Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mitchell Hurwitz

“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

Netflix Originals and the loss of constraints

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Arrested Development

The history of television has always been one of confronting, exploiting, and finally eliminating constraints. In half a century, we’ve gone from live monochrome broadcasts to widescreen color in high definition, often with production values approaching those of theatrical releases. Cable television has eased restrictions on adult content, language, and violence, and although this hasn’t always been a good thing, many shows have used these freedoms to astonishing effect. And the widespread availability of recording devices, both legal and otherwise, have allowed shows to reach unprecedented levels of narrative density: it’s no accident that the golden years of The Simpsons coincided with the presence of a VCR in every home. Until recently, however, two big constraints remained in place. Most shows are still parceled out gradually, usually on a weekly basis, and they’re required to fit into convenient whole- or half-hour increments. With commercials, that translates to just over twenty minutes for most network sitcoms and forty minutes for dramas, and that number has steadily shrunk over the last few decades. Even on cable, shows are rarely allowed to spill beyond the edges of their assigned timeslots.

Netflix Originals has changed this, of course, and to watch the entire runs of House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development is to be reminded that for every constraint we overcome, there’s usually a loss as well as a gain, at least until storytellers figure out how to use the tools they’ve been given. To their credit, the creators of both series have thought deeply about the possibilities of this new delivery system, which gives viewers access to the entire season at once and allows episodes, at least in theory, to be any length at all. In both cases, episodes are conceived as chapters that aren’t meant to stand on their own, leading to some curious narrative choices. House of Cards has a way of introducing characters and subplots with slow, talky scenes that don’t have any particular relevance to the episodes in which they appear, while Arrested Development sets up clues and puzzle pieces for gags that won’t pay off until near the end of the season, if they ever do. Unfortunately, the execution hasn’t always been up to the level of the conception: House of Cards is often a poorly written show, at least compared to its gorgeous technical merits, and Arrested Development is clearly struggling with limits of cast availability and budget, leading to an incohesive, often frustrating whole.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Still, there’s something genuinely exciting about the idea of television seasons that are written, shot, and edited as a single unit, and I’m interested in seeing what else Mitch Hurwitz can do with the form: Arrested Development‘s fourth season is undeniably flawed, but this seems to have been partially the result of the circumstances under which it was made. (I’m less optimistic about House of Cards, which had far greater resources at its disposal and still managed to be mostly underwhelming.) But the issue of episode length is more troubling. Most of the new installments of Arrested Development are over half an hour long, or ten minutes longer than the episodes of the original run, which leads to a lot of unnecessary moments and jokes that keep going long after the point has been made. Keeping each episode of the first three seasons down to twenty minutes or so forced Hurtwitz to cut stories to the bone, and much of the breakneck pacing of the show’s classic years was a result of the demands of the format. Occasionally, the new season benefits from the additional breathing room—as when G.O.B. and Tony Wonder spend thirty seconds drinking a glass of water—but it more often results in scenes that slowly run out of air.

And I’m hopeful that Hurwitz will recognize this if he gets a chance at a fifth season, which seems likely. (He already seems aware that certain constraints are worth preserving: bleeped dialogue is funnier than swearing, and act breaks are a useful way of structuring an episode even when you don’t cut to a commercial.) And the actual number of minutes per episode is less important than the fact of the constraint itself. Shorter isn’t always a good thing; I can’t argue that The Simpsons becomes a better show after two minutes are cut for syndication. But every writer knows from experience that the habit of respecting a set length, even an arbitrary one, has benefits that go far beyond those of concision: you’re forced to take a hard look at every line, asking if it’s really necessary or could be expressed more effectively in a smaller amount of space. The broadcast networks certainly didn’t have the creative benefits in mind when they required all their shows to fall within a narrow range, but the result is usually a better, tighter show, and especially when it’s driven by an imagination that strains against those limitations. Neither of the shows I’ve seen from Netflix has been an unqualified success, but eventually, it will happen—and in more senses than one, it’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2013 at 9:01 am

Lessons from Great TV #8: Arrested Development

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If dying is easy and comedy is difficult, the hardest thing of all is comedy with plot. Plot, as I’ve mentioned before, is usually deadly in comedy, which isn’t designed to gracefully convey large amounts of information. That’s why farce, with its intricate web of misunderstandings, deceptions, and near-misses, is so hard to pull off—it’s like a machine that either runs beautifully or doesn’t work at all. Which is why Arrested Development isn’t just the best television comedy of the past ten years, but also the most brilliantly written show of any kind. Mitchell Hurwitz’s labor of love is often seen as the grandfather of the modern mockumentary sitcom, but in fact, it represents a different comedic tradition altogether. Shows like The Office and Parks & Rec tend to keep the underlying structure loose and baggy, leaving enough room for random improvisational detours, but every episode of Arrested Development is constructed like a fine watch. With so much going on at all times, and so many background jokes and callbacks that only reveal themselves after multiple viewings, it’s a wonder that the show ever manages to let its actors breathe—and yet it does. There’s never a sense that the performers are trapped by the show’s clockwork rhythms: instead, actors like Will Arnett and Tony Hale commit fully to the demands of the plot while also finding room for moments that are weird, wonderful, and often strangely human.

There’s no better showcase for the show’s intricate craftsmanship than “Pier Pressure,” the tenth episode of the first season. While I can’t quite call it the show’s finest moment—especially because there’s no Tobias—it’s still the best example of its ability to gather a tangled skein of threads into one big payoff. The show’s genius, here and elsewhere, is to use great jokes to convey information: elements that seem like throwaway gags (the Hot Cops, Lucille Two’s vertigo, the one-armed J. Walter Weatherman) later turn out to play crucial roles in the narrative. It’s as if each of the cutaways in an episode of Family Guy were retrospectively revealed to be pieces of an ingenious mosaic of storytelling, rather than nothing but randomly generated pop culture references—a comparison that only points up the difference between truly great comedy and a mere gag machine. There’s something almost musically satisfying in the way all the parts come together, and it’s a trick that the series managed to pull off week after week. Since the show’s cancellation, Hurwitz and the former cast members have struggled to recreate that magic, but perhaps it’s best to think of Arrested Development as an outlier—a show in which all the elements happened to fall together perfectly, “the delta-q’s piling up just right,” as Pynchon might say. I’m still not sure how it all worked, and I don’t know what the lessons are here. But then again, perhaps it’s best not to teach lessons at all.

Tomorrow: The slow-drip approach to storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2012 at 10:04 am

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