If you’re like me, you’ve likely had trouble balancing character POV and description in a single scene. Do you shudder to even think about how you might include dialogue in a scene that’s already jam-packed with nuance?
Writing a balanced scene is simple enough to learn, when you examine how published authors have already done it. Let’s take a look at The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen.
As a slave in the Kipchak Khanate, Jinghua has lost everything: her home, her family, her freedom…until the kingdom is conquered by enemy forces and she finds herself an unlikely conspirator in the escape of Prince Khalaf and his irascible father across the vast Mongol Empire. Jinghua’s already dicey prospects take a downward turn when Khalaf seeks to restore his kingdom by forging a marriage alliance with Turandokht, the daughter of the Great Khan. As beautiful as she is cunning, Turandokht requires all potential suitors to solve three impossible riddles to win her hand—and if they fail, they die.
Jinghua has kept her own counsel well, but with Khalaf’s kingdom—and his very life—on the line, she must reconcile the hard truth of her past with her love for a boy who has no idea what she’s capable of…even if it means losing him to the girl who’d sooner take his life than his heart. The Bird and the Blade is a lush, powerful story of life and death, battles and riddles, lies and secrets from debut author Megan Bannen.
* this summary was taken from Goodreads
Layers of Attitude
This book has been sitting on my shelf for about a year. I haven’t had the time to get around to it until recently, but from the very first chapter, I knew this book was something special. The story emotionally wrecked me in the best way possible. There are many instances of Bannen’s writing being especially profound, from the well-rounded characters to the abundance of double-meanings. But the aspect of Bannen’s writing that I want to highlight today is the balance between description/setting/dialogue and how a character’s perception of them rounds out a scene.
We’ve talked a lot about balance recently, from Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars to Rebecca Schaeffer’s Not Even Bones. However, Megan Bannen’s The Bird and the Blade balances dialogue, action, and internal monologue like no other. For a lesson on the basics of internal and external action in relation to each other, this is the perfect book to analyze, especially chapter three.
In the first scene of the chapter, Jinghua serves tea for Timur Khan and his sons, including Khalaf, the youngest prince who had shown her kindness the night before. Here, the description of the setting mixes seamlessly with Jinghua’s internal monologue, as well as her reactions to the conversation around her.
The fire in the brazier keeps the room warm within the ger’s luxurious brocade-lined walls. It’s no palace, but the gold-plated support beams encrusted with gems and pearls lend a certain opulence to the scene. Beyond the door, however, the bland steppes make me long for the green hills beyond the West Lake back home. There are four place settings at the table, one more than usual, and I can only assume that the seat across from the khan is meant for Prince Khalaf, the boy I met last night in the cart. The very idea of facing him again spins me into a panic (Bannen 42).
Firstly, the eye-catching description makes its mark while setting the scene in just a few sentences. Jinghua’s attitude begins to color the description in the third sentence, as she notes that the “bland steppes” make her “long for…home.” Mixing setting description with Jinghua’s reaction to it creates a sense of immediacy while maintaining emotional investment.
Jinghua then notices the extra place setting, deducing that it must be for Prince Khalaf, and her emotions once again tug the reader in a new direction. Rather than just stating her assumption, Bannen adds that the idea of seeing Khalaf again after last night “spins [Jinghua] into a panic.” The passage rings with Jinghua’s hopes and dreams (longing for the West Lake back home), as well as her fears (seeing Khalaf again).
Bannen brings another element into the scene later on, when the princes begin filing into the ger. The older princes are annoyed that Khalaf, the youngest, has been sent for, resenting him for being book-smart. Here is where the dialogue comes in, mixing well with the pre-established setting description and Jinghua’s attitude toward her surroundings.
The interactions become especially interesting when Jinghua herself becomes a part of the scene and not just an observer standing off to the side. Prince Khalaf asks for tea, which is when Jinghua begins to truly panic.
A pit of dread opens wide in my stomach. The Kipchaks have developed a taste for whipped tea in the Song fashion, and that means the Song girl is the one assigned to the task. Me. I bow my head and shuffle over to the tea service…Homesickness surges within me. My father could whip tea into the most beautiful green-white froth with nary a watermark on the utensils. Me? It always comes out a sad, yellowed mess…The khan places both his scarred hands on the table as I point the steaming water from the pot and send it splashing messily over the crumbled tea. “I have sent for Khalaf so that we may all discuss a matter of the utmost importance to the future of the Kipchak Khanate,” he says, “a matter that threatens to destroy us.” That gets everyone’s attention, even the slaves’, and we’re not supposed to pay attention to anything. I raise my head to listen and wind up overfilling the cup, the water spilling over the sides like a fountain. I pour off the excess, burning my fingers in the process (Bannen 45-6).
This passage highlights Jinghua’s heritage as a Song girl as well as her insecurities with her people’s traditions, especially in the Mongol Empire. Timur Kahn’s dialogue acts to move the plot along, while Jinghua’s action of pouring the tea adds to the atmosphere and clues the reader in to her insecurities.
Each bit of dialogue is punctuated by Jinghua’s actions or reactions, creating a scene that feels full and balanced, encompassing the feelings of many different characters: Timur Khan, his older two sons, Khalaf, Jinghua, and even the rest of the slaves. Jinghua’s attitude colors the rest of the dialogue and action, including description, layering the scene and creating a palpable forward motion.
This scene in chapter three is notable for its attention to detail, both in revealing more about Jinghua and enlightening her and the readers on the situation involving Khalaf and Timur Khan.
The Bird and the Blade has many more instances of layering and balance, and if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend reading the book. It has many writing lesson gems that will undoubtedly shed light onto the more difficult tricks of the writing craft.
Besides, it’s too good of a story not to read!