Gathering Commentary 1: Prologue (Spoiler free)

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
I'm going to do an author commentary on the first two chapters of Gathering (Chronicles of Empire 1), to show some of the writing decisions I made, and why. Different writers have their own emphasis and way of doing things - I'm simply going to show mine. :)

Note: I'll be using the UK edition with British English spellings.
The Fate of the World

^ The first point is that this is actually a prologue. However, it isn't indicated as one so as to avoid readers skipping what is an essential part of the book, and instead carries a normal chapter title. I noticed that Joe Abercrombie did the same in Best Served Cold. The title also provides a suggestion of stakes, and like many chapter titles in this book, is taken from a line of text in the chapter.


^ Like Game of Thrones, the name of the viewpoint character is provided at the top of each chapter.

Rodrigan galloped along the hunting track — after four days of hard riding, he was almost safe.

^ So much rests on a first line - it will define the tone of the book, and really needs to be a hook. And that it makes it incredibly difficult to ensure a very good one. Many of my chapter openings introduce a character and action - and initial conflict for that chapter. This follows the same format, and aims to convey movement, urgency, and danger.

^ It also introduces the name Rodrigan, which may put readers in mind of the Portuguese name "Rodriguez" and therefore contribute to a sense of world. That might also suggest not to assume that he is white, nor anyone else in this scene unless stated otherwise.

^ Although "Rodrigan galloped" is technically wrong - it is his horse that gallops - this form is commonly used in fiction. I double-checked with Game of Thrones and it is used repeatedly in that text, so clearly there's a precedent in it being acceptable.

^ It's been suggested that you cannot gallop a horse for 4 days. Which is obvious. But as Imperial Waystations are mentioned later (two chapters later - Erin's "Small Blessings") there's no need for me to stop the narrative just to explain that Rodrigan has repeatedly changed horses over this same period. I'm going for brevity and pace here, and insist the reader trusts me to know what I'm talking about.

Branches whipped his travelling robes as he wound his way uphill. Twilight came fast. Winter’s shadows grew deeper and the threat of ambush increased. Though his bay mare was lathered with sweat, he spurred her on.

^ We continue with a clear sense of movement, and introduce setting. He's riding uphill, through forest/woodland, and it's winter. Enough for the read to picture a scene in some detail. We're also moving quickly enough to show twilight falling. The sense of danger is underlined without explanation, and there's a sense of desperation in Rodrigan spurring his plainly exhausted horse to go faster.

The trees fell away and castle walls loomed, bathed in Saturnyne’s silver moonlight. Smaller Pheiros added a suitably bloody hue to the banners that fluttered from the battlements.

^ The "suitably bloody hue" is a character observation - obviously meaningful to Rodrigan. The two moons are not simply a world-building and setting detail, though - they form an integral part of the narrative and will soon be expanded upon.

^ Some writing books speak of the need to establish genre, setting, and context as quickly as possible. This is precisely what I've aimed to do with this opening - it plainly suggests a mediaeval setting, and that all this is taking place not simply on another world, but another planet, so is therefore likely to be fantasy. We've introduced a character, some experience of impending danger, and all with a sense of movement to try and push the reader on.

Rodrigan exhaled with relief, but there was no time for complacency — with a hand over the sword at his hip, he circled the curtain wall. He dared slow his mount only when her hooves drummed up to the postern gate.

^ This scene was originally constructed as nothing more than an infodump, and it was very difficult to try and turn that around. Although we had something of Rodrigan's experience before - being hit by the branches of trees he's riding past, his fears, and also the symbolism of "bloody banners" - we've yet to really get inside of his head properly. These sentences aim to do that, and bring us firmly into the character experience - he's feeling relieved, but not complacent, danger remains, and we're still in motion.

A shout went up. Ropes creaked, chains clanked, and metal screeched as a portcullis was raised. He ducked under it as he rode into a torch-lit bailey. Men-at-arms stirred. A pair of grooms came running.

^ One important part of writing is beinging all the senses together. Previously in this section we've inferred galloping and finally mentioned the sounds of hooves drumming - now we introduce clear and imaginable sounds external to the immediate character. We also conclude the sense of movement and direction, by arriving somewhere.

^ In previous drafts all of the above was somewhat extended, not least with a knight meeting Rodrigan at a postern gate, before both rode into an outer bailey, only to then ride up to the inner baily. Because it was a knight who met with, and led, Rodrigan, the intended inference was that Rodrigan was both expected, and a man of rank - else why have a knight meet with him? But feedback on chrons suggested that it all dragged out the opening unnecessarily.

Rodrigan dismounted and stamped his feet to force them to life. He crossed the courtyard with a glance up at the keep, praying to Omicron, Pollos, and the Light that the others had waited for him.

^ Ensuring that we're firmly in Rodrigan's experience. The short prayer also clearly shows Rodrigan to have strong religious beliefs. He will repeat this prayer in later chapters, so there's consistency.

The main doors groaned open. He marched into a passageway, dragged his robes over his head and discarded them. He smoothed down his red tunic, then brushed the dust from his burnished breastplate. A sentry opened a door for Rodrigan to enter the great hall.

^ Previously this part of the journey was longer, but again was cut down to improve pace. Revealing his "burnished breastplate" here again was supposed to be part of a slow reveal of his status. The fact that he's wearing a uniform suggests a military connection.

Heat slammed into him. Bright orange flames roared in a huge fireplace. A myriad of candles glowed under a vaulted ceiling, like captured stars.

^ Some people providing feedback on chrons said this is where the story really started for them - they could really feel this moment. Hence why I tried to make the journey to this point of the narrative as a short as possible.

The air was filled with the aromas of roasted meat and spices. A half-eaten calf’s head was upon an oak dining table, its brains scrambled with egg around it on a bed of rice and greens.

^ Describing a great hall and feast could end up being so dull and generic. So I eventually set up this course - from an actual mediaeval recipe. I was going to save it for use in the following novel, but used it here as it would have maximum impact. Firstly, it's unusual and memorable. Secondly, there is potential symbolism at play here - the sacrificial cow, already carved up - like the Corianth Empire, under the plan about to be revealed.

Rodrigan’s belly growled at the sight of hot food, but he pushed it from his thoughts. He strode at the figure seated there.

^ Again, trying to push on Rodrigan's character experience, when this scene originally had none.

Councillor Molric rose to his feet. Glossy black hair fell across broad shoulders robed in imperial blue. “Lord Rodrigan, it is good to see you at last.”

^ So, at last - Rodrigan's status is revealed. And what do we know about him so far? That he is a lord, with a military bearing, and a religious disposition. All of which could have been told in the very first sentence, but I thought was better dripped through the first page or so.

Rodrigan planted his fists on the table. He fought to keep his voice steady. “It might have been longer if I’d been waylaid. I’ve risked much and sinned greatly for you.”

^ We have Rodrigan's experience of anger here. It also introduces a sense of conflict with Molric, showing that this relationship is strained. The issue of "sin" follows on from Rodrigan's earlier reference to religious sensibilities.

^ Also, whom might he have been waylaid by? Common brigands, certainly. But there remains a suggestion that Rodrigan may have one or more powerful enemies. His character and circumstances continue to be expanded on, without stopping the narrative to explain any of this.

“For the good of the empire. And for the return of your father. He is the past that unlocks our present. I have not forgotten. Please, do join me.”

That promise had brought Rodrigan here — but Molric needed to offer more. Rodrigan tore his gaze away, and seated himself with as much dignity as his weary legs could manage.

^ Molric tries to mollify Rodrigan, rather than dominate him. IMO this is an important reveal on their relationship. Additionally, this is the first mention of Rodrigan's father, who becomes the centre of Rodrigan's concerns - and conflict - and an important detail in what follows.

“How did it fare with King Servitos?”

“He would not support you.” Rodrigan made the councillor wait before he forced a smile.

“Then he broke his neck, while taking a bath. Alas, I saw him fall.” Rodrigan had surprised the old king — grabbing, then twisting, his head. The body had dropped into the water, splashing Rodrigan’s black boots with red rose petals.

Molric tutted. “Did you convey my condolences to the heir?”

“He accepts your terms.”

Molric’s smile reached his eyes. “Good.”

^ An agent suggested I rewrite this prologue beginning with this moment - but strong as the image is, that alone is not enough to sustain the opening to the story, and it would have been too hard to connect all the essential pieces of jigsaw this scene needs to make the opening work - I did try.

^ Additionally, Rodrigan might not be such a sympathetic person now, knowing that he murdered a king with his own hands - but let the reader ask the question themselves, without answering it for them.

Rodrigan poured a spiced wine and slaked his thirst. Frustration balled in his gut at the silence. “And? I’ve done my part. Now play yours.”

^ Rodrigan doesn't have much to do in this scene, now that he's arrived at the castle and sat at the table, so I make a point of drawing the reader into his experience and conflict with Molric wherever possible. Else risk him simply being a passive observer and weaken the scene.

“I have already summoned the others. I tracked your biometric signature over the past few miles. They are coming.”

^ Having painstakingly established that this is a mediaeval setting, "biometric signature" should jolt the reader. This also introduces a plot point we'll see used again.

^ Also - this covers why an apparently random horseman would have been allowed into the castle unchallenged on the first page - Molric has almost certainly let it be known that Lord Rodrigan is about to arrive.

A heavy door opened. Bishop Serannos slipped nervously into the hall, the spindly man wearing his white and gold vestments of office. Duke Normon stomped in after, his face drunkard red — his soldiers were only days from the capital, but that would not be enough to ensure the safety of Rodrigan’s father.

^ In earlier drafts, I had a group of people already present at the table, which threatened to overwhelm the reader with too many pronouns too quickly (always a problem with epic fantasy!). By having the characters come in a little at a time, it allows at least some chance of forming some impression of them. Also, the last line underlines Rodrigan's continued focus on his father, and how Normon at least might relate to that.

^ Some historians among you may have also noticed that I'm plainly flouting rules of peerage here - it should be "Normon, Duke of [land]". In order to avoid flooding the reader with unnecessary pronouns, I've customised the use of titles into something simpler - and perhaps already familiar to fantasy readers. So I provide [title] + [first name] - and continue with this format throughout the rest of the book.

The duke rang a bell. Servants entered and cleared the previous course. They refilled each goblet, then brought in desserts of fruit tarts and pastries drizzled in honey, before leaving again.

^ I could, really, have chopped this bit. But IMO it adds to mediaeval realism - any mediaeval dinner will have *multiple* courses, of which the calf's head was merely one. The servants leaving the room should might also strike some as unusual - and a necessary condition before a conspiracy is discussed. It also helps break up character introductions.

^ Ideally, Rodrigan would comment to Serannos here, as that would help make the character a little more memorable, and show there is an existing working relationship between the two. However, that would mean having to stop the text to explain context and even something about the world religion, forcing additional pronouns on the reader. Therefore better to leave this aside and push on - it will be addressed later.

Two women trailed into the hall, their faces powdered and their golden hair curled, dressed in fine gowns of white gossamer with stoles of silver fur across their shoulders. The Pannarion twins. Not even thirty years old and they controlled the richest trading fleet in the empire. Their reputations were as big as their purses — Daria and Eira, avarice and vice.

^ Everyone has now entered the room. I hope the reader doesn't feel too overwhelmed! However, note that Molric remains in charge here. Also note that the meal Rodrigan walked into was unfinished, suggesting that Molric dismissed the others, in order to allow time for Rodrigan to join them and eat something, if he wished.

Rodrigan drummed his fingers impatiently, wanting something to hang his hopes for his father onto. Here sat six conspirators who could decide the fate of the world.

^ And here we describe, more succinctly, what these people are - conspirators. This should be a clue that these are not necessarily going to be the good guys in this piece. Also, this is where the chapter title is taken from - and underlines the purpose of this meeting.
Molric finally took the floor. “The Corianth Empire risks fragmenting again if we do not act. The Emperor is old and frail and has no successor, and the Order of Omicron has no Holy Father to anoint a new one.”

“Not yet,” Rodrigan interrupted. His father was not simply the last surviving cardinal, but the Cardinal Pontifex. He alone had the authority to rebuild the Order, if it were made safe for him to return. That would require something extraordinary.

^ Infodump! And yet, that was rather short and harmless, wasn't it? No further discussion on the politics and factions of the Corianth Empire in glorious detail - just the basic summary. Additionally, we've already made the point to underline Rodrigan's personal conflict relates to his father, and even this short infodump connects directly with that.

^ Also, originally I used the term "Cardinal Pontiphas" to try and get away from any direction association of "Pontifex" while merely hinting at it. "Pontifex", after all, is a distinctly unique Roman term of religious office, and actually means "bridge builder". However, I scrapped my original idea as unnecessarily overcomplicating this. "Pontifex" has an existing association for many readers, and only the most pedantic Roman historians might object. :)

“Allow me to detail my plan.” Molric pulled back a sleeve, and tiny lights pulsed to life along a metal bracer. The air above the table shimmered and formed into a stunning image.

Rodrigan was startled to his feet, his hand reaching for the hilt of his sword. Then stared upon the kingdoms of the Corianth Empire, as if seen by some soaring eagle. Tentatively, he reached forward, as if to touch the fields and towns represented. Colours fell across his hand. He felt nothing, but drew back immediately.

The others also stood, their voices raised. They demanded to know what they looked at, how, and why.

^ And we have something distinctly un-mediaeval from Molric again. Magic, or hologram? As we see below, Molric's skills are plainly out of place.

Molric ignored their questions, and acted as if this was all ordinary. “The Monument Trade Route is secured. Now we can arm our allied kingdoms.” As he described the situation and advantage of each, its place on the map glowed.

^ Again, trying to avoid a direct infodump. Do I, the writer, really need to name all the kingdoms and all the kings Molric is working with, or against? Of course not. Besides, we're still in Rodrigan's experience, and he is only interested in how all this relates to his father.

Rodrigan narrowed his eyes, seeking some revelation. Molric finished speaking without providing one. “Is that it? Your grand plan is to ship weapons?”

^ There - that didn't need a long explanation, did it?

Daria shared a derisive snort with her sister. “Turning gold into steel is a poor deal for anyone. We should have spoken with Father Dinemetis instead.”

Rodrigan flashed with anger. Exhausted and weary, he’d not become a king-killer to hear that man spoken for. He stood to snarl his objection.

^ From Rodrigan's reaction, we may infer that this Father Dinemetis is one of the people Rodrigan feared might have set an ambush for him. Also, it might be reasonable to presume a part of Rodrigan regrets killing King Servitos - plainly it required some form of sacrifice - sin - on his part, which was referred to earlier in this scene.

Molric cut him off. “I agree. Arms alone are not enough to secure our position. Let me show you what will.” He walked over to a wall, and unbolted two tall window shutters. A frigid wind blew in as he opened them, and caused the candle flames to dance. He indicated to the darkness outside. “Look, and doubt me no more.”

^ In an earlier form of this scene, 7 people sat around a table, Molric talked, then finished - the end. But when I posted the complete scene on the chrons forums, someone pulled "Save the Cat" on me. It's a book I commonly recommend to writers because of its focus on character development, but it also says that if you're going to have people simply talking, then you have to show something different in order to hold a reader's attention. I could only agree, and therefore wrote in the demonstration that follows.

^ Btw, did you notice I said there were originally 7 characters at this table, when only 6 have actually been introduced? An agent complained an earlier form of this scene was just infodump, so I went back to rewrite it and make it more succint. That also meant cutting out one of the characters as unnecessary.

Rodrigan hauled himself over, and stared into the night. The others joined him.

Molric waved his arms. A muster field beyond the castle walls lit up, as if day had fallen only upon that area. Stone outbuildings lay illuminated, a cluster of barrels between them. A man came into view, holding a burning torch. Molric signalled — the figure touched his flame to a barrel and a bright, white spark came to life.

Rodrigan sought any sign of mirrors that might point to the source of this trickery. He found none. Clearly Molric was wondrously clever when it came to light, but that alone could not —
A flash like lightning. The buildings erupted into a cloud of smoke and dust. The air seemed to shatter. Rodrigan gripped the window to steady himself. Hot grit pricked his face. He could only stare, his heart hammering, as the smoke drifted away in that unnatural light.

The echo rumbled from nearby hills. A dark hole stood among the buildings, now ruined to their foundations. Rubble lay strewn across the field. From the bailey below came the whinnies of frightened horses, and the shouts of startled men.

^ So, Molric gives his demonstration. Better to *show* than simply *tell* of his abilities.

Molric turned, his posture commanding. “I come from the future. I bring new technology ... knowledge of explosives. That is the true cargo for the Monument Trade Route.”

^ So ... a big reveal. Plainly this is not going to be your standard fantasy novel - at least, that's what I hope the reader picks up on.

Rodrigan could only gape at the destruction before his eyes, trying to make sense of it. The figure had gone — dead, or disappeared?

Daria turned, a drop of blood on her cheek. She touched it with a finger, looked, then tasted it. “I do believe I have the honour of being first bloodied.”

^ The fact that a man has been killed, but Daria refers to it in terms of bloodsports, should be a little chilling.

Bishop Serannos staggered back from the window with fright in his eyes. “What witchcraft is this?”

“None at all,” Molric replied above the clamour from outside. “It is alchemical. A black powder of saltpetre, brimstone ... and other substances. Kept safe for transport as a dried cake in barrels.”

^ Hopefully it's obvious I'm talking about gunpowder - something that was readily manufactured in the mediaeval period, but clearly hasn't yet been invented in this culture.

^ Molric also doesn't seem bothered that somebody died in his demonstration - he doesn't even express remorse.

Duke Normon had paled. “You could bring down a castle’s walls with a gesture.”

“That is the intention,” Molric said.

Rodrigan gazed dumbly outside, his chest still thumping with shock. Such a tremendous weapon could allow his father to escape years of hiding. The Cardinal Pontifex might finally return in glory. Rodrigan turned to Molric, and smiled.

^ Thus we get some conclusion to Rodrigan's original conflict about whether Molric could help his father.

Molric nodded. “In my own time I saw this planet burn, and every soul turned to ash. From this moment on we change its fate to prevent that. We have an empire to rebuild, and all of humanity to save.”

^ Because everything has been stated from the start, I don't want the reader asking "What is going on?" but instead, "How is this all going to play out?" Perhaps I shouldn't state Molric's aims and intentions so clearly. But what I've done here is set a clear moral dilemna, which IMO is too interesting to hold back with. He plans to destroy the world in order to reforge it - break a lot of eggs to make an omelette. The inference, IMO, is obvious - Molric has admirable concerns, but is going to go about it in the wrong way, with potentially amoral people. We also plainly have stakes here - whatever happens doesn't just involve war and empire, but the potential future destruction of this planet, and the extinction of humanity.

^ If I were starting this novel from scratch today, I might have considered following a standard thriller format, where the main characters have to unravel all this information slowly but surely throughout the novel. Technically it would be the more correct way to write it - but thinking on it, I'm not convinced this reveal would work in a believable way. So instead, what I've done is the equivalent of showing a chessboard with a full range of pieces on one side. And clearly it's a formidable formation - a time traveller, high-ranking military, important religious figures, and powerful business interests. Not to mention that they are going to be shipping arms, have future technology, and now control of explosives. It should seem impossible to stop them. So the reader will now expect me to introduce the characters who might reasonably try to...

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