Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Ilya moved silently through the mansion…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 21. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the greatest challenges in writing fiction, especially suspense, is the problem of showing simultaneous action. In film, it’s easy: cinema is essentially the art of montage, of the suspenseful juxtaposition of unrelated events occurring in different places, and it’s been used to build satisfying tension ever since Battleship Potemkin. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I have a hunch that the problem of intercutting in fiction didn’t become pronounced until novelists had the chance to see how it was done in the movies. Traditionally, chapters in novels have tended to stick to one place, allowing suspense to build organically over the course of a self-contained scene, but as soon as film demonstrated how powerful this kind of intercutting could be, writers began to do the same, only to discover that books aren’t nearly as suited for this sort of thing. (For a vivid illustration of this, consider the brilliant fakeout at the climax of the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs, in which a SWAT raid is intercut with scenes inside the killer’s house, only to reveal that these sequences are taking place in two entirely different locations. The book attempts a similar mislead, but it isn’t remotely as effective.)

Nevertheless, writers have attacked the problem in a number of different ways. The most obvious solution is to render simultaneous action as a kind of prose montage, with short sequences from different points of view cut together into a single chapter, often with the individual sections set apart by a line or two of white space. In the right hands, this can be a powerful tool, and for a master class in the form, there’s no better example than the last ten pages of The Day of the Jackal. To my eyes, however, this kind of thing can seem choppy and gimmicky, as if the book is struggling to replicate an effect that could be better achieved on film. A novel shouldn’t seem like a flawed simulacrum of a movie: it should tell a story using all the best resources of prose fiction. In particular, novels aren’t great at simultaneous action, but they’re unmatched for showing us events through the eyes of particular characters. In my experience, scenes tend to be most compelling when we stick with the same character for an extended period of time, rather than jumping from one perspective to another. And at first glance, this might seem to preclude the kind of simultaneous action that we often see in the movies.

In my own fiction, however, I’ve arrived at what strikes me as a pretty good workaround, which arose, as such things often do, from the constraints of my own style. The Icon Thief and its sequels are all written in the limited third-person, alternating between three or four primary characters, with each one providing the sole point of view for a given chapter. (There are a few exceptions when the point of view character changes halfway through a chapter or scene, but I only do this when absolutely necessary.) Similarly, each chapter tends to depict a continuous line of action: they usually unfold in narrative real time and keep internal transitions of time and place to a minimum. There’s no particular reason why I do this; it’s just the mode that seemed most natural to me. For most of the novel, this approach was fine, but it posed a problem during many of the big set pieces, which depict action unfolding simultaneously from the point of view of multiple characters. And what I soon discovered was that the best way to stage these scenes within the constraints I’d imposed was through a kind of narrative rewind: I’d show the action from one character’s perspective, then backtrack to narrate the same events through someone else’s eyes, while also moving the story forward through this new point of view.

At first glance, this may seem complicated and a little unwieldy, and in practice, it does require a lot of phrases like “A few minutes earlier” or “A moment before…” What I’ve found, though, is that this is a flexible tool that works better, in some ways, than pure intercutting, because the reader, having seen one continuous piece of the action already, knows more about what’s going to happen—and this kind of foreknowledge is the key to effective suspense. I’d like to say that this approach occurred to me after a careful process of rational thought, but in fact, it was basically worked out on the fly, as I was writing Chapter 21 of The Icon Thief. Ilya has just entered the mansion to steal a painting, and Maddy and Ethan are downstairs at the party. Clearly, these two threads are going to collide, but I couldn’t show both at once, so I simply wrote a chapter about Ilya preparing to break into the art collection, followed by another chapter showing what Maddy was doing at the same time. I also departed from my usual practice of writing the chapters in order: instead, I wrote all of Ilya’s material on one day, followed by Maddy’s the next, and intercut them later in four big pieces. The result works nicely, and it incidentally taught me a narrative trick that I’ve repeated in both of the novels I’ve written since. And I don’t think readers mind the temporal shift. They know a collision is coming…

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

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