Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“When the dead man’s face was revealed…”

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"When the dead man's face was revealed..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 9. You can read the earlier installments here.)

There are moments when writing feels less like an art form than a search for a new industrial process. You’re putting together a complicated machine that has to pass through a series of distinct phases—research and development, design, assembly, testing—and you’re often constrained by the parts you have available. Time and again, you find yourself confronted by the same handful of problems: how to generate suspense, how to painlessly deliver exposition, how to describe your main character’s appearance. In response, writers invent a range of solutions, some more effective than others, and because they can’t be patented, any good device is quickly appropriated by others. If so many books and movies end with a jury scene, for instance, it’s because it’s as foolproof a way as any of delivering a shot of suspense: when the jury returns, the foreman hands the folded verdict to the judge, and the defendant is told to rise, you’re interested in what comes next, however indifferent the rest of the story may have been until now. The same is true of the big game or the climatic title fight. These are clichés, yes, but they still work, and it doesn’t require a lot of skill to get them to pay off.

The trouble, of course, is that any “foolproof” scene eventually becomes tired from overuse, until it turns into a joke. This is particularly true of formulas designed as an excuse to deliver exposition—ultimately, viewers come to recognize when they’re being subtly conned. A famous example is what Roger Ebert called the fallacy of the talking killer, familiar from the Bond films, in which the antagonist captures the hero, takes this as an opportunity to reveal his entire evil plan, then leaves the room to allow for a convenient escape. It’s funny now, and it’s been subjected to endless parody, but there was a point at which it undeniably worked: if you’re going to deliver exposition, you may as well strap your hero into a torture device first. (These days, a more fashionable variation involves the villain being captured, and preferably installed behind glass, a device that we seen in everything from Skyfall to Star Trek Into Darkness.) And what’s especially interesting is that when you look at the trademark beats that recur most often in a movie or television series, they’re almost always designed to convey exposition. Bond’s initial briefing with M or the captain’s log in Star Trek are devices to tell us where we are and where we’re going, but if we’re fans of the formula, we don’t really mind. We may even start to regard them with affection.

"Lewis finished examining the plastic sheet..."

That’s some high-level narrative grifting, since it convinces viewers that a lump of exposition isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s also why so many television shows seem to consist of nothing but autopsy scenes. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an autopsy is an ideal setting for conveying information and advancing to the next plot point: you’ve got a clearly defined location, a sprinkling of jargon and tradecraft, a touch of gore, and enough flexibility to cover whatever you need to move the story along. Whenever you see a coroner or medical examiner listed as one of the characters in the opening credits, you’re looking at someone whose primary job is to feed data to the protagonist, often from behind a green surgical mask, and if you can pack your cast with similar players, so much the better. A show like CSI at its best moves so effectively because the tools of exposition are baked right into the premise: you can afford to stuff each episode with plot because you’re working with characters who deliver exposition for a living. And even if you aren’t fortunate enough to be operating in a genre that allows you to move from one forensic scene to the next, it’s nice to be able to fall back on it when necessary.

Hence a sequence like Chapter 9 of City of Exiles, which comes as close as anything in these novels to a classic autopsy scene. All the ingredients are here: a charred body, a dash of science, even a red herring. (This would be the burnt scrap of paper in the dead man’s pocket, which at first looks like the women’s name Ainha, and is later revealed to be Rainham, a neighborhood in London—a touch of which I’m still proud.) And it’s no accident that it occurs here, at a transitional point in the narrative. If you watch procedural shows on a regular basis, you start to notice that the trip to the coroner’s office tends to occur around the same time in every episode, usually as the story requires a piece of exposition to pass from the first act to the second, and this one is no exception. Until now, the plot has been focused on investigation and cleaning up crime scenes after the fact, but now it’s a race to prevent the next crime before it happens. These hinge moments are some of the trickiest parts of any novel: you need to give the reader enough information to clarify the next phase of the action without slowing things down in the meantime. And sometimes all it takes is a trip to the morgue…

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2013 at 9:02 am

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