Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Iliad

The number nine

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Note: This post reveals plot details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

One of the central insights of my life as a reader is that certain kinds of narrative are infinitely expansible or contractible. I first started thinking about this in college, when I was struggling to read Homer in Greek. Oral poetry, I discovered, wasn’t memorized, but composed on the fly, aided by the poet’s repertoire of stock lines, formulas, and images that happened to fit the meter. This meant that the overall length of the composition was highly variable. A scene that takes up just a few lines in the Iliad that survives could be expanded into an entire night’s recital, based on what the audience wanted to hear. (For instance, the characters of Crethon and Orsilochus, who appear for only twenty lines in the existing version before being killed by Aeneas, might have been the stars of the evening if the poet happened to be working in Pherae.) That kind of flexibility originated as a practical consequence of the oral form, but it came to affect the aesthetics of the poem itself, which could grow or shrink to accommodate anything that the poet wanted to talk about. Homer uses his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war, and some amount to self-contained short stories in themselves. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly deeper levels. In Search of Lost Time happens to be the one book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved, with a plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages.

Something similar appears to have happened with the current season of Twin Peaks, and when you start to think of it in those terms, its structure, which otherwise seems almost perversely shapeless, begins to make more sense. In the initial announcement by Showtime, the revival was said to consist of nine episodes, and Mark Frost even said to Buzzfeed:

If you think back about the first season, if you put the pilot together with the seven that we did, you get nine hours. It just felt like the right number. I’ve always felt the story should take as long as the story takes to tell. That’s what felt right to us.

It was doubled to eighteen after a curious interlude in which David Lynch dropped out of the project, citing budget constraints: “I left because not enough money was offered to do the script the way I felt it needed to be done.” He came back, of course, and shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the length of the season had increased. Yet there was never any indication that either Lynch or Frost had done any additional writing. My personal hunch is that they always had nine episodes of material, and this never changed. What happened is that the second act of the show expanded in the fashion that I’ve described above, creating a long central section that was free to explore countless byways without much concern for the plot. The beginning, and presumably the end, remained more or less as conceived—it was the middle that grew. And a quick look at the structure of the season so far seems to confirm this. The first three episodes, which take Cooper from inside the Black Lodge to slightly before his meeting with his new family in Las Vegas, seemed weird at the time, but now they look positively conventional in terms of how much story they covered. They were followed by three episodes, the Dougie Jones arc, that were expanded beyond recognition. And now that we’ve reached the final three, which account for the third act of the original outline, it makes sense for Cooper to return at last.

If the season had consisted of just those nine episodes, I suspect that more viewers would have been able to get behind it. Even if the second act had doubled in length—giving us a total of twelve installments, of which three would have been devoted to detours and loose ends—I doubt that most fans would have minded. It’s expanding that middle section to four times its size, without any explanation, that lost a lot of people. But it’s clearly the only way that Lynch would have returned. For most of the last decade, Lynch has been contentedly pottering around with odd personal projects, concentrating on painting, music, digital video, and other media that don’t require him to be answerable to anyone but himself. The Twin Peaks revival, after the revised terms had been negotiated with Showtime, allowed him to do this with a larger budget and for a vastly greater audience. Much of this season has felt like Lynch’s private sketchbook or paintbox, allowing him to indulge himself within each episode as long as the invisible scaffolding of the original nine scripts remained. The fact that so much of the strangeness of this season has been visual and nonverbal points to Lynch, rather than Frost, as the driving force on this end. And at its best, it represents something like a reinvention of television, which is the most expandable or compressible medium we have, but which has rarely utilized this quality to its full extent. (There’s an opening here, obviously, for a fan edit that condenses the season down to nine episodes, leaving the first and last three intact while shrinking the middle twelve. It would be an interesting experiment, although I’m not sure I’d want to watch it.)

Of course, this kind of aggressive attack on the structure of the narrative doesn’t come without a cost. In the case of Twin Peaks, the primary casualty has been the Dougie Jones storyline, which has been criticized for three related reasons. The first, and most understandable, is that we’re naturally impatient to get the old Cooper back. Another is that this material was never meant to go on for this long, and it starts to feel a little thin when spread over twelve episodes. And the third is that it prevents Kyle MacLachlan, the ostensible star of the show, from doing what he does best. This last criticism feels like the most valid. MacLachlan has played an enormous role in my life as a moviegoer and television viewer, but he operates within a very narrow range, with what I might inadequately describe as a combination of rectitude, earnestness, and barely concealed eccentricity. (In other words, it’s all but indistinguishable from the public persona of David Lynch himself.) It’s what made his work as Jeffrey in Blue Velvet so moving, and a huge part of the appeal of Twin Peaks lay in placing this character at the center of what looked like a procedural. MacLachlan can also convey innocence and darkness, but by bringing these two traits to the forefront, and separating them completely in Dougie and Dark Cooper, it robs us of the amalgam that makes MacLachlan interesting in the first place. Like many stars, he’s chafed under the constraints of his image, and perhaps he even welcomed the challenges that this season presented—although he may not have known how his performance would look when extended past its original dimensions and cut together with the rest. When Cooper returned last night, it reminded me of how much I’ve missed him. And the fact that we’ll get him for two more episodes, along with everything else that this season has offered us, feels more than ever like a gift.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2017 at 9:17 am

The Achilles heel

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What fictional character embodies your masculine ideal?

AMC used to stand for American Movie Classics, but over the last few years, it’s felt more like an acronym for “antiheroic male character.” You’ve met this man before. He’s a direct descendent of Tony Soprano, who owed a great deal in turn to Michael Corleone: a deeply flawed white male who screws up the lives of just about everyone around him, whether out of uncontrollable compulsion, like Don Draper, or icy calculation, like Walter White. Yet he’s also enormously attractive. He’s great at his job, he knows what he wants and how to get it, and he doesn’t play by the rules. It’s a reliable formula for an interesting protagonist, except that his underlying motivations are selfish, and everyone else in his life is a means to an end. And the more ruthless he is, the more we respond to him. I’m only four episodes into the current season of House of Cards, but I’ve already found myself flitting with boredom, because Frank Underwood has lost so much of his evil spark. As much as I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s performance, I’ve never found Frank to be an especially compelling or even coherent character, and without that core of hate and ambition, I’m no longer sure why I’m supposed to be watching him at all.

Ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought the figure of the male antihero to its current heights, we’ve seen a lot of shows, from Low Winter Sun to Ray Donovan, attempting to replicate that recipe without the same critical success. In itself, this isn’t surprising: television has always been about trying to take apart the shows that worked and put the pieces together in a new way. But by fixating on the obvious traits of their antiheroic leads, rather than on deeper qualities of storytelling, the latest round of imitators runs the risk of embodying all the genre’s shortcomings and few of its strengths. There’s the fact, for instance, that even the best of these shows have problems with their female characters. Mad Men foundered with Betty Draper for much of its middle stretch, to the point where it seemed tempted to write her out entirely, and I never much cared for Skylar on Breaking Bad—not, as some would have it, because I resented her for getting in Walt’s way, but because she was shrill and uninteresting. Even True Detective, a minor masterpiece of the form with two unforgettable male leads, couldn’t figure out what to do with its women. (The great exception here is Fargo, which offered us a fantastic heroine, even if she felt a little sidelined toward the end.)

Achilles and Ajax

Of course, the figure of the antihero is as old as literature itself. It’s only a small step from Hamlet to Edmund or Iago, and the Iliad, which inaugurates nothing less than the entire western tradition, opens by invoking the wrath of Achilles. In many ways, Achilles is the prototype for all protagonists of this kind: he’s a figure of superhuman ability on the battlefield, with a single mythic vulnerability, and he’s willing to let others die as he sulks in his tent out of wounded pride, over a woman who is treated as a spoil in a conflict between men. Achilles stands alone, and he’s defined more by his own fate than by any of his human relationships. (To the extent that other characters are important in our understanding of him, it’s as a series of counterexamples: Achilles is opposed at one point or another to Hector, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, and the fact that he’s contrasted against three such different men only points to how complicated he is.) It’s no wonder that readers tend to feel more sympathy for Hector, who is allowed moments of recognizable tenderness: when he tries to embrace his son Astyanax, who bursts into tears at the sight of his father’s armor and plumed helmet, the result is my favorite passage in all of classical poetry, because it feels so much like an instant captured out of real life and transmitted across the centuries.

Yet Achilles is the hero of the Iliad for a reason; Hector, for all his appeal, isn’t cut out for sustaining an entire poem. An antihero, properly written, can be the engine that drives the whole machine, and in epic poetry, or television, you need one heck of a motor. But a motor isn’t a man, or at least it’s a highly incomplete version of what a man can be. And there’s a very real risk that the choices writers make for the sake of the narrative can shape the way the rest of us think and behave. As Joseph Meeker points out, we tend to glamorize the tragic hero, who causes nothing but suffering to those around him, over the comic hero, who simply muddles through. Fortunately, we have a model both for vivid storytelling and meaningful connection in Achilles’ opposite number. Odysseus isn’t perfect: he engages in dalliances of his own while his wife remains faithful, and his bright ideas lead to the deaths of most of his shipmates. But he’s much closer to a comic than a tragic hero, relying on wit and good timing as much as strength to get home, and his story is like a guided tour of all the things a man can be: king, beggar, father, son, husband, lover, and nobody. We’d live in a happier world if our fictional heroes were more like Odysseus. Or, failing that, I’ll settle for Achilles, as long as he’s more than just a heel.

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March 6, 2015 at 9:12 am

The divided self

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Julian Jaynes

Last night, I found myself browsing through one of the oddest and most interesting books in my library: Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t know how familiar Jaynes’s work remains among educated readers these days—although the book is still in print after almost forty years—but it deserves to be sought out by anyone interested in problems of psychology, ancient literature, history, or creativity. Jayne’s central hypothesis, which still startles me whenever I type it, is that consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent development that emerged sometime within the last three thousand years, or after the dawn of language and human society. Before this, an individual’s decisions were motivated less by internal deliberation than by verbal commands that wandered from one part of the brain into another, and which were experienced as the hallucinated voice of a god or dead ancestor. Free will, as we conceive of it now, didn’t exist; instead, we acted in automatic, almost robotic obedience to those voices, which seemed to come from an entity outside ourselves.

As Richard Dawkins writes: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.” It’s so outrageous, in fact, that its novelty has probably prevented it from being more widely known, even though Jaynes’s hypothesis seems more plausible—if no less shattering—the more you consider his argument. He notes, for instance, that when we read works like the Iliad, we’re confronted by a model of human behavior strikingly different from our own: as beautifully as characters like Achilles can express themselves, moments of action or decision are attributed to elements of an impersonal psychic apparatus, the thumos or the phrenes or the noos, that are less like our conception of the soul than organs of the body that stand apart from the self. (As it happens, much of my senior thesis as an undergraduate in classics was devoted to teasing out the meanings of the word noos as it appears in the poems of Pindar, who wrote at a much later date, but whose language still reflects that earlier tradition. I hadn’t read Jaynes at the time, but our conclusions aren’t that far apart.)

Sigmund Freud

The idea of a divided soul is an old one: Jaynes explains the Egyptian ka, or double, as a personification of that internal voice, which was sometimes perceived as that of the dead pharaoh. And while we’ve mostly moved on to a coherent idea of the self, or of a single “I,” the concept breaks down on close examination, to the point where the old models may deserve a second look. (It’s no accident that Freud circled back around to these divisions with the id, the ego, and the superego, which have no counterparts in physical brain structure, but are rather his attempt to describe human behavior as he observed it.) Even if we don’t go as far as such philosophers as Sam Harris, who denies that free will doesn’t exist at all, there’s no denying that much of our behavior arises from parts of ourselves that are inaccessible, even alien, to that “I.” We see this clearly in patterns of compulsive behavior, in the split in the self that appears in substance abuse or other forms of addiction, and, more benignly, in the moments of intuition or insight that creative artists feel as inspirations from outside—an interpretation that can’t be separated from the etymology of the word “inspiration” itself.`

And I’ve become increasingly convinced that coming to terms with that divided self is central to all forms of creativity, however we try to explain it. I’ve spoken before of rough drafts as messages from my past self, and of notetaking as an essential means of communication between those successive, or alternating, versions of who I am. A project like a novel, which takes many months to complete, can hardly be anything but a collaboration between many different selves, and that’s as true from one minute to the next as it is over the course of a year or more. Most of what I do as a writer is a set of tactics for forcing those different parts of the brain to work together, since no one faculty—the intuitive one that comes up with ideas, the architectural or musical one that thinks in terms of structure, the visual one that stages scenes and action, the verbal one that writes dialogue and description, and the boringly systematic one that cuts and revises—could come up with anything readable on its own. I don’t hear voices, but I’m respectful of the parts of myself I can’t control, even as I do whatever I can to make them more reliable. All of us do the same thing, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the first step to working with, and within, the divided self is acknowledging that it exists.

The genius and the journeymen

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Yesterday, while reflecting on Built by Hand and the beauties of vernacular architecture, I wrote:

What vernacular architecture expresses, more than anything else, is the pragmatism of collective activity over time. Each house is rooted in generations of trial and error, as builders experimented with new techniques and gradually established what worked and what didn’t, and it stands as a reminder of how limited individual effort, even by architectural “visionaries,” can seem by comparison.

Yet this isn’t entirely accurate. There’s a place for vision and genius along with collective progress, and vernacular architecture was shaped, like all art forms, by an alternation between the two: a long period of experimentation crystallized by the work of one highly gifted individual, then subjected to an equally lengthy process of consolidation and refinement. Humanity as a whole can modify and improve traditional techniques, but the really epochal innovations in architecture—the post and lintel, the arch, the dome—are more likely to have emerged in a disconnected flash of insight and intuition. Continuity only takes us so far; it’s the sudden discontinuities, the ideas that abruptly reinvent what we thought we knew, that lead to real innovations. And it’s only through individual moments of genius, rooted all the while in tradition, that such leaps forward take place.

If I speak with such confidence about the history of architecture, despite not being an architect myself, it’s because we can see the same process at work in all areas of human endeavor. Literature offers us the same pattern again and again: stories and narrative strategies are developed over time, formed into a cohesive whole by the efforts of one extraordinary artist, and then refined into a genre by the journeymen who follow. The Homeric epics, for instance, are obviously the product of an oral tradition, and scholars have long since discarded the myth of a single blind poet in favor of the work of generations of professional storytellers. Yet the Iliad and the Odyssey as we know them now are the product of several particular moments—notably the Peisistratean recension and the editions made by the scholars Zenodotus of Ephesus and Aristarchus—that standardized the text into its current form. These editors engaged in selection, emphasis, and editorial shaping, and much of the beauty and coherence of the resulting text can be credited to their efforts. And it’s almost certain that the material on which they worked had been advanced and elevated at earlier stages by the work of one or two exceptional rhapsodes.

Achilles and Ajax

Even in more recent times, literary genres are the product of the same pattern of alternation. If The Woman in White is widely considered to be the first detective novel, it reflects a gathering up of material that had already been worked on by the likes of Poe and Dickens, and the genre as we know it now is less the product of any one author than the sum of the innovations of many lesser works. Every generation or so, these hints, buried here and there in the existing literature, are compiled, reimagined, and carried higher by an author who points the way forward. It’s impossible to understand either half of the process without the other, and neither is as powerful on its own. Geniuses who work in complete isolation—if such a thing is possible—are deprived of the collective discoveries made by the larger culture, while the culture as a whole depends on discontinuous insights to advance to the next level. This is even more evident in the sciences, which rather uneasily depend on an alternation of incremental progress and epochal disruption. Darwin, as Daniel Dennett notes, may have had the greatest idea of all time, but it came into the world at a point when evolution was in the air, waiting for a major figure who could unify the clues.

And it’s fascinating to watch the same principles at work today. I’ve railed more than once at the problem of misquotation—or, more accurately, of misattribution—but it’s possible to see the garbled versions of famous quotes as a kind of collective revision, an editorial process that occurs as scraps of text and information are passed from one listener to another. “To gild the lily” may be a misremembering of “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” but I’m not entirely sure that Shakespeare would have minded; he may have thought that the misquoted version was tighter and more memorable. The original line from King John may have been the work of a moment, while the rest of us have had centuries to mull it over and find a version that we prefer. This doesn’t excuse more egregious distortions of meaning, and I don’t want to reduce our cultural heritage to one long game of telephone. But time can do mysterious things when combined with the erratic workings of many human minds, especially when it meets an individual personality that can shake it into a new form. We’re smarter in the aggregate, but mostly in predictable ways, and we need both occasional genius and collective wisdom to survive.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

“When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club…”

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"When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In some ways, the novel is an unwieldy, slightly unnatural form of storytelling. A poem, short story, or play arises directly from the oral tradition: it can be told aloud in a few minutes or an hour, and listeners can easily remember most of the important plot points. Even epic poetry, which goes on for much longer, usually boils down to episodes that can be condensed or expanded according to the needs of the audience, strung together like beads on a string. (We can still see this structure of our surviving text of the Iliad, which preserves the full version of certain episodes while reducing others to only a few lines.) The average novel, by contrast, presents a story that is too complex to be held in the mind all at once, even by the author. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a structure that evolved from the physical characteristics of printed books themselves, which allow readers to turn pages both ways, so that elements introduced in the first chapter can return to play an important role near the end—a form of setup and payoff that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition. And although the novel seems natural now, it’s really a recent development in the history of how we tell stories.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge its limitations as well as its strengths. On the one hand, a novel rarely achieves the kind of crystalline perfection that we see in poetry or short fiction, and when it does, it may seem artificial or unreal, as John Gardner observes of Madame Bovary. A novel, as Henry James said of Tolstoy, often ends up being a loose, baggy monster, and in order for it to feel like an accurate representation of life—as well as a pleasurable experience for the reader—it can’t pitch every page at the same level of intensity. Instead, it’s a series of convergences and divergences, of rising and falling action, and it requires time and patience for its full impact to be felt. On the other hand, its size and relative complexity allow it to achieve effects that aren’t possible in shorter forms. It can methodically establish themes, motifs, and story elements that will pay dividends at a later time, and when it works, the effect can be almost symphonic, as threads that have been independently established come together at last.

"He wants a meeting..."

This may seem like a roundabout way of getting to The Icon Thief, which even I’m willing to admit is a very modest example of the novel form. But like most first novels, it stands both as a story in itself and as a kind of laboratory in which a writer is figuring out his craft for the first time. When I wrote the first draft, I was in my late twenties, and although I’d written one unpublished novel already, I still had a lot to learn. As a result, the book sometimes feels like a sandbox in which I was testing out various approaches to telling this kind of extended story. Although the result is clearly a product of its genre, it also allowed me to think about narrative in a way that paid off when it came to my second and third books, as well as the ones I hope to write in the future. Suspense, in particular, seemed like a way to explore these tools in their purest state, as action foreshadowed, promised, and delivered. And one thing that fascinated me from the very beginning was how a novel can use its own intricacy of construction, which allows for more building blocks than other forms, so that the events of the plot are inextricable from the structure of the book itself.

As Chapter 43 begins, for instance, we’re entering a point in the novel where the structure of the story serves almost a character in itself. Three distinct groups of characters—Powell and his partners in law enforcement, Sharkovsky and his men, and Ilya himself—are converging on a common location, the club in Brighton Beach, that has already been established in detail, both within the narrative itself and in what amounted to a direct briefing to the reader. The next few chapters will narrate the ensuing developments from multiple perspectives, often moving back and forth slightly in time. This was both a technical solution to the problem of treating simultaneous action and a way of binding the scenes more closely together, and none of it would mean as much if the foundations hadn’t been laid much earlier. By now, if I’ve done my work properly, the reader knows something about Powell, Wolfe, Ilya, and all the others, and has some idea of how each character will react to the violent events that the structure itself implies. My one regret, which is also inherent to the novel form, is that the reader can tell that we aren’t quite at the real climax yet: we have well over one hundred pages to go. And there’s a lot still left to come…

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April 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

A few thoughts on chapters

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Little, Big by John Crowley

When you think about it, there’s really no reason that a novel needs to have chapters. Early constraints on the size of printed reading material, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets, meant that the first extended narratives were naturally divided into smaller units, like the books of the Iliad, and the conventions of oral storytelling lend themselves to longer works that are essentially collections of shorter pieces, from The Thousand and One Nights to The Canterbury Tales. A novel that tells a single story, even from multiple points of view, doesn’t necessarily need to be divided at all, unless, as in Proust’s case, the story can’t fit comfortably within a single volume. Yet with a handful of exceptions—often, oddly enough, in novels by Irish authors—every novel consists of a number of chapters. And while it’s tempting to think of chapters as a courtesy to the reader, who otherwise might be daunted by plunging into an unbroken block of text, it’s also worth asking a few simple questions about how they work.

Basically, a chapter is a unit of narrative that advances the story while also looking ahead to the next big development. This makes it fundamentally different from a scene, although many novels rightly stick to one scene per chapter. A scene, in itself, can accomplish a lot of things—establish character, convey information, set a mood—and it can often be read as a self-contained set piece. A chapter, by contrast, gains meaning from its role in the novel’s overall structure, and in particular from how it points the way forward. In its final shape, it looks both ways, by influencing the reader’s sense of what has happened so far and where the story is going, which often requires more than one scene. Chapters, in short, are about anticipation. And this gives us a useful clue about the proper placement of chapter breaks, which should ideally fall at the exact moment when the reader is given something to anticipate. Nabokov, for instance, places his chapter breaks in Lolita with the precision of a thriller:

I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and still holding the receiver, I pushed open the door and said:

“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”

But there was no Charlotte in the living room.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

All of this is fairly abstract, but it hints at some practical rules for how chapters should be constructed. The fact that a chapter hinges on anticipation implies that it should break off slightly before its moment of resolution—hence the tip, which I’ve shared elsewhere, that if an extended sequence in a novel isn’t flowing smoothly, the author should try cutting the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. A lot of writers, including myself, feel the need to tie a bow on the end of every scene, and we’ll often approach our first draft with a few extra paragraphs at the beginning and end as we ramp ourselves into the story and ease our way out of it. This can be useful in a rough draft, when we’re imagining the scene for the first time, but in the rewrite, this introductory and concluding material can usually be cut with profit. The first draft of a chapter tends to be written as if it were meant to be read on its own, but it never is: it’s part of a larger structure, and when we leave only the middle, it’s easier to join the pieces. Here’s Nabokov again:

She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I swung onto the highway.

“Why can’t I call my mother if I want to?”

“Because,” I answered, “your mother is dead.”

Still, a chapter represents a break in the action, as well as a pause in the reader’s attention, and the physical fact of that page of white space makes demands of its own. To make the transition easier, I try to start every chapter by clearly indicating the lead character—an important consideration in novels like mine, which jump frequently from one point of view to another—and grounding it in a clear objective and situation. In practice, this means postponing other kinds of information until later. For instance, chapters that start with an extended passage of description, or even just a line or two to sketch out the setting, tend to break the flow. It’s usually better, instead, to open on dialogue or a tight focus on a particular character’s actions, and then pull back to set the scene, much as a television show will often come back from commercial on a closeup, then cut away to a wide shot that indicates the overall setting. Chapter breaks are a lot like cuts in a movie, and like film editors, who have their own set of similar rules, novelists should strive to make the transitions as invisible as possible, so that nothing but the story remains.

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March 27, 2013 at 8:49 am

The Fugitive and the art of beginnings

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The other day, as we were talking about the divergent career paths that the leads of Star Wars had taken, my wife asked me what the last great Harrison Ford movie had been. I answered without hesitation: The Fugitive. And, immediately, I wanted to watch it again. Much to my relief, I found that it’s still a great movie. In particular, the first half hour strikes me as close to perfect: it plunges us right into the action, elegantly introduces the hero and his dilemma, and then all but throws us into the next stage of the story. Ideally, on first viewing, we’re too caught up in the narrative to think about the craft on display. It might even seem easy. But it isn’t.

Which brings us to a larger question: at what point in the story should a novel or movie begin? If the answer seems obvious—a story should begin at the beginning—that’s a good thing, because it means we’ve been spoiled by works of art that, by and large, begin at the right time. But the question of where an extended narrative should begin is as old as the Iliad and as recent as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (I don’t want to harp on this subject yet again, but if Stieg Larsson had known exactly where to begin and end his story, that book would have been infinitely more readable.)

The short answer is that the narrative should begin as late in the story as possible. In movie terms: burn the first reel. David Mamet, as always, is endlessly quotable:

Almost any film can be improved by throwing out the first ten minutes. That exposition, which assuaged the script reader, the coverage writer, the studio exec, the star and her handlers puts the audience to sleep sleep sleep. Get right into the action, and the audience will figure it out. (Simple test, for the unbelieving: when you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatever understanding what’s going on?)

And this is as true for novels as of movies, if not more so. One useful test: on rereading a novel, do you skip the first thirty pages to get to the good stuff? If so, make a careful note of where you begin rereading, because that’s more or less where the novel should have begun. The same principle applies if you leave off reading before the end. For instance, I rarely reread the opening of The Day of the Jackal, and I’ll usually skip several of the explanatory chapters near the end of The Silence of the Lambs. And these are two beautifully constructed novels, which implies how hard it can be to put together the pieces.

In the case of The Fugitive, the credited screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, the director, Andrew Davis, and the six editors made a series of strong choices. (Perhaps luck played a role as well: filming was evidently begun before the script was finished, and the screenplay had a lot of uncredited hands.) The film could have opened with an ordinary day in the life of Dr. Richard Kimble, or at the party in which he and his wife were last seen, or even at his graduation from medical school. Instead, it opens exactly where the real story begins: at the moment of his wife’s murder. Necessary information is conveyed in a series of rapid flashbacks. And Kimble is arrested, tried, and convicted before the credits are over. (After such a virtuoso opening, it’s no surprise that the movie’s second half is a little deflating.)

Of course, if your movie is called The Fugitive, and based on a famous television show of the same name, you probably have a pretty good sense of where your story needs to start. For an original novel, it isn’t always as clear. In general, as John Gardner says, a novel should open “when the action actually begins,” which comes perilously close to tautology. Ultimately, experience is the only guide. At the beginning, it’s likely that the author will write one or more opening chapters that will need to be cut, later on, as the true shape of the novel becomes clear. Which is fine. But the best solution, by far, is not to write the unnecessary scenes in the first place.

(That said, I’m not a fan of novels or movies that begin at a dramatic moment near the climax, then flash back to show how the protagonist got into this mess. There are exceptions, of course—The Usual Suspects is one of the greatest, and Michael Clayton just barely gets away with it—but for the most part, it makes the story look, as Gardner puts it, “gimmicky and self-regarding.” Far better, I think, to find a striking scene that takes place early in the story’s chronology, and begin there. Every shift in time forces the reader to stop and regroup. The novel will be more readable if you pick the right opening moment and run with it.)

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