23 June 2007

The Stormbreaker Contrivance

Yesterday I wrote about a passage in Lionboy: The Chase that impressed me as a good example of how authors can plant information and occasionally remind readers about it, preparing us for the moment when it will become crucial to a plot. Today I turn to an example of how not to do this. Namely, not even trying.

Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker introduced the world to the young Alex Rider, a surprisingly capable teenaged espionage agent. "Surprisingly" not just because he's fourteen years old, but because whenever Alex needs an unusual skill, Horowitz reveals that he already has it.

For instance, page 21 tells us:

He had started learning karate when he was six years old. One afternoon, with no explanation, Ian Rider had taken him to a local club for his first lesson and he had been going there, once a week, ever since. Over the years...
Six sentences follow, describing Alex's black belt and how he'd use it to deal with bullies at school. Unfortunately, that long flashback paragraph comes in the middle of what's supposed to be a fast-moving fight scene, just after a junkyard guard has confronted Alex. So the explanation slows down the action as well as making the contrivance of the plot inescapably obvious.

This defect is especially regrettable since establishing Alex's skills could fill another big hole in the book: the lack of detail about the life he enjoyed with his uncle Ian, the life he's lost with his uncle's death. The book opens with Alex learning that Ian Rider has died. Horowitz thus has a grand opportunity to mention Alex's memories of special times with his uncle. Going to karate lessons, for example. Such specifics would make Alex's loss more real and thus more touching, and lay the groundwork for the junkyard fight.

Instead, over and over Stormbreaker springs new information on us. On page 56 we discover that Alex is an expert pickpocket--after he's picked someone's pocket. The book never provides a reason for a boy to have learned this skill, which even he should have found remarkable.

On page 61 the book reveals that Alex has "lived abroad so he now speaks French, German, and Spanish." Yet there's no mention of such long foreign sojourns or languages back on page 3 when Alex thinks briefly about traveling with his uncle.

Page 166, ridiculously late for a 192-page book, tells us that Uncle Ian has made sure that Alex knows how to drive. And wouldn't you know it? There's a jeep available!

Horowitz makes a great deal of how the MI6 spy agency doesn't train Alex in using a gun; in contrast to all that information he leaves out, he repeats this fact so we can't miss it. But, as it turns out, Alex can fire a pistol so accurately that from many metres away he can hit the Prime Minister in the hand rather than the chest, and knock a computer plug out of a wall. At just the crucial moment, of course.


Gail Gauthier said...

Yeah, I really don't care for this series, as I've mentioned here before. Contrived is a good way to describe it.

J. L. Bell said...

I was disappointed in the first book myself, and in myself for still wanting to know how it would end. So I'm taking my revenge by grumbling about its flaws every few days.

Lee said...

I'd have to read the fight passage myself, but breaking up such a scene can in fact increase, not decrease tension because of the element of disorientation it provides. The jarring can be very effective - used often in film editing - if handled properly.

And there of course is the rub. Certainly what else you say about contrivance makes the novel sound clumsy ... but does remind me yet again that of all the other reasons why a plot may be believed.

J. L. Bell said...

I've been trying to think of an example of how breaking away from a protagonist's fight scene for some other scene can increase tension. And I can't.

I can think of how breaking off just before a major action scene can increase suspense as we readers wait for it to begin. And of how "cutting away" from action somewhere else to the protagonist can increase tension—will she arrive in time? will they destroy the ring?

But disorientation means that the reader doesn't know which way is up, where to focus. And a reader's natural response to that, it seems to me, would be to reorient from his concrete situation—i.e., that he's reading. That would take him out of the story.

In contrast, in a crucial scene an author should ideally have readers totally focused on the story, and not on the experience of reading.

Do you have examples of action scenes broken up by flashbacks, explanations, or disorienting information that work?