Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 27th, 2012

“When the door of the guest room opened…”

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"When the door of the guest room opened..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Stories are about convergence. At least, they are these days. The very oldest stories we know—fairy tales, folklore, biblical narratives—tend to follow a single protagonist from one event to another, as do the earliest stories we write as children. It didn’t take long, however, for storytellers to discover the power of converging action. We see this kind of structure as early as The Odyssey, which opens with Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors at Ithaca before cutting away to our hero, with the implicit promise that the two threads of the narrative will converge before the poem is done. Ever since, writers have understood that two or more stories, properly arranged, can add up to more than the sum of their parts: given a pair of characters in initially separate storylines, the reader naturally wonders what the two parts of the plot have to do with each other, and looks ahead to their ultimate collision. This kind of anticipation is central to suspense, which is really just another word for any narrative in which we’re curious about what happens next, and the techniques of intercutting, parallel action, and intersection are among the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

And the true potential of convergence wasn’t fully realized until the coming of film. Every cut in a movie is a form of narrative juxtaposition, with edits that marry segments of footage that might have been filmed days or weeks apart, and filmmakers quickly realized how useful a tool this could be. We see this at the climax of a movie like Argo, for instance, which manipulates the audience beautifully as it cuts between pursuer and pursued, and also at higher, more sophisticated narrative levels. I’ve spoken many times about how deeply influenced I’ve been by the structure of L.A. Confidential, which follows its three very different cops on separate investigations that converge ever more insidiously as the plot unfolds. Even more lovely is the structure of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, which follows Julian and Vicky as they enter the world of ballet, allowing them to cross paths occasionally, only to reveal, deliciously, that they’ve fallen in love while our attention has been elsewhere. And it’s for reasons like this that all of my published novels have been conceived with such a tripartite structure in mind.

"I don't want to go back to the share house..."

That said, the trouble with this sort of plot is that a lot of moving parts need to be set in motion, and given room to develop, before their convergence can have any meaning. This is one reason why The Icon Thief and City of Exiles can seem, at least to some readers, to take their sweet time in revealing what they’re really about: unlike a novel that follows a single character all the way through, these books need to establish three distinct storylines, with their attendant backstory and exposition, before finally bringing them together. Extend the process too long, and the reader becomes tired and confused; cover the ground too quickly, and you lose some of the frisson that comes when the pieces finally entwine. Finding a balance that will allow these storylines to gather the necessary momentum, while also giving the reader a satisfying experience in the meantime, has been one of the most challenging aspects of writing these books, and I’m not always sure I pull it off. There are times, for instance, when I wish that The Icon Thief were a little bit faster out of the gate. But when the threads do converge, I’d like to think that the effect is worth the wait, as in Chapter 27, when Maddy and Powell properly meet at last.

Although I haven’t checked in a while, I’m pretty sure that this is one of the longest chapters in the novel, and for good reason. I’ve spent close to half of the book establishing these two characters, and now, after the heist that Maddy witnessed and which Powell failed to prevent, they have a lot to talk about. Ilya, my third protagonist, isn’t present, but he’s certainly there in spirit—and it’s here, as Powell questions Maddy about what she saw, that all the pieces of the narrative finally become one. In some ways, this is the hinge moment of the entire novel, and the rest of the book will be devoted to working out the implications of the components I’ve laid out so far. Of course, it isn’t enough to simply bring the pieces together without some additional complication. In this case, it comes after Powell is gone, when Maddy and Ethan leave the mansion and, somewhat to their surprise, end up spending the night together. This is the second big convergence in this chapter, and one that will have significant consequences for the rest of the story, as it starts to subtly shift in tone from intrigue to paranoia. In some ways, this is where the story really begins. But the pieces have been waiting to come together for a long time…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Mark Rothko

The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is the faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed.

Mark Rothko

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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