Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“We’re sure that the painting is here?”

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(Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 6. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Among television writers, there’s a term, “laying pipe,” that refers to the parts of a teleplay—expository dialogue, for instance—that aren’t particularly exciting in themselves, but are necessary for the rest of the story to make sense. The trick, of course, is to make these sections as engaging as possible, to the point where the audience doesn’t realize that it’s being fed information. On some level, the prologue and first five chapters of The Icon Thief are there to lay pipe: they’re designed to introduce the characters and some basic elements of the plot, while hopefully being interesting enough to keep the reader turning the pages. All the pieces remain relatively disconnected, however, and it isn’t until Chapter 6 that the real shape of the novel begins to be seen—because as we watch Ilya and Zhenya check out a mansion in the Hamptons, we suddenly know what kind of story this is. It’s the story of a heist.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the keystone chapter of Part I, and the point where the novel really begins. Until now, the reader has been presented with three different sets of characters and a lot of incidental detail, but the book has played coy, so far, as to what the story is actually about. Once we see that Ilya is here to steal a painting, we’ve essentially been given a map to follow for the next hundred pages, based both on our assumptions about what such a heist would realistically involve and our knowledge of the genre itself. And although this is a very subdued chapter, in some ways, it’s one of the most crucial in the entire book, because it gives shape and direction to everything that follows. It’s a promise of things to come. (Clearly, it would have been nice to insert this chapter even earlier, but I couldn’t figure out a way to do this and have it make sense structurally.)

Consequently, much of this chapter is devoted to setting up the reader’s expectations. I’m not really sure if Ilya and Zhenya would have discussed the situation so openly on the beach (“Security?” “Six men. They will be focusing on the lawn”), but I sensed that the novel, which had been rather cagey thus far, would benefit here from a bit of extra clarity. There are cameras; there are guards; there’s going to be a party; and, crucially, there’s a source on the inside. These are plot points, yes, but they’re also landmarks. Before we get to the heist, there’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and I wanted the reader to have something to anticipate in the meantime. Anticipation is a powerful tool: while my ultimate goal is to surprise and mislead, it’s often useful, especially in a complex plot, to orient the reader with a general sense of where the story is headed, even if the payoff is many chapters away.

In terms of its function within the overall story, the contents of this chapter aren’t nearly as important as the fact that it exists, but I think it works nicely as a self-contained scene. Many of the details are based on one afternoon I spent walking around the Hamptons, peeking over hedges and checking out locations. (While the house in this novel is fictional, the neighborhood in which it’s located is quite real.) Looking at the mansion through Ilya’s eyes gives us a chance to watch his mind at work, and to see the house that will play such an important role later in the novel in a more quiet context. Indeed, the entire chapter is designed to feel quiet and superficially uneventful. Not a lot happens here. If you were to take this chapter out out, I don’t think a reader would notice that anything was gone. But without it, none of the surrounding material would work at all, and the last line sets up everything that is to come: “All right,” Ilya finally said. “I’ll do it. But I’m going to need a few things—”

Written by nevalalee

June 6, 2012 at 10:03 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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