Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“It’s been too long since we truly spoke…”

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"It's been too long since we truly spoke..."

Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 46. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a moment in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer—which is one of the more interesting movies of this or any year—that demonstrates how shrewdly the film handles its own structure, even within a narrative that moves within wild extremes of realism and tone. Toward the end of the movie, the small band of rebels has fought its way to the front of the titular train, in search of its mysterious designer and engineer. We reach a point where only a single door stands between the hero, played by Chris Evans, and the engineer himself. And it’s here, with the climax seemingly around the corner, that the movie pauses. Evans sits down, lights the obligatory cigarette, and for the first time in the film, he really talks. So far, he’s spoken in short bursts of exhortation or exposition, usually just for a sentence or two, but now he opens up and finally reveals where he comes from and what brought him to this moment. I’m not a fan of backstory; I’m in full agreement with William Goldman that a hero is more compelling the less he reveals. But if you’re going to do this kind of thing, I’d argue that it belongs here, after the protagonist has been clarified through an entire story’s worth of action, but before he faces his final challenge.

In other words, Snowpiercer, a movie which otherwise moves with relentless momentum, is smart enough, even within its tonal chaos, to identify and utilize an organic pause in its structure. It’s particularly effective here, near the end: when the door opens and Evans confronts what awaits him on the other side, his personal stakes are fresh in the viewer’s mind. We’re also more likely to accept a break here than anywhere else. By now, we’re impatient to see what lies behind the door, but our awareness of exactly where the movie is going gives his monologue an urgency that it wouldn’t have if the next steps weren’t so clear. And while this may seem like a trivial point, it’s one of a very few valuable tricks—which I’ve noted elsewhere can be counted on one hand—that work in a wide range of stories. One of the recurring headaches of a writer’s life is finding room for moments where the narrative can pause and regroup. Throughout most of a novel or film, especially in the suspense or action genres, that kind of break is lethal to the forward movement that the audience expects. And I’ve found that this kind of interstitial scene, between a climactic setup and payoff, works better than any alternative.

"There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent what is happening already..."

If I seem to be giving this point more emphasis than it really deserves, it’s only because the problem of the narrative pause is one that I’ve confronted again and again, and this is one approach that really works. It may even be more effective in a novel than on film. A movie unfolds at the same number of frames per second no matter the content of the scene, so a long break just before the climax can subtly test the viewer’s patience. In a novel, by contrast, much of a writer’s time is spent managing the pace at which the reader turns pages. For most of us, reading speed is flexible; we read certain passages more slowly to absorb what they say, while the pages fly by at moments of high suspense or excitement. And this kind of momentum can carry over from one scene to the next, so that a quiet chapter that might have broken the rhythm earlier in the novel can be swept up in the reader’s eagerness to see what happens next. As usual, it takes repeated readings and revisions by the author to get the balance just right. But when it works, it propels the reader past moments of necessary consolidation that the story might otherwise be unable to accommodate.

For my last few novels, I’ve used moments like this, particularly at the beginning of a new section when a cliffhanger from the previous scene remains unresolved, to incorporate flashbacks, which I otherwise try to avoid. I began doing this on a conscious level only recently, but it appears in a germinal form in Chapter 46 of City of Exiles. By the time we reach the first chapter of Part III, we’ve just witnessed the crash of Chigorin’s plane, and the stakes for the last hundred pages are as clear as they come. Instead of picking up that thread right away, though, I pause for a relatively quiet exchange between Ilya and Vasylenko, as the two men really talk for the first time in the novel. I did this mostly for pragmatic reasons: I needed Wolfe to fly out to Helsinki to investigate the aftermath of the crash, and putting a scene here inserts a brief delay that serves as the psychological equivalent of her plane ride. But it also gave me a chance to flesh out the themes and emotions that will pay off very soon. At the time, I don’t think I was aware of what I was doing; as with most writing rules, you hit on it intuitively, then go back to figure out what you’ve done. But it was no accident that the scene takes place here, when so much else is already in motion. As Vasylenko says: “There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent what is happening already…”

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2014 at 10:02 am

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