Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

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