Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Arrested Development

I can dream, can’t I?

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Inception

For years, I’ve been daydreaming about a piece of fan fiction that I’d love to write, although I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do it. Let’s call it The Carousel. It’s a midquel to Inception, which means that it takes place during the events of the original movie—in this case, after Cobb has assembled his team for the mind heist, but before they’ve actually gone into Fischer’s head. (There’s nothing in the film itself to rule this out: it’s unclear how much time passes after Saito approaches them with the assignment.) Cobb is concerned about Ariadne’s lack of experience, so he proposes that they practice first with a quick, straightforward job. It’s a commission from a striking, mysterious woman in her fifties who wants them to enter her aging father’s dreams to discover the secrets of his past. She is, of course, Sally Draper from Mad Men. The rest of the story follows the team as they invade Don’s mind, burrowing into his memories of his life at Sterling Cooper and the women he loved and lost, and probing ever deeper toward the dark heart of the man who was once known as Dick Whitman. We’d see Arthur and Ariadne trying to blend in at the office holiday party, or maybe Eames going undercover in Korea. And when they emerge from Don’s brain at last, with or without the answers that Sally wants, they’ve all been subtly changed, and they’re ready to go after Fischer. If nothing else, it explains why they’re still wearing those suits.

Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever write this story, mostly because I know I can’t give it the energy and attention it deserves. After I got the idea for the crossover, I decided to put it off until Mad Men finished its run, which would allow me to draw on Don’s full backstory, but the longer I waited, the more obvious it became that I couldn’t justify the investment of time it required. For one thing, I’d want to write it up as a full novel, and to do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch all seven seasons of the series, looking for places in which I could insert Cobb’s team into the background, à la Back to the Future Part II. I’d also want to revisit Inception itself to see if there were any plot holes or contradictions I could explain in the process. In short, it would be a lot of work for a story that I’m not sure anybody else would read, or particularly want to see. But I seem to have incepted myself with it, because I can’t get it out of my head. As with most fanfic, there’s an element of wish fulfillment involved: it allows me to spend a little more time with characters I probably won’t see ever again. Mad Men ended so beautifully that any continuation—like the Sally Draper spinoff series that was pitched in all seriousness at AMC—would only undermine its legacy. And Inception is one of the few recent blockbusters that deliberately makes a sequel impossible, despite the occasional rumblings that we hear along those lines. It won’t happen. But this is why fanfic exists.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the meantime, I’ll sometimes try to scratch that itch by reading a novel or short story and mentally casting all the characters with faces from Mad Men. It’s a habit that I picked up years ago, when I first read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, and I’ve done it since with Airport and a few of John D. MacDonald’s novels. (I still think that Jon Hamm would make a perfect Travis McGee.) And the show maps onto George O. Smith’s stories about the space station Venus Equilateral almost too well. I’ll often do it when reading a story that is best approached as a period piece, thanks either to the author’s intentions or to the passage of time. Picturing Don, Joan, and the rest at least allows me to keep the clothes and hairstyles straight, which is a more significant factor than it might first appear: a book like John Updike’s Couples reads altogether differently when you realize that all of the women would have been dressed like Betty Draper. In other cases, it amounts to a hybrid form of fanfic, enabling the kind of dream casting that still makes me wish, say, for a miniseries version of The Corrections starring the cast of Arrested Development—which just makes me want to read that novel again with those actors in mind, just as I recently went back to Red Dragon while picturing Hugh Dancy as Will. It’s a harmless game, and it can bring out elements of a story that I might have overlooked, just as the casting of a particular movie star in a film can clarify a character in ways that a screenwriter can’t.

And this is just a variation on what happens inside all our heads when we read a novel. Only half of the work is done by the writer on the page; the other half occurs in the reader’s brain, which populates the novel with faces, settings, and images that the author might never have envisioned. What I see when I read a story is drastically different from what appears in your mind’s eye, and we have no way of comparing them directly. (That said, an adaptation can lock certain elements into place for many readers, so that their imaginations run more or less in parallel. Ten years ago, no two fans saw the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire in quite the same way, but thanks to Game of Thrones, I suspect that a lot of readers now just picture Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, as if a wave function had collapsed into exactly one eigenstate.) The fact that fanfic bridges that gap instantaneously, so that we can immediately see all of our favorite characters, is a large part of its appeal—and the main reason why it’s a flawed school for writers who are still learning their craft. Creating believable characters from scratch is the single hardest aspect of writing, and fanfic allows you to skip that crucial step. Aspiring writers should be wary of it for the same reason that the playwright Willy Russell avoids listening to music or drinking wine while he works: “I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work.” That’s true of fanfic, too, and it’s why I’ll probably never end up writing The Carousel. But I can dream, can’t I?

The unbreakable television formula

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Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Watching the sixth season premiere of Community last night on Yahoo—which is a statement that would have once seemed like a joke in itself—I was struck by the range of television comedy we have at our disposal these days. We’ve said goodbye to Parks and Recreation, we’re following Community into what is presumably its final stretch, and we’re about to greet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it starts what looks to be a powerhouse run on Netflix. These shows are superficially in the same genre: they’re single-camera sitcoms that freely grant themselves elaborate sight gags and excursions into surrealism, with a cutaway style that owes as much to The Simpsons as to Arrested Development. Yet they’re palpably different in tone. Parks and Rec was the ultimate refinement of the mockumentary style, with talking heads and reality show techniques used to flesh out a narrative of underlying sweetness; Community, as always, alternates between obsessively detailed fantasy and a comic strip version of emotions to which we can all relate; and Kimmy Schmidt takes place in what I can only call Tina Fey territory, with a barrage of throwaway jokes and non sequiturs designed to be referenced and quoted forever.

And the diversity of approach we see in these three comedies makes the dramatic genre seem impoverished. Most television dramas are still basically linear; they’re told using the same familiar grammar of establishing shots, medium shots, and closeups; and they’re paced in similar ways. If you were to break down an episode by shot length and type, or chart the transitions between scenes, an installment of Game of Thrones would look a lot on paper like one of Mad Men. There’s room for individual quirks of style, of course: the handheld cinematography favored by procedurals has a different feel from the clinical, detached camera movements of House of Cards. And every now and then, we get a scene—like the epic tracking shot during the raid in True Detective—that awakens us to the medium’s potential. But the fact that such moments are striking enough to inspire think pieces the next day only points to how rare they are. Dramas are just less inclined to take big risks of structure and tone, and when they do, they’re likely to be hybrids. Shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are able to push the envelope precisely because they have a touch of black comedy in their blood, as if that were the secret ingredient that allowed for greater formal daring.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

It isn’t hard to pin down the reason for this. A cutaway scene or extended homage naturally takes us out of the story for a second, and comedy, which is inherently more anarchic, has trained us to roll with it. We’re better at accepting artifice in comic settings, since we aren’t taking the story quite as seriously: whatever plot exists is tacitly understood to be a medium for the delivery of jokes. Which isn’t to say that we can’t care deeply about these characters; if anything, our feelings for them are strengthened because they take place in a stylized world that allows free play for the emotions. Yet this is also something that comedy had to teach us. It can be fun to watch a sitcom push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, but if a drama deliberately undermines its own illusion of reality, we can feel cheated. Dramas that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, as Twin Peaks did, are more likely to become cult favorites than popular successes, since most of us just want to sit back and watch a story that presents itself using the narrative language we know. (Which, to be fair, is true of comedies as well: the three sitcoms I’ve mentioned above, taken together, have a fraction of the audience of something like The Big Bang Theory.)

In part, it’s a problem of definition. When a drama pushes against its constraints, we feel more comfortable referring to it as something else: Orange is the New Black, which tests its structure as adventurously as any series on the air today, has suffered at awards season from its resistance to easy categorization. But what’s really funny is that comedy escaped from its old formulas by appropriating the tools that dramas had been using for years. The three-camera sitcom—which has been responsible for countless masterpieces of its own—made radical shifts of tone and location hard to achieve, and once comedies liberated themselves from the obligation to unfold as if for a live audience, they could indulge in extended riffs and flights of imagination that were impossible before. It’s the kind of freedom that dramas, in theory, have always had, even if they utilize it only rarely. This isn’t to say that a uniformity of approach is a bad thing: the standard narrative grammar evolved for a reason, and if it gives us compelling characters with a maximum of transparency, that’s all for the better. Telling good stories is hard enough as it is, and formal experimentation for its own sake can be a trap in itself. Yet we’re still living in a world with countless ways of being funny, and only one way, within a narrow range of variations, of being serious. And that’s no laughing matter.

The running gag

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The Story of Everest

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What are your favorite running gags?”

In comedy, there’s a type of joke known as the rake gag, as best described by Mike Scully of The Simpsons: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but the original observation comes from his commentary track on the episode “Cape Feare,” in which the rake gag itself was born.) The protracted repetition of a joke—which was often only marginally funny in the first place—is fascinating because it seems to violate a basic principle of comedy, which is based on surprise. It’s a form of metahumor, or antihumor, that breaks an unstated contract between the writer and the audience, and it forces us to watch ourselves as much as the joke itself. In a sketch like “The Story of Everest” on Mr. Show, our anticipation of every new variation, or the lack thereof, of the underlying pratfall turns us into active participants. Since we know what the next beat will be, we’re placed in the position of authors or collaborators, and most of the suspense comes from how long it can be sustained.

The rake gag is only a highly compressed version of the running gag, a joke that recurs in various forms over the course of a show or story at longer intervals, but which also depends on a weird kind of intimacy between the narrative and its viewers. Any particular instance of a running gag isn’t all that funny in itself; the humor lies in our memory of the previous occurrences, and the anticipation that each subsequent setup creates. We laugh as much out of recognition as anything else, and the effect is subtly flattering. If it’s a running joke on a television series, it assumes that we have a memory that extends beyond the boundaries of the episode we’re currently watching, and our appreciation of the gag can feel like insider knowledge. A casual viewer of Community—if such a thing exists—probably has no idea what to make of the repeated references to the Dean’s fondness for dalmatians or why Beetlejuice casually walks by in the background of one scene, and that flicker of understanding both tickles us and makes us feel like a member of, well, a community.

Michael Cera and Mae Whitman on Arrested Development

This may be why the best running gags are subtle ones, and a poorly handled example can feel like a rake to the head. When a show tries too hard to create a running gag for its own sake—as Parks and Recreation arguably does with the cast’s mistreatment of Jerry or Gary—it can seem forced, an attempt to artificially create the kind of intimacy that can only emerge over time. Like the original rake gag in “Cape Feare,” which was designed solely to prolong an episode that was running short, a great running gag often has the feel of an accident, or a serendipitous return to material that worked unexpectedly well the first time around. After all, a lot of the humor we find in our own lives comes from this kind of organic repetition: we return to the same jokes with our friends because they trigger happy memories, until the original incident has been long forgotten. And like a running gag on a favorite television series, when we try to unpack an inside joke for an outsider, it falls apart, as if we were trying to explain one of our dreams. In the end, you just had to be there.

The closest a show has ever come to willing that kind of familiarity into existence, even before it had much of an audience to work with, is in Arrested Development. The Simpsons is often cited as the first freeze-frame series, which utilized the new technology of home video recording to insert sign gags and almost subliminal jokes that went by too quickly to be processed on first viewing, and Arrested Development was arguably the first show designed to be watched as part of a box set. (If anything, the fourth season took that tendency a little too far, which implies that the key to great comedy lies somewhere in the tension between sustaining a story week by week and in delivering it in one huge binge.) The list of the show’s running gags is insanely long, but if I’d had to pick a favorite…well, I don’t think I will. Explanation kills comedy, as I’ve been doing throughout this post, and that’s especially true of something so fragile, yet oddly resilient, as the running gag. Out of context, it may not seem like much, but at the right place and time, it’s as plain as the nose on Ann’s face.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2014 at 9:42 am

Community values

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The Community episode "Basic Sandwich"

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.

Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.

The cast of Community

As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.

As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.

The fifty-minute hour

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Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men

Watching the premiere of Mad Men last night, I was struck by how nice it is to follow a series where there isn’t any danger of anyone being disemboweled. Don’t get me wrong: I love Hannibal and Game of Thrones, and violence, properly used, is just another tool in the storyteller’s arsenal. In retrospect, though, I’ve realized that much of my television diet over the last year has consisted of shows that gain much of their narrative power from bloodshed or sex. The Vampire Diaries, which probably has the highest body count of them all, likes to treat a broken neck or a beheading as a punchline, and even shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, where violence is doled out more sparingly, lean heavily on other kinds of graphic imagery. These are all good shows—well, maybe not House of Cards—and I’ve enjoyed watching them all. But it makes me all the more grateful for a show like Mad Men, which exists within the limitations of basic cable and often dials down the intensity even further, to the point where its drama consists of a lingering glance, a chance encounter, or a charged silence. As it happens, this Sunday’s premiere was its lowest-rated in five seasons, which may be a reflection of how much the television landscape has changed: set against its peers, Man Men can start to seem sedate, almost somnolescent.

Still, this kind of slow-drip pacing can be intoxicating in itself, but only if it’s given enough room to breathe, which is part of the reason why I found this season premiere less satisfying than usual. As many of you probably know, AMC has divided the final season into two segments, with the first seven episodes airing this year and the back half held until 2015. The decision makes good economic sense—with Breaking Bad gone, the network doesn’t want to lose both of its flagship shows in succession—but it’s frustrating to viewers, as well as problematic for the show’s narrative. For the past few seasons, Mad Men has premiered with a double episode, which gives it ninety full minutes to immerse us again in its world, mood, and enormous cast. Given the shortened run, the decision was evidently made to keep the latest premiere to the standard length, allowing the season to be parceled out over seven weeks. Unfortunately, it leaves us with an episode that feels like half a loaf. I have a feeling it will hold up better in retrospect than it does on first viewing; Mad Men has long been about cumulative energy, with countless small moments that need time and reflection to pay off. All the same, it was always nice to get an extra helping at the beginning of a season, which allowed scenes and arcs to cohere a little more on their way to the deep dive. And I miss it.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Which raises the issue of how length subconsciously influences our perceptions of television shows, both in its orderly format and in its deviations from the norm. A few months ago, Scott Meslow of The Week argued that Netflix wasn’t fully exploiting the possibilities of the streaming format, which in theory allows shows to be arbitrarily any length at all:

Someone could create a show where one episode is 75 minutes long, and the next episode is 15 minutes long. Someone could decide to release one episode every week, or every month, or every holiday—or at random, turning every new installment into a welcome surprise. Someone could release every episode of a series but the finale, then hold that finale back for six months—turning its premiere into a buzzy event that will be simultaneously shared by all its viewers.

Up to a point, that’s an intriguing suggestion, and I’d be excited to see a series that found a logical, organic reason for telling a story in such unconventional ways. For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints that go far beyond the logistics of packaging and international markets. It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril. As it stands, I’d argue that Netflix is a little too flexible in this regard: nearly every episode of the fourth season of Arrested Development ran long, and I’m not alone in feeling that the result would have been better if Mitch Hurwitz had cut it to fit within twenty-five minutes.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for departures, but that the exceptions have more impact when they build on a baseline. Episodes in a television series, like chapters in a novel, are structural conventions that originated to fill a practical need, then evolved over time in the hands of artists to provide a means of delivering narrative information. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no real reason why novels need to be divided into chapters, but the shape provided by section breaks, areas of white space, and the rhythm of titles and epigraphs is a tool that clever writers know how to exploit. The same applies to episode lengths. We know approximately how long a given installment of a particular television show will last, which affects how we watch it, especially near the end of an episode. When a show pushes against those expectations, it can be great, but a narrow range of variation is all we need: Game of Thrones, for instance, does just fine with a window between fifty minutes and an hour. And the best unit of narrative is still the episode, which can be used as a building block to create surprising shapes, like the uniform tatami mats in Japanese houses. I wish Mad Men had followed its own precedent and given us two such pieces side by side for the premiere, but I’m still glad to know that each episode that follows will look more or less the same on the outside, with endless variations within.

Speeding it up, slowing it down

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Dolly Parton

By now, many of you have probably heard “Slow Ass Jolene,” the viral version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” slowed down by twenty-five percent, which transforms it from a polished crossover country track to a haunting, soulful gay love song. It’s a reminder, first of all, of how great the original is—it’s probably my second-favorite country song of all time, second only to “Wichita Lineman”—and, more subtly, of how powerful a change in tempo can be. Recording artists have been aware of this, of course, for almost as long as they’ve been in the studio. Offhand, I know that the piano coda to “Layla,” a song to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought, was sped up slightly during the mixing session, changing its key from C major to somewhere between C and C sharp. The Beatles made great use of this, too: “When I’m Sixty-Four” was sped up in the studio to give the vocals a more bouncy feel, and a similar trick was used on the piano in “In My Life,” which was recorded with the tape playing at half speed and restored to normal in the mix.

Occasionally, you’ll see a similar approach taken in other media. David Mirkin, the showrunner responsible for what are arguably the greatest seasons of The Simpsons, would often speed up an entire episode very slightly rather than cut material to fit the show into its time slot, which is why the dialogue in episodes like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” seems to zip along so quickly. Less successfully, during the editing of Terminator 2, James Cameron was having trouble getting the movie down to its contractual length when he was hit by a bright idea: why not just remove one frame of film from every second of the movie? The result, unfortunately, was unwatchable, but I at least give Cameron credit for ingenuity. (Cameron began his career as a screenwriter, and I’d like to think that this brainstorm was the result of the sort of fudging that most writers do to get their scripts down to an acceptable page count. Terry Rossio has a wonderful rundown of all these tricks—from changing the line spacing to physically shrinking the page on a photocopier—in a hilarious post on his blog.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

Nearly all these examples involve compressing the underlying material to be faster and shorter, which is generally a good impulse to follow. I’ve gone on record as saying that every rough draft ought to be cut by ten percent, and sometimes it’s the pressure of an arbitrary constraint—a television time slot, a contractual length—that forces you to make these tough choices. Their absence can lead to results like the fourth season of Arrested Development, in which nearly every episode is allowed to run ten minutes too long, often with unfortunate consequences. Yet as “Slow Ass Jolene” reminds us, it can also be good to take things more slowly. Just as the tone of “Jolene” is radically altered by a slower tempo, a slow book or movie can draw us in when a faster approach would have left us untouched. The author Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X,” argues that the slow openings of a writer like Thomas Mann force the two halves of the brain to come into sync, allowing us to imagine the action more vividly, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in writers as dissimilar as Marcel Proust and John Crowley.

As for movies, I don’t know any examples of films that were physically slowed down in the editing room, but the same issues of tempo and pacing guide an editor’s selection of footage, and there are times when slower is better. There’s no better example than the first cut of The Godfather. After watching the cut, which was slightly over two hours long, producer Robert Evans reportedly said to Coppola:

The picture stinks. Got it? The Untouchables is better. You shot a great film. Where the fuck is it—in the kitchen with your spaghetti? It sure ain’t on the screen. Where’s the family, the heart, the feeling—left in the kitchen too?…What studio head tells a director to make a picture longer? Only a nut like me. You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer. Now give me a movie.

Now, this is Evans’s version of events, and he’s nothing if not self-serving. But it’s a matter of record that the initial cut of The Godfather lost much of the material, especially in the first hour, that drew us into that movie’s world, and if it hadn’t been restored, the history of cinema would be different. Knowing when to speed things up and when to slow things down is one of the trickiest questions in an artist’s life, and only time and experience can teach us the difference.

“The old man walked along the Avenue of the Americas…”

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"The old man walked along the Avenue of the Americas..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Novels are curious creatures. Even if you think of yourself as a gardener, not an architect, in practice, a novel can’t be grown like a living thing: instead, it’s assembled out of pieces that might have been written and conceived weeks or months apart, even if they end up lying side by side in the finished draft. In general, the task of the writer is to make these seams as invisible as he can. One of my primary concerns, especially during the rewrite, is to structure the story so that it reads as much as possible like a single continuous piece of narrative. There may be a lot of chapters—and in my case, they often switch between different points of view—but if the plot has been properly constructed, the chapter breaks feel less like interruptions than necessary beats in the novel’s rhythm. Film editors know that any cut the viewer notices is a bad one, and at best, their work is invisible. For the most part, that’s a rule that writers should follow as well: unless you’re going for a particular experimental effect, the story should feel like it was cut from one piece of cloth, even if it was really stitched together from countless shreds and patches.

There’s one exception to the rule, though. In theory, there’s no reason why a novel has to be subdivided into more than one major section, and indeed, many excellent thrillers—the early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance—consist of an uninterrupted sequence of short chapters. A section break, as opposed to a chapter break, is practically a violent event in itself: instead of following the action smoothly to the next scene, the reader is confronted by a blank page, a Roman numeral, and a stark epigraph. But this can also be very useful. I’ve written before about the purely typographical impact of epigraphs and section breaks, which signal that a new phase of the narrative is beginning, and I’d argue that this is one place where the reader can and should be aware of a rift in the continuity. (For an example in a very different context, notice how Mitch Hurwitz still fades to white for the act breaks in the new season of Arrested Development. There’s no commercial break, but it’s still a nice way of punctuating a plot development and structuring the viewer’s attention.)

"You follow me?"

Such a powerful tool should be used sparingly, of course, and I often get a little impatient with novels that break the action into four or more sections—maybe because I’m so fond of the rule of three. It also requires a little more trouble than an ordinary chapter break. I’ve found that it helps to think of it less as a break than a hinge. A hinge, as this diagram helpfully points out, consists of three parts: the central pivot, vividly known as the knuckle, and a wing to either side to join the door and the frame. A section break operates in much the same way, and it often requires more than one chapter to set up correctly. If you look at the section breaks in The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and the forthcoming Eternal Empire—especially the ones between Parts II and III of each book—you’ll see that they consist of about three chapters. One chapter consolidates the information from the section we’ve just read; another provides connective and expository material to set up the section break; and the last serves to propel the plot forward to the next stage of the game. And without the chapters that came before it, this final chapter wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Chapter 50 of The Icon Thief is best understood as the knuckle chapter of this sequence. It’s a relatively quiet scene, following Sharkovsky—whose point of view appears for the first time in the narrative—as he meets Lermontov and gets the order to kill Maddy. On the last page, it also reveals that Ilya has been keeping an eye on the art gallery, and it ends with him following Sharkovsky to his next destination. To borrow a term from television writing, the bulk of the chapter is concerned with laying pipe, and it’s interesting mostly in how it gives the reader the information necessary to understand the action to come. It also gives us some breathing room after the revelations of the chapter before it. (Originally, this scene included a big reveal of its own—the disclosure of Reynard’s true role in the story—but I cut it in a subsequent rewrite, sensing that it would work better at a later point in the novel.) In theory, you could take this chapter out and convey the essential points in some other way, but as the knuckle between the two parts of a hinge, it plays an important role. Without it, the door would fall out of its frame. And we’re about to see what lies on the other side…

I’ll be appearing on The Afternoon Shift with Niala Boodhoo on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio at 2:00 pm today to discuss the business of writing fiction. You can listen to the broadcast online here.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am

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