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Monday, September 8, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapters 4

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon where we unravel the techniques that make great writing and best selling books. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 4: I Come to the Castle

Writer Comments: Before we dig into the meat of this chapter, I’d like to take a glance at Gabaldon’s use of chapter titles. Whether or not to include chapter titles is always a matter of personal taste to an author, and sometimes it varies based on the genre or story. However, when an author chooses to use chapter titles, he’s stuck with a challenge: how to make them intriguing without giving anything vital away.

As such, chapter titles like this one, “I Come to the Castle,” serve to add that little bit of extra draw to the reader. We know there will be a castle in this next chapter and that, presumably, Claire will arrive there relatively in one piece. But the title is general enough to not spoil what happens. We still don’t know what will happen once Claire reaches the castle, nor do we know which castle it is and if she will be received in friendship.

Chapter titles can be tricky. Some are bland and some make a reader want to desperately dive into the next scene. When choosing them, consider how much you give away and how much you conceal. Consider brevity as well as intrigue. Word play can also add a nice touch.

My favorite author when it comes to chapter titles is J.K. Rowling. Whenever I’d get a new Harry Potter book, I’d frantically scan the Table of Contents and be filled with dread, excitement, and intrigue. Brandon Sanderson also does chapter titles well. Ideally, chapter titles should elicit interest and emotion by the time a reader gets into the characters.

Summary: Dougal leads the weary group to Castle Leoch, the very same place where, in 1945, Claire saw nothing but ruins near the shore of Loch Ness. When they enter the castle, Mistress FitzGibbons (Mrs. Fitz) greets them and take Claire off to a separate room. Jamie come too so Claire can properly dress his wounds. When Claire requests herbs, searching her mind desperately for plants that might stand in the place of the drugs she’s used to, Mrs. Fitz hastily assists. Once the bandages are boiling in garlic water and the herbs are separated and ready for teas and a poultice, Claire lets Mrs. Fitz tend to her other many duties.

Writer Comments: This chapter has a wonderful segment at the beginning, perfect to dissect for writing insights.

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull. Dawn was coming up in streaks and slashes over the foggy moor. Our destination loomed ahead, a huge bulk of dark stone outlined by the grey light. The surroundings were no longer quiet and deserted. There was a trickle of rudely dressed people heading toward the castle. They moved to the side of the narrow road to let the horses trot past, gawking at what they plainly thought my outlandish garb. Not surprisingly, it was misting heavily, but there was enough light to show a stone bridge, arching over a small stream that ran past the front of the castle, down to a dully gleaming loch a quarter mile away. The castle itself was blunt and solid. No fanciful turrets or toothed battlements. This was more like an enormous fortified house, with thick stone walls and high, slitted windows. A number of chimney pots smoked over the slick tiles of the roof, adding to the general impression of greyness. The gated entrance of the castle was wide enough to accommodate two wagons side by side. I say this without fear of contradiction, because it was doing exactly that as we crossed the bridge. One ox-drawn wagon was loaded with barrels, the other with hay. Our little cavalcade huddled on the bridge, waiting impatiently for the wagons to complete their laborious entry. -- page 57

Within this excerpt, there are two techniques I want to draw your attention to: the summary and the description.

The summary is contained in the first paragraph:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull. -- page 57

Notice that Gabaldon does not linger in summarizing. She does not give into the temptation to list events or even major geographical features of the journey. In fact, she focuses on the things Claire, her viewpoint narrator, would remember, largely the unpleasant generalities of the journey. But what really makes this work is Claire’s humor. Her sarcasm carries just enough detail to give us a glimpse of the remaining night, but puts its emphasis on the character’s voice and wit. Summary should be more than just summary to make it interesting. Humor, mood and poetic language, among other things, can liven up a dull chunk of prose.

The rest of the excerpt is pure description and scene setting. But take a look at how Gabaldon writes it. She begins the whole section with “Dawn,” thus immediately giving us the time and an overall filter through which to view the rest of the description. Like the expanding light of dawn, her description reveals general details at first, then expands to include more specific qualities of the scene. In other words, her description’s structure mirrors the image she first provides. This grants it greater power.

Further, Gabaldon uses details that suggest sensations and perceptions on many sensory levels. “No longer quiet” paired shortly thereafter with the mention of a “trickle of rudely dressed people” begins to summon the rising of sound, of people talking perhaps or the shuffling of feet on dirt. The description is general enough to allow the reader to imagine their own sounds. But Gabaldon wisely does not linger on the general and quickly guides us into the specifics. Using “trot” gives a visual representation of the horses as well as a sense of motion and the sound of hoofbeats. “Misting heavily” and “slick” add tactile sensations of wetness and perhaps cold. Even the word “smoked” adds scent as well as a visual image, and Gabaldon incorporates other descriptive phrases later on to build on this like the scent of raw sewage. While most descriptions heavily veer toward the visual because it is human tendency to focus on visual stimuli first, using words that imply multiple sensations helps give a description flair and bring a reader deeper into the book’s world.

Then Gabaldon brings us back to the main characters and plot, thus smoothly transitioning to the scene’s action.

Speaking more generally about the scene, though, the events here are primarily introductory and transitionary. We meet Mrs. Fitz and see that these rough appearing men are quite warmly greeted at Leoch. Gabaldon tosses Claire into a world where she must truly begin to adapt her knowledge of medicine and merge it with her education in herbalism. And then, Gabaldon transitions Claire and Jamie to a place where the next scene, which is actually the meat of the chapter, can take place.

Consider where Gabaldon ends this scene. The location does not change. The only actual change is that Mrs. FitzGibbons exits, thus leaving Claire and Jamie alone. This indicates quite bluntly that what really matters is the interaction between Claire and Jamie. There are many ways to determine a scene shift. The most obvious is a change in time or location, but sometimes it can be as simple as a slight change in cast.

Summary: After Mrs. Fitz leaves, Claire goes to work in earnest cleaning and bandaging Jamie’s wounds. While tending him, she sees that his back is covered with crisscrossing scars, and he confesses that he was lashed twice in a week as a prisoner at Fort William. When Claire asks for the specifics to take his mind off the pain she’s causing him while cleaning the deep stab wound, he tells her a heart wrenching tale of trying to defend his sister Jenny from a bunch of redcoats that came to levy, or steal, food and supplies. Their leader was Captain Randall, and by the time the incident was over, Randall had beaten Jamie with the flat of his saber, had his men take Jenny inside to sleep with them in exchange for sparing Jamie’s life, and nearly killed Jamie repeatedly. Jamie was taken to Fort William for “obstruction,” where he was beaten once for trying to escape and another time for theft, or so the English defined his transgressions.

The story makes Claire feel unusually close to Jamie. Thus, it seems quite natural that, after she finishes tending his wounds and starts to realize how dire her situation is and that she’ll probably never see her husband again, Jamie gathers her into his arms when she starts crying. Unlike other men, he’s gentle, doesn’t shy from comforting, and has a knack for it, something she thinks must help him with his reputation for being good with horses. After, he makes her eat and go to sleep, for she’s too weary and heartsick to continue without rest.

Writer Comments: This chapter ends by breaking one of the common rules for chapter endings. Claire falls asleep. Many authors and editors advise against ending a chapter or scene with a character falling asleep because it makes it more likely that the reader will feel comfortable putting the book down at that point and perhaps go to bed themselves. The act of a character falling asleep carries a decrease in tension, action, and excitement, but chapters should end with a hook that draws readers to the next page.

However, if you must end a chapter with a character falling asleep, Gabaldon’s choice of method is effective. Claire may pass out on the bed, but as readers, we know a half dozen perils lurk just around the corner: Captain Randall, the fact she’s stuck in a past time, the lord of the castle wanting to see her, the fact she’s a captive, just to name a few. Thus, we still have a sense of impending doom for Claire, and that’s enough to push us through the sleep part.

Speaking of Captain Randall, this chapter highlights how integrated he has already become to the story. First, in 1945, he holds the fascination of his many-great-grandson, Claire’s husband, Frank. Then he’s the link between the present and the future for Claire. He now has made contact and note of Claire, and I have little doubt that such contact will later become a problem for her. Gabaldon binds him still further into the plot by making him the very man who is an old opponent of Jamie’s. Many of the other characters have poor opinions of Captain Randall as well. In essence, Gabaldon is setting Randall up as a major antagonist. However, contrary to what might appear most realistic, the way to do this is to create as many connections as possible to Randall. Each connection raises the stakes of the story and makes readers desire Randall’s downfall all the more.

Gabaldon also tosses in quite a bit of backstory in this chapter, but she does it in a highly effective way. Backstory easily weighs down and slows down fiction, especially when it occurs toward the beginning of a story. Here, though, Gabaldon employs effective techniques to make us care and want to know more.

First, she makes it matter to the characters. We don’t get backstory because Claire fills us in as the narrator. Rather, we get backstory as Claire finds out from Jamie. This gives it a sense of occurring in the present moment, an immediacy that makes it feel more relevant. This also heightens the characters’, and thus our, emotional reaction to the backstory.

Second, Gabaldon gives it in Jamie’s voice. This infuses it with life and interesting nuance. When Jamie relates a part that he finds pleasing, like when Jenny knocks the wind out of Randall, or a part that pains him greatly, we feel it.

Last, Gabaldon reveals this backstory in the action of the actual story. The backstory serves a purpose. It isn’t just to inform readers. It also provides Jamie a distraction from the pain of Claire cleaning his wounds. It draws Jamie and Claire closer and begins to build a relationship between them. And it highlights the impact Randall has on the story. Because we see Claire and Jamie’s current reactions to the backstory as Jamie relates it, it takes on a greater sense of purpose, importance, and emotion.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I’ve broken down for insights into great writing, click here.


  1. I love your assessment Laura. I feel like I'm reading Outlander all over again! And I'm being reminded of things I could do to strengthen my writing.

    1. That's wonderful, Jessi! Thanks for dropping by.