The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Written by 


In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we continue by taking a look at how Vandermeer builds complex emotional moments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

THE CHALLENGE
Recently, I read a new book on writing. This is actually a rare event for me, nowadays, and I only approached it to help myself re-orient for longer work. I wanted something that covered the standard-fare logic of novel writers in a concise way, and Kate Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL did the trick. One concept she covered, though, was something I had never encountered in detail before, and I think originated in the work of Dwight Swain. This was the distinction between a Scene and a Sequel. 

This terminology is a little confusing I think, but it’s attempting to show two different moments in fiction that look like this. 

A Scene is a moment in which a character has a goal, fights to overcome obstacles and in the end either succeeds or fails. 

A Sequel is a moment in which a character reacts to some external event, fights through a dilemma of some kind, and then decides what to do next, theoretically setting up a new goal scene. 

This concept strikes me as useful but limited and oversimplified. I’ll probably do a full analysis of it at some later date, taking a look at a few novels. But one thing I noticed while reading after learning this concept, is that books I enjoy tend to heavily favor sequels, which slow the pace, and the sequel is usually used to build out complex, layered emotional reactions. How do authors go about creating these layered reactions? 

THE STORY
The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

At its core, this novel is built from layered examinations of emotional reactions to change. Rachel reacts to epic changes in the city, to changes in Borne, to changes in Wick and in herself. There are one thousand moments of deep, layered emotional reaction that are truly wonderful, and we’re going to look just at one. 

THE SOLUTION
First, let’s take a look at a sequel on page 106. In this scene, Rachel reacts to an attack by what the novel calls a Proxy. Proxies are a bear-like biotech that goes around murdering people in the city, who take their likeness from the much-larger Mord. To protect them from the attack, Borne pretended to be a rock while hiding Rachel inside. This scenes takes place just after that. As you might expect, this is a longer scene, but also a beautiful one: 

In the old world, when I emerged with my parents from secret rooms or tunnels or caves or closets, we knew what we were returning to–the same place we had left, as dangerous or as safe as before. We had hidden so we could remain in that world, were saying we believed in that world no matter what. Because we had no choice. Because there was no better or worse world, there was just the place we came out into. 
     But when I emerged from Borne, out onto the rooftop again, I did not feel the same way. We had waited until Borne told me the Mord proxies had truly gone and all that remained below were the kinds of scavengers that would scatter at our approach. The cast-off biotech that could move, well or not so well, that came out nocturnal. 
     We had waited until nightfall, even then, and so when I stood outside of Borne the world had changed in more than one sense. It was not just that Borne had shielded me rather than the other way around. It was not the change in the sky. 
     Pieces of Borne had been torn from him by the Mord proxy in its suspicion. These pieces had bounced like rock, settled on the rooftop like rock, but now quivered and flexed like hands opening and closing, reformed as Borne flesh. 
     The Borne that faced me was, even in that dim light, scarred and misshapen. He had returned to his normal size and shape, the one that looked like an upside-down vase, that combined attributes of a squid and a sea anemone, but he had a slumped, subdued quality that I’d never seen in him before. 
     I winced to see that his left side was fissured and purpling-black and the ring of eyes, darkly luminous, circled his body in a haphazard way, like a rotting carnival ride one loose bolt away from spinning off into the crowd. He had a smell like turpentine and rotting fish sticks and moldy bandages. 
     “I’m sorry, Borne,” I said, feeling shaky. “I shouldn’t have brought you out here.” 
     Somehow they had known. Somehow they had known where we would be–but which ones? The ferals or the proxies? I was unwilling to accept that this had been just coincidence or bad luck. And also tumbling through my mind, an awful sense of responsibility: that if Borne hadn’t moved out, if Borne hadn’t pretended to be more like an adult, I might not have taken the chance. 
     “It is okay,” Borne said. “I need to learn. I need to know.”
     “But not by being hurt.” 
     “It’s not being hurt that hurts,” Borne said. 
     Borne might be alien to me, he might have more senses, he might do things no human could do . . . but I thought I understood what he was saying. (Although, did I, really?) He knew now that he could be harmed. He knew now that he was vulnerable. No joy would be the same for Borne. No playfulness, either. Because behind it would be this certain knowledge: that he could die. 
     “I’m tired, Rachel,” Borne said. “I need not to move for a while.”
     “That’s okay,” I said, and it was. If we had to make this rooftop our home for a few hours, I was prepared to do it. 
     It had cooled as the sun disappeared and the stars came out across an unusually cloudless sky. We were silent for a long time, and I made no move to go downstairs to recon. Borne needed my attention but I also think we both dreaded going downstairs. Neither of us wanted to experience the aftermath up close, even in the dark. But Borne was also looking up at the stars, all of his attention drawn there. 
     Borne was reaching out a tentative tentacle, as if to touch the stars. 
     He must have known he couldn’t, but I still said, “You can’t touch them!” 
     “Why not? Are they hot?” 
     “Yes, they are. But that’s not why. They’re very, very far away.” 
     “But my arms are so long, Rachel. My arms can be as long as I want.” 
     “That might be so, but . . .” I trailed off when I realized Borne was joking. He had a little tell when he joked–or it was actually a big tell. Some of his eyes would drift to the left, a particular cluster. He couldn’t control that. 
     “Diabolical,” he said, still captivated by what lay above. “Diabolical. Deadly. Delirious. Deep.” Four new words he’d been trying out. Except he had not learned “diabolical” from me, and I felt a twinge. Some book, some other source. 
     A normal night sky, but I was attuned to Borne in that moment and I saw it from his eyes–like a rush or an onslaught. Because as far as I knew, he had never seen the night sky so unguarded before–glimpses, maybe, from the Balcony cliffs at dusk or in his books. So many stars, so little light from the city to disguise them. It was just like I remembered it from our island sanctuary so long ago. Walking down the beach and not needing a flashlight because the stars were so strong. 
     A glittering reef of stars, spread out phosphorescent, and each one might have life on it, planets revolving around them. There might even be people like us, looking up at the night sky. It was what my mother said sometimes–to be mindful that the universe beyond still existed, that we did not know what lived there, and it might be terrible to reconcile ourselves to knowing so little of it, but that didn’t mean it stopped existing. There was something else beyond all of this, that would never know us or our struggles, never care, and that it would go on without us. My mother had found that idea comforting. 
     Borne’s many eyes became stars as he watched them, and his skin turned the color of velvety night, until he was just a Borne shaped reflection. So many eyestalks arose from him that his body flattened away to nothing, into an irregular pool of flesh across most of the roof, the edge lapping up against my boots. I could still see how he had been injured, because he looked like a circle that had had a bite taken out of it. Each eyestalk ended in three-dimensional representation of a star, and the stars clustered until he was a field of stars rising from the rooftop, forming nebulae and galaxies, and a few fireflies like meteorites across the depth and breadth of him. 
     “It’s beautiful,” he said, from across the star field of his body. “It’s beautiful.” 
     For once what he thought of as beautiful really was beautiful. It was as if we had become closer even as he exhibited more alien attributes, but I quashed that with an instant of wariness. Was he truly without guile? Wasn’t this repetition because of my reaction about the polluted river? But even if I suspected “beautiful” was just making conversation or in some other way for my benefit, I knew that he’d taken this form to begin to heal, that there was something comforting about it, something that had helped him. 
     “What are they?” Borne asked. “Are they . . . lights like in the Balcony Cliffs? Or . . . electrical lights? Who turned them on?” So whatever he’d seen in books hadn’t explained stars. At all. 
     “No one turned them on,” I said, realizing after I’d said it that I’d just discounted thousands of years of religion. But it was too late to turn back. 
     “No one?”
     “We’re on a world,” I told him, not knowing what gaps existed from his reading. “We’re on a world that revolves around a star, which is a giant ball of fire. So enormous that if it weren’t so distant we would all be dead–burned up. We call it the sun–and the sun is what you thought wasn’t nice when it shone so bright on you the other day. But all of those points of light above are also suns, even farther away, and they all have worlds, too.” 
     My eyesight had gotten blurry telling Borne this, the aftershock of our ordeal hitting me. 
     “All of them? Every single one? But that’s like hundreds.” 
     “Thousands. Maybe millions.” 
     Across the star fields of Borne’s body there coalesced one great sun in the center, also atop a stalk. Heretical was his astronomy at this point. He’d become metaphorical or metaphysical or just silly. 
     “But that’s incredible,” Borne said, quietly. “That’s amazing. That’s devastating.” 
     Then something began to blot out the stars, to turn that glittering, shining brilliance into a great and final darkness. 
     “And what is that?” Borne asked, as if it was something normal, something else he didn’t know about yet, and he trusted me to tell him, to let him know what to think about it. 
     I was speechless, because for an instant I thought the world was ending, that fate had conspired to put us on that roof to watch the end of . . . everything.  
     Then I realized what we were seeing, and I couldn’t help a stifled chuckle. Oh, this was rich! Because it was the end of the world. 
     “What’s so funny, Rachel?” An edge to that voice as Borne withdrew from the edge of my toes, drew himself up into his normal form, still sagging, still wounded. 
     “That’s Mord,” I said. 
     Yes, it was Mord–floating and diving across the night sky, high up, so huge that even from a distance he blotted out the stars. Across the night sky the giant bear Mord glided, seething, and we could hear faint rasps and roaring from the stratosphere, the chocking gasps of his rage. Snuffing out first this constellation then that one, his form as it occluded the stars making me aware of them again. His was the greater darkness, and although I feared him and hated him and despised him, Mord was still, in that moment, the purest reflection of the city. 
     “Moooooordddddddddd,” Borne said in a kind of hissing way, and I saw even in the reflected light that every inch of Borne’s unscarred surface had become sharp, jagged, pointed like spears and spikes, and the eyes now revolving tracked Mord’s obliterating progress like gun emplacements tracking aircraft. Strafed Mord’s position with analytics and calculations and trajectories. 
     “He’s very far away,” I said, in a soothing tone. “He can’t hurt you.” Neither statement was entirely true. 
     “That is what you mean by Mord proxy,” Borne said, “This is the source.” 
     “Yes.”
     “They are his children.”
     “In a way, yes.” 
     “Why would he let his children do that to other children?” 
     I didn’t have a good answer for him, but I was sure that Borne had an idea of what he was looking at. We had turned Mord into the boogieman in his imagination, the monster under the bed. Don’t go outside, don’t do this, don’t do that because: Mord. But now Borne had been mauled by one of Mord’s emissaries, and he was trying to understand Mord. The real Mord. 
     Mord continued to dip and glide and wheel and drop across the sky like a god. 
     “Mord is beautiful,” Borne said with disdain. “Mord is strong. Mord is not nice.” From his tone, I believe Borne was beginning to parody his own innocence. 
     “Mostly not nice. Remember the not-nice part. Avoid him.” 
     “He kills the stars,” Borne said. “He kills the stars and brings darkness.” 
     “The stars all come back, though.” 
     “But not the people down below.” 
     You killed four of them yourself, back at the Balcony Cliffs, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

My first step, when I want to write about a novel, and I’m not sure what to write about, is to re-read and outline it. I’ve used a lot of different methods to outline, but for BORNE, I used the Scene/Sequel distinction I discovered in Weiland’s book, refering to these as (Goal) scenes and (React) scenes, because the language is clearer, and because I did change up the idea a little to suit my own purposes (it makes no sense to me, for instance, to see a scene as separate if it takes place at the same setting with the same characters and no line break, just because the goal ends). This outline was quite useful, but limited, as you can see below in my outline of this scene: 

(React) to attack of Mord Proxies (pg 106 – 112)
Reaction: Rachel thinks about coming out of caves as a kid; ready to wait in secret until nightfall; to watch the stars; track how Borne has changed & show his reactions; Borne mimics the stars & galaxies, he thinks they’re beautiful; cry while explaining stars and planets to Borne. 
Dilemma: trying to explain stars to Borne; apologizing to him; Borne needs to heel; tries to understand Mord. 
Decision: Not much of one. Borne decides Mord is not nice. 

As you can see, getting the scene to fit into this outline requires the removal of a lot of richness, and the stirring around of elements. That’s fine for the purposes of outlining after the fact, as a reader, and I’d bet it would be helpful when outlining after the fact as a writer, too, before revising. It’s fine for getting a high level overview of the story. But a lot is lost in translation. To be fair, many of Vandermeer’s shorter scenes cut much closer to the proper breakdown, and some wonderful scenes fit perfectly. But for our purposes here, a more detailed outline is probably necessary: 

1 (React) to Borne’s injury
     Reaction: To remember how it felt when she emerged from hiding with her parents (always the same world) and connect that with her feeling emerging from Borne (a different world in several ways); go over Borne’s injuries with detailed description 
     Dilemma: How responsible is Rachel for Borne’s injuries? Why did the attack happen? How should Borne learn about the violence of the city? 
     Decision: Borne needs to not move for a while. Rachel decides to “make this rooftop their home” for a few hours. 
2 (React) to the “unguarded” stars and Borne’s injury
     Reaction:
Borne tries to reach out and touch them; Rachel stops him, almost panicked, remembers the stars of her past, and experiences the stars like Borne must “like a rush or an onslaught.” Borne transforms himself into a little solar system. 
     Dilemma:
What are stars? Rachel teaches Borne about stars while the trauma of the attack finally hits her (she cries)
     Decision:
none–interrupted by the stars starting to go black–
3 (React) to Mord and the stars and Borne’s injury
     Reaction:
Mord asks what the mass in front of the stars is; Rachel at first speechless, thinking the world is ending, then realizes she’s seeing Mord and laughs, “because it was the end of the world.” 
     –describe Mord and his blocking out the stars–
     Reaction:
Borne forms himself into a bunch of spikes that track Mord’s flight
     Dilemma:
Why does Mord let his proxies hurt people? 
          Exposition:
Rachel and Wick have made Mord a boogeyman for Borne
     Decision:
Mord is not nice–Borne decides, and Rachel reaffirms. 
 A closing thought from Rachel: Mord might kill people, but so does Borne. 

With this new outline, we find a really common strategy that Vandermeer uses in Borne: he creates a series of nested reactions, each one built on the last. 

So why not consider each of these three reactions as a separate scene? 

Because they are tied together in time and because they are tied together, most importantly, on an emotional level. All three off these is a step further in Borne and Rachel reacting to the attack, to Borne’s injuries. In the first arc, we find Rachel reacting to Borne’s injuries, placing blame on herself; in the second, we can see Borne contemplating “the vastness of the universe” and his own mortality through the stars; in the third, we can see him coming to terms with why it’s bad to kill and to hurt with Mord, his boogeyman, as the central focus, in a way that will be very important later. 

What I notice first about how these reactions are nested: each one is tied to some physical, external element of the narrative. First, Borne’s injuries; then the stars; and lastly Mord, flying by. That physical element acts as an important touchstone for the development of each arc, creating the surface level subject of Rachel and Borne’s dialogue and giving the narration some change in the setting to describe. 

I think the choice of these physical touchstones is vital. 

For starters, the easiest, most obvious touchstone is Borne’s injuries. This is clearly what Rachel would focus on, because they make acute the stakes of Rachel bringing Borne outside. This is what any normal person would notice first and feel strongly about; this is the logical thing for them to debate in the “dilemma” part of the scene. But it also has the chance to be the most melodramatic, so after the apology, Vandermeer has the conversation sizzle out. We can make sense of the conversation ending: Rachel feels guilty, and knows nothing she can say or do will make it better. Rachel introduces the idea that Borne will, through this attack, gain a sense of his own mortality.

But then the stars intrude.

The choice of stars is interesting; in part because the attack Rachel is reacting to happened during the day, meaning that if Vandermeer wants to view the stars, he needs them to wait until nightfall, which they do. When we hear the conversation about the stars, it feels like getting away from thinking about the attack and nearly dying (lowering the tension, to a degree), and I think it is, in a way, but really only through abstraction. We can see, in the way that Borne spreads himself out and transforms himself into the night sky, that Borne is getting some pleasure from contemplating the universe, but as soon as he says “That’s amazing. That’s devastating” we get a glimpse at the nuance of this moment.

We can see how he’s connecting the universe to his own new-found sense of mortality (this is of course an association with a long history in world literature), and how we have not actually stopped reacting to the attack. But Vandermeer does not stop at “devastating,” he makes the connection explicit by wrapping around to Mord. Tension roars back. 

Mord flying, blotting out the stars, is perfect. 

It wraps the conversation back around to the proxies, making it quite clear that they never really stopped talking about the attack, and but it doesn’t quite leave the universe, since Mord is in the sky. 

Rachel’s reaction to Mord rings true, also. She’s afraid at first, of some abstract end of the universe, but when the real danger makes itself clear, she just laughs. Partly because Mord actually is laughable, but also because he does, for her, represent the end of the world, a symbol of the city. We can see in this that she’s turned to nihilism of a kind, even without a prolonged discussion of why she reacts this way. Borne then tries to understand Mord, the way he now understands stars, and this discussion is much shorter, because Rachel knows little about Mord. In this moment, though, I think it’s clear that when Borne tries to understand Mord, what he’s thinking about is himself, his own mortality, the possibility that Mord could kill him. 

They come together to the conclusion that Mord is “not nice,” and Rachel means it on a literal level, but Borne comes to a broader conclusion: killing is not nice. Here Borne is reflecting on his own actions, the people he’s “absorbed,” and Rachel picks up on this, as we see in the final line. 

That also leads well into another point I want to make. A lot of the time when I write, I treat emotions and reactions as something that happens in isolation, inside the character. This scenes does a lot to counteract that, because so much of the emotional depth spawns not from direct thoughts (although some of it does) but instead from the interplay between the external touchstones and the conversation around them. A lot of it comes from the way these two characters dance around what they really should say: “Someday, both of us will die. Maybe everyone.” Instead, Borne tries to distract himself and Rachel, but ends up circling back around, constantly on the edge of acknowledging their mortality. So much more emotional depth is possible in this scene because it starts as two characters interacting. 

FINALLY
The last question, I suppose, is how do you go about building this sort of scene? 

Knowing a little about Vandermeer’s process, it’s likely that this scene occurred to him at least in part through introspection. He has a rather organic method, but he does a lot of revision, too, so it’s likely that some element of this was introduced, cut back, or changed to make the scene work. 

Other than that, it’s a hard question to answer. This scene is stunning. It relies on a lot of built-up meaning behind the symbolism of Mord in the book, and deep-rooted real world symbolism that connects the sky with death, which Vandermeer makes explicit on the page. That takes a lot of thought and a layered understanding of what you want the scene to accomplish. It takes a consciousness about what objects are taking on resonance in your work and what objects already have resonance in the real world. It takes sharp revision efforts. 

If you’re working on a scene in which a character reacts deeply to some event in the narrative, how would you go about anchoring that process? How would you proceed? Do you have any examples you return to in reading?

Written by 



It’s taken a long time to figure out what I wanted to talk about RE: BORNE. There’s so much of interest in this book, such a wonderful mix of experimental and traditional elements and approaches. In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we’ll start by discussing how Vandermeer approaches character arguments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

THE CHALLENGE
For me, writing arguments has always been difficult. I’ve tended to just avoid them, wherever possible, but that means that tensions bubbling under the surface never end up paying off! But when I started trying to bring them to the fore, it constantly felt like I was falling prey to melodrama, and I’d leave the page feeling sick. 

So how do you avoid this? How can you write an argument that works, that evokes real arguments, and moves the story forward? 

THE STORY
Although Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE is easily one of my favorite novels, my relationship with it is a little messy. Like the book itself, I’d say. It’s a rewarding read, if you can make it to the end, and there’s a lot of good to learn from it, despite its flaws (which I’ll get into in a later post, likely). It’s a bold, strange, experimental kind of SciFi that just feels different from anythings else I’ve read, from the gritty prose to the sweeping braided narrative that combines the personal and the epic. 

The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

Most arguments in this story take place between Rachel and Wick, because their relationship is central to the real plot of the story. This give us a wealth of examples, but I’ll be primarily looking at two. One toward the front of the story, which is a good example of most of the arguments in the book, and one about half way through, which is a sort of pivotal moment (and full of spoilers). 

THE SOLUTION 

Example 1. (Pg 49-50): Wick wants Rachel to give him Borne, so he can tear him apart and figure out what he is. 
     In the morning, with Mord and the weight of Mord just a bad dream, Wick tried again. 
     “I can do it in a gentle way,” he said, but that didn’t reassure me. “I can return him the way he is now.” 
     “No.” 
     His weight went taut against my back. 
     “I shouldn’t have to ask. You should know it’s the best thing.”
     “It’s not.”
     “You know something’s not right, Rachel.” Now he was almost shouting. 
     Like most men, Wick could not help terror about one thing erupting as anger about something else. So I said nothing. 
     But he wouldn’t let up. “Give me Borne,” he said. 
     I refused to turn to look at him. 
     “You need to give him to me, so we know what he is. He lives here, among us, and you protect him in a way that’s unnatural. This thing you know nothing about.” 
     “No.”
     “He may be influencing you using biochemicals,” Wick said. “You may not know your own mind.”
     I laughed at that, even though it could be true. 
     “You have no right, Rachel,” he said, and there was a wounded quality to the word right.
     “Tell me about your time at the Company.” I was tired of talking, just tired period. “Tell me all about your weird telescope.” 
     But he had nothing to say about his telescope. He had nothing else to say at all, and neither did I. We both new that one word more and either I would leave his bed or he would ask me to leave.


This is the most common form that Rachel and Wick’s arguments take. This is one of the first fully fleshed arguments in the book (there are a few attempts to start one earlier, rapidly cut off) and all of these do the work of setting up that later, more explosive argument. 

What interests me here is how this argument is restrained but allowed to flourish because of a diversity of tactics. In previous attempts to get Borne from Rachel, Wick was too lenient, too unwilling to confront her; here, he’s very direct, and comes at it using rational, persuasion tactics. We know, though, that it’s undergirded with paranoia, with maybe understandable fear. Meanwhile, Rachel is sticking her ground, not really engaging with the actual arguments Wick is making, and looking for an opening to change the subject, which she does later, to the effect of stopping the conversation.  It’s Rachel’s refusal to engage that cuts off the argument before it can get too dramatic, that keeps it controlled as we continue to build up context for the big fight. 

But another thing of note is how Rachel is shown to be hyper-aware of Wick’s motivations and feelings. She tells us that his shouting (which seems to come out of nowhere) is because of terror “about one thing.” This argument is rationalized to us just as soon as it needs to be. But also, once he starts really making his argument, she also acknowledges it as rational and possible.

Part of the brilliance of this fight is that we’re learning a lot about Rachel and Wick, and we have Rachel’s sense of self-awareness to thank. Without the editorializing she does, this scene would feel chaotic and confusing, and we wouldn’t know exactly how to evaluate each of these characters. 

That said, let’s move on to the more complex, and harder to pull off, Example 2, the major blowup later in the story. 


Example 2 (p126 – 130): The Magician has forced Wick into a deal that will open up their fortress/home (the Balcony Cliffs) to her soldiers. 
     Three years later, the Magician’s spirit had snuck right into the room with me, between me and Wick. She might also make her headquarters well to the west, in the ruined observatory, but she had found a way to make her influence felt from afar–because we were weak, because our supplies were running low and Wick could see no other way out. She had found a way in because she’d always been there. 
     Borne had gone quiet above us as our voices had gotten louder and Wick had gotten more defensive. 
     “We are not giving up the Balcony Cliffs,” I said. We were not giving up Borne, either. I was tired and drunk, drunk, drunk, but this I knew. 
     “We wouldn’t be giving them up,” Wick said, with little enthusiasm. “People would move in here, help us fortify it. We live here alone. How long do you think that can last?” 
     “It’s lasted pretty long already, Wick.”
     I crammed another minnow in my mouth. Probably my fifth. We were both acting like if we finished off every alcohol minnow in the land tonight we wouldn’t care. 
     “We’re lucky we held out this long.”
     “Why now? Tell me why she’s asking now?”
     “I think she is planning something big. I think her plans are almost set.” Wick’s voice had lowered to a whisper, as if the Magician were listening, which only made me madder. 
     “And how did she reach out? Did she capture you on one of your drug runs? Did she give you all kinds of promises you know she can’t keep? And if she did, how did you make it back here? Why didn’t she just hold on to you?”
     “The Magician’s not asking. The Magician’s telling. That’s what she does these days–tells people things, and people do them.”
     The Magician on one hill and Wick on the other, communicating via hand signals or semaphore. 
     “Who reached out, Wick? Her or you?” 
     He mumbled something, stood, wrapped his hands around the sides of his chair, tapped its legs against the floor a couple of times. 
     “He said he reached out Rachel,” Borne said helpfully from the ceiling. 
     “Borne, stay out of this!” we both shouted at him. 
     “But you said you didn’t hear him and I thought you’d want to know.” 
     “Go back to my apartment and I’ll come check to make sure you’re all right before you go to bed,” I said. 
     “Sure, Rachel. I can go back to your apartment.” 
     Borne sounded dejected, or maybe I just expected he would. Slowly, he slid down the wall, congealed into an upright Borne position, resuscitated his eyes, and left us. If there was a whiff of indignation spider fart left behind, I tried to ignore it, just as I tried to ignore putting Wick’s revelation before Borne’s injuries. 
     “I wanted nothing except to be left alone,” Wick said. “That’s all I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted.” 
     Familiar refrain. I’d never asked why he wanted to be left alone, though. That’s Wick, I always thought. Wick likes to be left alone.
     “It will destroy us, Wick. How can you trust her?”
     “How am I supposed to trust you?” he said. “You brought Borne in here. You won’t get rid of him. The proxies are getting worse–everything is getting worse. We have no choice.” 
     “You know what will happen to Borne when she takes over.”
     Wick shrugged, a shrug that said it wouldn’t be his problem then, and maybe he even hoped once Borne became someone else’s responsibility I would come to my senses, and we would be the “us” and Borne would be one of “them.” 
     “But that’s not even the worst thing, Wick, and you know it.” 
     Wick looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” 
     “The feral children I saw tonight are the same as the ones who attacked me here in Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “There are many terrible people in the city,” Wick said. “Lots of terrible people.” 
     “The ones tonight acted like a patrol, as if they were working for someone. Do you know who? I think you know who.” I wanted badly to say it. 
     “You should get some rest,” Wick said. “You should go to bed.” He wouldn’t look at me, even when I shoved myself in front of him. Yet it didn’t matter. the perverse thing was I knew Wick so well, and he knew me so well, that we both understood what I meant. It was almost the least of what we were conveying to each other in that moment. But still I pushed, because it had to be said out loud. 
     “That night the Magician’s people snuck in and attacked me. It wasn’t something random. They attached because the Magician was sending you a message–and you knew that, and you didn’t tell me.” 
     “I never knew,” Wick protested. “I never knew she would do that. Everything I did was so nothing would happen to you. Can you look me in the eye and say you think I wanted that to happen to you? No, never.” 
     “Wick, you withheld information. You were in trouble with her and you didn’t tell me.” To his credit, he wasn’t trying to deny it now. 
     “Would you have done anything different in my place?” Wick asked, shouting. “And would you have been extra-extra careful instead of extra-careful coming back that night? No and no. And we’d be in the same place right now. No matter what I did–unless I just handed over the Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “You didn’t trust me!” I shouted back. “You don’t fucking trust me.” 
     “It has nothing to do with trust,” Wick said, exasperated, pained. “Nothing at all to do with trust.” He said trust like it was a corrosion. 
     “If I had known, Wick, it would have helped. You would have been more open with me, you wouldn’t have seemed so closed off, secretive. Don’t you see that the Magician drove a wedge between us, that she wanted you to protect me from her demands? To cut you off from me?” 
     “You cut yourself off from me. You did that all on your own–by bringing Borne into our lives and not letting go of him. By clinging to him. You did that. You did that!” 
     “Did you know the Magician tried to recruit me three years ago?” I asked.       “Did you know that Wick? Of course you didn’t. I kept that from you because I didn’t wan the Magician to have more leverage over you than she already has!”
      A cry of frustration from Wick. “How in the name of fuck is that different than me trying to protect you by not telling you things? It’s not different at all! No difference! And I don’t even care!” 
     We were screaming at each other, pointing at each other, but we couldn’t stop.  
     “The difference is, Wick, you’re hiding other things from me. You’re hiding why the Magician has leverage over you in the first place. You’re hiding secrets in your apartment you think I don’t know about.” 
     That brought him up short, but then he realized I couldn’t know his secrets–i just had clues–because he’d been so careful.
     “I don’t have secrets!” he lied. “I don’t have any secrets you need to know about.”
     “You don’t have any secrets I need to know about,” I repeated. “Do you know how stupid that sounds? Well maybe in the morning you’ll remember some secrets I do need to know about. Like the fish project. Like a broken telescope or a metal box full of biotech. Like not ever telling me about your family. Maybe in them morning you’ll realize just how much I might need to know if we’re goin to live together.” 
     Wick got up, started furiously stirring the crap in his swimming pool with a long piece of wood, his back to me. 
     “Isn’t there somewhere else you need to be? Someone else you need to be with?” Accusing, stabbing, but also hurt. I could tell he was hurt, too. 
     We were locked into these positions from the beginning. Wick trying to shield me and do the right thing, conflicted about what that meant . . . and me naive enough to think I could believe in Wick and Borne at the same time. Corrupted by that. Both of us aware, from the remote position looking down on ourselves, that regret, guilt and even arguing distracted us from getting on with the business of trying to survive. 
     I stalked out, intending to join Borne like I’d promised. 


First things first: I’m not sure this scene avoided melodrama.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word. You could argue that it’s not melodrama if it works, or if it develops the characters well. Kind of a “know it when I see it” defense. But these characters are literally screaming at each other and, according to the narration, pointing at each other! There’s a lot of drunken “well did you know THIS?” and “It’s all your faults!” in more specific language. 
It’s possible, reading it out of context, that it reads as melodramatic to you. But it didn’t when reading the novel itself, and that’s perhaps one insightful lesson: out of context, almost any blow-out argument is going to feel melodramatic.

If this were on page one of the novel, it would feel melodramatic.

This scene avoids melodrama only because it is built from the massive quilt of context that comes before it. We’ve been waiting for this blow out for some time; it feel inevitable. The dangers of Borne and the Magician and Wick’s secret past have all been built up in complex, powerful, intrusive ways and this is the point in the story where all of those come to a head.

One interpretation could certainly be that, although the argument is melodramatic, we forgive that because we want the argument to happen at this point. 

And maybe that’s all there is to it. 

But that’s not the only thing here that seems intended to save the argument. Part of the effort seems to be to convince you that these characters (especially Rachel) can act this way toward each other. 

This effort begins with a fun prop: alcohol. Rachel and Wick are “drunk, drunk, drunk” and we all know how drunk people are, don’t we. That primes them for this fight, taking away all their silly inhibitions and making it more believable that they would engage with each other in this childish way. I think it’s easy to underestimate the work this simple trick is doing in the scene. 

For the rest of this analysis, I think it’ll be good to have a point by point outline of sorts as to how this fight proceeds. 

1- Start out with a relatively logical discussion about what it will mean to share the Balcony Cliffs with the Magician and whether that is an actual option.
2-Wick points out they were lucky to live there alone even this long, and that prompts Rachel to enter investigation mode.
3- Why did the Magician reach out now? (Wick answers simply)
4-How did the magician reach out for the ask? (Wick dodges this question)
5-Wick’s dodge prompts an accusatory question: Who reached out, Wick or the Magician? (Wick answers, quietly, Borne clarifies his answer) 
6-They kick out Borne together, unified front here. 
7-Rachel starts accusing in Earnest: “How can you trust her?” 
8-Wick hits back “How can I trust you?” This brings Borne into the conversation. 
9-After a few more back and forths, Rachel brings up that the kids who attacked her earlier were likely the Magician’s soldiers (they laid her up for weeks, hurting her very badly) and suggests that Wick knew the Magician would come for her. 
10-here Wick starts to disengage, try to escape the fight. 
11-Biggest, most dramatic accusation: You didn’t trust me, and it got me hurt. Wick’s secrets are a danger to Rachel, his secret past, his secret present, etc. 
12-Wick moves to protect his secrets (his top motive, really) 
13- We end with an insightful paragraph, a bit of editorializing about the fight that acknowledges Wick’s feelings and how they align with and differ from Rachel’s. 

This is a super complex scene and there’s a lot of great stuff here. But notice how the argument starts in a very logical, bandying back and forth place, and it stays there a while. It has an almost journalistic logic (Why? How? Who?) during the whole first half, prompted by Rachel. Borne’s intrusion then gives us a momentary break from the drama, and his kicking out marks the big turning point in the fight–after this they become freer to accuse, to be dramatic.

This makes a ton of sense, from an emotional intelligence point of view. Once the child is out of the room, they feel more free to be childish and mean themselves. 
Also, at this point, other elements start to get folded into the argument. This is not just an argument about the Magician anymore. Their whole lives get folded in and all their anxieties, first Borne, then the attack Rachel suffered, and then Wick’s secretive past (arguably these are the 3 most important elements driving the plot). This argument takes a lot of space and energy, but it’s doing a TON of work to tie together disparate elements, even creating a causal chain that didn’t exist before. This must be part of how the scene gets away with such a heated argument. 

Once the argument gets to Wick’s secrets, he tries instantly to disengage. It’s very sudden, and it puts a lot of emphasis on Wick’s secrets in a way that will create a lot of suspense later on. But it also switches Rachel and Wick’s roles from the previous argument, with Rachel pushing the argument and Wick refusing to look at him. This shows how they both have their specific drives, their limits. 

Finally, and I think this is incredibly important: we get a moment of self-reflection, in which Rachel acknowledges Wick’s feelings and shows how they are similar or different to hers. She knows why this fight happened, can rationalize it, and thus rationalizes it for us. This little moment of self-awareness almost certainly saves this scene, because it gets us into the mind of the characters, helps us to explicitly understand it. It also foreshadows a later development. 

FINALLY
There’s a lot going on in this scene. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve almost certainly noticed something I haven’t. Let me know in the comments. 
Do you have a scene you return to as a touchstone example of an argument in fiction? How does that writer manage the argument so that it’s dramatic without becoming farcical? How do you approach this stuff in your own work?