Thursday, February 20, 2014

Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane






I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
 
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
 
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
 
Key Ways to Layer Depth:


1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.


2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.


3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.


4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.


5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
 
 
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
 
 
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


 
Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
 
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

32 comments:

  1. Great post, Jordan! The first time I heard about layering was during a writing class--the teacher talked about setting down the skeleton of a scene, then going back through it, adding layers to give it depth and vibrancy. I always think about "layering" when I go back through a draft making revisions.

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    1. In another workshop, the author shared that in her final draft revisions, she looked at the "intention" of each scene & added more of whatever the strong suit for the scene was. If it was an emotional scene, she added more of that, for example. I still do that myself, before I hand my book over as finished.

      Thanks, Kathryn.

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  2. Enjoyed the column. But I have to be picky about something. It would be unlikely for someone in the Seattle area to say Cascade Mountains in this context. The reference would more likely be the Cascades, and probably followed by something more specific. For example, we found the body in the Cascades, not too far from Denny Creek (or a billion other locales).

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    1. Good point. For space purposes, I had to leave out a lot. But in this instance, they are both on the Prince of Wales island in Alaska. And Ryker, my FBI profiler, is out of DC & isn't from Seattle. When I lived in AK, I traveled to Seattle often and had been east of the city, but hadn't heard of the Cascades. So I felt that my character would have been more clear with his reference by calling them mountains, so people would understand the crime scene was a bit more remote.

      Thanks for your comment though. If I had him talking to local cops, I'm sure I would've had to be revising for your point. Thanks for taking the time.

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  3. Someone told me that I layer as well but I didn't know what she meant. This explanation helped, and I guess I do it instinctively on my edits.

    I'm not normally brave enough to post excerpts, but I will in this case, and I'd be interested if you see voice in this. It's the opening bit of chapter 1.
    ___________
    "I don’t really remember collapsing by his coffin but based on how much attention I’m getting, it must have been brilliant. My mother’s got to be so proud.

    “Here you go, Hannah darling,” says Aunt Meaghan. “This should make you feel better.”

    I nod my thanks at the cool water her silver-ringed fingers offer me. It does seem to soften the panko crumbs jammed in my throat. That’s my brother’s black baseball cap resting on that white square of satin, but that’s not my brother. Quinn is crazy and mean and stupid and funny. There’s no way he’d agree to be lying there like that, with all of us gawking at the painted-on freckles that don’t look splattered like mine anymore.

    Quinn isn’t able to say so now though, is he? He isn’t able to complain about the stench of lilies either.

    He hates lilies.
    ________________

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    1. Thanks for being brave. Your excerpt does give your character an attitude and an opinion about not only what's happening to her, but also what she sees of her brother. You've got internal questions plaguing her. Voice is definitely a part of this. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Good stuff, Jordan. I especially like your advice about dialogue. One of the most common mistakes I see is wasted dialogue. Not just on trivial stuff as you note but often you'll see two characters recounting in dialogue something that has already happened. If the reader already knows this info but you still need to have one character convey it to another (say, two cops discussing a case development) all you need the second time is a down and dirty narrative line like:

    Louis told Steele what the victim's mother had revealed about her daughter's disappearance.

    Dialogue is our best currency. Never spend it on cheap stuff.




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    1. Exactly. Great comment, Kris. Love the "best currency" sentiment too. The reader's eye tends to follow dialogue on the page, unless those lines are redundant or trivial.

      The other thing I love is to give a unique voice (in lines and humor) to a cast of characters. That way, if there is a group chat, each voice can sound unique even without tag lines. My YA hunted series was more fun to write because of my Brit lead surrounded by teens of different backgrounds, education, and gender. I loved the challenge of it.

      Thanks!

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  5. Really enjoyed this post, Jordan. I especially appreciate the highlighting, as that makes it clear what you are talking about.

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    1. Thanks, Eric. After I learned to fill in my scenes with layering, I forced myself to add elements one at a time to gain a sense of how they'd build from the framework of dialogue. I don't do that anymore. My mind is trained for the elements that have become my voice, so they come more naturally to me now, but I thought this might be a visual way to show the components. Glad you found it helpful.

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    2. This was a simple scene with dialogue and a little attitude from my profiler, but the book is filled with sensory overload as the players hunt a prolific serial killer. I also infused Ryker, my profiler, with a high brow way of talking & wry humor. He's socially awkward, totally focused on his work, and he blurts out everything he senses about the killer as he feels it. He's a bit like Cumberbatch's Sherlock, but with a more subdued haughtiness & peculiar humor. No wonder he's a loner.

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  6. Great post and tips!
    Grateful for your insight and wisdom!

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  7. Good stuff, Jordan.

    Whenever I get to description, I'm always thinking "double duty." Get them to see the scene, but also to feel it.

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    1. Love that morsel, Jim. The "double duty" thing is very important. Description is never an inventory. It should tickle the senses & conjure imagery from the reader's own experiences & imagination, as if they were watching a movie.

      Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Love these tips and your examples. My agent likes to call this "adding fleas." That's sorta stuck with me :)

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    1. HA! Adding fleas. That would stick with me too, Julie.

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  9. More of Ryker:

    When the flash of a dull fleeting shadow crossed my path, looking like a wisp of black smoke hovering over the ground, I glanced up to catch the dark wings of a Raven cutting through the trees and the computer part of my brain kicked in.

    Raven. A Trickster god. Prevalent myth in the Pacific Northwest. Poe. Edgar Allan.

    My mind acted like a hard drive of stored random facts, especially at stress times. Sometimes they hit me hard and I blurted them aloud. That made dating a challenge. I’d always been drawn to intelligent women, but once I let them into my world, crossing that line usually ended any relationship. I simply had no interest in hiding who I was.

    At the sight of the Raven, keywords pummeled my brain to trigger imagery and I flashed on pages in a book I’d read, but spotting the bird meant something else. Scavengers would’ve already hit the crime scene and done their damage. All things considered, I preferred thinking of mythology and Edgar Allan Poe. If I had more of an appreciation for the circle of life, I might’ve embraced the synergy of being nothing more than walking worm food.

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  10. More from The Last Victim (at the crime scene):

    It never failed. When I looked down to the clearing below, standing shoulder to shoulder with my team, a familiar twist hit my gut. I stared at the grisly work of the Totem Killer and forced myself to look beyond the shocking horror. Every severed limb was someone not coming home—a brother, a husband, a boyfriend, a son. The violation clenched my belly, but I owed it to each of the victims not to turn away.

    I would have to speak for them now.

    “Dear, God,” someone muttered.

    A monolith of bloodied flesh stood fifteen feet high like a statue to be idolized. Dismembered legs, arms, and faces were tied to a tree to make a macabre tower. As exhausted as I was, my eyes tricked me into seeing severed limbs that twitched and slithered like entwined snakes under the circling cloud of Ravens. When I blinked, the bodies stopped writhing and I let out the breath I’d been holding, but I’d gotten a taste for the dreams that would punish me later.

    “We are your sons. We are your husbands. We are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the bodies as I recited the quote.

    “Who said that?” Crowley asked.

    “Ted Bundy.”

    I wanted to believe in God, but standing there, I couldn’t. With what I see, I don’t hear him anymore.

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  11. Love this, as I am in heavy editing. I'll throw this excerpt out there:

    ----------------------------------
    I fumbled with the balky door latch and mentally put it on the growing list of small repairs the motorhome needed. Simon was scaling my legs in a barking frenzy when I finally got the door open and found Springsteen circa 1992 standing on my patio. Well, that is if the Boss had been Texan and wearing a badge.

    Simon shot down the steps and made for his doghouse, keeping the cop in his line of sight the whole time. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, I found myself nearly naked in front of a strange man. My pajamas for spring in southern Texas consisted of boy cut underwear and a tight strappy knit shirt. The only difference between yesterday and today is that today I didn't have a plan.

    This guy was cool. I'll give him that. When the morning breeze freshening across the front of my camisole verified that it wasn't yet summer, he didn't even blink. Just a hint of color across his cheeks showed me he wasn't a robot.

    "Can I help you?" I might as well get this going. I made no effort to go back inside. Anyone who shows up before the roosters have finished their coffee gets me as I am and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

    At the sound of my voice, he ratcheted his gaze upward. His eyes were icy blue, the whites startling against his tanned skin. Another chill breeze and the corners of his mouth came up in a dimpled uneven smile that raised a blush of my own.
    -------------------------------------

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    1. Love the attitude and the sexual tension. Well done, Terri. Loved the dog too.

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    2. That was one of my favorite scenes ;)

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  12. Late to the layers of layers, but here's a layer of ICE HAMMER:

    The helicopters hit the ground and soldiers poured from the side doors, rifle barrels sparkling with return fire. Wood splintered and glass shattered. Liza fell back as if her feet were hinged to the floor, head and chest smashed to an unrecognizable pulp by the multiple rounds that hit her, sending her to join her husband and children.

    Chinese soldiers fell in the field like puppets whose strings had been cut. Men’s blood fertilizing the freshly sprouted cabbages and beets. Someone in the mass of armed men raised a rocket propelled grenade launcher, aiming it to the west of the house.

    Brian traced the soldier’s aim in his head and knew instantly what his target was. He glanced at his wife as she fired her rifle out the window.

    “I love you babe,” his words were silenced by the din of battle.

    The rocket stretched from its firing tube. A line of white smoke trailed behind it. Glenda noticed it too, watched its contrail and made the connection.

    She turned to her husband as the projectile arrowed toward the 2500 gallon propane tank that stood between the house and the barn. A boom rattled from upstairs and the rocket man fell to a round from Tom’s rifle. Too late.

    Glenda blinked, smiled sweetly. A lock of grey hair flopped across her deeply wrinkled brow. She let a tear roll down her cheek.

    Brian smiled back. He suddenly felt like the nervous nineteen year old Army private looking at that face for the first time in front of the Fourth Avenue Theater in downtown Anchorage. The Alamo with John Wayne was the headliner that night. How fitting.

    Hazel eyes. I could look at those eyes forever.

    He stared into the face that he’d awakened to for nearly five decades. The bright yellow wash of flame wrapped them like a blanket, sucked the air from their lungs and pushed them together into the next world.

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    1. Wow. Such emotion in this scene. Well done, Basil.

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  13. Great examples, Jordan! I will keep this in mind. The first read with just the dialogue, I was thinking, um, how boring. Who's who? What's going on?

    When you added in the layers, it's awesome and all my questions were definitely answered.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  14. Thanks, Diane. I do edits in a rolling fashion, so layers come naturally. I just never heard the word before. Ha!

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  15. Love the highlighted examples! I hope you do the same on other writing topics in the future.-Cronin Detzz

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    1. Glad you found them helpful. I will keep the highlighter handy.

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  16. Late to the party as usual. This was a great post. I've got lots of notes. The comments were useful, too. Thanks for another great class. And cheers to you all. This stuff is free and priceless.

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  17. This is a very useful post. Excerpt from my third novel, to be released June 2014. Don't know whether it will all fit but we shall see!

    A single scream suddenly shattered the night.

    The sound was a knife that cut straight through Conrad’s soul. He blocked a blow to his head and looked to his left.

    William Hartwell had backed up against the balustrade.
    Conrad froze and felt time slow down.

    The young man tipped over the edge and fell from the terrace, dragging his three attackers with him. The woman leapt forward through the curtain of glittering rain, crystal drops crashing on her skin, her movements heavy and sluggish in that stolen moment of stillness. She leaned over the balcony, fingers clutching desperately at the figures plummeting toward the ground. Her hands closed on empty space.

    The bodies struck the street three stories below with a dull thud.

    Time unfroze in a cacophony of sounds and sensations. Thunder rumbled across the heavens, underscoring the battle cries around Conrad. Cold wetness drenched his hair and face, bringing the sharp scent of the storm to his nostrils and a tangy taste to his lips. Lightning tore a brilliant, jagged path across his vision and made him blink.

    Heat suddenly erupted across his chest when a blade slashed his skin. Blood bloomed on his shirt. Conrad scowled and focused on his two remaining adversaries. By the time he had disposed of them, the woman had disappeared from the rooftop.

    He looked at the other fighters around him and felt a rush of relief at the sight that met his eyes; despite the odds, his men were winning.

    ‘Go!’ yelled someone to his right. The red-haired figure who had spoken danced nimbly out of the way of a blade and stabbed his opponent savagely in the chest. Pale eyes glanced at him for a second. ‘We’ve got this, Greene!’

    Conrad bobbed his head jerkily and twisted the ring that retracted the staff’s spear blades. He raced for the door that led inside the building.

    By the time he reached the ground floor, the wound on his chest had stopped bleeding. He knew without looking that the skin beneath his torn shirt was once more unblemished.

    He found the woman on her knees by the pile of bodies that lay in an awkward tangle of broken limbs at the north base of the Banqueting House. She was leaning over William Hartwell, sobs shuddering through her as she stroked his pale face with shaking fingers; blood from the wound in her arm mingled with his where it seeped from the irregular depression on his temple. Hartwell’s chest rose and fell shallowly with his breaths. He was unconscious.

    The woman looked around at Conrad’s footsteps, her hazel eyes wild with anguish.

    ‘Do something, please!’ she begged.

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  18. Didn't fit in after all! Here's the last part :)


    Conrad sank to the ground next to her, his voice frozen in his throat. He placed his left hand on the young man’s head and closed his eyes.

    A burst of energy flared inside his chest and pulsed down his arm. It darted through the birthmark that wrapped around his forearm and flashed to the ends of his fingers. He inhaled deeply and guided the flow of his power inside the broken body of William Hartwell.

    Bone popped beneath his hand. The young man’s flesh slowly began to knit together.

    Sweat broke across Conrad’s brow. The battle had drained him of much of his strength; he could feel Hartwell’s torn tissues resisting his ability to heal them. He ground his teeth together and willed his exhausted body to cooperate.

    ‘What’s happening?’ said the woman. Panic raised the pitch of her voice. She grabbed Conrad’s shoulders and shook him, her fingers biting into his skin. ‘Why isn’t he waking up?’

    Conrad sagged as he felt his own life force start to ebb; he was nearing the limits of his ability. He blinked and swayed. Dark blotches clouded his vision. The woman’s frantic words became a roar in his ears.

    A moan suddenly broke through the rush of blood inside his head. He looked down and saw Hartwell’s eyes open. Within the dark pupils of the man he had come to know and love as a brother, Conrad Greene read the words he could no longer utter.

    William Hartwell wanted to die. He also yearned for something else.

    Conrad gasped and slowly pulled his power back inside his own body, his fingers trembling on the cooling skin of the dying man. Hartwell shivered beneath his touch.

    ‘Why are you stopping?’ yelled the woman. ‘Save him!’

    Conrad knew there were only seconds left; he could feel Death’s shadow approaching through the thunderstorm raging across the city. He leaned down and brought his lips to Hartwell’s ear.

    ‘I forgive you,’ he whispered, his vision blurring with tears. He pulled back slightly and saw Hartwell blink once. The young man’s last breath left his mouth and caressed Conrad’s cheek.

    William Hartwell stared unseeingly at the rain falling from the night sky, his face serene and his body relaxing in death.

    ‘No,’ mumbled the woman. ‘No, this isn’t happening!’ Her voice rose to a scream. ‘Why did you let him die? Why? Goddamn you—!’ Grief overwhelmed her and she wept brokenly.

    Conrad’s heart shattered inside his chest as he looked at the woman he loved and saw hate dawn in the depths of her hazel eyes.

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