Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine a great story for insights into how to write a successful novel. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Chapter 10: The Oath-taking
Summary: Having hidden away food and supplies, Claire finally decides it’s time to make her escape. She’s hoping that, with most of the MacKenzie men drunk because of the Gathering, her chances will be good.
However, while sneaking into the stable to steal a horse, she trips over something on the floor. That something turns out to be Jamie, who’s hiding from the MacKenzies because he has no intention of swearing an oath to Colum and thus forsaking his own clan.
While he dusts Claire off from her tumble into the hay, he admonishes her for her foolish decision to escape that night when Colum has guards all over the place. Instead, he escorts her back to the castle. But before they reach the safety of the indoors, several men spring upon them. One grabs Claire and two wrestle Jamie into submission. As it turns out, they don’t intend to give Jamie the option of avoiding the oath.
They haul the two off to another room where Jamie is forced to don MacKenzie garments. He tells Claire to go, and she does. Except, rather than slip off completely, she sneaks into the minstrel’s gallery to spy out how things go.
Writer Comments: For this particular scene, aside from the fact of noting that Claire and Jamie are apparently incapable of disentangling their fates, I want to take a look at clues authors drop for their readers.
The biggest one in this scene is when Jamie mentions his clan’s motto to Claire, Je suis prest, which means “I am ready.” He shares this tidbit, drawing a comparison to the MacKenzie motto, Luceo non uro, which means “I shine not burn.” Naturally, you’d either have to be highly versed in Scottish clans or fortunate enough to happen to know these two mottos to identify Jamie’s clan. But if you’re not so endowed, Gabaldon gives a proactive reader all they need to solve the mystery of Jamie’s true birth. I happened to look up the clan that bears that motto: Fraser of Lovat.
But there’s an additional dimension relayed in this scene. Repeatedly, the men who accost Jamie refer to him as the laird’s nephew. Until now, Jamie’s exact relationship to Colum had been unclear. Now, we know it with much greater clarity. Jamie isn’t just some poor fellow Scot Colum decided to extend charity to; he’s family. However, at no point does Gabaldon explain this. At no point does Claire analyze it. Rather, Gabaldon slips it in and lets her readers do the work. In actuality, this is a great compliment to her readers because Gabaldon declares via her lack of having to explain that she trusts we’re smart enough to put the puzzle together.
Summary: Claire finds the gallery already filled with the women of the castle who have gathered to watch the ceremony. At the oath-taking, Dougal and Colum are clearly surprised by Jamie’s apparent willingness to participate, and Colum looks less than happy about it. However, when it comes to Jamie’s turn, unlike the other men who drop to a knee and swear, Jamie remains upright and promises friendship and goodwill. He promises obedience while on MacKenzie lands too. Claire half expects him to get knifed for breaking the trend, but Colum accepts Jamie’s words. As a result, the tension in the hall drops dramatically.
After the ceremony, the women sneak off. The men are so drunk, it isn’t safe for women to wander the halls. However, Claire can’t quite remember how to get back to her room from that part of the castle. A group of men come after her, and Dougal rescues her. However, he exacts a price before releasing her, a kiss.
Writer Comments: There’s something noble to be said for how Jamie handled the oath-taking. Him becoming a MacKenzie, especially when he didn’t want to, would have weakened him. There are of course instances where joining his uncle’s clan might have seemed appropriate, but not this time. But Jamie holding true to himself makes him all the more heroic.
Summary: The next day, the men go hunting a boar in the mist shrouded woods. Claire is called to the hunting party to tend a wounded man. While helping him, she hears another cry out and rushes to his aid.
She finds the man bleeding out through a leg wound, which she quickly tourniquets. Dougal holds the man, trying to soothe him while Claire finishes her inspection. Next, she spots a stomach wound, the man’s intestines pierced. It’s a wound the man has no hope of surviving.
Dougal looks up at her a mouths a question, wondering if the man will live. Claire shakes her head, so Dougal unties the tourniquet, providing the man a much cleaner and quicker death than that which he’d face if Claire staunched the bleeding and let the stomach wound fester and kill him slowly and painfully.
They carry the body of the man and the boar which Dougal kills back to the castle. Dougal catches Claire before she slips off to tend her first patient. He states that she’s seen men die by violence before, his tone accusing. She admits that she has, many of them.
Writer Comments: This scene is quite sad. The emotion and the presence of death keeps the tension high, but it’s the twist at the end that makes it interesting. Dougal’s realiztion that Claire has much experience with men dying by violence is a twist, a hook at the end. You will generally see advice that every chapter should end with a twist or bit of intrigue to pull readers into the next chapter. But this doesn’t just count for chapters. A writer should aim for this with every scene.
Further, the pairing of this scene with the previous scene highlights Dougal. I do not know Gabaldon’s ultimate plans for Dougal, but he’s clearly going to have an interesting relationship with Claire. First he kisses her, then he helps her send a man off to his death in the most merciful way available. In a way, it’s an intimate scene, though a ghastly one. It makes me curious about Dougal and makes him a far more interesting character. While Jamie is clearly the love interest, Gabaldon obviously realizes a crucial fact about supporting characters: they to must be fascinating and deep. Otherwise, they cannot be believable.
Summary: The next day is the games. They keep Claire extremely busy with injured person after injured person coming to her surgery for treatment. At long last, the games end and she’s able to step outside for fresh air. She goes to the stables, thinking to apologize once more to Jamie for getting him involved in the oath-taking and to find herself some nonhuman, nonbleeding company for a while. On the way, she contemplates a new plan of escape.
However, in the stables she finds Jamie and Dougal talking. When she tries to retreat, apologizing for interrupting, Dougal insists she stay. He explains that, in two days time, he’ll be leaving, and he intends to take Jamie and Claire with him. They’ll go as far as Fort William, in addition to handling general business amongst the clan members that could not make the Gathering. At Fort William, Dougal says they might find aid in helping Claire get to her family in France. She knows this is a veiled excuse to use the fort’s resources to help the MacKenzie identify who she really is. However, as the journey will get her safely much closer to the standing stones, she readily accepts.
Writer Comments: So Claire is about to embark on a journey with the two men who can most readily complicate her life, aside from Colum. She’s wary of Dougal after his forced kiss. While Jamie is clearly a friend, there are already suggestions from others that they’re together.
An author must always devise new means to increase tension, especially tension that builds on what has already been established in the story. Gabaldon does this well here. She’s setting up to draw together several threads of tension: Jamie, Dougal, the nearness of Claire’s potential escape, the MacKenzie quest to discover her real identity, and perhaps a certain British officer ancestor of her husband’s. Gabaldon introduced all these elements earlier, so that weave seamlessly together and already have reader investment.
This is also the conclusion of Part Two. While many books do not utilize breaking a story into parts like this, if a story does, Gabaldon’s example is a good one. She determines part breaks based on a significant shift in the story.