Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He sensed that something inside him had changed…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 25. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Act breaks are hard. They’re hard enough, in fact, that it’s tempting to think that we can do without them altogether, on the principle that the division of a story into three distinct acts is a convention of lazy or formulaic writing. Artists who attempt to structure their works in more complex or intuitive ways should be commended for it, especially if they can pull it off—although it’s important to note that even a movie like Cloud Atlas organizes its separate narrative strands in what looks, when you stand back, an awful lot like a conventional beginning, middle, and end. And there’s a good reason for this. The three-act structure is the most powerful storytelling tool ever developed, and when it’s properly deployed, you don’t even notice it: you’re only aware of being drawn along by a narrative that moves with its own inevitable momentum. In a good movie, in particular, the act breaks should be invisible; if they aren’t, it’s the sign of a script that has been assembled according to one of those mechanical plans, so beloved by aspiring screenwriters, that put the central dramatic question on page three and the inciting incident on page ten. That kind of structure doesn’t do anyone any favors.

In reality, the act breaks in a story are more like the stakes and string that the architect Christopher Alexander describes in his wonderful book The Timeless Way of Building. Before you start construction on a house, you go out to the site and lay down its outlines with some twine and a few bits of wood. You adjust their position, a foot here, a foot there, until the layout looks more or less right. The result isn’t a house, or even a true plan, but it’s an essential first step. And the act breaks in a story are the stakes that you use to guide yourself as you begin to plot the story in greater detail. Whenever I begin any substantial writing project, I generally have a sense of what the two or three major turning points of the narrative will be, even before I’ve fleshed out the plot or characters. Even if you don’t outline to the extent that I do, it’s useful to at least have those big moments in mind. If nothing else, it’s a way of keeping yourself sane: I’ve often found myself lost in the shapeless middle section of a novel, but take comfort in the fact that there’s some good stuff just around the corner. And laying down the stakes for a few important moments helps you navigate the rough patches on the way to your next destination.

So where should the stakes go? They should go, well, where the stakes are greatest—at points in which the narrative has been fundamentally changed by some new crisis or development that is organic to the shape of the story itself. In The Icon Thief, the nature of my first big act break was clear from the beginning. The story so far had been structured around a heist in which Ilya, my thief, would steal the painting Study for Étant Donnés. At the end of Part I, he obtains the painting, but finds himself betrayed and on the run, with the picture still in tow. I don’t know whether this development took anyone by surprise—looking over it again now, I have a hunch that it telegraphs itself a bit too clearly—but that’s less important than the conflict it establishes, which will play out over the rest of the novel. Ilya has defined himself as a thief who is working, in some small way, against the system that abandoned him. When he discovers that, in fact, he’s been a part of that system all along, it shifts the terms of the story and transforms him from a skilled professional into a man driven by self-preservation and, ultimately, revenge. Which is the kind of meaningful change required to propel the characters, and the reader, into the long second half of the novel.

And much of the impact of this moment is, for lack of a better word, typographical. At the end of Chapter 25, the reader sees Ilya on the run, racing for his life through a darkened field with everything he believed in ruins—and then turns to a blank page, followed by the stark pair of epigraphs for Part II. The fact that the reader has to turn the page to see that a new section is beginning is an accident of layout: later, in Part III, and for both major act breaks in City of Exiles, the new section appears on the facing page of the previous one, which means that the reader can tell, out of the corner of his or her eye, that a new phase in the story is beginning. That’s fine, but I’m still tickled by the way the reader needs to turn a page here to see that we’ve reached the end of the novel’s first movement. As I said above, in a movie, this transition should be invisible, but there’s something weirdly satisfying, at least for me, when a novel manages to gather all of its narrative threads together in one moment of crisis as its first section visibly ends. Of course, picking up the action again in the second half presents problems of its own. But that’s a topic for another day…

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2012 at 9:40 am

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