Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Solar

“Something bad has happened…”

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"Victor Chigorin was seated..."

Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.

Among novelists and screenwriters, there’s a piece of conventional wisdom that says that exposition should be buried in a place where the audience is least likely to notice it. In Save the Cat—which, for better or worse, has become the most influential screenwriting book ever published—the late Blake Snyder calls this principle The Pope in the Pool:

Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. It’s basically a thriller. And the scene where we learn the details of the vital backstory goes like this: Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience, aren’t even listening, I’m guessing. We’re thinking: “I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool?!” And look, the Pope’s not wearing his Pope clothes, he’s…he’s…in his bathing suit!” And before you can say “Where’s my miter?” the scene’s over.

Snyder’s logic isn’t necessarily hard to understand. There are two assumptions here: 1) Exposition is deadly to drama. 2) It’s only there at all so the nitpicking spoilsports in the audience won’t be able to go back and point out obvious holes in the story. Better, then, to stick it someplace where the reader and viewer aren’t even listening, as Snyder puts it so bluntly. While I agree with the first point, the second is more problematic. If the story can be understood and appreciated without the audience registering certain pieces of information, it’s probably best to cut it altogether, rather than trying to camouflage it with a flashy piece of action in the foreground. And if the information is important, then it doesn’t make sense to hide it where it can’t be heard. In L.A. Confidential, which is one of my favorite movies and screenplays of all time, the entire plot is explained in fifteen seconds while Bud and Ed are dangling the district attorney out his office window. It’s a great scene, and it succeeds beautifully in burying the exposition, but it takes several viewings to even pay attention to what poor Ellis Lowe is saying.

"Something bad has happened..."

You could argue, of course, that the details don’t matter, and that it’s more important to get Bud and Ed on their way to their final appointment at the Victory Motel. As with most writing tricks, though, this one is double-edged: it allows us to slip past purely expository elements of the story, but by hiding them away where they can’t even serve their basic functional role, they can seem all the more useless. A better solution is to convey exposition in a form where the information itself is delivered in a vivid fashion. I’ve said before that this explains the popularity of autopsy scenes, which are a reliable, if hoary, way of feeding the audience backstory that would be hard to take in any other setting. (Between CSI and Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne has practically made a second career out of nodding sagely in the morgue.) A rule of thumb I’ve found useful is that if expository dialogue could be transferred to a different location without any change—if, for instance, you could bring the pope out of the pool and stick him in St. Peter’s Church with every line intact—the words themselves should probably be rewritten. And readers these days are savvy enough to recognize when they’re being asked to wait patiently while the story lays pipe, even if they’re being distracted by a gunfight.

Another approach, which I use in Chapter 32 of City of Exiles, is to insert exposition at a point in the story when the reader is naturally curious about the resolution of some other development. At the end of the previous chapter, Wolfe’s car explodes as she’s driving out of Belmarsh, but I wait for one more scene, in which Powell has an important but essentially static conversation with Victor Chigorin, before circling back to clarify her fate. This kind of thing can’t be pushed too far, and I was careful to make the interstitial material as short as possible, but within limits, it works—although it carries certain pitfalls as well. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the central character fears that he has broken the most delicate part of his male anatomy after relieving himself in subzero temperatures. McEwan waits a long time before enlightening us as to the extent of the damage, and while it’s true that the intervening pages fly by, I’d find it hard to tell you anything about what happens there. It ends up being wasted space, which outweighs any gain in momentum or satisfaction from the delayed punchline. It’s fine if you want to give us a pope in a pool, but it’s not fair to ask the reader to swim laps for no reason…

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 9:30 am

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

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