Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Saw

“You know how this works…”

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"You know how this works..."

Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 22. You can read the previous installments here.

“An artist,” Edgar Degas wrote, “must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.” In other words, with diligence, cunning, thoroughness, and full awareness that even the smallest mistake could betray him. Of course, in real life, most crimes aren’t carried out with nearly this degree of intention: they’re impulsive, messy, and poorly planned. When a robbery or con game rises to the standard of ingenuity set by fiction, it’s so rare that it becomes newsworthy, and the press coverage tends to start by comparing it to a scene out of the movies. Reading about the recent prison break in upstate New York, we’re both horrified by the idea of two convicted murderers on the loose and oddly tickled by the details: stuffed dummies, a taunting note left behind for the authorities, and a long crawl through a pipe straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. And it’s hard to escape the implication that the prisoners were explicitly thinking in those terms. The specifics of the plan might have been determined by the vulnerabilities of the prison itself, but its overall effect, it comes off almost as an homage to what the movies have taught us an escape like this ought to look like.

Of all the forms of criminal activity available as subjects for fiction, writers have shown a particular interest in three types: the prison break, yes, but also the heist and the confidence game. Each one emphasizes a different set of qualities that recalls the act of writing itself. A heist represents the moment when meticulous planning collides with a few precious moments of luck or serendipity; a con game is about the creation of trust and plausibility out of countless careful details. (On a queasier level, you could also say that fiction’s persistent fascination with serial killers comes from a similar place. The ingenious predators of Saw or The Following have less in common with their counterparts in real life than with the screenwriters who created them, and if there’s an element of wish fulfillment in the depiction, it’s not so much about killing as about control. Jigsaw is so omniscient that he might as well have written the script for his own movie, and it runs both ways. When you look at the notebooks of the Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, they look eerily like props, as if he’d taken his cues—if not his intentions—directly from John Doe in Seven.)

"This is your lucky day..."

As for a prison break, it’s nothing if not a lesson about the importance of constraints. That said, there’s a touch of dishonesty in the way most novels and movies approach any “impossible” heist or escape: the protagonists always show great apparent resourcefulness in defeating the security measures and eluding the guards, but both sides of the equation have been manipulated in advance by the writer, who sets each obstacle in place with an eye to how to overcome it. Hence the convenient ventilation shafts that materialize wherever necessary; the moving laser beams that follow a predictable pattern, rather than simply creating an impassable grid; or the impregnable vaults, like the one in the first Mission: Impossible movie, equipped with every deterrent device imaginable except a functional security camera. For fans of the genre, spotting the writer’s workarounds is part of the fun. And if prison breaks sometimes feel more satisfying than heists, it’s because the author, like his characters, is forced to deal with problems that can’t be waved away. Stone walls may not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t always there.

The prison break sequence in Eternal Empire, which reaches its climax in Chapter 22, was cobbled together out of many such components. Some of the details, like the limpet mines that the attackers affix to the prison van’s doors, or the way in which one of the criminals poses as a traffic policeman to cheerfully wave other cars toward an alternate route, were taken from similar incidents in real life; others were determined by the physical demands of the location, or nods to scenes I’d enjoyed in other books or movies. (The vehicles that surround the van, boxing it in, come straight from The Usual Suspects.) If there’s one thing that dissatisfies me, it’s the white surgical masks that the assailants wear: I wanted to give them something distinctive, but ever since Point Break raised the bar, the movies have given us heists with thieves masked as clowns, nuns, and whatever else a writer can imagine, and the well of ideas is running a little dry. Still, the result is one of the most effective set pieces in any of these novels, or at least one of the few I can stand to read over again. It’s the kind of scene every writer ought to write at least once. And like most good prison breaks, it never goes quite as smoothly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2015 at 10:41 am

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

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