Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“She couldn’t believe it was over…”

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"Ilya saw that the path to the elevators was blocked..."

Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 21. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about my fascination with television, and especially with the challenges involved in telling an extended, episodic narrative in a medium that offers no clearly defined endpoint. Trying to plan too far in advance is a fool’s game: you never know if you’re going to get a single pilot, ten episodes, or a decade’s worth of stories, so you simultaneously need to act as if you might be canceled tomorrow and if you’ll get six seasons and a movie. Inevitably, the situation encourages shows to burn through ideas as quickly as possible. Since you don’t know how long you’re going to be on the air, it doesn’t make sense to hold any of the good stuff in reserve—which is why so many series seem to work themselves into exhaustion around the fifth season or so. At the other extreme, planning too far in advance can rob a show of its surprise and spontaneity, as I argued last year in my Salon piece on The X-Files and House of Cards. Even a show like Breaking Bad, which was able to set its own timetable for its final run of episodes, allowed chance and uncertainty to creep into the process: when Vince Gilligan and his writing staff showed us that machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car at the beginning of the final season, even they weren’t sure how it was going to be used in the end.

Since a book is written and conceived in its entirety before its initial publication, it’s harder for a novelist to set challenges like this, although there are exceptions. Writing in a serial format, as Tom Wolfe did with the original draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Stephen King did with The Green Mile, can create something of the same effect, and it’s an approach I’ve often been tempted to try. It’s also a factor for authors of series fiction. Plotting out one novel is hard enough in itself, much less trying to figure out a narrative arc that spans several volumes, and I suspect that most writers who stretch a single story across multiple books aren’t quite sure how the final result will look. George R.R. Martin’s evolving sense of the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire has been thoroughly documented—he originally conceived it as a trilogy, only to see it balloon to a projected seven installments—and although he claims to have a general sense of how the story will end, I expect that even he will be surprised by many of his own developments. Part of this has to do with sustaining the writer’s interest over a project that can consume many years of his or her life, but even more of it has to do with the impossibility of holding that much information in one’s head at any one time.

"She couldn't believe it was over..."

As a result, a plot development in the middle of a series can sometimes resemble a shot in the dark, a best guess as to which avenues of exploration will turn out to be dramatically profitable. By the time I started work on City of Exiles, I knew that I wanted it to be the middle volume of a trilogy, which meant that every choice would affect not just the plot I was writing, but a hypothetical third book whose outlines I could see only dimly. (I’d like to believe that the three books in the series feel like one unified story, but I had no idea what Eternal Empire would be about, or even who the protagonist would be, until I’d submitted a draft of the second installment.) Of all the judgment calls I made, the one that had the greatest impact on what followed was the decision to have Ilya captured by the police at the exact midpoint of the series. At the time, as I mentioned last week, it was a way of forestalling writer’s block: I didn’t want to write the same novel all over again, and the change was radical enough to get me excited about where the story would go. But it also imposed enormous limitations, since I was effectively confining my most dynamic character for an extended period of time, and it meant that I was suddenly writing a prison novel, which wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I started.

When I wrote the scene of Ilya’s capture, which occurs in Chapter 20, I knew that all of these elements would present issues down the line, but I tried to take a page from the episodic narratives I admired and focus solely on the moment. I think the result is an exciting scene, and hopefully an unexpected one, all the more so because I didn’t know what would happen next. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine this series unfolding in any other way, and it certainly opened up a rich vein of new ideas. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to write this scene at all if I didn’t know that I had ample background material available on the British prison system, in the form of memoirs, journalism, and other works of nonfiction, most of which will make its appearance in Part II.) By writing both Ilya and myself into a corner—and one I wouldn’t be able to get out for another three hundred pages, spread over two different books—I gave the series a jolt of energy that it badly needed. Whether the result was better or worse than it would have been if I’d gone in a different direction is something I’ll never know. All I can say is that it made me a lot more curious about the outcome, and that when I put Ilya in handcuffs, I had no idea how, if ever, he’d get out of them again…

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2014 at 10:10 am

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