Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“We’re standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle…”

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"We're standing at the tip of a very interesting triangle..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When it comes to conveying information to the reader, extended dialogue scenes are both highly useful and a potential pitfall. On the one hand, you’ll sometimes find that there’s no other way to narrate certain material, especially for events that fall outside the scope of the novel itself, which is the case, for instance, with the account of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles. When handled judiciously, it’s often the best option for filling in backstory, which can better be covered in a few paragraphs of conversation than in an extended flashback—although here, as always, you need to tread carefully. On the other hand, a conversation that occupies most of a chapter can seem artificial or contrived, as when Dan Brown’s characters spend page after page delivering undigested exposition on dubious historical events. Long dialogue scenes, by definition, constitute a break in the action, and they can quickly grow tedious, especially if several occur in succession. Worst of all, they can disrupt the fictional dream, once the characters cease to talk naturally and turn into mouthpieces for the author’s ideas.

The Icon Thief contains perhaps five or six chapters that consist mostly of dialogue. Part of this is due to the constraints of conspiracy fiction, in which characters are often called upon to narrate events that occurred years or centuries before, and not always reliably. I can also credit, or blame, the precedent set by Foucault’s Pendulum. As I’ve mentioned before, Umberto Eco’s novel—which still remains one of my favorite books—is something of a cul-de-sac for unsuspecting young writers: his characters don’t just talk at length about convoluted conspiracy theories, but do so for hundreds of pages. Eco gets away with it because he’s a genius, and because the underlying material is usually fascinating, although even I tend to skip most of the chapters on the history of the Jesuits. But skeptics from Tom Wolfe to Salman Rushdie have objected, and not without reason, at the lack in Eco’s work of anything resembling an ordinary human conversation, and although I hope I’ve since managed to exorcise most of his influence, it didn’t stop me from indulging in a few long, talky scenes that clearly owe a lot to his example.

"Didn't we say that Arensberg was a lunatic?"

When dealing with a series of long dialogue scenes, the author has a number of options. Above all, he needs to cut them down as much as possible, which I tried to do in The Icon Thief, although I imagine a lot of readers would argue that they still go on too long. He can parcel them out gradually, interspersing them with chapters of more conventional action, or he can replace them with expository prose or indirect dialogue, although this is often a case in which the cure is worse than the disease. And when all else fails, he can at least set the conversation against an interesting background, and vary the setting from one scene to another. You often see this in movies, which like to stage talky moments with the characters standing, say, on a rooftop for no particular reason. (In Miami Vice, the backdrop is so gorgeous that it’s hard to focus on the dialogue.) And you often see exposition delivered in the middle of an action scene, although this can backfire as well: crucial details of the plot of L.A. Confidential are explained while the characters are dangling the district attorney out a window, and although it’s a great scene, it takes a couple of viewings to fully process what they’re saying.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief was heavily revised with these points in mind. I knew that the material was strong—it’s the scene in which I lay out the argument, not altogether seriously, that Marcel Duchamp was working as an intelligence agent in New York—but the staging presented a problem: in the original version, Maddy and Ethan discuss this over lunch, which was a bit too similar to a later scene in which they do much the same over dinner. It would be best, I decided, to get them out of the office, and fortunately I hit on a reasonable excuse: Ethan could give Maddy a quick walking tour of Duchamp’s former residences in New York, all of which were suspiciously close to the homes of the art patrons John Quinn, Walter Arensberg, and Walter Pach. (I may have been inspired by the scene in JFK in which Jim Garrison takes his colleagues on a similar circuit of Oswald’s haunts in New Orleans.) Rewriting the scene posed a bit of a problem, since by then I’d moved from New York to Chicago, meaning that I had to fill in my notes with some help from Google Maps. Still, the result is a chapter that is substantially more interesting than the same information conveyed over lunch. And there’s much more of this sort of thing to come…

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

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