cullen could have gone a long way had the author not killed him already at the start of Book 3 (Fun Fact: the original beginning chapter of the series was the one in this book where Stefan met his gruesome end.)
I knew I had a good character to work with, and I knew how the scene set would start: Stefan orders Cullen to go to Gignastha. Once there, Cullen would encounter the ugly truth about that city and its brutal history with the Khelds, with Cullen’s people. It’s a history Stefan wants to put behind his kingdom once and for all, but he doesn’t have the standing or chops to do it. Writing the lead-in scenes in Trulo were no problem.
Neither were the scenes where Gignastha would be attacked and occupied. Those events—and that Sordan was the aggressor—were a given because they’re established facts in future books in the series. I just had to write the scenes where it happened.
Beyond that, though... all I really knew was that Cullen had to end up back in Essera. But just how should that play out? Would he escape during the confusion? Be captured? Capture made more sense.
Which raised the possibility Cullen might come face to face with Dorilian.
He could have. With my godlike author powers, I could have made that happen. I thought about it. After all, meetings between Dorilian and anybody are always fun to write. It would have been entertaining to put Cullen and Dorilian together (they shared a few scenes in Sordaneon) and see what came from their interaction. But such a meeting presented plot problems.
1. Dorilian at this point in the novel does not travel by Rill. He distrusts the Entity so thoroughly after being almost permanently dismantled by it that he has not traveled by Rill since Permephedon.
2. While Dorilian might decide to travel to Randpory if the reason were good enough—does Cullen provide a good enough reason? Dorilian doesn’t dislike Cullen, but they are not friends.
3. Cullen is loyal to Stefan: Dorilian knows this. So, if not for friendship or goodwill, what would be the point of them meeting? Even if Cullen does learn the truth of what happened, it’s unlikely Dorilian could sway Cullen over as an ally.
4. Cullen is one of only a few reasonable people of influence in Essera. Dorilian would prefer Stefan be surrounded by more such people, not fewer. If Dorilian does talk with Cullen about matters between Sordan and Essera, and Stefan gets wind that Cullen and Dorilian talked, then Stefan might go bonkers and who knows how that would turn out. Stefan would be even more suspicious of Dorilian.
5. Dorilian is dealing with his own shitshow. Why would he take time from those matters to personally handle Cullen?
After playing around with the idea, I decided Dorilian wouldn’t meet with Cullen. But I wasted some time on that. Ultimately I went with Plan B (Dorilian is always Plan A) and decided Dorilian would delegate.
This author decision led to the big question. No, not who. That one was easy. Tutto… Dorilian can trust him to just do his job and not get hostile. Whereas Legon, his other go-to guy, might direct some anti-Kheld, Hierarch-killers anger Cullen’s way, Tutto is a total professional. Character choice was never the bump in this road.
No. Remember what I said up at the top? The problem was how.
Now if you’ve read the scenes, you know they involve a bath, a meal, and departure from Randpory’s Rill platform. Four scenes. I didn’t know what I was going to write, but I needed whatever I wrote to do four things:
1. Establish that Cullen is traumatized. This is a good, decent man who did everything Stefan asked and his reward was to be blindsided by a war and taken prisoner by enemies who threatened him with gruesome death. Cullen was deprived of food and water, verbally abused, and beaten black and blue.
2. Show Cullen’s feelings of despair. He doesn’t see a way out. Can he trust anything, even that he’s not about to die? Then he finds out he’s going home. Readers needed to see this rebirth of hope.
3. Show Cullen finding out about his newborn son.
4. Have Cullen receive a sign of who facilitated his release and why.
So how to do all that.
Well, I worked it out, but it took time. My usual method—Follow that character!—didn’t work because how was more important than what next or where. I decided to focus at first on writing the setting. Why? Because the setting was there already. Gignastha was nailed down and I saw that Randpory was sitting there waiting to make an appearance. In my stories I use setting as a kind of character, so until the characters decided to start taking charge again, I could work with settings to build my foundation.
The dry climate and heat of a journey on horseback to Randpory. Descriptions of Randpory. These scenes are the reader’s first encounter with this Rill port city; it was only mentioned in Sordaneon and never visited. How does Cullen perceive it?
The bath. I established the bathing chamber setting to serve as a respite. Hopeful. Clean and fresh.
The meal. Food is good. Cullen would become hopeful here as he sat at a perfectly normal table, where he drank juice and ate eels brought in from Dazunor-Rannuli.
And then the Rill. The sight of it. The realization of power. Then being on the platform.
Having laid out the settings, I put in the characters. Cullen fearing what was about to happen to him. Being unhooded and his first sight of Tutto. Their awkward conversation. What would they talk about? Ordinary things, at first in the bath. Dehydration. Injury. Cullen being afraid to ask questions.
At the meal, the tension relaxes. This is where, finally, I found a way for Cullen to ask about what had happened. He’d heard only bits and pieces; now Tutto provides more information. Cullen puts these snatches of dialogue into context and at last he gains understanding. About Gignastha. About his own situation. The picture is coming together. I spent several days, maybe even two weeks, writing these dialogues and working them to sound natural. For story purposes, I included Cullen’s fear about the Rill and being unable to travel that way.
[Kheld belief that the Rill will reject and even kill them if they try to travel is a consistent thread begun in Sordaneon and woven throughout the series. Here was a chance to reinforce it.]
By this point I began to feel the scenes lock into place. They were working. Using setting had given the characters the framework they needed to build the rest of the narrative structure. I wrapped up this set of scenes on the Rill platform, as Cullen prepares to go home. Sinon provides the final detail for Cullen’s picture: Stefan did not ransom Cullen, Dorilian simply let him go.
When asked, Sinon admits that Stefan never asked about Cullen at all.
The scenes worked. Cullen went from being Stefan's loyal friend to seeing that Stefan, both as king and friend, is dangerously flawed. Most painful is that Stefan did not have his back. But Cullen is alive and now he gets to go home.
I leave it to readers to read between the lines about why Dorilian released Cullen. There’s more than one reason.
If you want to read how it all worked out, the scenes appear in The Kheld King, Chapters 26-29.