Tuesday, May 14, 2013

They Would Rather Die

If you’re anything like me, a story has to hook me from the first.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, short story, stage performance, or screenplay.  If you get me emotionally invested within the first five minutes, I’ll endure anything.  As proof, I offer the fact that I watched the entire season of The Following based on the first two episodes, even though the story became somewhat cliché after. How many times can a crack FBI agent get hit in the back of the head? Apparently, many.
But I digress.  When I wrote Surrender to the Roman, I well understood the need for that emotional hook.  I have a hard time with openings, like many writers. I will spew back story and then cut away all the unnecessary drivel to find the place where the story actually starts.  My start for this novel wasn’t bad, per se, “But it could be better!” said my fantastic editor. I needed to make clear who was the hero and who was the villain. I needed readers to identify their conflict right off the bat…and thereby, buy in.
So I did a little more research. The story opens in 106 AD, during Trajan’s relentless pursuit of Dacia (and it’s mines of precious metals). Dacia had long been a thorn in the side of Rome, so when the final push came, something unusual happened. Mass suicide. Rather than give themselves over to punishment, the people would rather have died. While this didn’t lend itself to a big, adventurous opening, it did make for some high emotions and set the scene for conflict between one of Rome’s greatest (fictional) generals, and the man who coveted his place beside the emperor.
Here’s a bit of the scene:
The fog cleared as they thundered through the gap in defences. No warriors met them. Marcus jerked his reins, and his horse came to a skidding halt. Dirt flew into the air as those behind him did the same, shouts of consternation echoing in the distance.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. No bloodthirsty cries from men with weapons charged at them. Instead, hundreds of motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground like discarded refuse.

Marcus turned in a full circle. What in Hades had happened here? Tertullian arrived at his side, his face full of the same questions. “Halt the advance. Post the sentries forward.”

Marcus held up his hand. “There is no resistance here. Send the first centuria to sort the bodies.”

Tertullian turned to disseminate the orders while Marcus fought against the sights and smells of the field. Not far from every stiffened grasp, an empty cup or bowl. They had poisoned themselves rather than face their enemy or be enslaved. He spit bile onto the ground and refocused his mind.

Of all possibilities, he had not expected this. Everywhere he looked, women and children lay as they fell, doubled in pain, often wound together. Their glazed eyes turned to the heavens.

Where were the men? His gaze snapped forward, to the fortified residence of the royal family.

Cheers from the troops ripped his attention away. Near the fence, a knot of his men had gathered. He rode forward to investigate, picking his way through the carnage, trying not to look at the faces of the dead.

The soldiers fell away as he neared, clearing the way for him to view Tertullian disrobing a fallen woman with the point of his sword. His second’s face contorted with disgust as he proceeded, unaware that Marcus stood by, sickened in his own right.

“Put down your sword.” Marcus enunciated each syllable with great clarity.

Tertullian locked eyes with him and smiled. “As you wish.”


Kim Cresswell said...

Great post, Marty. Surrender to the Roman is one of my favorite books. :)

MK Chester said...

Thanks Kim, you know a lot about getting a story started with a bang :)