Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“And each man recognized the other for what he was…”

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"Ilya looked more closely at the man's face..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Every novel is the product of countess internal tensions, an attempt by the author to balance all the competing considerations that need to be taken into account, and the result is necessarily a compromise. The legendary biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, in his classic book On Growth and Form, argued that the shape of an organism’s body was a kind of living force diagram, the product of all the pressures and stresses exerted on it constantly by gravity, and much the same is true of a story. Ideally, it would evolve organically from a single perfect premise, but in practice, you find that the different pieces push against one another in unexpected ways. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller with a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. Even if these two characters are separated for long stretches of the story, it’s sensible to think that there will eventually come a time when they’re in direct confrontation. Not only is this good narrative practice, but it’s a useful way of deciding which story, out of the many possible alternatives, you want to tell. All else being equal, a story that leads inexorably to a collision between two opposing players—whether it’s a hero or a villain or a husband and a wife—is likely to generate a lot of interesting material along the way.

Occasionally, however, you find the story changing before your eyes, until the big, obvious climax that you had in mind becomes logistically impossible. Nothing should be simpler than arranging events to give these characters the cathartic encounter that they deserve, but the narrative often has plans of its own. A nice example occurs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my ten favorite movies of all time, as well as a fascinating case study in how a fine story can emerge from the least promising of circumstances. Khan is one of the great movie villains, Kirk is at his heroic best, and each man is fundamentally defined by how he relates to the other—a point that Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Khan barely seems aware of Kirk at all, manages to miss completely. It’s startling to realize, then, that in the original film, Khan and Kirk are never in the same place at the same time, and the sum of all their interactions, conducted over viewscreen and communicator, are the matter of a few minutes, although those moments are unforgettable. (In retrospect, watching Khan and Kirk tussle in “Space Seed” seems actively strange, especially because one of the two combatants is clearly Shatner’s stunt double.)

"And each man recognized the other for what he was..."

It’s easy to understand why the story keeps its hero and villain apart: the entire narrative is predicated on two parallel lines of action, with Kirk and Khan attempting to outmaneuver and outsmart each other at a distance. Structure, in short, trumped a conventional line of action, and yet the writing and acting are pitched at such a high level that we don’t miss it at all. In writing City of Exiles, I was faced with a similar dilemma. I had created a formidable new character, Lasse Karvonen, specifically to serve as an antagonist to Ilya; looking back at my original notes for the story, one of the first things I jotted down was that the novel would be a kind of duel of assassins, with these two men hunting one another across Europe. It sounded like a pretty good premise, and it still does. When the time came to break the story down, however, another factor unexpectedly intervened. I found that I was constructing more or less the same kind of plot that I had already written in The Icon Thief, with Ilya, on the run from the law, continually remaining one step ahead of his pursuers. I didn’t feel like covering that ground again, so I ultimately cut the Gordian knot—spoilers ahead—by having Ilya captured by the police at the end of Part I.

This decision ended up opening up the entire novel, as well as its sequel, and it was absolutely the right choice. However, it also involved a radical reconception of the story I’d envisioned. Now Karvonen would be opposed to Wolfe instead of Ilya, and unbelievably, given my initial intentions, Ilya and Karvonen barely exchange a word. They run into one another briefly in Chapter 15, although neither man knows who the other one is, and it’s only in Chapter 20 that they’re given anything like a good look at each other. Even here, the structure of the scene prevented me from making this interaction any more than an exchange of glances. In that instant, though, each man sees his counterpart for what he really is, and it’s possible that I even gave the moment more emphasis than was strictly plausible because I knew it was the only one I would ever get. That glance is all that remains of the story I had once intended to tell, and part of me still wonders how the plot would have unfolded if I had allowed Ilya to retain his freedom. In any case, Wolfe ended up being a perfectly capable opponent for Karvonen, and Ilya’s role, in which he’s forced to outthink his adversary from within a prison cell, is considerably more interesting than what I’d formerly planned. These two men will never meet again. But the parts they will play in each other’s lives are far from over…

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