Trigger + Spoiler Warning: This post is about plot in YA novels, but it includes a reference to fictional sexual abuse. It also includes spoilers about the novel Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor.
Days of Blood and Starlight
Last night my husband and I went on a long walk. As usual, we started the walk by talking about his work and ended talking about mine, which is to say, we talked about what I've been reading and writing. I told him about Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight, which I finished yesterday afternoon. This book had been tormenting me since I finished its predecessor. Wondering if the sequel would be as good as the first book in the trilogy (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) I perused Goodreads for clues. Reviews were great, yet I kept coming across a single word that gave me pause: brutal. A few days later I was walking past a favorite bookstore and I stopped in to ask if they had Days of Blood and Starlight and to get the booksellers' opinions on it. I was disappointed on the first count, but on the second, I got a response eerily similar to what I'd read on Goodreads:
"The book is incredible, but brutal."
I asked, "Emotionally brutal, or does it describe physically brutal events?"
The answer I got: "Yes."
I spent a few more days debating whether I should read a book with such a frightening universal epithet. In the end, I caved. I was really doomed from the moment I opened Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I loved Karou and Zuzana and Akiva and Issa and all the rest. I missed them, which may sound crazy to non-readers, but it's an all too familiar feeling to booklovers. I missed Harry and Ron and Hermione like crazy when I finished HP VII, and every time I finish one of my own books (there have been three to date) I have missed my characters to an even greater degree, more like mourning than missing. The point is, I missed Karou and the gang, and I decided I would rather endure this vague "brutality" than never read about them again. And to put the nail in the coffin: Vroman's had the book on sale.
The Dreaded Scene
While reading reviews for Days of Blood and Starlight, I had come across a warning similar to the one at the top of this post. The review following the disclaimer described an incident in the book in which the villain attempts to rape the main character, Karou. The review stated that the villain did not succeed, which was pivotal in my decision to read the book. I do not like to read about rape. That might sound stupid, because what kind of person does like to read about rape? Unfortunately, I believe a great many people don't mind it, at the very least. If I read about sexual abuse, I will lose sleep thinking about it, then fall asleep only to have nightmares. I knew I would be upset by even an attempted rape, so as a defense mechanism, I skipped ahead and read that scene first. It was rough, but I could handle it, and once I knew I could handle it, I felt confident reading from the beginning.
Yesterday afternoon was the point at which I reached the dreaded scene after reading from the beginning, and it was interesting seeing how I felt about it the second time around. The first time, I had only one question: Will this give me nightmares? The answer was a soft no. But the second time around, I processed the scene in the context of the entire novel, and it bothered me less than I expected. Here's why:
It wasn't a trope.
Karou's thoughts during the scene - the way she realized what was happening, her abject horror, her promise to herself that she would never stop fighting, and her ultimate defeat of her attacker - rang truer than similar scenes I have read. Even though she stopped him (and thank goodness), it wasn't a Girl power! moment where the rape was set up just so it could be avoided and the MC could seem heroic. Karou did not claim victory after she killed her attacker. She was shaking violently and crying and had to mentally scream at herself to do things just to summon the will to do them. That rang true.
The worst trope
I'm also grateful this wasn't the worst type of almost-rape scene, which is the kind when the girl is almost raped but the "hero", who up to that point had been completely lame, saves her just in time. I hate those scenes, and not just because it removes power from the woman and puts it into the hands of the two men, making her a ball in their game rather than a player herself. What I hate most about these scenes is that they're written solely to make the "hero" could look heroic. It's weak writing and it's using a horrible trope for a cheap accomplishment. If you want your hero to look heroic, make him a hero who acts, not just a "hero" who reacts. That's what these rape-preventing heroes are: They are reactors, and they are praised as heroes because they save the women they love from a terrible fate. But here's why it's stupid: Of course he saved her! She's the woman he loves! You want to make him a real hero? Have him stop an attack against a woman he doesn't know, someone who's ugly or old or mean, someone he himself would never love. That's a hero. The wannabe heroes who get there just in time are tropes, and destructive ones at that.
Why It Worked
Now back to the dreaded scene in Laini Taylor's book. The second reason I was bothered by this scene less than I expected is a testament to Taylor's incredible writing and the subject of this post:
The scene felt inevitable.
The way she had written the MC and the villain, it felt unavoidable that their characters would ultimately clash in this exact scene. And that got me thinking about all the books that readers get up in arms about. I won't name them because I'm not looking to hurt anyone's feelings, but in all of the disappointing books I can think of, the author failed because the interactions between characters - usually at the end of the book - did not feel inevitable. Bad writing creates interactions that feel artificial or forced, like the author thought of a plot first and then tried to tailor characters to make it happen.
The villain in Days of Blood and Starlight was wounded by the MC rejecting him in the past. He was a control-freak who was used to getting his way, and he was temperamental, AND he was egotistical to the max. He had a thing about controlling the MC that we saw in dozens of scenes before the dreaded one. We knew his temper flared if he even thought she might oppose him, so when, in the chapter preceding the dreaded scene, the MC stood up to him publicly, it was clear what would happen. The engine lights were on and the train was hurtling down the track with broken brakes. After the MC stood up to the villain in such a powerful way, I would have cried "False!" if he didn't do what he did, because what he did was the natural conclusion of his character. He'd been written so well up to that point that I knew he was incapable of any other reaction.
The Writing Lesson
I thought about how this idea of inevitable plot relates to my own writing, and I realized, happily, that I'm not in a bad position. I learned a long time ago that you write characters first, then setting. If you've come up with good characters and a good setting, then the plot will occur naturally from the tension that arises when characters and setting meet. I aim to write plots that are the natural conclusions of my characters interacting in the settings I put them. However, I do have something to work on, and that is communicating to the reader how the major points in my plots are inevitable.
In the book I'm revising, my villain does something terrible to one of my other characters. To any normal reader, it should be clear that the villain is 100% in the wrong. However, in order to show how his actions were inevitable, I needed to look at things from his perspective. How would he justify his actions? Obviously he thought he was right to do what he did, but I needed to make the reader see that. I needed to show the reader what the victimized character did to "provoke" the villain, even if his response to the perceived provocation was irrational and cruel. If I didn't do this, then the villain's actions would have seemed arbitrary, and an arbitrary plot is the opposite of an inevitable one.