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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: Read, Chapter XI


Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here, we look into this classic work of fantasy to gain insights into what elements create a great book. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter XI

Summary: Prince Lir returns from another heroic deed, but this time, he does not present the spoils of his work to the Lady Amalthea. Instead, he decides that he will love her from afar and seek nothing of her except some small chance that he might be of use to her. Molly encourages him in this endeavor.

Then, he chances to meet her on the stairs and captures her with his gaze as he has learned to capture many creatures. She confesses to being confused and having a horrid nightmare where she’s locked in a cage and there’s an old woman and a bird and she has four legs like a beast. Lir is horrified at this but seeks to soothe her. He pleads to be of some use, so she asks him to sing to her and gives him the first smile she has bestowed upon him. She bids him to sing so that all the nightmares and this thing that wants her to remember it will go away.

All winter and into what pitiful season Haggard’s kingdom calls summer, the Lady Amalthea and Prince Lir fall deeply in love. They sing together. They picnic in the castle. Everything, though the castle is weighed down with darkness, dreariness, and witchery, is like spring to them.

Meanwhile, Molly and Schmendrick slave away for Haggard, too weary and overworked to solve the riddle the cat gave about how to get to the Red Bull’s lair.

Then, one day, the Lady Amalthea watches from a tower as Prince Lir returns from another great feat. King Haggard comes upon her and challenges her. He confesses to knowing who she really is, and when she pleads ignorance, demands that she not dare deny herself. He will have her. If she loves a little longer, he will have her. He confesses to having known who she was from the beginning and about how he once saw a pair of unicorns. They were the only things ever to bring him joy, so he told the Red Bull--who follows him only because he has no fear--that he wanted them. One by one, the Red Bull rounded them up for Haggard and drove them into the sea. There, they remain imprisoned, terrified to step foot onto the shore lest the Red Bull get them.

The tide turns, and he bids her to see the unicorns as the waves break against the shore. For once, his voice and manner are young. For once, his face radiates joy. And then he looks at her and sees that there are no longer green leaves in her eyes. He threatens to hurl her from the tower with his own hands if she has forgotten herself. She closes her eyes before him, and at last, he departs.

Then she hears Schmendrick reassuring her that it’s over. He has heard all Haggard said and now knows where the unicorns have been hidden. When she turns to him, he sees moisture on her face and says,

“I hope that’s spray. If you’ve become human enough to cry, then no magic in the world--oh, it must be spray. Come with me. It had better be spray.” (page 189)

Writer Comments: This chapter covers an extended period of time. It covers several scenes, some quite brief, and it unfurls a crucial turning point for the unicorn. That’s a lot to cram into one chapter, which begs the question: What should comprise a chapter?

There are many answers to this, and undoubtedly, you can find pages of opinion if you search online or get a group of writers together to discuss it. However, I think, amidst all the various definitions, that there is one crucial element that must define a chapter, every chapter, of a story: shift.

What is shift? Simply, it is a slight or dramatic alteration in the characters and story. Something must change to raise the stakes or reveal a new layer of the mystery. A new development must come up. A new question must arise. Something must change.

This chapter is all about the change in Lady Amalthea from being the unicorn to embracing her human side and fleeing her unicorn self. Beagle takes us from the moment she takes that first real step by accepting Lir, demonstrates how extensively she turns from her true self, to the point where she is on the brink of losing herself completely. In real time, this takes months, but Beagle can’t afford to drag the description of it out and risk boring his readers or at least getting sidetracked. Instead, he highlights the change, the shift, in one powerful chapter.

For stories to be dynamic, they must make small alterations that result in the overall big change that results in the climax. To accomplish this, a writer must make something shift in each chapter and in each scene for that matter. If nothing shifts, take a good hard look at what’s written. It almost certainly needs cutting or rewriting.

Thank you for joining me for this read of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. We’ll resume this read on Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for a sneak peak at Jessi Gage’s Jade’s Spirit, an awesome book about a haunting, hope, love, and redemption.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Animal Companions in Fiction

Yesterday, my family got two new puppies named Sven and Elsa. They’re brother and sister Border Collie/German Shepherd Mixes and naturally adorable. So, last night, when I was supposed to be thinking up a topic for today, all I had on my brain was puppies. They are after all, for all their fun, a lot of work. Since I couldn’t get dogs out of my head, I figured I might as well find a way to apply them to today’s post: animal companions in fiction.

We’ve all read stories involving animal companions. Sometimes, the story is all about the animal, like in Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller. Sometimes, the animal companion is merely the faithful steed of a hero, like Bella in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Bella, for example, was never a major element of the story, but she endeared herself to many fans. Sometimes, the animals are great beasts with mighty powers as in Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series. And sometimes, they are as average as dirt, though still highly entertaining, just as in John Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series. Whether it’s children’s fiction or great literary works, animal companions have a long tradition and have left a powerful print in fiction.

Their uses in fiction are sometimes obvious. Perhaps the story revolves around them and the conflict directly includes them. But in many other instances, animal companions serve more subtle purposes.

Revelation of Human Characters: Let’s face it, we all say things to our pets that we’d never dare say to our fellow man. And how we treat the animals in our lives says a lot about us as people. Fictional characters are no different. A pet or animal companion can reveal layers about your other characters. What are they really thinking that they reveal to the cat who they feed? What sort of person are they really when it comes to how they care for their bird or gryphon? What weaknesses or hidden strengths does the presence of an animal, fantastical or mundane, reveal in their lives?

Humor and Catastrophe: Let’s face another fact, pets make messes, get into mischief, and add humor to life. Just because dogs are like this doesn’t mean your character’s pet unicorn has to be different. Animals in a story can add much needed levity, and the catastrophes they bring, when done well, can highlight story elements or simply heighten tension or stakes.

Foreshadowing, Instinct, and Pointing the Way: Animals tend to be much better than us at sensing danger, whether or not a person is to be trusted, or any number of other things. If your hero’s dog, who is normally quite sweet, starts growling at the guy sitting on the park bench, it tips your readers off that they need to be concerned about the guy on the park bench. Animal companions can be an avenue for revealing and hinting to readers in ways that your heroes could never manage.

Adding Grandeur: Especially when animal companions come in fantastical form, they serve the purpose of add something beyond the norm to a story. It can be anything, purity of the unicorn, mighty strength of the gryphon, or unsettling savagery of the manticore. Animal companions expand setting in a dynamic way. They can make a story and its world that much more.

Mirroring Theme: If your story’s theme is about loyalty, a dog can help highlight this. Another type of animal can too, but dogs are renowned for their loyalty. Either way, consider your themes. How can an animal in the life of your protagonist highlight those themes?

Relatable: Most of us have owned a pet. All of us know someone who has. Animals are a part of everyday life, and therefore, they are something everyone can relate to. They’re an additional way for readers to connect with a story and its characters.

There are but a few ways animal companions play a part in stories. And then, there’s always one last reason: they’re cool.


What other uses to animal companions serve in stories? What are some of your favorite stories with animal companions?

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: Read, Chapter X


Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we examine what techniques an author uses to compose a successful book. To catch up or review previous reads, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter X

Summary: In the scullery of Haggard’s castle, Molly cooks and Prince Lir begs her counsel, desperate for answers about why the Lady Amalthea remains unmoved. Despite all his efforts and great deeds, from dragon slaying to maiden rescue and enough other things for the likes of two dozen great heroes, Lady Amalthea barely even acknowledges he exists. Molly advises acts of courtesy and kindness rather than great deed, and Lir confesses that he only wants to be whatever it is the Lady Amalthea most needs.

Too, he shares a story with Molly about how Lady Amalthea reacted when she learned his horse was burned by the most recent dragon he killed. She rushed to the horse and laid her hands on it as if she expected her touch to heal it. When nothing happened, she fled, crying without tears. Lir cannot fathom this, and Molly cannot fully explain that the real reason for Lady Amalthea’s sorrow is because she’s a unicorn.

Then the Lady Amalthea descends into the scullery. Lir immediately murmurs about a village he must save from an ogre and hurries off. Lady Amalthea sits and tries to beckon the cat Molly fed to come to her. While the creature trembles with desire to yield to her call, he refuses to come within range of her touch.

Molly informs Lady Amalthea that she is cruel to Lir, and she responds that cruelty, like kindness, is for mortals. Too, she dare not acknowledge Lir. He drags dragon heads to her when she won’t acknowledge him, what would he do if she did? And then, she reveals to Molly that the Lady Amalthea has become her own entity, and sometimes she cannot even remember why they came to Haggard’s castle. Gently, Molly reminds she came to look for unicorns and to free them, that she is the last unicorn.

The castle’s men-at-arms come down for the supper, and the Lady Amalthea leaves. These men are old, past seventy and more, and they confess to Molly that the really serve Haggard because he wishes it. Whatever Haggard wishes, the Red Bull enforces, so in truth, they are prisoners of the Bull. Before they depart, the eldest tells Molly that the Lady Amalthea should not remain at the castle, for when she arrived her beauty made the castle beautiful, but now her beauty has turned the castle darker and more vicious.

Then the cat Molly feeds and pets begins to speak. He tells Molly that he dared not let the unicorn touch him because, if he had, he would cease to be his own and belong to her. He also tells Molly that there isn’t much time before the Lady Amalthea takes over and the unicorn fades away entirely. Their only hope is to take the king’s way down to the Red Bull, and he gives her a riddle about how to get there because, after all, he is a cat and cats never give anyone a straight answer.

Writer Comments: Beagle has a number of story challenges by the time he got to this chapter. He had to show that quite a bit of time had passed without dwelling on it and slowing down the story. He had to reveal a ton of information in a way that would be impactful and interesting. He had to set up the coming story’s resolution. And he had to do all of this in a way that felt natural and believable. So we end up with a chapter composed of four conversations and centered around the one character who can perceive and feel it all.

Let’s look at each conversation separately and how it works to accomplish what Beagle and the story need.

Conversation with Prince Lir: Lir goes from the kindhearted boy we saw previously to a kindhearted hero of great courage, strength, and accomplishment. In many stories, an author might have stretched this out and revealed some of the steps Lir took on this transition, but such is unnecessary for this story because the story is not about Lir. The conversation instead gives a sense of how much time has passed and gives us a context to see what the unicorn’s life has been like, to some small extent, in the interim.  Too, it makes Lir more of a player in the tale.

Conversation with Lady Amalthea/the unicorn: This particular conversation is the one that jerks our emotions and tugs at our sympathies. We see first hand that Amalthea is still the unicorn, then see that she is slipping, forgetting herself. Beagle has Molly describe her eyes as changing from the unfathomable depths of the unicorn’s to a human woman’s which are definable. This in itself is quite frightening, and through it, we see the stakes of the story rise. We see that, despite the fact all this time has passed, things will soon change one way or another. We glimpse the possibility of catastrophe.

Conversation with the men-at-arms: Primarily, this conversation is all about information gathering. Beagle needed to let Molly and his readers know that there is a way down to the Red Bull and that even the men-at-arms see that Lady Amalthea is in trouble.

Conversation with the cat: Long before now, Beagle established that animals in this world could talk. Before now, they talked only to the unicorn, but even if it’s to a human one speaks, the unicorn’s presence is what drives it to loquaciousness. The cat verifies what the men-at-arms say, what the unicorn fears, what Molly sees, and what we readers suspect. The unicorn has very little time, and she must confront the Red Bull. And then we and Molly are given the way, but of course it can’t be too easy. Instead, it is couched in riddle and mystery. It is couched to seem impossible, for wine must drink itself, a skull must speak, and a clock that is always wrong must strike the right time. Here, Beagle turns the story toward its final path to the climax.

This is, in short, a transition chapter, and transitions are one of the most difficult things to write because they court boredom and tediousness. In short, they should still move a story along in some way, increase stakes, and contain conflict. Just because it’s transition doesn’t mean it shouldn’t follow the usual rules of fiction.

Thank you for joining me for this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What You Need Before Writing a Story

Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, every story needs a few key ingredients to ensure it has a solid structure and base appeal. It helps to gather these ingredients before writing.

Some of you, the pantsers out there, may argue that planning beforehand ruins writing or limits you. As a pantser myself, I understand the fear of restricting the subconscious and the knowledge that lots of planning can feel like a waste of time the instant the muse insists on derailing, which tends to happen a lot. But even I have come to understand that, as writers, we need to set a few foundational stones before we let our muses fully loose.

These things will help you ensure a more solid story, whether you enjoy plotting or not:

  1. A protagonist: Who is the story about.
  2. The protagonist’s goal or objective: What does he want and why does he want it. His trying to achieve this goal forms the backbone of your story.
  3. An antagonist: This can be a character or an element like a hurricane or loneliness, but there must be something opposing your protagonist.
  4. Conflict: What is keeping your protagonist from achieving his objective? This comes from the antagonist, but other things can get in the way too. Remember, conflict is what drives a story, so make sure that there is a main conflict from which all the rest of the story and other smaller conflicts can hang.
  5. An inciting incident: What is that interesting point that kicks the story off. Remember, this doesn’t need to include backstory and explanation. All it needs, and thus what your story’s beginning needs, is that event that starts your protagonist on quest to overcome the conflict you’ve decided on.
  6. A midpoint: What thing will change at about the middle of the story? This is a major shift. You don’t have to know what it will be in a lot of detail, but having at least a vague concept helps.
  7. A climax: Like the midpoint, you don’t have to know how the story will resolve in great detail, but you should have some concept of how your protagonist and antagonist will ultimately resolve the conflict.
  8. Permission to write whatever makes your story zing with passion, humor, fear, or whatever other emotion you wish: Remember, all you have to do is get a fully story draft down. If you let your walls down and those driving emotions in, you’ll have a more gripping draft. This isn’t the time for perfection. It’s the time to get a story’s true essence on the page.
  9. Other major plot points: It’s often helpful to come up with a few more major turning points in the plot. Then you can play connect the dots with your story. The dots can be far apart, but at least, you’ll have a distant point to aim for. It helps when avoiding needless detours.

There are, of course, more detailed descriptions of how to deliver a solid, impactful story, but these are you most basic. If you struggle to get stories on paper, try figuring these things out. You may surprise yourself. If everything in you rebels at the idea of deciding on anything before writing, you still might try this method once. You also might surprise yourself, or at the least, you’ll come away with a better understanding of who you are as a writer.

Be sure to swing back by on Monday for the next chapter of The Last Unicorn  by Peter S. Beagle and how we can learn storytelling from the masters.

Happy writing!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: Read, Chapter IX


Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here, we examine a book in depth to figure out what the author does to make it work. To catch up or review previous parts of this read or to see other books I’ve broken down for writing tips, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter IX

Summary: Schmendrick, Molly, and the now-human unicorn come to King Haggard’s castle just before sunset the next day. Two guardsmen greet them in shabby, homemade armor, the younger fancying that the lady, who he doesn’t know is a unicorn, is something quite spectacular. The elder fancies her something not to be judged too quickly.

Yet they allow the three inside, believing the unicorn to be a girl named Lady Amalthea, when Schmendrick insists upon seeing Haggard. Through a great hall so vast the walls disappear and a winding stair that becomes narrower the higher you climb, they are taken to Haggard’s throne room. Behind them walks the younger guardsman who, unintentionally, mirrors the unicorn’s every movement.

In the throne room, the elder guardsman reveals himself as King Haggard and the younger as Prince Lir. Schmendrick and Molly are stunned, but Schmendrick quickly recovers and pleas to enter the king’s service. Haggard has no interest, for he will have nothing near him that does not make him happy. Besides, he already has a magician. Schmendrick, however, points out that his current magician does not make him happy, a fact that convinces the king to dismiss the man and take Schmendrick on instead. He decides that, as great magic has ceased to please him, perhaps a bumbling fool of a magician will make him happy.

The old magician, in a rage, conjures an evil wind that makes even Haggard retreat. But in the midst of it, the Lady Amalthea turns, the spot on her forehead glowing, and the wind departs. With it, the old magician’s anger fades and he begins laughing, predicting that Haggard has let his own doom through his front door. He leaves then without argument.

Haggard demands to know who Amalthea really is, and Schmendrick invents a story about her being his niece, but the king will not be lied to regarding her. He demands truth. Molly and Schmendrick come up short, for they cannot tell the king her true identity. Lir, however, comes to her rescue, insisting that it doesn’t matter. After all, she is here. The king lets the question go.

He assigns Molly as his cook, maidservant, scullery maid, and scrubwoman. But he bars the Lady Amalthea from nothing. She unsettles him because he sees green leaves and small animals in her eyes, but each time he demands to know what she looks at and she replies the sea, he calms. He too thinks the sea is good.

After Haggard leaves, Lir offers to get Amalthea whatever she needs, including satin to make a gown. “Let me help you,” he says (page 147).

Writer Comments: This chapter plays with reader expectations when it comes to King Haggard. Most of us, when we imagine a king of any sort, picture riches, luxury, and castles teeming with servants. But Haggard is none of these things. He plays sentry at his own castle, wears cobbled together armor, has nothing of luxury, no servants, and is content with nothing. Too, Beagle utilizes careful storytelling to avoid revealing that the guardsmen are the king and prince themselves until Schmendrick and Molly learn such. The surprise is fun, but it’s also a tricky bit of chicanery.

On the other hand, Haggard is exactly what one might expect from an evil king. He is harsh, demanding, surly, dismissive of everyone, and his eyes are the color of the Bull. He insists on always getting his way. In this, Beagle both plays to reader expectations, yet also inverts them. This is what makes Haggard interesting.

Further, Beagle grants his readers something to sympathize with. Haggard is unhappy and wants nothing more than to be surrounded by things that make him happy. Is that not a human desire we all possess? Even while Haggard is clearly a blight, he is one we can connect with. And yet the simplest thing, looking at the sea, seems to please Haggard. That too we can grasp. After all, isn’t it the simple things that usually make us most content: a welcoming hug from a loved one, the smell of our favorite food cooking, a beautiful sunset.

In this chapter, though, Haggard is only one of two main characters introduced. Beagle uses Prince Lir quite differently. Lir is the contrast of Haggard. He is polite and kindhearted--remarkable considering who his father is. Lir, Molly realizes, is the bored prince who waited with the princess who tried calling the unicorn many chapters back. Yet here he is without that princess, as drab and unfitting as his father. But Lir possesses a whimsical aspect that starkly contrasts with Haggard’s brooding castle and mien.

More, Lir is a character undergoing epic change. He is not so much of a part as Schmendrick, Molly, or the unicorn, but by the unicorn’s very presence, he begins to grow from something dull and simple to something greater. She inspires within him a desire to please himself rather than the father he could never make happy. She inspires him to write poetry when he never had before. In short, his and the unicorn’s meeting is a moment of transformation, a common enough event in fantasy and fairy tale, but one that results in heroes and the examination of humanity.

From a purely logical standpoint, this transformation may seem a bit far fetched, but in many other regards, it’s quite expected. Love, after all, even in our real life experience can make people behave quite oddly. Beagle merely adds a unicorn’s presence to the mix and epicfies the transformation. Fantasy allows for this. Being aware of the tropes, expectations, and allowances of your genre is vital.

Beyond these broader approaches, I’d like to take a quick look at two other things Beagle uses in his writing.

First is onomatopoeia. In the opening of this chapter, he has birds on the shore call out,  “Saidso,” (page 130). Normally, we’d expect a standard onomatopoeia like caw or shrieking. Yet Beagle invents his own, combining two real words to roughly imitate the sound of a bird. This is his prerogative as an author--yes, we invent our own words on occasion--but it encourages that sense of blurring boundaries and magic in the setting. Too, it triggers that part of us that sometimes almost hears our own language in the world around us. Don’t go overboard with invented words--in other words, do this rarely--but don’t feel like, as a writer, you are limited to only the words in the dictionary.

Another technique Beagle utilizes is vivid verbs. Consider this line:

They crossed a cobbled courtyard where cold laundry groped their faces (page 134)

“Groped” is an extremely vivid verb. It implies a great deal and brings with it an uncomfortable sensation, and that’s all in one syllable. Beagle could have chosen verbs like hit, brush, smacked, or something plainer. However, they would not have carried such impact. They might have been okay, but they wouldn’t have been just right. It may take many drafts to decide on that perfect word, that verb that so vividly imparts and image or sensation, but when editors ask you to punch up your verbs, this is what they mean.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays in fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy 4th of July!

Due to the 4th of July holiday, there will be no normally scheduled Friday post. See you all next week!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: Read, Chapter VIII


Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Here we break down each chapter to see what Beagle does to create a book that has been a classic of fantasy for years.

To catch up or review previous chapters, click here.

Enjoy!

SPOILERS!

Chapter VIII

Summary: The Red Bull charges after the unicorn. Her horn goes dim, and she breaks before him. Frantic and terrified, the earth itself seeking to slow, trap, trip, and beat her for the Bull, she flees. Molly and Schmendrick are hurled aside at the force of the passing Bull, but as they recover themselves and watch, they realize that the Bull is driving the unicorn toward the castle. Each time she tries to run, he heads her off like a sheepdog. Then, at last, the Bull’s power overtakes her, and she hangs her head and walks before him, beaten.

Desperate, Molly begs Schmendrick to do something to save the unicorn. He protests. What can he do? No whimsical tricks of his are powerful enough to drive away the Bull, much less save a unicorn from him. But Molly insists that he has true magic if only he’ll look for it.

Emboldened by her words, Schmendrick stands before the Bull and commands the unicorn to flee. But she is too far gone and pays him no heed. At the last moment, he grasps the magic and lets it do what it will. The power comes to him, does its work, and leaves him once more.

The Bull stops, confused. Molly and Schmendrick race toward the unicorn, but they find her a human girl naked upon the ground. Molly is furious with Schmendrick. How could he turn her into this? But he insists that the magic chose her form, not he, and he will change her back to her true self when the magic returns sometime in the future.

The Bull leaves at the coming of dawn without the unicorn, for it has no interest in human beings. The unicorn wakes, horrified to find herself trapped in a mortal shell. She and Schmendrick argue briefly. He explains the magic and how it works for him: As a boy, he was apprenticed to Nikos, the greatest magician of all time, but he was so abysmal as a magician that Nikos declared his true power must be supremely great. However, as it might take Schmendrick a very long time to find it, Nikos made it so he would not age a day until he found that power, and so Schmendrick has walked the world for a very long time, but one day, the magic will come to him and he will turn the unicorn back into herself.

Too, he insists that no other form would have been better for the quest before her, though she may despise being human. No other form can go to Haggard’s castle and discover what really happened to the unicorns. Still, she demures from the prospect, but gives it some thought.

However, before she can say a word, she turns back and the magician and Molly have fallen asleep, exhausted from their travels and a night without rest. She waits with them.

Writing Comments: What a shift in the story. K.M. Weiland states that, at the midpoint of a story, something must change. In The Last Unicorn, that something is that the unicorn becomes a human being and mortal. She becomes the opposite of herself without fully losing herself.

The stakes too have increased. Now, not only must she find her people, she must find it with the Red Bull desiring her and with a body that is dying. She also must discover the truth of her fate without letting King Haggard realize what she truly is. Until the story’s climax, the stakes should always get higher.

Another aspect to this midpoint chapter is the revelation of character background. Most writers, especially new or inexperienced writers, feel they must give background details for their characters so readers will understand them better. But this is incorrect. Ask any well established writer, agent, or editor and they will tell you that character backgrounds come much later in the story and only when truly applicable to that specific moment.

Here, Schmendrick gives his background with his mentor, Nikos, and how he came to know something of immortality and why his magic works the way it does. Yet Beagle waits to give this information until the book is halfway over. Too, he only gives the most basic details that relate to the immediate situation: Schmendrick is immortal until he discovers himself and his magic, and so, in a way, he understands better than the unicorn what harrowing issue she faces and that to be mortal is in fact beautiful.

Also within this chapter, Beagle uses great descriptive language to set mood and give a disturbing image of his monstrous antagonist, the Red Bull:

He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under and old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured off him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars. (page 113)

Consider his word choices. Blood, stirs under and old wound, terrible light, sweat, landslides flowing, and pale as scars all are extremely evocative. They harness every sense except taste, and all in ways that elicit cringing or fear. Yet the language is structured to be lyrical and beautiful as all this book is written. The combination of beauty and vileness is all the more powerful for its contrast. When describing, consider the mood you wish to set and the reaction you want from your readers. Simple things like word choice and engaging the senses are crucial.

Now, go back to what Schmendrick says about himself and his understanding of mortality and immortality:

“I was born mortal, and I have been immortal for a long, foolish time, and one day I will be mortal again; so I know something that a unicorn cannot know. Whatever can die is beautiful--more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world.” (page 128)

One of the fun things about this genre, the various subgenres of speculative fiction, is that it can ask and bring up interesting philosophical questions. Many science fiction and fantasy fans enjoy these questions. Which is greater, immortality or mortality? Which is more enviable? Which is more beautiful? Here, Beagle states an opinion, at least Schmendrick’s opinion, and it is for his readers to make their own judgments. However, he presents and interesting idea that will color his whole story. Do not fear philosophical questions in fiction, especially if you write speculative fiction. Though fiction is no place to build a soap box, it is a medium for exploration, even into the intellectual, philosophical, and emotional.

Lastly for this chapter, consider the end lines:

She stood by them, watching them breathe, one hand holding the black cloak closed at her throat. Very faintly, for the first time, the smell of the sea came to her. (page 129)

What a quiet, gentle way to end a chapter full of action, high tension, and drama. Normally, this end might appear bland for a chapter close, but here it works eerily well. Why? First of all, it’s contrast is unsettling, and the need to resolve that unsettled feeling helps drive readers to the next chapter. Further, it is beautiful, an intriguing contrast to the shuddering events of the chapter. And lastly, the smell of the sea coming to the unicorn while she’s a human is subtly suggestive of many things. It is literal, first and foremost, since Haggard’s castle sits beside the sea. But it is also figurative, standing in the place of change, the sea’s association with birth, coming death, and something quite human. We like and notice the smell of the sea, at least most of us. Would a unicorn notice something so mundane? What this chapter end teaches, ultimately, is that a chapter should close in whatever fashion is most unsettling to the readers and will drive them onto the next page. That can mean high action, harrowing threats, or a subtle disquiet as lies here.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. We’ll resume this read next Monday. My normal Friday post will be on hold this week as Friday is the 4th of July. So happy 4th of July in advance, everyone!