On Cinematic Writing

I once was at a talk given by S.E. Hinton in which she said that she wrote her fifth novel, Taming the Star Runner, deliberately in such a way that no one would be tempted to try to make a movie out of it. As all four of her previous novels had been adapted to film with her involvement, she knew what kinds of things would put off filmmakers. Her first four novels had been in first person POV, a perspective mode that (usually) evokes immediacy and excludes the author-as-narrator even from the margins; in her last book, the perspective is a distant, narrow-focus third person, built episodically on a hopscotch of flashbacks. Most of the plot takes place in the protagonist’s head. And while none of this is exactly a deterrent to filmmaking, the resulting story is something you’d have to have a lot of patience and leeway to turn into a viable screenplay.

For all that, I recall some moments in Taming the Star Runner that are extremely cinematic. How can that be? Because there is a vast difference between writing fiction that lends itself well to film adaptation, and writing fiction that operates cinematically.

There’s a little bit of irony in claiming this, because as vlogger and filmmaker Patrick Willems points out in this video, it’s the uniqueness of cinema as an art form that makes “cinematic” a useful term at all. Yet because we are all so steeped in movies from an early age, we are apt to mediate our encounters with other art forms — and indeed, our real lives — through the viewfinder of a moving picture camera.

So, no matter what an author does, there will be many readers that read cinematically. What does it mean to write cinematically?

Cinematic writing, in my view, involves a deliberate choice to adapt recognizable film techniques to use in a medium of words on a page. Now, if it’s true that many of the techniques in the grammar of filmmaking pass beneath the notice of your average filmgoer, it’s even more true when those techniques are adapted for written fiction. The point, therefore, must be not to make people notice those techniques but to produce a cumulative effect by using them.

I’m going to reference Patrick Willems again, because it was watching his Film Studies 101 video that provided some of the impetus for this post. In this video, he takes each apparatus of film creation — perspective, lenses, camera movement, style, color, sound, and so on — and applies its analysis to the movie Home Alone, an ordinary movie which nearly everyone has seen or knows something about.

He even provides a handy tl;dr at the beginning by saying that film criticism, at bottom, is just noticing what’s happening and asking why. I have to say, it would be nice to have my own art form covered like this in 90 minutes or less, and even nicer if people approached literary criticism like this instead of assuming some author committed a solecism because a choice of theirs happened not to be what the critic preferred. Willems covers that in this video too.

I’m not really up to vlogging for 90 minutes (after edits) about the basics of literary criticism. What I’m going to do instead is borrow the old fandom vehicle of the fiction DVD commentary. You remember DVD commentaries, right? With the voiceover track in which the director and/or a selection of the actors watches the movie with you and, well, notices things for you? Most of them were forgettable, but a handful of them offered some real insights into the making of the film.

I’m not going to post a DVD commentary of all of Ryswyck; that would be madness. But being as it is Memorial Day — the anniversary of Ryswyck‘s launch — I am going to commentate on the prologue. When I started to write Ryswyck, I made a couple of deliberate style choices at the outset, and one of those was to take a “cinematic” approach to scenes, transitions, and perspective. You’ll see what I mean shortly, and you’ll see, too, that as with film, cinematic is more than just an aesthetic.

Continue reading: On Cinematic Writing


Speir knuckled sweat and blood out of her eye and took advantage of the moment’s space to breathe deeply. Across the arena Stevens was brushing sawdust off his flanks and regaining his habitual grin. She grinned back, half to herself.

[The in medias res opening. People forget that “in medias res” as a literary technique referred to the value of starting in a place where something is going on. But a covert rule has crept in where not only does “something” have to be going on in the place where you start, it also has to be a something that cuts off as much of the fore part of the plot arc as humanly possible. I, obviously, chose the former. If this were a film, it would probably be highly lit with deep shadows, spotlighting the figures in the combat pit. In word form, you know in this opening paragraph that there are two people, they’re in an arena, there’s sawdust, blood, and sweat, and these two people seem to be fighting but they don’t seem to be unhappy or angry. Let’s watch.]

Behind and around, above the mirrored panels of the recessed combat pit, the air was full of shouts of encouragement. “Go on, Speir,” someone’s voice crowed topmost, probably Andera, sounded like him— “get him again!” People liked to see Stevens get knocked down in open-hand once or twice at least before he walked away with the victory in his meaty fist. Nobody actually ever won a match with Stevens, but Speir was determined to take a good crack at it.

[Perspective. Speir is not the only protagonist of this ensemble story, but her POV is the heart POV — she offers the reader a sense of introduction to the world as well as an emotional throughline in the story. So it’s fitting that the first scene is hers. And because we are introduced to her (and the story) in the midst of a fight, fighting is going to be associated with Speir for the rest of the book, no matter who else gets in the arena later.]

He looked ready, and she had her breath back. She circled in close, looking for the right moment to go in, but he moved first, heavy and quick. Barely dodging a savage blow, Speir grabbed for a hold and twisted to drive her knee into the back of his; he eeled out of reach and slung her reeling out of the center square. The momentum sent her right to the polished steel panels, and she used their spring-backed resilience to propel herself back to him, savoring the open joy of combat. She got in one quick blow to his chin before having to duck again; unfortunately, what should have rolled him sidewise only gave him a momentary jerk, and he caught her as she tried to flank him. In the act of tossing her, his hand caught in her headguard and pulled it free; her hair spilled out of its knot, and momentarily blinded her as she fell.

She struggled to her feet, aware of the buffoonery of her position, and as she frantically wiped the strands from her face to meet his following stroke, she heard the shrill cut of the judge’s whistle.

They both turned at once to the platform chair, where Captain Marag sat observing. The tumult of voices in the arena damped down.

“Fault to Stevens,” he said. “Round to Speir.”

Stevens said: “What’s the judgment?”

“If you deny taking pleasure in Speir’s embarrassment, then the fault is arbitrary,” Marag said.

An arbitrary fault was a hazard of the arena, but instead of accepting it as such, Stevens bowed to her briefly, closed hand over heart. “All’s well,” Speir answered him. Stevens’s battle-grin returned, and he saluted her for the round, his hand flicking sharply to his forehead, away and down. He waited for her to re-secure her hair under her headguard, and then the whistle cut the air again and battle was rejoined.

In which Speir took an immediate slug to the chest that bowled her over almost twice. She scrambled, winded and dizzy, to her feet, avoided another blow, found and lost a hold, landed an elbow to Stevens’s flank, got clear of him, lurched into speed again and placed another good punch, received one in return that would have knocked her over if she hadn’t spun at the exquisite point of gravity, ducked under his arm again, drove for his midriff and was stymied by his greater reach, took another blow and rolled in the sawdust, got up weaving, and was unsurprised when the whistle blew and the round was called for Stevens.

[This paragraph is two sentences, and is set up to evoke the tempo and close contact of the fighting here. In film language it might be close up or in shaky cam or both. What it wouldn’t be is a master shot like a television broadcast of an MMA match. Not that we won’t be getting wide-angle views of matches later on; but those moments rarely involve Speir. It may be evident to fighters here that Speir is an enthusiastic but not exactly patient combatant; it will be part of her arc to learn this.]

She snapped him a sharp salute.

“What kind of exit do you want?” he asked her, solicitously.

“Horizontal,” she said.

“You sure?”

“I’ll make you work for it, too,” she said, and he grinned a real grin this time.

“So be it,” Stevens said, and the whistle blew.

It wasn’t good form at the Academy to pull punches, but Stevens had developed a distaste for producing regular carnage, and as long as he gave people a decent challenge, most people were willing in courtesy to let him break form. But as far as Speir was concerned, the third round was no place for that.

One good blow was all she wanted; just one would do. She avoided closing with him for the first minutes, reading him quickly, ducking his full-strength swings, hearing the cacophony of her fellows from the benches. At last he landed one that sent her sprawling, a reel of broken light behind her eyes, and waited politely for her to rock slowly, half-blind, to her feet. Speir shook off the pain and came back to center. One good blow. She masked her intent as she approached, and was gratified to see him caught off guard by her sudden left—he actually sat down for a split second before rolling again to his feet and returning to her. Her duck wasn’t quite fast enough.

Speir was a little slower getting up this time; again he waited. She got knocked down twice more without getting in a second blow, and the noise in the arena rose to a roar to match the roar of pain in her senses.

Once more. She launched herself toward him.

The next thing she knew, she was on her back, the scent of sawdust tickling her nostrils, and a meaty hand was holding her head steady. “Don’t move,” Stevens warned her, “till the scan’s done.”

After two tries she was able to form words. “How long was I out?”

“Full count.”

“Ah. They call it yet?”

“If you concede.”

From her supine position, Speir dragged up her hand and gave him a salute as snappy as she could make it, which wasn’t very, because she was groggy and the medics were in the way. Stevens stood up, the watery sun from the dome overhead making an aureole around his large head and shoulders, and saluted her back as victor of the match.

“Thank you,” Speir breathed, too weary to make the gesture, and the medics hoisted her on the backboard and carried her out to a storm of cheers.

[This concludes Speir’s POV scene for the prologue. So far we know that there’s an arena, there is an arranged match with its own somewhat mysterious rules, they’re at an “Academy” of some sort, and it appears that everyone in the Academy is watching this with interest and excitement — a signal that this arena will be at the center of what happens in this book.]


“That…,” said Lord Thornhill, “was rather brutal.”

They were sitting on the observation platform of the arena reserved for the headmaster and his guests, watching the cadets and junior and senior officers make their way from the benches to go about their duties. General Barklay’s eyes were on Stevens, who had just made his salute to Barklay and exited the combat pit after Speir’s horizontal recession, and he almost missed what Thornhill had said. Almost; he’d been expecting something of the sort.

[Perspective change. In film language, probably a lens change to show the observational tenor of Barklay’s scene. In words, emphasis is on the distance between Barklay’s eye and the event that is concluding in the combat pit, combined with the abstruse awareness of his political companions.]

“Worse happens in war,” Barklay pointed out.

“Indeed,” sighed Lord Frasera. She was in the sub-Council rotation directing the armed forces of Ilona: Barklay thought her too young to have seen the war when it was on their home soil, but it didn’t mean she had seen nothing at all; she was only a little younger than he.

“Well,” Barklay said, “now that the match is concluded, shall I show you the grounds?”

“Please,” Thornhill said, and they got up to make their own way out of the arena and the honeycomb complex that surrounded it, busy with the work of his students, training, tidying, passing them with cheerful and respectful greetings in the corridors en route to duties elsewhere.

[Aaron Sorkin made the walk-and-talk shot famous with “The West Wing,” which is where I first came to notice it as a cinematic technique. TWW is a show done to seem more like cinema than television, and I am almost certain the walk-and-talk is meant to be, let’s say amphibious to the two media. So with Barklay’s perspective, you’re getting a walk-and-talk here. You’re also getting, incidentally, a tour of Ryswyck Academy along with the Council lords. This was a deliberate choice of mine and is, for good and ill, characteristic of my approach to setting. Which is to say, a setting isn’t a set. And Ryswyck in particular is a character in its own right; it shouldn’t be treated like an afterthought in the pursuit of plot tempo. This approach has its downsides; it sometimes tries the patience of my beta readers and probably tries the patience of readers too. But I’ve counted the cost.]

Frasera waited till Barklay had finished one such exchange with a young cadet before asking a question. “General,” she said when they were on their way again, “I heard the judge give a call which I am not familiar with; it must be particular to Ryswyck. What is an arbitrary fault?”

“Just what it sounds like,” Barklay said with a sidelong half-grin, and Lord Frasera gave a delicate snort. “The judges of a match,” he elaborated, “are free to award an arbitrary fault if they feel things are going too much one way, or if they wish to test the balance of one of the combatants. Its usual effect is to galvanize both combatants in the next round. Sometimes it’s a sharp reminder of courtesy, as you saw today.”

“But to arbitrarily influence the outcome of a match?” Thornhill said. “Surely it’s better for the combatants to earn their victory cleanly.”

Barklay shook his head, and they emerged from the arena into the broad portico that surrounded the building. From here they had a view across the wide quadrangle of the low barracks and grey-quarried offices and classroom blocks of Ryswyck Academy, scaffolded in at the edges by the covered walkways that shielded them from the rains.

“In Ryswyckian combat, as in life,” Barklay said, “one must learn to accept unfair reversals without complaint. The sooner one can detach one’s pride from one’s unquestioned success, the better.” Thornhill looked appalled, and Barklay added: “I will say that most judges consider it unsporting to decide the end result with an arbitrary fault. It’s usually used to stir things up a bit.”

[The arbitrary fault is going to become significant both to the plot and to the moral imperative of the story. As Speir will say later, giving up your rights is hard; giving up your wrongs is even harder.]

“As we saw,” Frasera said.

“Quite. Allow me to show you to the classroom block. This way.” Had he been alone, Barklay would have cut across the green-wet quad without regard for the light rain that was falling, but it would be uncharitable to ask the discomfort of his guests. Not to mention impolitic. Barklay led them round to the stone-paved walkway that led down to the edge of the cadet barracks.

“How are the matches made up?” Frasera asked him. The comment on the mismatch between Speir and Stevens was left unspoken, but Barklay heard it clearly anyway.

“Mainly by scheduling considerations,” Barklay said. “Matches are held three times a week, and ideally everyone will arrive in the arena well-rested and recovered from their last bout, so they are spaced as expeditiously as possible. The combatants agree beforehand on the format; Speir and Stevens, as you saw, both favor open-hand combat, but some prefer the baton. Foils are out of favor in this generation, I notice; my students seem to think they can get more direct contact with the other formats. I haven’t removed it from the training modules, though. First- and second-year cadets are scheduled together; junior officers are scheduled together; and sometimes a senior officer will step down from the judge’s platform and fill in a place in their schedule.”

[Barklay explaining how Ryswyck works during a walk-and-talk tour of the campus; I call that pretty economical as well as cinematic. If this were a film, you might not actually need it, though, because you would already be able to see the campus as the action unfolds. But you’d still need someone to guide you into interpreting the ceremonies and courtesies of the Ryswyckians. Imagine, for example, the chapter following this prologue without Barklay priming your expectations. Community-as-character (as opposed to community-as-spectacle) is something that it’s actually rather difficult for film to do well; I think sometimes we impose those limitations onto written art.]

“I heard,” Thornhill said, “that the students challenge each other to duels. Is that not so?”

And where did you hear that, I wonder? Barklay thought. He had a shrewd idea who had been causing Thornhill to worry about this school, and if he was right, there was no point losing his serenity. “No combat outside the arena,” he said. “No individual sparring appointments except with permission. Students are allowed to request a match, which is granted on the merits of the request.”

“And a personal conflict is not a proper merit?” said Frasera.

“Oh, no,” Barklay said, “personal conflicts are acceptable merits. Saves me some time in arbitration.” That was going to make Thornhill bridle.

Thornhill bridled. “But how can you possibly reconcile two people by having one of them beat the other senseless?”

“A question we could just as well ask about war itself,” Frasera murmured, saving Barklay the trouble.

“I’m talking about the rule of law.” Thornhill glared at her, and then at Barklay, as if he had made her say it.

“Ah, the rule of law,” Barklay said calmly, pausing at the recessed doors of the cadet barracks. “This is where the cadets are quartered, two to a room. Junior officers are the next building over; they have the privilege of their own rooms and showers. Senior officers and guests are quartered on the other side, as you saw when you arrived. The rule of law is very simple here, Lord Thornhill. There is only one law: the law of courtesy. Everything that happens at Ryswyck flows from that one law. A student learns that maintaining discipline, working at his course of study, fulfilling her duties, facing another in the arena—all of these are done to honor the humanity of the people with whom we are living. A student here may sooner put his opponent in hospital than speak to him in contempt. I’ve expelled a student for a single insult uttered in my hearing.” Barklay turned and cast his gaze from the dome of the arena to the tower beyond the classroom plant; his companions followed the invitation of his glance. “I started this Academy because I wished to see a place where courtesy is not just surface commerce but a way of life. The brutal realities of war must not take away from us our souls.”

He had said such things many times before, to many such visitors, and had ceased to expect their eyes to light as his students’ did. Thornhill’s eyes did not light, but he looked troubled, which was a better sign than complacent agreement, as if Barklay were speaking platitudes.

They weren’t platitudes, to Barklay. They were lifelines.

Frasera had had enough of Thornhill’s inquisition. “Your students certainly seem to take on that ethos with alacrity. How are their studies laid out, General Barklay?”

They resumed their walk up the barracks side of the quad. “Cadets take up study either for the army or the navy. Besides the principles of direct combat, they learn practical cartography, supply management, tactics and strategy, and weapons systems—the latter in its unclassified form, of course. If they win a place in the junior officer corps for their third year, they are expected to help teach the foregoing, and specialize in a course of their own choosing, which my rotation of senior officers teaches them.”

“Yes, I’m aware of the rotation arrangement from our end,” Frasera said. “I suppose it’s alumni of Ryswyck that you’d want judging matches, however.”

“Well, yes,” Barklay said. “Let’s go inside here; this will take us into the school proper.”

They entered, along with a few cadets hurrying to the last class meeting of the day before the tower bell. As they reached the crossing, they met Speir coming back from the junior officers’ block, now showered and neatly dressed in her informal greys, the insignia on her epaulets bright and new. Despite a certain paleness and a bruised contusion over her eyebrow (neatly mended with a small sticking bandage), she looked balanced and cheerful, as well she should.

“Well, Lieutenant,” Barklay hailed her, “may I congratulate you on a good match.”

“Thank you, sir,” Speir said, standing straight and saluting him smartly, as she’d not been able to do in the arena. He nodded back.

“On your way to supper?” he asked.

“No, sir. Junior officers’ meeting.”

“Oh, yes, I’d forgotten that was today. Your first?”

“Yes, sir.” Speir grinned suddenly.

“My lords,” Barklay said to his companions, “allow me to make known to you Lieutenant Stephanie Leam Speir, our newest addition to the junior officer corps and a formidable force in the arena—and wherever else she happens to be. Lieutenant Speir, may I present Lords Thornhill and Frasera, from the sub-Council, here on a short visit.”

Speir spread her hand on her breast and inclined her head: she had grown up in the capital, Barklay recalled, and knew the niceties.

“Any relation to the submarine commander of beloved memory?” Thornhill said, jovially. Barklay wanted to kick him.

“Yes, my lord,” Speir said. “She was my mother.”

“Ah!” I bet he wasn’t expecting that, Barklay thought. But Thornhill recovered almost at once. “And you’re following her footsteps into the navy?” he pursued.

“No, my lord. It’s the army for me.” Speir smiled at him, her own firm kindness and Ryswyckian courtesy blended, impossible to patronize. Yes, she was going to justify her promotion very quickly indeed, Barklay thought.

“In which she will do very well,” Barklay said. “Well, we won’t keep you, Lieutenant.”

Speir’s glance flicked to him, amused. “Thank you, sir. A pleasure to meet you, my lords.”

The visitors nodded back, and Barklay led them on their way as Speir disappeared.

“She looks almost none the worse,” Thornhill said, glancing in wonder over his shoulder.

“I suppose if you’re going to face Lieutenant Stevens you’d better be resilient,” Frasera said dryly.

“Quite.” Barklay allowed himself a brief grin. “We are about to pass the administrative wing. This is where my offices and quarters are, as well as the briefing rooms which are used whenever post commanders hold council here. The data centers are down that corridor, and updates are coordinated through the tower several times a day—ah, Lieutenant Douglas,” Barklay said, speaking to a dark-haired junior officer who had just emerged from an office. “I was just speaking of communications. When you’ve finished with the meeting and had your supper, will you take a dispatch to General Inslee?”

“Yes, sir,” Douglas said. “Shall I wait for his answer, or should I get an open line to your com-deck?”

“Wait for his answer and bring it back to me,” Barklay said. “Thank you, Douglas.”

Douglas saluted him, nodded respectfully to the lords, and moved quietly past them.

[Speir introduces Ryswyck in her scene to be elaborated in the following scene; Barklay introduces Douglas in this scene, who will take over in the scene after this. By the way, this was written before Ancillary Justice came out, but already I had a sense that I did not want Ryswyck to be a place where you could predict the outlook and behavior of people based on their gender, so I waited a beat before letting Barklay use Douglas’s pronouns here. Douglas’s masculinity is quite stable enough to handle what gets thrown at it in the course of this story. In a film, you’d be able to identify his gender on sight, so the question would be moot. I’d have to bend the viewer’s expectations some other way.]

“Douglas,” Barklay mentioned, “once threw Stevens with the baton, and almost won the match. He’s one of my best officers. If we take this left, we’ll arrive at the mess hall. If you are so inclined, I could give you supper before you go. And in fact, it is very little trouble to arrange for you to stay in the guest house for the night; allow me to offer it to you.” The offer was sincere, but he would be just as happy if they refused it.

Thornhill and Frasera glanced at one another. “I think we’ll keep to our original plan,” Frasera said, “but I wouldn’t mind getting a bite to eat.”

“Then let us go in to supper,” Barklay said.

He ushered them forward with a gracious gesture, and they continued on, their well-heeled footsteps echoing down the stone-girt hall.


“And I need one more person to fill the crew that’s cleaning out the stables at the end of this week,” said Lieutenant Cameron.

“I’ll do it.”

“Thank you, Stevens, that is much appreciated.” Cameron made a small mark with her stylus on the tablet. “There, that covers the unattached duties. Now, for the rotations—I got the word yesterday, we have officially got permission to form another duty rota, and Stevens has come on as a new captain.” There was a murmur of pleased comment. “It means more work for individuals, of course, but it should make scheduling easier. Ellis is projecting up the proposed schedule.” Ellis obligingly fiddled with the controls, and the projection popped up. People began shuffling, preparing to write down their own schedule. Douglas, who was captain of A Rota and had already seen the proposed schedule, remained still, feet braced comfortably flat with his scrip tucked behind on the floor.

“Now, I’ve spoken with all the rota captains and they have checked on people’s personal duty schedules, so there should be a minimum of problems.” Cameron gave a resigned little sigh; a minimum of problems didn’t necessarily translate to a minimum of questions and requests for changes, Douglas knew. “Please consult with me after the meeting if there is something you absolutely have to have changed. Now—”

“Cameron,” said Ahrens, “you’ve got me on both A Rota and E Rota. Are you trying to keep me out of trouble?”

It was true. The room broke into snickers, and Cameron smiled ruefully. “My fault, Ahrens,” she said, briefly touching her closed hand to her breast. “Thank you for catching that.”

“I think the other rota captains should bear some of that fault,” Douglas said dryly. “I didn’t catch it either.” The other rota captains murmured agreement.

[We now see that not only is Douglas a character whom Barklay will send on an impromptu errand, he’s captain of a junior officer duty rota. Douglas’s character hits very quiet notes at the beginning of the story; possibly too quiet, but just as Speir is the heart-POV of this story, Douglas is the mind-POV, the keeper of the moral imperative. He watches and deliberates before he acts. His arc, too, has somewhere to go from where it starts. In a film, you’d probably have a wide, deep shot here, with Douglas to the side or at the back with his feet flat on the floor and a contemplative look; or alternatively, a shot from his feet looking up at the rest of the meeting. In words, we’re just letting the dialogue flow here with Douglas occasionally dipping his oar in gently.]

“All’s well,” Ahrens said. “But may I just have one set of duties?”

“Yes,” Cameron said. “Pick which.”

“E Rota is better for me.”

“E Rota it is. By the way, this is the master schedule, not this week’s schedule. So E Rota, you’re on communications this week, not training, A Rota is on classroom, B is on training, C is on kitchen, D is on—what was it?—supply and waste. Speir, can I put you on A Rota’s roster?”

“Certainly,” Speir said.

“Excellent. Douglas will get you your pass-keys for the week. Douglas, you’re presiding over next week’s meeting….”

“Yes…,” Douglas said.

“And you promised you would straighten up the minute reports for us.”

“So I did,” he sighed. “Yes. Give me the minute-book and I’ll get to work on it before the next meeting.”

“Ellis, the minute-book goes to Douglas after the meeting. Thank you, and thank you, Douglas. Now—”

Cameron always ran a meeting like a shepherd working a skittish flock through a gate, marshalling all her sheepdogs to push them through before they decided to break. Douglas amused himself contentedly with a picture of Cameron in a heavy hooded smock and thigh-boots just like his oldest sister’s, gnawing on a pipe and glaring at the sheep as they passed through.

The meeting concluded with a plan for the month’s recreation activities and an enthusiastic scrutiny of the match schedule. It broke up in a flurry of exchanges between the rota captains and their teams, and the junior officers spilled out of the room to hurry and get supper before the mess hall closed. Douglas wasn’t very hungry, but he knew he wouldn’t have time for a snack later, so he went down and asked the cadet at the line for just a cup of stew and a barley roll, and took it to a corner to eat quickly.

The mess hall had been quiet after the earlier passage of most of the cadets, but the junior officers livened it up a bit. A few benches away he saw Speir looking palely down at her plate of stew as if she’d rather fight it than eat it; Stevens plopped himself down across from her, followed quickly by several others who were clearly interested in the topic of the afternoon’s match. If Douglas hadn’t had his other duties, he would have stirred himself to join them. He scraped up the last few bites of stew, and took his tray to the hatch.

Barklay wasn’t in his office, but in the outer office a sealed packet with Douglas’s name on it lay on the front desk. He opened it: a tablet and a brief note of instruction from Barklay’s hand. Good.

As he was opening the door to the long quad between the school building and the tower, Stevens fell in with him.

“Going up the tower, are you? I’ll come with you, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m running an errand for Barklay,” Douglas said, hesitating. But enlightenment broke a second later and he shot Stevens a half-smile. “I see. It’s Ansley on duty tonight, isn’t it. I didn’t know you were still cultivating her.”

“They say patience is a virtue,” Stevens said. “I’ll probably sleep alone tonight, but it’s worth trying.”

“I admire your persistent keenness,” Douglas said, chuckling. They went out into the long quad between the school building and the tower. Stevens put his hood up against the rain; Douglas, who was from the North, didn’t bother.

“Why don’t you ask Speir?” Douglas said. “I bet she’d be interested.”

“I did,” Stevens said. “She just smiled and said no thank you. I gather from the context that she’s too single-minded to give much time to extracurricular stuff. Bit like you, may be.”

Douglas snorted at that last. “Hard luck for you,” he said.

“Don’t I know it. I bet it would have been fun. She put me on my ass twice.”

“I saw that, my comrade. Very impressive.”

“It was a good match. Any more cadets like her coming up in your section? I hold out some hope of getting beat before I leave.”

It was impossible to pass up a straight line like that. “Just like you hold out some hope of getting laid before you leave?”

Stevens shoved him playfully, and they both laughed.

The evening gloom darkened the air as they reached the tower and engaged its open lift to carry them to the top. At the summit, Douglas gave Lieutenant Ansley his codes, docked the tablet to transfer its digests to Inslee’s line once it was open, and then wandered to the windows to wait and allow Stevens his opportunity.

The tower was older than the school: it was hard to say exactly how old it was, but it was possible it dated back to the bad times, seven generations past, or even before the nuclear holocaust that had broken the world then; yet it probably wasn’t as old as the cloister foundations on the far side of the school complex, toward the south coast. Its current function was to gather and encode com signals, but in older incarnations it had probably controlled the airfield, which was much smaller now, a green expanse as flat as the quads of the school itself, terraced against the rain.

[The tower is also an important locale to the story; a place of deep internal struggles presaged by Douglas’s contemplation here. Note the very low-key lighting in this part of the scene, followed by the light spilling from Barklay’s office.]

There was one shuttle parked on the airfield; in the dim evening light Douglas could make out three figures standing near it—the two Council lords, and Barklay. The shuttle was big enough to carry them not just to the tram depot but all the way back to the capital: a true flying visit, then. As Douglas watched, the two got into the shuttle, and Barklay headed back toward the school alone: his pace was steady, but Douglas’s eye detected a plod in his usually-vigorous stride. Barklay sponsored his school as wholeheartedly as he might have sponsored his own child, and he’d been doing it for twenty years, ever since he’d come back from his tour of duty on the other side of the strait. Even now he rarely showed weariness, unless you knew what to look for.

This was the third such impromptu visit in a month. Douglas thought this worrisome, though Barklay had discussed the import of these visits with nobody, passing them off as mere politics and nothing else. Perhaps there was a change coming in the cold stasis of the war; perhaps there was a shake-up brewing in the higher echelons of the military; perhaps Ryswyck’s reputation as a tight-knit enclave with odd customs had unnerved somebody in the Council enough to poke around looking for trouble. It was hard to tell.

Barklay had named his school after the little hamlet in which he’d been born, a fact which every Ryswyckian seemed to learn by osmosis, because Barklay never talked about his home, as if for fear he’d summon its fate to haunt them. Reyswick village was a crater now, and Barklay its only living scion, and though Douglas’s generation had never known Ilona at peace, he did not misunderstand the forlorn defiance of that symbolism. He reminded himself of it sometimes, when he was feeling tired and exasperated.

[From this we know that Douglas knows Barklay remarkably well, and that he takes the trouble to connect everything to the wider picture of a country at war.]

Up here in the tower, with Ryswyck Academy below him and the coastal hills all around, Douglas caught his mental breath and regained his grasp of the wider world. Below, Barklay had become a shadowy figure moving in the twilight darkness, growing sharper when he reached the light spilling from the ground-floor windows.

Douglas turned to see Stevens getting into the lift. He tipped Douglas a wink as he passed; it was an equal probability whether that meant he’d secured an assignation, or crashed and burned.

The reply was ready. Douglas checked it, locked the tablet with his code, and thanked Ansley properly before calling up the lift himself.

As he’d expected, Barklay had gone straight back to his office: he was at his desk when Douglas knocked on the doorframe.

“Ah, Douglas, good. I’ve just finished seeing off our guests.”

“Yes, sir.” After a hesitation Douglas nerved himself to ask: “Sir, is there trouble brewing?”

Barklay blinked and looked up. “Why—oh, because of the Council visitors. No, there’s no trouble. Well, no more than usual,” he corrected himself dryly. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. As far as I know all is well.”

“Yes, sir,” Douglas said, burying his skepticism.

Barklay wasn’t fooled, but instead of pursuing it he settled for giving Douglas his dry smile. “Is that Inslee’s reply you’ve got there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I’ll take it now, then. Bring it in.” He closed the folder he was perusing and moved it to the top of a pile at his side. “And shut the door, will you, Douglas?”

[In a film, the door would close between us, the viewer, and Douglas and Barklay in Barklay’s office, just as the narrative closes the scene here.]

“Yes, sir,” Douglas said.


“And get this off to General Barklay down at Ryswyck; his com tower’s waiting for my reply. Security code four. And that will be all, Staff-Captain Amis. Get yourself to bed after this.”

“Yes, sir,” Amis said, already on his way out.

The sun was down: Inslee could see his own tired face reflected in the windows of his office, and within that reflection the shadow of the weather tower of Cardumel Base.

[Another tower, another reflection, another perspective change. The final two of my five POV characters are a bit dominated by the triumvirate of Speir, Douglas, and Barklay. Inslee’s only POV scenes are in Act Two; Emmerich du Rau’s POV scenes are only in Act Three. Still, they are important witnesses to the history of this war, and vital actors in its end, so I introduce them in their places away from Ryswyck Academy here at the beginning. The walk-and-talk has taken to the air.]

Amis leaned back in. “Sir, you have an open-line request from Colonel Marshall. Shall I—”

“No, I’ll talk to him,” Inslee said wearily. “Bounce him over.”

“Yes, sir.”

Inslee drew up his com-deck and tapped the acceptance code.

“Good evening, General.” Colonel Marshall saluted him with a quick flash of his outward palm.

[Not the Ryswyckian salute, you’ll notice!]

Inslee returned the salute. “Colonel Marshall. What can I do for you?”

“It’s more what I can do for you,” Marshall said cheerfully. He looked disgustingly hale and rested. “You fellows recovered from winter yet?”

“Very nearly,” Inslee said, dry to the point of sarcasm. “By the time we’ve set everything to rights, it’ll be near icefall again.”

“Be glad we’re not on the western side of the Ridge. At least here we can burn through the glaze. Eventually.”

This was true enough, but Inslee found it hard to be grateful.

Marshall went on. “Your supply requisition has come early, to speak of miracles, and I’d like to send it along. Only Colmhaven flotilla can’t spare ships for the convoy till next week. Have you got any of the Boundary resting at Colm’s Island? You could send ‘em across and get your supplies faster. Give ‘em something to do, too.”

“Hm,” Inslee said. “Let me communicate with Admiral Eysgarth and see what I can scare up. I’ll send you a message in the morning with what I find out.”

The list of things Inslee had to do always grew a long tail just before he was scheduled to sleep, but this was a welcome task. Perhaps there’d be some fresher food provisions in the convoy. Inslee thanked Marshall sincerely and closed the line.

Inslee had been at this post for ten years, years in which not Berenians but supply requisition forms invaded his dreams; a far cry from the visions of glory he’d entertained in his youth, of sweeping over the strait to crush the threat of attack once and for all. He’d served in the expeditionary forces with distinction, and his gifts for discipline and tactical organization had won him promotion out of the field, even as the field widened across the water. Ilona had lost all that ground since, of course, and fallen back behind the naval lines that guarded the island’s coast.

And that was the way things had stayed for twenty years, barring a few abortive attempts on Berenia’s part at invasion, and occasional Ilonian raids on their shipping. Since Inslee had come to Cardumel, Berenia had pulled back into a menacing quiet under the leadership of its new Lord Executive, Emmerich du Rau, and the war had gone cold. Ilona didn’t have the personnel to launch another invasion; and nobody on either side had the money. Instead of glorious charges, Inslee had devoted his career to careful and quotidian vigilance. Colm’s Island was Ilona’s citadel of the north, and Inslee made it his business to know everything that happened on and around it.

Inslee got a secure audio line to Admiral Eysgarth, who confirmed that he did indeed have ships to spare for a convoy of supplies; it helped, Inslee thought wryly, that a resupply of Cardumel benefited him also. That was another of the virtues for which he’d won this post: a knack for intra-service diplomacy.

He spent another half an hour clearing off his desk, and was just about to head toward the sleep of the just when the com tower buzzed him with an open-line request from General Barklay. Inslee damned intra-service diplomacy and accepted the call.

“General Inslee,” Barklay greeted him, with a smart salute. His collar and insignia were as crisp as ever, but there were dark creases under his eyes. Good, somebody was as tired as Inslee this evening.

[Barklay’s weariness is as much moral as physical, but we don’t need to get into that yet.]

“General Barklay,” Inslee greeted him in return. “I wasn’t expecting a conference so soon after my return message.”

“No?” Barklay said. “But you didn’t—ah. I see; I am keeping you from your rest. Forgive me. Now, about those officers—”

“Yes,” Inslee sighed. “Of my officers, I’m afraid only Amis would do for your purposes, and I can’t spare him.” Holding his irritation in check, he added, “The request really ought to go the other way—I need officers from you more than you from me. The morale here could stand some improvement.”

“Hm. I haven’t got any junior officers who are quite ready for promotion, though I’ll certainly keep my eye on that for you. How many of mine have you got there now?”

“Lieutenant Barr and Lieutenant Angus. They’re shaping well. And I’ve a few of the rank-and-file who passed through your service course last year; they are all pretty reliable, though not yet officer material.”

“Yes,” Barklay said, thoughtfully. “And there was that unfortunate debacle a few years ago with Lieutenant Kerra….”

Well, since Barklay mentioned it himself… “Yes,” Inslee said with another sigh. “If only he hadn’t decided that the solution to the distribution problem was to divert resources and alter the documents after. Well, he took his court-martial with characteristic grace. You certainly teach your men and women pretty manners.”

He saw the flash of defensive anger in Barklay’s eyes, but sensed that it would only make matters worse to walk his last sentence back. But Barklay only said simply, “The court-martial wasn’t cosmetic. If I did my job, his manners weren’t either.”

“Quite,” Inslee said, and let that stand for his apology. To his relief, Barklay’s feathers went down.

“Well,” he said, “I shall have to cast my net a little wider for good teaching officers, it seems. I’ll keep your needs in mind as well.”

“Please do,” Inslee said.

They exchanged salutes, and Inslee closed the line, getting up as he did so. At the door he shut down the lights. His office was high enough to see above the light-shields of the weather tower: through the windows Inslee could see the officer inside going about his duties. It was a rare clear night on Colm’s Island; soon the rain would move in again and resume the long process of washing the winter’s ice away. For the moment, at least, all was well.

Inslee went to catch his few hours’ sleep before any other little items could line up on his desk.


The sun had gone down over the sea, in a blaze of chaotic color that promised another fair day tomorrow. Emmerich du Rau lightly swirled the last few swallows of wine in his glass and watched the sky darken, revealing by degrees his own reflection in the full-length window.

[From Inslee’s reflection in his office windows to du Rau’s reflection in his; I feel like one of the Marvel directors would do good justice to this transition. Of all the introductions, I made du Rau’s the most conventional; his trajectory is going to muss his hair a bit, so I’m starting here with everything neatly in its place.]

He was a spare, neat man, not overtall, with graying dark hair and keen black eyes, whose habitual expression was one of gathered intention, like a cat preparing to spring. He took a long time about springing, but when he finally did, the result was terrible to behold.

It was that quality which had propelled him to the top of command in the capital at Bernhelm. His strategic marriage to the daughter of one of the old lords had made him a natural choice for a delicate compromise between the military party and the receding aristocracy of Berenia. Du Rau now looked down upon the capital as Lord Bernhelm: its glittering lights, reflected in the estuary in its midst, were his possession and his responsibility. As he watched, the lights of the city winked out, first one at a time and then in clumps. Blackout hour had arrived. On the other side of the palace from this room, the Lantern Tower should have cast its magisterial radiance to the far edges of the plaza below. The Lantern Tower had been dark for twenty-four years of war. But not too much longer, if his plans were in accordance with reality.

Over the ten years since his ascendance, he had consolidated the resources and infrastructures of the country, saving it from financial ruin, and put any budget surplus into quiet military redevelopment. The trickiest part had been teaching his patience to the rest of the war party, but that too had fallen into place. He had even begun to think, cautiously, that Berenia would get through a full generation without a coup, despite having lost the steadying alliance with the island country across the strait. Chance had favored their cousins the Verlakers with plenteous water and natural borders in the first wretched scrabble of the post-nuclear age. But greed and betrayal had turned them into the most despicable of enemies. If he failed to subdue Verlac now, du Rau knew he would not be able to keep his government from falling apart. But he was not going to fail.

[From the intimacy of two people in Ryswyck’s combat pit to the widest vantage point of the situation at the novel’s beginning; these are the foci around which the world is formed. Again, a cinematic approach; not necessarily something you could adapt straight to film.]

Behind him, a light knock sounded on the door and Captain Alsburg entered, reflected in the glass. “My lord,” he said, “the intelligence report is in.”

“Very good, Alsburg,” du Rau said quietly. “I’ll receive it in my office, in half an hour.”

“Yes, my lord,” Alsburg said. The door clicked shut behind his departure.

He had looked forward to these reports ever since they had broken enemy codes for their communication frequencies. The highest-security levels were still blocked to them, but quiet listening to unguarded conversations had revealed fault lines that he could exploit. There was a new Lord Commander for the military on the Verlaker High Council. This was not good news in itself; Alban Selkirk was a dangerous man. But he had a weakness. Du Rau had monitored with satisfaction his growing rift with Thaddeys Barklay, who had capped a career of infamy with the ludicrous project of founding a school for courtesy on the south coast. Let Selkirk stalk his rightful prey: it would save du Rau the trouble, and distract Selkirk into the bargain.

His patience was finally paying off. Though full darkness had now descended over the horizon, he cast his gaze westward, toward his enemy. By now the sunset light would have gone also from the sky over the island of Verlac, its strongholds and coasts; they were all in the darkness together. A darkness in which he would soon extract his revenge.

Behind him, the door opened again, more quietly. The ghost of his wife’s reflection joined his in the window glass, tall and stately. His reflection saluted her with its wineglass, and du Rau drained the last swallow.

[Visually-oriented depiction of du Rau’s personal perspective. The light changes from glows to glints and reflections as we fade to black at the end.]

“The intelligence report is in,” he told her.

“Ah.” Lady Ingrid smiled. “I won’t wait up, then.”

“I’ll brief you in the morning.”

Assuming there was something substantial in the brief. “You think it’s promising, then?”

“I expect it will be.” Du Rau sighed briefly. “If I had my preference, I’d starve them out a little longer.”

“You’ll find the opening you need.” Ingrid spoke with quiet certainty.

“Yes.” It wasn’t just the war party’s impatience driving du Rau’s timetable. But only Ingrid knew that. He sighed again, a noise somewhere between frustration and prayer. “Just give me five good years and an heir with a decent head on his shoulders,” he muttered.

“Dr. Berthau can buy you the years.” Ingrid’s dryness provoked him to a smile before she even finished the thought: “I don’t know who can buy you the heir.”

“Quite.” He turned briefly to glance at her: the red-gold gloss her hair still held under the lights, her expression of half-lidded serenity that concealed years of patient thought. “Unless it were you.”

She made a tiny sound, an amused scoff. “I like my job. I don’t wish to exchange it.”

“Keep an eye on them for me, then,” he said, comfortably.

“Certainly, my lord.”

He set down the empty wineglass on the sideboard, and Ingrid turned with him to leave. They parted, with the wordless grace of Ingrid’s goodnight, in the gallery; for a moment he watched her go, a flow of fine tunic and quiet carpeted steps in the shadows surrounding the central atrium. The fan windows at the top, jewel blue when he went into the vista room, were now black with the night outside, and the strongest light was the small flood picking out the golden details of the frieze below: Lady Wisdom with her inscrutable eyes, holding up her lantern from the folds of her gold-edged cloak. The lantern was real; the palace employed someone whose sole job was to make sure it never went out.

[If you can believe it, the gilt frieze of Lady Wisdom in the Bernhelm Palace atrium was so real in my mind that I was shocked to realize I’d failed to introduce it. Bernhelm Palace is also a community-character, though we won’t get to know much of it in this book.]

Flickers from the lantern’s flame glinted on the surfaces of the stained-glass panels of du Rau’s executive office as he passed them to the door. He brought up the lights as he came in, and seated himself at his desk.

Prompt to his duty, Alsburg soon appeared with a large file tucked under his arm, briefly silhouetted by Lady Wisdom’s light in the doorway. Du Rau looked up.

“Very good. Put it on my desk, Alsburg.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And notify the general staff that I want to meet with them first thing in the morning.” Du Rau reached for the file.

“Yes, my lord.”

“And that will be all, Captain. Goodnight.” Alsburg bowed and went away, closing the door behind him.

Alone in the quiet of his office, Emmerich du Rau settled down to read.


[I’ll finish here with a note on perspective. In fiction, the most popular modes of perspective these days are tight third and first person POV; a lot of fiction is written in one of these two modes, and what they have in common is that they exclude a narrative voice as much as possible. (One does wonder if this has contributed to the apparent rash of people thinking that the author is acting out their own wicked fantasies if they write of characters doing bad things.) You are most likely to find a narrative voice in fiction marked as “literary” in some way, leading people to resent narrators as “pretentious” devices; but it hasn’t always been this way. The cozy omniscience of the narrator of Watership Down wasn’t all that long ago; the arch skewering of characters was a staple of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie’s styles. In fiction, perspective is perhaps the closest analogue to the grammar of the camera’s eye, and like film, it is sometimes subject to creeping, tacit rules about which storytelling tools in the kit are to be allowed. Above all, the person encountering the story has a threshold of tolerance for disorientation; and that, I think, is the frontier that matters the most. This prologue is just a sample of the various cinematic techniques I adapted for written fiction; and the story is a small sample of the many other ways that writers are doing adaptations of those techniques. As Willems says, notice what’s happening, assume it’s on purpose, and ask why.]

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