Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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“His arms and legs were bound to the chair…”

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"His arms and legs were bound to the chair..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 10. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Good writers come in all ideological shapes and sizes, but if they have one quality in common, it’s that they’re less interested in politics than in honorably surviving a day’s work. As a result, they’ll sometimes use fictional devices that lend themselves to political interpretations, when in fact they ‘re nothing more than a convenient solution to the narrative problem at hand. My favorite example is smoking in movies. The fact that cigarettes appear so often in the hands of movie stars has sometimes been attributed to a sinister conspiracy between studios and the tobacco industry, but really, they’re there for a purely practical end. Actors are constantly in search of something to do with their hands, and the cigarette is the best bit of business ever devised: you can slide it out of the pack, light it, peer at another character through the smoke, thoughtfully study it, and grind it out to emphasize an emotional moment. Nothing comes close to smoking in terms of providing useful tidbits of actorly behavior—although I imagine that a pipe would be even better—and although substitutes ranging from cracking walnuts to playing with loose change have all been tried, it’s safe to say that the movies will continue to show people smoking as long as actors need to keep their hands occupied.

The same holds true, to a more troubling extent, of torture. Countless attempts have been made to link the use of torture in books, movies, and television series to the rise of the war on terror, but the political leanings of 24 creator Joel Surnow aside, it seems fairly clear that torture, too, is usually there as a convenient plot device. Which isn’t surprising—it’s the narrative shortcut of a writer’s dreams. I’ve spoken before about how half of a writer’s life seems to consist of finding new ways of delivering exposition, and a torture sequence does the job even better than an autopsy scene: it superficially grabs the viewer’s attention, allows the protagonist to take some striking action, and gives the author a convenient mouthpiece to deliver whatever information is necessary to move the story along. Best of all, it can all happen within the course of a few minutes. Critics of the cinematic portrayal of torture rightly complain about how unrealistically quick and efficient it is, but this overlooks the fact that everything in fiction moves faster than it would in real life. The tortured prisoner gives up his information immediately for the same reason that the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one and always has the exact change for a taxi: the point is to keep the story moving along to what matters the most.

"The man kept the bottle where it was..."

And yet it’s still a little disturbing. I was a fan of 24 for years, before it declined precipitously in quality in its sixth season, and I was able to overlook its use of torture as a plot device because it did so many other things so well. When torture is only there as a form of convenience—or, worse, of entertainment—in an otherwise mediocre story, I start to get uncomfortable. Early in Furious 6, for instance, there’s a scene in which The Rock’s diplomatic security officer simply beats the hell out of a suspect in custody to get a piece of largely meaningless information, and the entire sequence is played for laughs. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions may have been, for me, it had the opposite effect: it took me out of the movie. To be fair, I might have overlooked it entirely if it had taken place at a more pivotal point in the story, as a similar scene does in The Dark Knight, or if if it hadn’t been staged as slapstick. But advancing the story through a torture scene defeats its own purpose if it simultaneously estranges us from the characters and calls the judgment of the movie’s creators into question. (And it’s quite possible that antismoking advocates would say the same thing about an actor blithely lighting up a cigarette.)

The closest thing to a torture sequence in my work occurs in Chapter 10 of City of Exiles, and like most scenes of its kind, it’s there because I couldn’t think of anything better. Its central figure is a character we’ve never seen before and won’t see again, Roman Brodsky, a London fixer and local criminal organizer who is surprised at home, tied up, and threatened with immolation via potassium permanganate until he tells his captor what he needs to know. Later, when the scene is nearly over, we find that his unseen tormenter isn’t Karvonen, as I hope we’ve assumed, but Ilya, and that he was able to extract the confession using nothing but suggestion and a handful of black rock salt. Brodsky isn’t even hurt, aside from a bump on the head. But it’s no accident that I gave the scene to Ilya, who, more than most of my characters, walks a narrow line between the moral and immoral. Giving this scene to Powell or Wolfe, even if no physical harm had been done, would have compromised those characters in ways that would have damaged the overall story, and it’s revealing that when Wolfe is placed in a similar situation toward the end of the novel, she gets the information she needs through sympathy and psychological shrewdness. Here, the shortest distance between two points happened to take us through some ethically questionable territory. But it isn’t a place I’d want to visit very often…

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

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