Story from the Start: Boss Fight!

OK, sorry. The final confrontation between the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Everything in the novel has been leading to this point, where the forces of good and the forces of evil collide. I’m going to give you two excerpts, since one leads to the other.

Unless you are writing some sort of experimental post-postmodern literary fiction, or something that is obviously more of a “think piece” than a story, you need to have a climax, a high point, that toward which the characters have been struggling. It can be the detective naming and capturing the criminal, it can be the naval battle of the good guys vs. the evil pirate, it can be the dashing hero rescuing his true love from the eeeeeevil mad scientist . . . You can’t just have the book taper off into nothing. The good guy and the bad guy—or as we saw from the short story example, the good guy and the curse—confront each other and the good guy wins.

[Big aside here. The good guy might not survive, but your readers had better know that that option is a possibility and that the good guy’s willing to make that sacrifice if it must be made. And the outcome has to be a win. Otherwise? Seriously p-ssed off readers and no future sales to those readers, because you betrayed their trust. I’ve read a couple of books where it’s been done and done well, but think long and hard about killing off the hero before you do so. Endof aside.]

So, back to our story. There are two things the nomads must do: free the river and clean the city of evil. Since dynamite is not an option, and no one has magic strong enough to break the dam  on their own, the author needs to do a little fiddling. The earth has shaken three times thus far in the story, so a temblor will not be entirely unexpected. The good guys (our nomads, with Foy and Vashlo as PoV characters) have just burned down the last of two shrines guarding the dam, after getting some hints from the gods. The men are on the same ridge where we met them way back on page one.

[excerpt one]

The birds hurled themselves into the sky, the dead-eaters, song-makers, eagles, all of them, shrieking. Endria, Foy, and Vashlo threw themselves to the ground as the land in the valley below them began shaking, rolling, then the land under their feet too started trembling. The trees clattered and hissed as if a howling windstorm of winter raced through the forest. The floor of the valley at the foot of the dam churned as if turned to brown and green water, and spurts of land erupted up from the ground into the air. A groaning roar, the very earth in pain, made the men cover their ears as their bones shook. The dam shivered, and parts dissolved, turning from earth and stone to brown liquid, flowing. More and more of the solid wall began to tremble and ooze down the steep face of the dam. A cloud of dust and rocks raced toward the lake upstream of the dam, clattering and splashing as it reached the waters. A wave raced away, water fleeing earth, and lapped over the top of the dam. The water clawed free, tearing away the top of the wall of dirt and stone, devouring, gulping the obstacle in its fury. Free, it would be free!

Dirt and stone crumpled as water chewed through. As Foy gaped in awe and Vashlo whispered prayers to the gods of sky, earth, and air, the river tore free of its entrapment, racing down the valley faster and faster, turning to the west. Endria thought perhaps he could hear the cries and wails of the city’s warriors as the life of the city fled it’s prison, but surely no man could hear anything over the roar of the water and the thunder of sliding land. Wind raced the river, drawing the dust downstream with the river.

Foy poked his brother. “The gods have freed the river. That’s our sign. We must clean the city.”

[end excerpt one]

Now, our protagonists know that a flat out attack on the city is Not Smart, even now with all sorts of Signs and Portents going on, and the great river starting to go dry. They also want to eliminate as many of the priests as they can at once. So they wait until nightfall, when a procession emerges from the city, carrying a bunch of children. The demons are hungry, the people are desperate, and an ambush is ready. But where’s Rakthan, the senior priest and wise man?

[start excerpt two]

The light from the torches no longer reflected on flowing waters, but on desperate faces and red, glowing eyes. Foy and the others crouched lower in the reeds and brush, spears and arrows at the ready, waiting. He heard Dravane’s breath slowing, deepening, and sensed something moving that made the hair on his arms and neck start to stand. Even in a whisper, Dravane’s voice shifted, deepening, carrying an echo like distant thunder. “Two to the city to end the evil, two to the city to avenge the voiceless, two to the city, go!”

Foy heard someone scooting backwards, and did the same. Vashlo, a dim shape in the light of the waning moon, beckoned. Foy gestured in return and they crept to where the night horses waited.

“What moves?”

“The gods command two to go into the city for justice,” Foy hissed back.

Mahon nodded once and moved out of the way.

[ride into the city, gates open]

Hooves clattered on stone, loud enough to wake the sleeping and the dead. Still no one moved, no one challenged them. The horses slowed, nervous on the smooth pavement. Neither scout urged them faster—breaking a neck in a fall would no do the gods’ will. They rode up slope to the temple. As they entered the gate, Foy’s gut lurched. The horses shied, and Vashlo hissed something. Two older children, bodies contorted by death agonies, lay on either side of the way, their blood black on the pavement. Foy averted his eyes and turned his head, looking toward the temple-granary. Obscene corruption flared, and the horse flinched, trying to run away. Foy pointed.

“Yes.”

The men dismounted and tied the horses with their backs to the building. Weapons in hand, Foy led the way up the shallow steps to the open door. A child’s cries turned to screams, heart-chilling. The men ghosted from pillar to pillar, moving silently as they stalked their prey. Light flickered, firelight and something else, something wrong and foul, so foul the very stones cried out for it to be gone. Foy shook his head and made himself focus on the firelight. Fire cleansed, could not be corrupted. The screaming subsided for a moment, and laughter took its place.

Foy and Vashlo peered around the last columns, looking into the heart of the building. Rakthan, the genial elder wise man, stood over a child. The child tried to crawl away, moaning and whimpering, unable to run because of injuries. “No, little one,” the priest said, his words too kind, too sweet. “No, your duty is not done. The gods are not yet satisfied, and the city is not yet safe.” He raised one hand, and the torchlight revealed a whip. The hand and whip lashed out, grapping the helpless child and flipping it over, drawing blood and another scream. “Louder, little one.” Foy heard a smile in the voice, and saw blood, red blood, covering the world. He looked to Vashlo.

Vashlo looked back and nodded once. They raised their bows, drew, and fired. Two arrows hit Rakthan’s back, struck home. He arched backwards, dropped the whip, and turned. Foy gestured to the right. Vashlo darted that way, racing around the priest and the glowing obscenity that fluttered beside him. “What do you?” Rakthan gasped. “How dare you!” He lurched toward Foy, knife in hand, dripping black blood from his eyes and the blade.

A third arrow hit his chest. It too stuck, and the knife dropped. Rakthan fell to his knees, mouth open, gaping. Behind him, Vashlo scooped up the child in one arm, then started running toward Foy. The foul shape beside the priest started to turn, but Foy shot again, this time with the arrow of thornwood and lightning-touched oak. The demon howled, a cry to break stone. The granary shivered. Vashlo sprinted past. Foy grabbed the closest torch and threw it onto Rakthan’s body. He heaved a second one out of the holder, kicked over an oil lamp, and tossed the torch into the spill, then ran as if a demon pursued him. More howls, wails from a throat not meant for speech, made Foy’s marrow ache. He fled out of the building as the land shook. The horses screamed.

They untied the horses, swung into the saddle, and rode out as fast as they dared, the child on Vashlo’s saddle bow. Once they cleared the city gate, their mounts sped of their own will, racing into the clean, dark night, away from the hideous foulness burning behind them.

[end excerpt two]

But wait, you’re yelling, where’s the hand-to-hand combat, the magic fight, the drama? They shoot the guy in the back and run?

This is where character development is key. By now, readers will know that these guys are not going to mess around being “big dumb heroes.” They’re going to hit and run. Why fight a demon when you can win by destroying its acolyte and getting the heck away? There will be an after-action-report of the fight at the river as well, where there will have been some shaman v. sorcerer combat. Fire cleans, fire cannot be corrupted, fire will do what two horse nomad warriors aren’t equipped to try. Although the last arrow does have some magic properties, which readers will also know.

So. The bad guy is done in, the victim is saved, and the river has been returned to where it ought to be. What about all the other people? What about our protagonists? Do we drop the curtain here?

Nope! Not unless you want really unsatisfied readers.

Next time: Denouement, or what Sarah and others have called, “the cigarette moment.”

Excerpts (C) 2020 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

5 comments

  1. Oh, I’m not yelling “Where’s the combat?” I’m sitting over here sucking down the elixir of British life (Ahmad special tea, plunked by my husband on my bedside table with a particular thump that makes my eyes open by force of long habit). As such, it will merely be a mildly-voiced objection. Your stories rarely need hand-to-hand combat and drama, because your stories make the problems fought bigger than a single antagonist, and often the people doing the fighting bigger than any single protagonist.

    Here, you have horse nomads, of several POV characters, who are fleeing something, and end up fighting something they find along the way that’s only slightly less worse than what they’re fleeing, yes? And the gods are involved, and very real to them. So you’re setting one tribe’s gods & culture vs. another (city) tribe’s gods & culture, with the characters as the extensions of their war. The climax isn’t Vashlo vs. Rathkan, it’s destroying the dam – killing the high priest – killing the rest at the river, eh? That’s an epic plot, even if you don’t take 800,000 pages to tell it.

    And epic plots take 800,000 pages to tell if you try to deep-dive into each person’s point of view and make that a fully fleshed out high-tension action scene, along with all the other scenes. Which is an option, though not everyone likes goat gaggers, either reading or writing.

    On the other hand, if an author distills everything of the tribe down into the form and focus on one single hero, then pits him against one single enemy as the avatar of all that’s wrong with another culture… well, you get James Bond. And it wouldn’t be James Bond without the two main characters facing off against each other, in multiple rounds, until the protagonist wins.

  2. Shooting that guy in the back is a beauty move. Then shooting him again in the front, even better. I’d have put one in his head just because, but then I’m not a nomad who knows how hard those arrows are to come by. Ammo doesn’t come cheap.

    My book has a chapter called Boss Battle, because I’m a small boy in a large old body. ~:D Lots of shooting monsters in the front with ridiculously over-powered weapons. Sir John A. McDonald’s statue doesn’t come out whole.

  3. Ooh, Chekov’s Arrow! (Or battle prep, to show these are smart fighters, not macho twits. Or cultural development, where someone explains why he’s got a funny looking arrow. Or….)

    Definitely want to know what happens to the kid.

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