Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 5th, 2015

“It’s a beautiful property…”

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"At the end of the drive stood the main house..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 7. You can read the previous installments here.

In writing, as in life, the best measure of whether or not you truly understand a rule is knowing when to ignore it. Take, for instance, the general principle that chapters should start as late and end as early as possible. The screenwriter William Goldman notes that you can safely omit the beginnings and endings of most scenes, jumping instead from middle to middle, and I first encountered this rule as it applied to fiction in a book on writing by David Morrell, most famous as the author of First Blood. This works both as an overall narrative strategy and as a tactic for managing information within scenes: it’s frequently best to open on action or dialogue, pulling back only later to describe the location, much as a television show will often return from a commercial break on a closeup, followed shortly thereafter by the establishing shot. It’s a nice rule because it builds momentum, generates tension and suspense, and naturally focuses on the sections of a first draft—when the writer is ramping into and out of the scene in his imagination—that can most profitably be cut. And it’s saved my neck on more than one occasion.

Yet a rule like this can also be dangerous if applied mechanically. It’s no accident that the examples above all come from film and television: a scene in a movie can start in the middle because we’re given a lot of incidental information—visual, auditory, or even emotional, in the form of an intonation or the look on an actor’s face—that grounds us in the situation at once. A short story or novel, by contrast, has to rely on words. Focusing relentlessly on the middle may keep the plot racing along, but sometimes at the cost of those passages of description or exposition that lure the reader into the fictional dream. The writer Colin Wilson likes to cite examples, like the opening of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a slow descriptive passage is used to immerse us in the scene, making the ensuing action all the more vivid. Cutting such material indiscriminately can leave the reader stranded or indifferent. Wilson frames it in terms of forcing the left hemisphere to slow down to the pace of the right, bringing the two halves of the brain to bear down together, but you don’t need to accept his explanation to grant his point. A novel made up of nothing but middles may fly by, but it can also start to seem monotonous and superficial.

"It's a beautiful property..."

Scenes of arrival and departure, in particular, are a mainstay of great fiction, for much the same reason that so many stories are built around initial encounters between two people. When the protagonist arrives in a new place or meets a person for the first time, he or she is really being put in the shoes of the reader: instead of catching up to events that have already happened, we’re experiencing them in real time, side by side with the characters, and it encourages a powerful sense of identification. This is especially true when we’re being introduced to something inherently interesting, which is exactly when the narrative can most afford to slow down. (To return to film for a second, one of my chief complaints with the new Star Trek movies is how little time they spend on the ship itself. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan both have gorgeous docking scenes that allow us to fully appreciate the scale and beauty of the Enterprise, but when J.J. Abrams tries for the same effect, he’s as impatient here as he is everywhere else, and it’s over in less than a minute. It keeps the story moving, but at the expense of the awe we need to take it seriously.)

In Eternal Empire, which generally clocks along at a fast pace, I tried to remain mindful of the need for such moments. My favorite example comes later, at our extended first approach to Tarkovsky’s megayacht—in which I was thinking of both the Enterprise and the Titanic—but there’s another nice instance in Chapter 7, when Maddy arrives at the oligarch’s estate for the first time. I could have started the scene with her emerging from the car at his front door, or even when she was already inside, but it seemed right to devote a couple of pages to the journey there and what she sees on the way. It’s as good a place as any for a sequence like this, which might otherwise seem too leisurely: Maddy is entering a new world, and I wanted to make it just as meaningful for the reader as it was for her. The entire chapter is structured as a sequence of transitions from large spaces to small, leaving her alone at last in her tiny office, and although the exact geography of the setting isn’t all that relevant to the plot, the emotional purpose it serves is a real one. If I did it in every chapter, the result would quickly become unbearable. But the fact that I cut beginnings and endings so obsessively elsewhere allowed me to break the rule here. Because this is where the story really begins…

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Paul Klee

To have to begin by what is smallest is as precarious as it is necessary…It was a tiny, but very real act, and from the repetition of acts that are small, but my own, eventually a work will come, on which I can build.

Paul Klee

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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