Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Actually, that won’t be necessary…”

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(Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 7. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Not everything a writer does should be obvious to the reader; indeed, sometimes the best thing a novelist can do is indulge in some authorial sleight of hand. One of my favorite moments in writing The Icon Thief involved just such a bit of legerdemain, which takes place in Chapter 7. The scene itself couldn’t be simpler: Maddy and Ethan, two rival associates at an art hedge fund in New York, meet with Reynard, the fund manager, to discuss the search for the mystery bidder from the auction at Sotheby’s. During the meeting, Ethan recognizes a symbol on the bidder’s cufflinks, which are visible in the snapshot that Maddy took at the scene. At first glance, it looks like a red circle—a symbol, as Maddy notes earlier, that could mean “anything or nothing”—but when Ethan enhances it, it turns out to be a red heptagram, which, among other things, is the roundel of the Georgian Air Force. This, in turn, allows him to conclude that the buyer was bidding on behalf of Anzor Archvadze, the only Georgian in their list of remaining suspects.

I’d be the first to admit that this is a gleefully contrived solution, but it worked well enough, and it got me from point A to point B. When I sat down to write it, however, I found that the scene just didn’t work. As it was originally written, I had Ethan notice something in the photograph displayed on Reynard’s computer, frown, and ask to take a closer look. As Maddy and Reynard watches, Ethan enlarges the picture and sharpens the area around the man’s cufflinks, revealing the heptagram. The resulting scene got the job done—but it was also embarrassingly similar to those moments, familiar to any viewer of CSI, in which a photo or surveillance video is magically enhanced to reveal an important clue. (It didn’t help that I’d just watched this compilation, which only underlines how irritatingly common the trope is.) The second Ethan began to enhance the image, I realized, the reader would know precisely what was coming…and the more I revised it, the more contrived it seemed.

It was only after tinkering with the chapter for a long time that I came up with the solution—which was simply to avoid the problem altogether. In the final version, Maddy notices Ethan frowning at the snapshot on his laptop, but she doesn’t pay much attention to what he’s doing. Instead, she continues to talk to Reynard, proposing a new strategy, as Ethan works quietly in the background. And just as Maddy is about to convince Reynard to approve her plan, Ethan interrupts: “Actually, that won’t be necessary. I know who the bidder is.” Only then does he turn his laptop around, revealing the enhanced photograph, and explain how he made the connection. That tiny change made all the difference. A reader, I discovered, is much more likely to accept an unlikely situation if it’s presented as a fait accompli—that is, as something that happened offstage while our attention was elsewhere. (It’s possible, of course, that many readers will still find the solution farfetched, but to my eyes, this version is much less objectionable.)

Readers are naturally good at filling in the gaps, and one of the smartest things a writer can do is simply skip over the less plausible parts of a story, trusting that the reader will substitute a reasonable version of events. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is especially useful in farce and science fiction, which often require the audience to accept at least one major implausibility before the rest of the story can unfold, and it also has its place in suspense, the home of fridge logic. If you do this too often, the story will lose credibility—but as a sort of stopgap measure when you absolutely need to get past a rough spot in the narrative, I don’t know anything more useful. In this particular case, I think it works better than any number of more plausible solutions, if only because we’re at a point where the novel just needs to get on with it already. As Reynard says: “It’s possible. A little neat, maybe, but possible.” And sometimes that’s all you need.

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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