Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Wolfe had been watching the front gate…”

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"Wolfe had been watching the front gate..."

Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A while back, I was walking out of a theater with a friend who expressed wonder at the fact that for movie after movie, screenwriters keep coming up with variations on the ultimate heist: a seemingly unbreakable safe, vault, or alarm system, set against a team of thieves who manage to circumvent the security measures in some ingenious—and preferably stylish—fashion. The movie we’d just seen was Ocean’s 11, which seemed, thirteen years ago, like a film that would set a capstone on the entire genre. Obviously, that wasn’t true: since then, we’ve seen countless other caper films, from Heist to The Italian Job to Now You See Me, that continue to pit a team of likable crooks against the usual vibration-sensitive floor and grid of laser beams. But if movies keep coming up with new variations on the same theme, it’s no mystery as to how. The screenwriter controls both halves of the equation: he can establish a seemingly insurmountable problem for the hero to solve, then give him exactly the resources he needs to address it, which is why all these impregnable citadels have a ventilation duct or airshaft that remains inexplicably unguarded.

And the heist movie is only the most obvious example of how writers quietly rig the rules to their own advantage. Mystery fiction, for instance, is built on the author’s ability to construct a puzzle that can be solved within the logic of the story itself, which often means tweaking the situation to the protagonist’s advantage in ways that should remain invisible to the reader. Reading over Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as I’ve been doing a lot over the last couple of weeks, I’m struck again by how conveniently they unfold. Holmes is a genius, but he’s also on the receiving end of a mystery that his creator intends him to solve, to the point where I sometimes agree with Ronald Knox’s observation: “A single blunder on the part of the guilty man would have thrown all Holmes’s deductions out of joint.” You see the same tendency, although handled with much less grace, in the work of an author like Dan Brown—if you want to convince me that your lead character is a master of deduction, you’ll need to do more than give him a few anagrams to rearrange. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a character shield that keeps the star of the show alive: it may be necessary, but we’re often all too aware of the author’s hand at work.

"Wolfe sat upright..."

Of course, sometimes you just need a character to be lucky, or for a shot in the dark to pay off, to move the story along. Like so many other narrative clichés, it’s a matter of convenience: it’s easier to have your hero proceed from one good hunch to another than to show the laborious grind of real police work. The trick is to make the process seem organic, which is why a good mystery writer builds a few delays and reversals into the plot while maintaining the overall momentum. When we look back at the story, we can appreciate how beautifully the clues were laid out, but we shouldn’t be thinking in those terms when we first read it through. And at best, every detail serves multiple purposes: it fleshes out a character or provides additional color even as it serves the plot. In City of Exiles, for example, I had a specific narrative problem to solve. On the one hand, I had my antihero, Ilya, on the loose in London; on the other, I had Wolfe, who had to track him down and follow him for the upcoming climax to make sense. The means I used to get to this point weren’t all that important in themselves—in theory, I could have just had Wolfe run into Ilya randomly on the street—but the need to make the details serve double duty helped guide my thinking in the right direction.

When it came time to tackle this problem, my only guidelines were that the solution be quick and efficient; that it reveal something about both characters; and that it show a bit of ingenuity of Wolfe’s part. After some thinking, I came up with the idea of Wolfe, who knows that Ilya is a book collector with an interest in Judaica, staking out the best Jewish bookstore in London, on the assumption that Ilya will eventually make an appearance there, as he finally does in Chapter 17. (The bookstore, incidentally, is a real one, and I spent a happy afternoon browsing there in Golders Green, while quietly plotting out the action at the same time. I’ll also admit that looking for a fugitive based on an analysis of his tastes and shopping list isn’t entirely original to me—Thomas Harris does something similar, although at much greater length, in Hannibal.) For the purposes of the story, it obviously had to be sooner rather than later, although I tried to structure it so that it didn’t seem overly convenient. I’m still not sure if I entirely succeeded, but I think the result works on its own terms. And now that all the pieces are in place, we can finally get to the good stuff…

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2014 at 10:06 am

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