Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He was visibly surprised to see the knife…”

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"Working late?"

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 36. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles.

I’ve spoken before of how tired I am of mechanical plot twists in suspense fiction, and particularly of how serial narratives, especially television shows, try to raise the stakes with the unexpected death of a major character. Of course, a thriller without a twist isn’t much of a thriller at all, and my objection has less to do with the quality or nature of any twist in itself than in its pathological overuse. The trouble with any trope that works is that writers tend to rely on it time and again, until, drained of all its original power, it settles into the status of a cliché. A real twist, as the term implies, should be a turning point, a moment in which the story takes on a permanently new direction, but in far too many novels, movies, and shows, it’s just business as usual, a continuation of a mode that leaves readers unsure of where they stand but saps the experience of much of its pleasure. Now that so many stories consist of twist after twist, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that one twist, judiciously employed, can be much more effective: good storytelling is about contrasts, and a twist gains much of its power from its juxtaposition with a narrative that, until then, seemed to be moving along more familiar lines.

In my case, it helps that the two most striking twists in The Icon Thief and City of Exiles—at least as measured by reader response—were both the unexpected product of necessity. Ethan’s death scene in the first novel was a very late revision in response to a note from my agent, who felt that the character’s original departure from the story, in the form of a suicide, wasn’t especially satisfying. Rewriting the story to give him a more dramatic sendoff required surprisingly few changes elsewhere in the novel, although it upset the balance of the narrative enough to result in a new epilogue that drastically altered the course of the series. With City of Exiles, as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t know that Asthana was the mole until I’d already finished the first half of the book, which survives in its published form essentially unchanged. In both instances, I’d like to think that the fact that these were both unplanned additions increases their impact: if the reader is surprised, it’s probably because I was, too. (Speaking candidly, I have a feeling that the corresponding twist in Eternal Empire doesn’t work quite as well, if only because it was baked into the story from the earliest drafts.)

"He was visibly surprised to see the knife..."

That said, a scene in which what seems like an ordinary conversation between two characters ends with one killing the other, in the first revelation his or her villainy, is a familiar one, so I had to work hard to make it feel fresh. The gold standard for such moments, as far as I’m concerned, is Jack’s valediction in L.A. Confidential, which has inspired countless imitations, from the sublime (Minority Report) to the workmanlike (24 and its successors, which have practically turned it into a tradition). If the version in City of Exiles works, it’s partially because the scene is written from Asthana’s point of view, putting the reader in her head as she feels increasingly uneasy around Garber, although the real reason for her wariness isn’t revealed until the last page. This kind of thing can feel like a bit of a cheat, and, frankly, it is. I played it as fair as I could, though, and while I essentially wrote the chapter as if Asthana were innocent and Garber a threat until that final turn, the logic holds up well enough on rereading. I don’t give the reader any false information; I just withhold a few crucial facts. And although this is an extreme example, it’s a familiar strategy in suspense fiction, which often relies on giving us only part of the picture.

While writing Chapter 36, I was also conscious that in its content and place in the story, it was uncomfortably close to the corresponding scene in The Icon Thief. I addressed this, first, by making the externals as different as I could. Along with narrating events from the killer’s point of view, I changed the setting—which is why much of the scene takes place in Garber’s car—and the murder weapon. (Asthana’s knife, a Spydero Harpy, is an obvious nod to its appearance in the novel Hannibal, and as the proud owner of one, I can testify that it’s a wickedly beautiful little tool.) I’m also pleased that it takes place in the shadow of the Battersea Power Station, one of the most striking buildings in London, best known from its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. The choice of location was a pragmatic one: I wanted a secluded spot that was within a short drive from the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s headquarters in Vauxhall, and Battersea fit the bill perfectly. It also provides a resonant backdrop for Garber’s final speech about the centrality of energy to Russia’s political future, and how little the rest of the world can control it as long as it controls the flow of gas to Europe. I wrote those lines back in 2011, and in light of recent events, they seem even more true today…

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2014 at 9:36 am

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