Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Secret in Their Eyes

“She did not think that she had been seen…”

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"The binder she had selected..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 10. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.

And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.

"She did not think that she had been seen..."

Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.

That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

“A sharp tap against the key was all it took…”

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(Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 12. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re writing a movie, William Goldman reminds us, there’s no question about what to do with a great line or bit of business: in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, you give it to the star. A movie is all about the lead, who is the reason most of the audience bought a ticket in the first place and who, in most cases, is in nearly every frame of the story. But a novel operates under somewhat different rules. Unless it’s in the first person or told exclusively from the perspective of a single character, you’re going to leave the protagonist’s head from time to time. Entire chapters will be told through the eyes of the supporting cast. In the case of a novel like The Icon Thief, there may be three or more leads all competing for the reader’s attention. As a result, the writer needs to be generous with all of them: they all need their moment in the sun. What you often discover, unfortunately, after reading over the first draft, is that you’ve inadvertently neglected one or more protagonists in favor of others. And that’s a problem.

Of all the characters in The Icon Thief, the one who gave me the most trouble was Alan Powell, my British investigator. Powell really originated as a convenient narrative device, a sort of authorial surrogate who could guide the reader through the plot’s myriad complexities, and it took me a long time to figure out who he was in other respects. His character suffered further over the course of the book’s revisions: as I’ve mentioned before, I restructured the entire novel to focus on Maddy, which meant writing new scenes for her and cutting back the others. Ilya, the book’s third major character, had always been kept mostly offstage, so he wasn’t hurt by the process, but Powell lost several big chapters. This removed much of his story, leaving him even more of an enigma than before. And when I looked at the novel’s structure, I saw that I basically had room for just one chapter that would give Powell a solid early scene and include all the important information from the sections that were cut.

When I wrote Chapter 12, then, my primary goal was to provide a real showcase for Powell. At that point, I’d been working on the novel for well over a year, but hadn’t written any new scenes in months, so I was able to approach the challenge with a fairly clear head. I began by borrowing an idea from the wonderful Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, which I’d seen around that time, and which includes a suspenseful sequence in which the two main characters break into a suspect’s home to look for evidence in a crime. Watching it, I realized that this is one of those few precious scene types—like an auction—that a writer can’t possibly screw up: it allows the story to convey as much information as necessary while the reader worries that the hero will be caught. I decided right then that I’d have Powell engage in a bit of illegal entry in pursuit of a piece of evidence, which would also reveal a slightly more reckless side of his character that hadn’t been emphasized before.

The rest was a lot of fun. Once I had the basic outline of the chapter, it was simply a matter of arranging the necessary pieces into a pleasing shape. I had Powell break into the house with a bump key, a device that I heartily recommend to any fictional housebreaker, and then follow a series of clues that, in many cases, were refugees from previous drafts. (The photograph of the racing truck that he finds in the boy’s bedroom, for instance, originally hung on a door at the FBI field office in the Javits Building—I relocated it here because it provides a crucial clue, and the scene in which it first appeared was cut.) Powell’s subsequent conversation with Wolfe outside the house combines information from a number of missing scenes, sometimes distilling an entire chapter into a paragraph or two. And while it may sound like this chapter was cobbled together out of leftover pieces, I don’t think it reads that way. As I’ve discovered more than once, a single neat dramatic device can provide a home for a lot of necessary business, and the result is a strong chapter that breathed new life into Powell. And since I’ve had to live with him for two more novels, I’m very glad it did.

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2012 at 9:57 am

The best movies of the year

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First, the bad news. This was a terrible year for movies. Some combination of recessionary cutbacks, the delayed effects of the writer’s strike, and a determination to convert every imaginable movie to muddy 3D resulted in stretches of up to two or three months when multiplexes were basically a wasteland. And even if this cinematic dead zone turns out to be temporary, it’s hard not to see it as karmic comeuppance for the Academy’s recent decision to bump the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, an act of desperation that is looking more misguided with every passing day. Still, there were some very good movies released this year, including one that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me think that this year was better than it actually was:

1. Inception. After a decade of extraordinary productivity, Christopher Nolan is beginning to look like nothing so much as two great directors working as one: the first is obsessed with pushing the bounds of filmic complexity on the narrative level, while the other has devoted himself to mastering every aspect of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Inception is the ultimate result of this paradoxical partnership: it’s one of those rare movies in which every aspect of the production—acting, story, visual effects, art direction, stunts, music, editing, even costume design—is both immediately exhilarating and endless to meditation. I only wish there were more of it.

2. Toy Story 3. I was hard on this movie yesterday, so let’s set the record straight: this is the best Pixar film since Finding Nemo, and one of the finest animated movies ever made. It’s touching, exciting, thematically rich, and very funny, with an enormous cast of characters—both existing and new—who are so engaging that I’m sad we won’t have a chance to see them in other stories. (Fanfic, as usual, is ready to come to the rescue.) It’s enough to make me wish that I were ten years younger, just so I could have grown up with these toys—and movies—on my playroom shelves.

3. The Social Network. Over the past few years, David Fincher has gone from being a stylish but chilly visual perfectionist to a director who can seemingly do anything. Zodiac was the best movie ever made about serial killers and journalism, as well as the best Bay Area picture since Vertigo; The Social Network, in turn, is the best Harvard movie of all time, as well as a layered, trashy story of money and friendship, with an Aaron Sorkin script that manages to evoke both John Hughes and Citizen Kane. It’s almost enough to make me excited about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop. Even more than Inception, this was the best film of the year for inspiring endless heated debate. Months later, I’m still not sure what to think about the strange case of Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, which is some combination of cautionary tale, Horatio Alger story, fascinating reportage, and practical joke. I do know that it’s impossible to watch it without questioning your deepest assumptions about art, commerce, and the nature of documentary filmmaking. And even if it’s something of a put-on, which I think at least part of it is, it’s still the best movie of its kind since F for Fake.

5. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s modest but wickedly sophisticated thriller is a reminder that a movie doesn’t need to be big to be memorable. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: a tight story, an impeccable cast (aside from Kim Cattrall’s distractingly plummy British accent), and an isolated house on the beach. The result is one of the great places in the movies, as real as Hannibal Lecter’s cell or the detective’s office in The Usual Suspects. By the end, we feel as if we could find our way around this house on our own, and the people inside it—especially the devastating Olivia Williams—have taken up residence in our dreams.

6. Fair Game. Aside from a pair of appealingly nuanced performances by Naomi Watts (as Valerie Plame) and Sean Penn (as Joseph Wilson), Fair Game doesn’t even try to be balanced: it’s a story of complex good against incredible, mustache-twirling evil, which would be objectionable from a narrative perspective if it weren’t so close to the truth. At its best, it’s reminiscent of The Insider, both in its sense of outrage and in the massive technical skill that it lavishes on intimate spaces. It’s impossible to watch it without being swept up again by renewed indignation.

7. The Town. True, it’s slightly confused about its main character, who comes off as more of a sociopath than the film wants to admit, and I have problems with the last ten minutes, in which Ben Affleck, as both director and star, slips from an admirable objectivity into a strange sort of self-regard. Still, for most of its length, this is a terrific movie, with one of the best supporting casts in years—notably Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. The result is a genre piece that is both surprisingly layered and hugely entertaining, with a fine sense of Boston atmosphere.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Technically, this Argentine movie—which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—came out last year, but I’d feel irresponsible if I didn’t include it here. Like The Lives of Others, which it superficially resembles, it’s one of those foreign films, aware of but unimpressed by the conventions of Hollywood, that seems so rich and full of life that it passes beyond genre: it’s funny, romantic, and unbearably tense, and contains one of the most virtuoso action sequences this side of Children of Men. I don’t know what to call it, but I love it.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A week doesn’t go by in which I don’t think fondly of Knives Chau, Scott Pilgrim’s hapless but unexpectedly resourceful Chinese-Canadian love interest. The film in which Knives finds herself is equally adorable: it has enough wit and invention for three ordinary movies, and it’s one of the few comedies of recent years that knows what to do with Michael Cera. It’s something of a mess, and its eagerness to please can be exhausting, but it still contains more delights per reel than any number of tidier films.

10. The American. Despite opening at the top of the box office over Labor Day weekend, this odd, nearly perfect little movie was mostly hated or dismissed by audiences soon after its release. The crucial thing is to adjust your expectations: despite what the commercials say, this isn’t a thriller so much as a loving portrait of a craftsman—in this case, an assassin—at work, as well as a visual essay on such important subjects as the Italian countryside, a woman’s naked body, and George Clooney’s face. It’s perilously close to ridiculous, but until its ludicrous final shot, it casts its own kind of peculiar spell.

Honorable mention goes to Winter’s Bone, A Prophet, Tangled, and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as to parts of The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, and even Black Swan, which really deserves a category of its own. (As for Tron: Legacy, well, the less said about that, the better.)

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