Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works in a bestselling story. Normally, I cover a single chapter a week, but since chapter 24 is over 50 pages, we’re going to take it in parts.
Chapter 24: By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Summary: Back at Castle Leoch, Claire and Jamie only have a brief time to savor the well wishes on their marriage. News comes that Dougal’s wife has died, so Dougal leaves Leoch to handle the funeral and other arrangements. Still, Claire and Jamie enjoy their time together.
Near the paddock one day, the subject of the relationships between husbands and wives comes up. Jamie expresses the hope that someday he and Claire can be close, not like most marriages where the husband and wife are in it just for the production of children and whatever was agreed to when the marriage was arranged. But Claire doesn’t dare give him hope. How can she when she still intends to leave and return to the man she first swore wedding vows to?
Later that day, after a liaison in the stable loft, Jamie spots his young cousin Hammish, Colum’s son, sneaking into the stables to try and ride the one horse that not even Jamie can ride. Jamie stops him before any harm can be done. He gets the boy acquainted with a tamer gelding, a far more suitable mount to graduate to after Hammish’s pony than a horse that will likely kill him. In the midst of this, Hammish asks Jamie all sorts of questions about marriage and whether what other boys say about bedding women is true. Claire, still hidden in the loft, struggles to keep from laughing at the boy’s humorous and astounded reactions to Jamie’s answers.
That night just before bed, Jamie enters their room soaking wet. Apparently, Hammish left the stable door open and the gelding escaped and took a swim in the loch. Jamie had to fetch it and miss supper. He’s riled and determined that the following evening he’ll take Hammish out in a boat, pitch him over the side and let him swim to shore and miss his own supper.
He climbs into bed with Claire, and they detect an odd smell. A quick search reveals a thorny plant tied with black thread beneath the pillow, and with it a primrose blossom. Claire picks it up only to get pricked in the thumb. Jamie throws the whole thing out the wind and slams the window shut. When Claire asks what it was, he merely insists it was only a dark joke.
Writer Comments: This chapter contains numerous scene breaks, which is great for me reading and composing these posts, but they serve other purposes in a novel. Scene breaks can give a sense of greater speed to a story, much like shorter paragraphs or sentences.
Also, the way Gabaldon handles them here gives the sense of time passing. We see quick burst of life, just enough to let us know how things are progressing for the characters.
Especially in this first scene, Gabaldon establishes a sense of how life goes for Claire and Jamie. Certainly, there are problems still to be faced, but not every moment is full of excitement and immediate danger. Much like how an author should establish a sense of how life is normally before derailing it, Gabaldon does so here to give us the feel of how Jamie and Claire fall into their married lives together at Leoch
But that aside, all these scenes follow the same rules as chapter endings. Like chapters, scenes should end with a hook that draws the reader into the next scene. Especially with delineated scene breaks as Gabaldon uses in this book, it would be easy for a reader, even one who is thoroughly invested in the story, to put the book down and walk away for a while. Ideally as authors, we want readers to forgo all else while they enjoy our books: sleep, food, real life. Without intriguing, unresolved tidbits at the ends of chapters and scenes, it would be extremely difficult to arouse this state. So Gabaldon ends all her scene breaks so far with something that pulls readers into the next scene.
With the first scene, it’s the question of what the bad news is. The second scene ends with Jamie proposing a tryst that might well get him in trouble with Old Alec. The third scene ends with the humor of Hammish declaring that, when he gets married, he’s not going to do it face to face because he wouldn’t want anyone watching him do that. The fourth scene ends with the ominous plant beneath the pillow. As you can see, there are all sorts of ways to end scenes, but all scenes should end with unresolved questions, unresolved tension, or the promise of something enticing in the next scene.
Stepping back from scenes, there is a portion of the third scene that made the editor in me jerk awake. As Jamie talks to Hammish, there are a lot of things that are out of POV. So far, this book has been entirely from Claire’s perspective, but sometimes, Gabaldon slips and relays information Claire couldn’t or shouldn’t know. Mostly this refers to another character’s thoughts or motivations, sometimes history or information it’s unlikely Claire would know. The editor in me demands these bits be corrected; however, this clearly was not though necessary in the books own editing. Regardless, it goes to show that even highly successful, well-written books are not perfect and that a few imperfections do not destroy a book’s success.