Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Gentlemen, we have a warrant…”

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"Gentlemen, we have a warrant..."

(Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the few things I know about writing is that less is usually more, and that a story is generally effective in proportion to how much the author can leave out. As overstuffed as my novels tend to be, I’m always trying to pare back elements like backstory and personal description, to the point where my advance readers often beg me to put them back in. A lot of things, I’ve found, are best left to implication, although it takes a lot of revision and feedback to find the right level of clarity. Still, there are always places where it’s necessary to spell things out. When a story contains a lot of complicated action, for instance, it’s often useful to brief readers on what they’re about to see, which can be allowed to unfold more impressionistically when the crucial moment comes: it’s fine if your characters are confused or uncertain, but that’s rarely an emotion you want in the reader, unless you’re trying to achieve it on purpose. (The best example I know of this kind of advance grounding is the computer simulation of the sinking ship in Titanic, a movie whose shrewdness of construction has been frequently underestimated.)

And giving your reader a game plan for how the action is supposed to unfold can be particularly useful in suspense. A good thriller is all about anticipation, and there’s a peculiar satisfaction in being given just enough information on what’s about to take place to look forward to the action to come—and especially to see how it deviates from what the characters are expecting. In describing the scene in The Godfather where Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCloskey, David Thomson talks about “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” and when properly done, it’s one of the most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Hence the moment in any decent heist movie in which the logistics of entering the mansion, disabling the security system, and cracking the safe are lovingly described in advance, which stands as one of the few instances when exposition builds the suspense, rather than destroying it.

"The club stands in a line of restaurants..."

Suspense, as Thomson points out in his discussion of Inception, has a lot in common with comedy, which is also built on anticipation and surprise, and at its best, this approach embodies a classic piece of comedy advice: “Tell them what you’re going to do. Then do it. Then tell them what you did.” In a thriller, though, this last step might be better described as “Then tell them what really happened.” Because spelling out the coming action carries an additional charge of irony and tension. A sophisticated reader—which is to say anyone who has seen a movie or two—is well aware that nothing ever goes entirely as planned: a properly constructed caper film, for instance, will withhold the most essential information until the big score itself begins to unfold, as in Ocean’s 11, which means that any initial description of the plan is really just a list of things that can go wrong. And as always, it’s best to acknowledge this, and play off the reader’s knowledge of the genre, rather than trying to fight against it.

Chapter 41 of The Icon Thief, for example, is largely taken up by one of my favorite categories of this kind of exposition: the police briefing in advance of a raid. Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge, spends several pages describing what will take place when they finally raid Sharkovsky’s club in Brighton Beach, and because of the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I give more space to this speech than I might have done elsewhere in the novel. In fact, this is one of the few chapters that was significantly expanded in the rewrite, as it became clear to me that I needed to lay out the impending action as clearly as possible—and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will appreciate it on several levels at once. It creates anticipation for the scene to come; it provides a kind of map for following the action itself, which will ultimately unfold across multiple points of view; and, best of all, it allows the reader to wonder what, exactly, is going to go wrong. Because as you can probably guess, this raid isn’t going to go exactly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

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