Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The hood came down over her head…”

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"A sort of code..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 25. You can read the previous installments here.

A section break in a novel, like the end of a chapter, is like the frame around a painting: it’s an artifact of the physical constraints of the medium, but it also becomes an expressive tool in its own right. When books like the Iliad or Odyssey were stored in scroll form, there were inherent limits to how large any one piece could be, and writers—or at least their scribes—began to structure those works accordingly. These days, there’s no particular reason why a novel needs to be cut up into sections or chapters at all, but we retain the convention because it turned out to be useful as a literary strategy. A chapter break gives the reader a bit of breathing space; it can be used as a punchline or statement in itself, like an abrupt cut to black in a movie; and it allows the patterns of the story to emerge more clearly, with the white space between scenes serving as a version of William Blake’s bounding line. This is particularly true of novels made up of many short chapters, which allow a rhythm to be established that creates an urgency of its own. We associate the technique with popular fiction, but even a literary novel like James Salter’s Solo Faces, which I’m reading now, benefits from that kind of momentum. (To be fair, more than one reader has criticized the chapters in my own novels as being too short.)

Elsewhere, I’ve defined a chapter as a unit of narrative that gives the reader something to anticipate. Ideally, every element should inform our expectations about what happens next, and as soon as that anticipation assumes a concrete form, the chapter ends. This is really more a guideline for writers than an empirical observation: in practice, chapters open and close in all kinds of places. But it’s a useful rule to keep in mind, along with the general principle that scenes should start as late and end as early as possible. And it’s often something that can only be achieved in the rewrite. When you’re writing a first draft, a chapter may simply be the maximum amount of narrative that you’re capable of keeping in your head all at once. The lengths of the chapters in my novels are organically connected to how much I can write in one day, which I suspect is also true of many other writers: “It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day,” John le Carré says to The Paris Review, “which for me is about twenty-two pages.” (I love the precision of that number, by the way—that’s the mark of a real novelist.) Later, you go back to see how the rhythms enforced by the writing process can be converted into the ones that the act of reading demands, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that the two coincide. As Christian Friedrich Hebbel says:

Whoever absorbs a work of art into himself goes through the same process as the artist who produced it—only he reverses the order of the process and increases its speed.

"The hood came down over her head..."

What’s true of a chapter is also true of a larger section, except on a correspondingly grander scale. I’ve said before that when I start working on a novel, I usually know all of the major act breaks in advance, but that’s only half correct: more accurately, I have a handful of big moments in mind, and I know enough about craft to want to structure the act breaks around them. A major turning point that occurs without propelling one section into another feels like a waste of energy. (Any good novel will have more than three or four turning points, of course, but you intuitively sense which ones deserve the most prominent positions, and build the rest of the story around them.) There are times, too, when I know that a section break ought to occur at a certain position, so the scene that leads into it has to be correspondingly built up. A moment of peril, a cliffhanger, a sudden surprise or revelation: these are the kinds of scenes that we’ve been taught to expect just before a section ends. Sometimes they can seem artificial, or like an outright cheat—as many viewers felt about the end of a recent episode of True Detective. But if you learn to honor those conventions, which evolved that way for a reason, while still meeting the demands of the story, you often end up with something better than you would have had otherwise. Which is really the only reason to think in terms of genre at all.

When it came to the end of Part I of Eternal Empire, I knew more or less what had to happen before I began writing a single word. The novel opens with the mystery of why a painting was defaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this seemed like a good time to resolve it. Until now, my two leads, Maddy and Ilya, had been moving along separate paths, and I had to set things up for them to intersect—which meant placing Maddy in real physical danger for the first time. Either of these story beats could have served as a decent ending for a section, and common sense dictated that I put them both together. Hence the footstep that Maddy hears behind her, and the hood that comes down over her head, a few seconds after she’s figured out the true meaning of the painting. Neither moment is necessarily related, except by the logic of the structure itself. (There’s also a sense in which I made the circumstances of Maddy’s abduction more dramatic because of where it fell in the book: it could have just been a tap on the shoulder, but it was better if it was shocking enough to carry the reader through the next stretch of pages.) Story and structure end up influencing each other in both directions, and if I’m lucky, they should seem inseparable. That’s true of every line of a novel, but it’s particularly clear at these hinge points, which are like the places where a building has to be reinforced to sustain the stresses of the overall design. And those stresses are about to get a lot more intense…

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