Welcome back to this read of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, where we examine the techniques a successful author uses to create a great and compelling story.
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Summary: After learning where Haggard has trapped the unicorns and seeing the possibility that the Lady Amalthea has wept, Schmendrick and Molly go to the great hall with Amalthea to find the way to the Red Bull. According to the cat’s prophesy, they first attempt to make a skull in the hall speak. Schmendrick tries spell after spell, growing more and more desperate. Nothing works, so he raises his fist to smash the thing and yells at it. This persuades the skull to instantly acquire the gift of gab.
But the skull, an old henchman of Haggard’s, is far from helpful and thoroughly enjoys taunting and frustrating the living. He refuses to answer how to reach the Red Bull and laughs cruelly at them. At last, irritated, Schmendrick turns away. Perhaps, the skull speaking is all that’s required.
Next, he must somehow get wine to drink itself. However, despite Molly’s scouring efforts, they’ve found no wine at all in the castle. Instead, she brought a flask of water, confident that Schmendrick could turn it to wine. This catches the skull’s interest and it begs to be allowed to see what’s going on with the wine. Schmendrick turns his back on the skull and conceals his desperate efforts.
At last, Schmendrick comes up with a flask with the faintest aroma of wine. He tries to taste it and finds the flank empty. Furious, he makes to throw the flask, smashing it, but the skull protests and begs for the wine. Though it has no tongue, it imagines the taste of the wine and claims it can appreciate it far more than any living person. Schmendrick bargains with it, the wine for the way to the Red Bull.
The skull explains that you must go through the clock in the great hall, which never strikes the right time. Schmendrick checks the information by attempting to walk through the clock. Nothing happens and he bumps his nose. The skull explains that it doesn’t matter what time the clock strikes. Time is irrelevant. Whatever time it is is the right time. Grasping the concept somewhat, Schmendrick tips up the the flask and the skull drinks the nonexistent wine with great contentment.
Then the skull says Schmendrick should smash it. When Schmendrick refuses, the skull yells for Haggard. In the midst of this, the skull realizes that Lady Amalthea is a unicorn and becomes genuinely frantic in his alarm. Haggard and his men-at-arms race to stop them, and Schmendrick, Molly, and Amalthea race for the clock.
Amalthea slips through the clock without a problem. Molly swiftly follows, and they find themselves in a dark, cold place. A moment later, Prince Lir appears and rebukes Amalthea for going on without him. For the first time in the entire chapter, she speaks and assures him that she would return to him. He says with grave surety that he knows she wouldn’t ever return.
Moments later, Schmendrick appears with blood running down from his temple. He fought his way through the men-at-arms before he could finally enter the clock. Then, from a distance, they hear Haggard cry out in triumph and smash the clock. Their way back is sealed shut forever. Now, the only way out is through the Red Bull’s way.
Writer Comments: There are two primary lessons to take from this chapter. First is the use of sensory details. Second is the use of increasing tension. So let’s take a closer look at them individually.
Sensory Detail: A writer should always strive to include rich details in fiction. However, sensory details, those that utilize what the characters feel, see, hear, taste, and smell, are particularly visceral. As such, they’re especially helpful in making a story come alive.
In this instance, Beagle makes good use of sensory description. The visual details are all over the place, but that’s perhaps the easiest for most writers. However, Beagle utilizes other senses. For example, the smell and taste of wine, the sound of skittering creatures and the skull’s voice, ominous footsteps and breathing as Haggard approaches, the cold, the palpable dark, hitting one’s nose against a clock. All these are specific, vivid details that give the scene life and add to the tension.
To make the most of these details though, they need to be precise and specific. Don’t just say the flask at last smelled of wine. Do something like what Beagle does to convey the scent:
“You understand,” he said, interrupting himself, “it won’t be anything special. Vin ordinaire, if that.” Molly nodded solemnly. Schmendrick said, “And it’s usually too sweet; and how I’m supposed to get it to drink itself, I haven’t the faintest idea.” He took up the incantation again, even more softly, while the skull complained bitterly that it couldn’t see or hear anything. Molly said something quiet and hopeful to the Lady Amalthea, who neither looked at her nor replies.
The chant stopped abruptly, and Schmendrick raised the flask to his lips. He sniffed at it first, muttering, “Weak, weak, hardly any bouquet at all. Nobody ever made good wine by magic.” (page 195-196)
All of that builds the scent and flavor of the wine. It layers specific detail upon specific detail, relying on action, dialogue, and description to paint an exact sensation for the reader. Think of how your characters experience a sensation, and relay it in those terms. That will help build it for your reader and safeguard it against being dry.
Tension: This one we’ve covered before, but it’s such a crucial element to fiction. Today , though, I want to look at it through the context of sensory detail.
The advantage of sensory details for building tension is that they come automatically with immediacy. Tension is an imminent threat to the characters. Visceral sensory details act like footsteps as the danger draws nearer. Each takes the reader a closer step to potential disaster. Each pulls the reader deeper into the scene and able to care more about what might happen.
Naturally, you still need to have something at stake that’s being threatened, but use other writing tools, like sensory details, to heighten it.
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 into books, the speculative, and life.