Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Snowpiercer

“Three years earlier…”

leave a comment »

"Three years earlier..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 26. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the tidbits of writing advice I’ve picked up over the years, one I never tire of quoting comes courtesy of the legendary pulp novelist Jack Woodford. In his classic book Trial and Error—which manages to be both a useful writer’s manual and a gem of self-promotion—Woodford says:

The trouble with most first short stories is that they have their beginnings buried in their middles. Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action.

Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place. Now you need no longer wail, “But I don’t know how to start a story!”

To my eye, this is what a writing tip should be: practical, immediately applicable, and just a little mechanical. Putting it into practice is a matter of copying and pasting. If it works, great; if not, it’s easy to reverse it. But what strikes me the most about it now is that although Woodford is talking about how to start a story, when you generalize it, it’s really a rule about flashbacks. I’ve always seen flashbacks as a dangerous tool: they interrupt what ought to be a continuous flow of action, whether internal or external, and offer the temptation to spend time on backstory, rather than revealing character through action. But they also have their uses. As Woodford notes, you usually want to get the story moving in the very first sentence, and a flashback can be used, paradoxically, to enable narrative momentum by placing the exposition at a point where the plot can sustain it. When you follow Woodford’s approach, you find that the flashback naturally appears during an organic pause, where the plot has to regroup to take a breather anyway. All stories, if they aren’t going to exhaust the reader, need a few stretches of relative flatness to balance out the high points, and it’s valuable real estate. If you find that you really need a flashback—if only because the backstory would be more vivid or interesting if clustered in a single unit, rather than dispersed—then it probably belongs at a moment when the story can afford to slow down.

"They regarded each other in silence..."

And like most useful writing tools, a flashback can be perform a double duty, inserting a moment of delay where it increases the suspense. Elsewhere, I’ve used the movie Snowpiercer as an example: just before the protagonist is about to reach the end of his violent quest, he pauses, lights a cigarette, and tells us a little about himself for the first time. Anywhere else, and the speech would have seemed like a misstep; here, it both postpones the climax at a point of maximum tension and reminds us of the stakes involved at just the right moment. Snowpiercer may be the most relentlessly linear action movie I’ve ever seen—it tracks the hero’s progress from one train compartment to another, so that his movement through physical space exactly parallels the structure of the story—and it cleverly places what amounts to a flashback at the only spot where it wouldn’t interrupt the plot’s forward motion. But even more loosely constructed stories can benefit from its example. Not every narrative needs to move singlemindledly from A to B, and in certain exceptional works, like The English Patient or Citizen Kane, the movement between past and present and back again can almost become a character in itself. But chronological order is the baseline from which we depart only with good reason. And those departures work best when they occur in places where the rhythm allows for a regathering.

The flashback that opens Part II of Eternal Empire is an interesting case, because it was written long after the rest of the novel was complete. My editor had suggested clarifying the relationship between Maddy and Ilya, which otherwise depends mostly on the reader’s knowledge of The Icon Thief, and I realized that she had a good point: much of the action of the novel’s second half hinges on the evolving understanding between these two characters. It also gave me a chance to revisit a piece of the story that the previous books had left unexplored. And because the novel was already so tightly structured, it made sense to stick it here. Last week, I noted that I usually start any writing project with three or four big twists in mind, and I’ll outline the book so that each of these occur at the end of a section. As a result, the beginning of the next section benefits from the residual momentum that the previous climax has generated. Inserting the flashback here put it at a point where I could trust that the reader, having come this far, would at least make it through the next few pages, and it provided a useful way of delaying the resolution of the previous scene, which ended with the hood coming down over Maddy’s head. It wasn’t part of my original conception, but once it was there, it seemed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the surrounding material. And when we catch up with Maddy again, waiting in the back of the car for whatever is coming next, we know exactly what brought her there…

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2015 at 9:57 am

“It’s been too long since we truly spoke…”

leave a comment »

"It's been too long since we truly spoke..."

Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 46. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a moment in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer—which is one of the more interesting movies of this or any year—that demonstrates how shrewdly the film handles its own structure, even within a narrative that moves within wild extremes of realism and tone. Toward the end of the movie, the small band of rebels has fought its way to the front of the titular train, in search of its mysterious designer and engineer. We reach a point where only a single door stands between the hero, played by Chris Evans, and the engineer himself. And it’s here, with the climax seemingly around the corner, that the movie pauses. Evans sits down, lights the obligatory cigarette, and for the first time in the film, he really talks. So far, he’s spoken in short bursts of exhortation or exposition, usually just for a sentence or two, but now he opens up and finally reveals where he comes from and what brought him to this moment. I’m not a fan of backstory; I’m in full agreement with William Goldman that a hero is more compelling the less he reveals. But if you’re going to do this kind of thing, I’d argue that it belongs here, after the protagonist has been clarified through an entire story’s worth of action, but before he faces his final challenge.

In other words, Snowpiercer, a movie which otherwise moves with relentless momentum, is smart enough, even within its tonal chaos, to identify and utilize an organic pause in its structure. It’s particularly effective here, near the end: when the door opens and Evans confronts what awaits him on the other side, his personal stakes are fresh in the viewer’s mind. We’re also more likely to accept a break here than anywhere else. By now, we’re impatient to see what lies behind the door, but our awareness of exactly where the movie is going gives his monologue an urgency that it wouldn’t have if the next steps weren’t so clear. And while this may seem like a trivial point, it’s one of a very few valuable tricks—which I’ve noted elsewhere can be counted on one hand—that work in a wide range of stories. One of the recurring headaches of a writer’s life is finding room for moments where the narrative can pause and regroup. Throughout most of a novel or film, especially in the suspense or action genres, that kind of break is lethal to the forward movement that the audience expects. And I’ve found that this kind of interstitial scene, between a climactic setup and payoff, works better than any alternative.

"There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent what is happening already..."

If I seem to be giving this point more emphasis than it really deserves, it’s only because the problem of the narrative pause is one that I’ve confronted again and again, and this is one approach that really works. It may even be more effective in a novel than on film. A movie unfolds at the same number of frames per second no matter the content of the scene, so a long break just before the climax can subtly test the viewer’s patience. In a novel, by contrast, much of a writer’s time is spent managing the pace at which the reader turns pages. For most of us, reading speed is flexible; we read certain passages more slowly to absorb what they say, while the pages fly by at moments of high suspense or excitement. And this kind of momentum can carry over from one scene to the next, so that a quiet chapter that might have broken the rhythm earlier in the novel can be swept up in the reader’s eagerness to see what happens next. As usual, it takes repeated readings and revisions by the author to get the balance just right. But when it works, it propels the reader past moments of necessary consolidation that the story might otherwise be unable to accommodate.

For my last few novels, I’ve used moments like this, particularly at the beginning of a new section when a cliffhanger from the previous scene remains unresolved, to incorporate flashbacks, which I otherwise try to avoid. I began doing this on a conscious level only recently, but it appears in a germinal form in Chapter 46 of City of Exiles. By the time we reach the first chapter of Part III, we’ve just witnessed the crash of Chigorin’s plane, and the stakes for the last hundred pages are as clear as they come. Instead of picking up that thread right away, though, I pause for a relatively quiet exchange between Ilya and Vasylenko, as the two men really talk for the first time in the novel. I did this mostly for pragmatic reasons: I needed Wolfe to fly out to Helsinki to investigate the aftermath of the crash, and putting a scene here inserts a brief delay that serves as the psychological equivalent of her plane ride. But it also gave me a chance to flesh out the themes and emotions that will pay off very soon. At the time, I don’t think I was aware of what I was doing; as with most writing rules, you hit on it intuitively, then go back to figure out what you’ve done. But it was no accident that the scene takes place here, when so much else is already in motion. As Vasylenko says: “There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent what is happening already…”

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2014 at 10:02 am

The eye of the octopus

leave a comment »


A genre evolves like anything else: when you’re looking only at the finished result, it seems inevitable, but it’s really the product of a long process of trial and error that could have gone any number of ways. The genres that we’ve come to know best—the romantic comedy, the action movie, the horror film—are a little like the human eye. Proponents of intelligent design like to point to the human eye as proof of a divine watchmaker, since it seems intuitively ridiculous that so intricate a machine could have emerged through time and chance alone. Really, though, the eye evolved through a series of intermediate stages, each of which conferred its own advantage, and if you were setting out to build an eye from first principles, you’d never have designed it backwards and upside-down. Even if we’re happy with our eyes in their current form, it’s possible to conceive of alternate versions, like the eye of the octopus, which evolved along independent lines. And since we’re so accustomed to the eyes we use, it requires a real effort of the imagination to conceive of anything different.

The same holds true for genres. Like the eye, genres originate as a series of solutions to specific problems, and the best ideas—all of which emerge from the needs of individual authors tackling particular stories—are gathered, codified, and packaged over time. Horror provides a good example. The quintessential slasher film is as ritualized as kabuki: you’ve got a masked killer, a series of nubile teenage victims, the jump scare, the use of sexual behavior as a proxy for guilt or survival, and the moment when the killer seems dead but probably isn’t. Part of the pleasure of watching a horror movie with a large audience is our shared knowledge of those beats, which have accumulated over decades with countless refinements: Psycho laid the groundwork, with an assist from Peeping Tom, while Halloween codified the standard and its successors raised the bar for gore. It all seems weirdly logical, but it isn’t, and it’s only when we look back at its successive stages that we realize how many other turns the genre could have taken. Why the mask? Why teenagers? Well, why not?

Human eye and octopus eye

And the best way to appreciate the role of chance is to look at films from different cultures, in which genres have evolved features that seem incongruous to Western audiences but perfectly reasonable within the context in which they arose. We might find it strange for the protagonists of an epic crime thriller to pause for a musical number, but that’s part of the package in Bollywood. (A visitor from another culture might find it equally odd that an otherwise hardbitten cop in a Hollywood movie would pause to deliver a one-liner just before dispatching the villain.) I’ve always been fascinated by the movies of South Korea, which seem to have emerged out of a fantastically different conception of what kinds of conventions and ideas can exist comfortably within the same story. I’ve never seen a Korean film—from Oldboy to The Host to Nowhere to Hide—that didn’t seesaw radically from one tone to another, with slapstick giving way to surrealism and ultraviolence. And they serve as a vivid reminder of the constraints and limitations we’ve accepted in our storytelling without knowing it.

Constraints aren’t necessarily a bad thing: genres assume a certain shape because they do a decent job of solving the problems that stories present, and there’s no shame in doing good work within a genre that we’ve come to know well. But I’m still grateful for a movie like Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which I finally caught over the weekend. Snowpiercer is all the more striking because it’s being promoted as a straightforward dystopian action movie, only to spiral off on increasingly strange tangents as its protagonists move closer to the front of its titular train. Around the halfway mark, I realized that I didn’t know what to expect from one scene to the next, and that collision between the movie and the expectations aroused by its marketing campaign—which will always strive to fit a film into familiar categories, no matter how unconventional the actual product—results in a weird, giddy ride. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s teeming with ideas, and I expect it to stick in my head longer than most conventional entertainments. For the most part, I’m happy to look through the eyes I have, but it’s good to remember from time to time that there are other ways to see.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

%d bloggers like this: