Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The old man walked along the Avenue of the Americas…”

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"The old man walked along the Avenue of the Americas..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Novels are curious creatures. Even if you think of yourself as a gardener, not an architect, in practice, a novel can’t be grown like a living thing: instead, it’s assembled out of pieces that might have been written and conceived weeks or months apart, even if they end up lying side by side in the finished draft. In general, the task of the writer is to make these seams as invisible as he can. One of my primary concerns, especially during the rewrite, is to structure the story so that it reads as much as possible like a single continuous piece of narrative. There may be a lot of chapters—and in my case, they often switch between different points of view—but if the plot has been properly constructed, the chapter breaks feel less like interruptions than necessary beats in the novel’s rhythm. Film editors know that any cut the viewer notices is a bad one, and at best, their work is invisible. For the most part, that’s a rule that writers should follow as well: unless you’re going for a particular experimental effect, the story should feel like it was cut from one piece of cloth, even if it was really stitched together from countless shreds and patches.

There’s one exception to the rule, though. In theory, there’s no reason why a novel has to be subdivided into more than one major section, and indeed, many excellent thrillers—the early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance—consist of an uninterrupted sequence of short chapters. A section break, as opposed to a chapter break, is practically a violent event in itself: instead of following the action smoothly to the next scene, the reader is confronted by a blank page, a Roman numeral, and a stark epigraph. But this can also be very useful. I’ve written before about the purely typographical impact of epigraphs and section breaks, which signal that a new phase of the narrative is beginning, and I’d argue that this is one place where the reader can and should be aware of a rift in the continuity. (For an example in a very different context, notice how Mitch Hurwitz still fades to white for the act breaks in the new season of Arrested Development. There’s no commercial break, but it’s still a nice way of punctuating a plot development and structuring the viewer’s attention.)

"You follow me?"

Such a powerful tool should be used sparingly, of course, and I often get a little impatient with novels that break the action into four or more sections—maybe because I’m so fond of the rule of three. It also requires a little more trouble than an ordinary chapter break. I’ve found that it helps to think of it less as a break than a hinge. A hinge, as this diagram helpfully points out, consists of three parts: the central pivot, vividly known as the knuckle, and a wing to either side to join the door and the frame. A section break operates in much the same way, and it often requires more than one chapter to set up correctly. If you look at the section breaks in The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and the forthcoming Eternal Empire—especially the ones between Parts II and III of each book—you’ll see that they consist of about three chapters. One chapter consolidates the information from the section we’ve just read; another provides connective and expository material to set up the section break; and the last serves to propel the plot forward to the next stage of the game. And without the chapters that came before it, this final chapter wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Chapter 50 of The Icon Thief is best understood as the knuckle chapter of this sequence. It’s a relatively quiet scene, following Sharkovsky—whose point of view appears for the first time in the narrative—as he meets Lermontov and gets the order to kill Maddy. On the last page, it also reveals that Ilya has been keeping an eye on the art gallery, and it ends with him following Sharkovsky to his next destination. To borrow a term from television writing, the bulk of the chapter is concerned with laying pipe, and it’s interesting mostly in how it gives the reader the information necessary to understand the action to come. It also gives us some breathing room after the revelations of the chapter before it. (Originally, this scene included a big reveal of its own—the disclosure of Reynard’s true role in the story—but I cut it in a subsequent rewrite, sensing that it would work better at a later point in the novel.) In theory, you could take this chapter out and convey the essential points in some other way, but as the knuckle between the two parts of a hinge, it plays an important role. Without it, the door would fall out of its frame. And we’re about to see what lies on the other side…

I’ll be appearing on The Afternoon Shift with Niala Boodhoo on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio at 2:00 pm today to discuss the business of writing fiction. You can listen to the broadcast online here.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am

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