Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“A sharp tap against the key was all it took…”

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(Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 12. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re writing a movie, William Goldman reminds us, there’s no question about what to do with a great line or bit of business: in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, you give it to the star. A movie is all about the lead, who is the reason most of the audience bought a ticket in the first place and who, in most cases, is in nearly every frame of the story. But a novel operates under somewhat different rules. Unless it’s in the first person or told exclusively from the perspective of a single character, you’re going to leave the protagonist’s head from time to time. Entire chapters will be told through the eyes of the supporting cast. In the case of a novel like The Icon Thief, there may be three or more leads all competing for the reader’s attention. As a result, the writer needs to be generous with all of them: they all need their moment in the sun. What you often discover, unfortunately, after reading over the first draft, is that you’ve inadvertently neglected one or more protagonists in favor of others. And that’s a problem.

Of all the characters in The Icon Thief, the one who gave me the most trouble was Alan Powell, my British investigator. Powell really originated as a convenient narrative device, a sort of authorial surrogate who could guide the reader through the plot’s myriad complexities, and it took me a long time to figure out who he was in other respects. His character suffered further over the course of the book’s revisions: as I’ve mentioned before, I restructured the entire novel to focus on Maddy, which meant writing new scenes for her and cutting back the others. Ilya, the book’s third major character, had always been kept mostly offstage, so he wasn’t hurt by the process, but Powell lost several big chapters. This removed much of his story, leaving him even more of an enigma than before. And when I looked at the novel’s structure, I saw that I basically had room for just one chapter that would give Powell a solid early scene and include all the important information from the sections that were cut.

When I wrote Chapter 12, then, my primary goal was to provide a real showcase for Powell. At that point, I’d been working on the novel for well over a year, but hadn’t written any new scenes in months, so I was able to approach the challenge with a fairly clear head. I began by borrowing an idea from the wonderful Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, which I’d seen around that time, and which includes a suspenseful sequence in which the two main characters break into a suspect’s home to look for evidence in a crime. Watching it, I realized that this is one of those few precious scene types—like an auction—that a writer can’t possibly screw up: it allows the story to convey as much information as necessary while the reader worries that the hero will be caught. I decided right then that I’d have Powell engage in a bit of illegal entry in pursuit of a piece of evidence, which would also reveal a slightly more reckless side of his character that hadn’t been emphasized before.

The rest was a lot of fun. Once I had the basic outline of the chapter, it was simply a matter of arranging the necessary pieces into a pleasing shape. I had Powell break into the house with a bump key, a device that I heartily recommend to any fictional housebreaker, and then follow a series of clues that, in many cases, were refugees from previous drafts. (The photograph of the racing truck that he finds in the boy’s bedroom, for instance, originally hung on a door at the FBI field office in the Javits Building—I relocated it here because it provides a crucial clue, and the scene in which it first appeared was cut.) Powell’s subsequent conversation with Wolfe outside the house combines information from a number of missing scenes, sometimes distilling an entire chapter into a paragraph or two. And while it may sound like this chapter was cobbled together out of leftover pieces, I don’t think it reads that way. As I’ve discovered more than once, a single neat dramatic device can provide a home for a lot of necessary business, and the result is a strong chapter that breathed new life into Powell. And since I’ve had to live with him for two more novels, I’m very glad it did.

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2012 at 9:57 am

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