When my beta readers were reading the manuscript for the first time, one of them had just finished Chapter 13 and sent me a message.
“Theresa,” he said. “I’m really enjoying the manuscript so far, but… It kind of feels like nothing cataclysmic has happened? Is something climactic going to happen soon?”
I asked him where he was. When he told me he had just finished Chapter 13 and was about to start Chapter 14, I had to take a moment to cackle—you know, that evil way Disney and anime villains do. Then I told him, “Don’t worry, something will happen soon.”
He called me in tears four hours later over the events of this chapter.
And that was before I reworked it with his and my other beta reader’s feedback.
This chapter in particular was a rough one for me. I don’t like death to feel like it came out of nowhere. And I hate female characters existing solely to die and to further the plot. AND I hate unrealistic combat situations.
That meant I had my work cut out for me with this chapter. Titania had already featured as a prominent part of Terry’s life throughout the book, but she needed to really shine in this chapter. I wanted the audience to love her and to feel like she was a real person who died in a freak accident—not that she was a plot device. A lot of work went into the balance of keeping the story moving while also getting the audience to fall in love with Titania. There were three things I focused on to do that.
First, both Titania and Alexis are very career driven women. I wanted them to connect as sister-souls, as people who are passionate about the things they do. Part of letting them do this was letting them have time away from Terry. With Terry out of the scene, neither woman would be leaning on their relationship to him to interact with the other. It was also convenient to get Terry away from them at the reception so he couldn’t be part of their immediate aftermath once the shooting broke out. It kept the scene tense and interesting to have Alexis and Titania on their own. Neither the reader nor Alexis could look to him for translation or interpretation, and Titania’s behavior would be solely focused on Alexis, making Alexis an active participant in the scene instead of an observer of Titania and Terry’s relationship.
The second thing was Terry. These are two women who both care about Terry in different ways. Letting them get to know each other by sharing things they know about him with the other—both relishing and commiserating over them—was something I could use to get the audience to fall for Titania. She’s the only other person in the story who knows Terry as well as Alexis, and who judges him objectively. She has insight to offer both Alexis and the reader. Using her to open Terry up and bond with Alexis over him was an easy way to get the reader to like her—but I didn’t want to rely too heavily on it since I wanted Alexis and Titania’s conversations to pass the Bechdel test, and also wanted Titania to be loved as her own character instead of just as “Terry’s sister.”
The last thing I used was Titania’s love of love. It’s hard not to like someone who believes in happy endings. Titania’s commitment to them and her choice to believe in them (and even help create them to make her living) was such a humanizing factor that my second round of beta readers instantly fell in love with her for it. She just has an energy that makes you want to be her friend.
So, Mission One: Get Audience to Love Titania for Being Her Own Character and Not a Plot Device – Check!
That still left Mission Two (Make the Death Feel Believable) and Mission Three (Keep the Combat and Overall Scene Realistic).
Both missions were checked off the same way: foreshadowing.
If you go back through the chapter, you’ll notice that Alexis has a lot of really extreme fears before she and Terry even arrive at the wedding that she writes off as just her anxiety acting up on her. Included in those, is a direct nod to the whole thing going down in flames framed as a joke:
I stand up and kiss him on the cheek. “S’okay, darling. Like you said, we’ll go explore the forest after the wedding—assuming this whole thing doesn’t come crashing down in flames.” I wink at him.
On top of that, her period shows up:
Hello, unforeseen blood. Did you know that I have a very big thing happening today? Oh, that’s why you’re here? How considerate of you. Let’s make this an easy affair with minimal bloating and cramping as you go through the exit wounds, shall we?
My beta readers had expressed some difficulty understanding what was happening when Titania’s blood stained her dress as “red slowly stain a pastel orange dress like a firework on the Fourth of July,” so I included foreshadowing for it twice—once with Alexis’s period, and again with that exact same phrasing only a moment earlier while the girls were talking with Titania and her wine:
Do not do a spit take with Titania’s secret recipe punch, Alexis. She’s wearing pastel orange, the red of this stuff would stand out like a firework on the Fourth of July against that soft orange sorbet-colored fabric. Swallow. Swallow!
All of these things get the reader thinking about blood, and stains, and violence—but in ways that can be easily dismissed as Alexis’s anxiety messing with her, or legitimate concerns about staining your partner’s sibling’s clothes with a wine-based spit take. Then, when red does stain pastel orange like fireworks on the Fourth of July after gunshots have gone off in the room, the reader is ready for it.
In similar fashion, weaving other hints about Kate’s scary family, Izzy’s physical ability, and Alexis’s anxiety flipping over into survival mode in tense situations in tense situations throughout the chapter is what kept those things believable when it was time for all hell to break loose.
And, if you remember all the way back to Chapter 11: Human, Alexis brought the issue of mass shootings and gun violence against women specifically to mind then too:
“I’m sick of the violence,” I whisper. I sit back and sift a hand through my hair. The trauma is bigger than a man who hit me as a child. It’s the people who think they can hit me figuratively but just as hard now that I’m an adult. Because I’m a woman. Because I’m young. Because I’m queer. Because my own mind holds me hostage and I need so much energy just to leap over the road blocks it puts in my way daily. “Do you know how many shootings we’ve had in the last year in America?”
His answer takes him a moment, but he clears his throat and answers. “Yes.”
“How many of them have been men who feel they are owed something?”
“I’m sick of men taking things from me.” My head drops, despair ripping through me—despair to pain to anger. I was never one to stay down long, and twisted laughter bubbles up through me. If Terry ever decided to give Buck an evil girlfriend, this laugh would suit her. “Do you have any idea what I’d like to do to all those assholes who push people down? How badly I could fuck them up if I could just get my hands around their throats?”
Ah, here’s the menace. Hello, my old friend. It’s been a while. Yeah, I’ve been happy lately, that’s why I haven’t come around to visit. But don’t worry, I’m back now. Just give him a second. He’ll see you and lose his temper or run screaming. It’s always one or the other.
Women like me… We’re not allowed to have this. Even rage belongs to straight white cis men. “Self-defense” gets defined by those people too.
I wouldn’t have been able to do such a good job foreshadowing all of this without the help and feedback of my beta readers. They helped me do such a good job that I still cackle like a mad scientist or a Disney/anime villain each time I read the beginning of this chapter. I hope you all had no idea what you were in for, and I hope you’re all chomping at the bit to read the next chapter.
The whole first part of the manuscript was about Alexis’s recovery. Now, the real story begins.