Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“She stared at the burning ship…”

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"There was no one else there..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 51. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, an animated video was released online that showed the sinking of the Titanic rendered in real time—all two hours and forty minutes of it. Watching it in shorter stretches is a surprisingly compelling experience, no matter where you start it playing. You’re struck, above all, by just how little seems to happen for so long, until the horrifying ending, in which the bulk of the ship is sucked underwater in less than ninety seconds. It’s riveting, but it’s also a rebuke to conventional narrative. And the Titanic story presents other problems as well. It’s hard to maintain clarity and momentum on any ship sinking at night. You’re dealing with the constrained geography of a big ship itself, in which it can be hard to keep track of where people are and what they’re doing, much of which has to be described using an unfamiliar vocabulary. Darkness and the sheer number of moving bodies make it even harder to maintain a clean line of action. And the way a nautical disaster unfolds resists the natural pacing of a story, with a moment of disaster followed by long stretches of nothing, as the ship sluggishly lists or sinks. Sometimes, as in the case of the Costa Concordia, there isn’t even a clear end point: it just lies there crippled in the water. Everything either happens so fast that it can’t be grasped or so slowly that even the participants start to feel impatient. If I had to write a script about it from scratch, I’m not entirely sure how I’d structure it. Maybe as a love story?

As I’ve noted here before, James Cameron’s Titanic may not have aged well when it comes to some of its more granular qualities, like dialogue, but it’s unsurpassed at staging and choreographing huge blocks of action, and it does it so invisibly that it’s easy to underestimate how hard it really was. It brilliantly solves all the problems I mentioned above, and it does such a good job of keeping the audience informed and oriented throughout that I’d be tempted to use it as a case study in a screenwriting class. The decision to show us an animated visualization of the ship’s destruction at the beginning of the movie, for instance, with a character from the present explaining the physics behind each stage, is a masterstroke: it delivers exposition and foreshadowing all at once, and it allows us to keep track where we are during the sinking without thinking about it twice. Victor Garber’s lovely scene with the ship’s blueprints accomplishes much the same thing. (I’d even argue that the love story itself, and most of its associated plot points, originated a solution to the problem of how to fill those crucial hours of sinking time in which not much of anything else is happening.) When I began work on Eternal Empire, I was forced to think about all of this more systematically. I was writing a novel about a yacht that had to sink, which meant I had to crack all the narrative issues that it presented—and I ended up watching Titanic itself more than once.

"She stared at the burning ship..."

Once I knew that the ship had to be destroyed, I turned my attention to how to do it, which was driven both by practical concerns and by the kind of story I wanted to tell. The easiest way to sink a yacht is to approach it in a smaller vessel and detonate a shaped charge against the hull, as used with such devastating effect against the U.S.S. Cole. I toyed with using a remote-controlled boat, but I quickly discarded the idea, mostly for aesthetic reasons. It just didn’t seem interesting or spectacular enough, and I sensed that it would be hard to stage it in an exciting way. An unmanned boat coming up against a yacht at night didn’t give me much in the way of striking imagery, or even a perspective from which to describe the events, unless I broke one of my own rules as a writer and wrote it from the point of view of an objective observer. Since an attack like this would go unnoticed until the moment the explosives detonated, I just didn’t see a way of structuring it, properly, as a series of escalating beats, and I also thought that it would take too long for the reader to figure out what had happened. Basically, I wanted to be able to provide just the right amount of tension before all hell broke loose: enough to make Maddy aware of the inevitable disaster, but not so much that it dissipated the shock. And I wanted it to be visually memorable.

I finally decided to use a drone. In my defense, I should point out that I wrote this sequence at a time when a drone strike wasn’t a total cliché. (Looking back at my notes, I seem to have finished writing this chapter just a week or so before seeing The Bourne Legacy, which used a drone in a similar way. I was probably troubled by this at the time, but it didn’t stop me from pressing on, which was the right choice: I suspect that most people’s memories of that movie are pretty hazy anyway.) The attack would still be over in the blink of an eye, and it ended up covering less than a page. But the nature of a drone, and the staging of the scene on the water, gave me three useful beats, while an attack by boat would have given me only one. Maddy hears the whine of a rocket just before the shadow boat that accompanies the yacht goes up in flames; she sees the drone circling back in her direction in the sky; and finally she sees another line of white as a second rocket smashes into the yacht itself. The result reads like a continuous rush of action, as it should, but the fact that it can be disassembled into smaller components makes the action just a bit more clear. I had to depart slightly from logic to make it work: in actuality, the yacht should have been the primary target, with the shadow boat coming next, but I wanted Maddy to witness the first explosion before feeling the second. The result, I think, is a sweet little scene. And the attack isn’t over yet…

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am

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