The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Macro Choreography with Daryl Gregory

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March 29, 2017
When I read Harrison Squared, what impressed me most (at least technically) was how detailed the blocking of character action was always clear where each character was in a space, and where important objects were in relation to them, no matter how fast the action was moving. When I got to chapter 21, I was even more blown away when I was able to track the location of a huge field of action, and that’s what I want to discuss today. Careful for some spoilers. I’ll try to keep the excerpts light to avoid them, but it is fairly late in the novel. 

The Problem: 

It’s hard to know when you’re accurately depicting the choreography of an action scene. You can picture it all in your head, you know where everyone is, so the biggest challenge is being sure that your vision makes it to the page. In looking for some tricks to master this, I turned to a published example. 

The Story: 

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a young adult Lovecraft novel with a special flare for adventure. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and isn’t too dark–although some of the monster POV scenes can get there. It’s a sequel to his award winning novella We Are All Completely Fine, which was one of my favorites of 2015, and there are a few more books in the series on their way. 

What I loved about this big battle scene toward the end of the novel was that I never felt lost. I could always track where the character was, and the narrator seemed keenly aware of when I’d need a reminder. All this is done with simple and subtle tricks. 

The Solution: 

It really is quite simple and eloquent: there are 2 methods that Daryl is using to keep us in the know. 

1. Solid Setup 

The story takes its time to orient us to the field of action. No need to rush into the events when a reader won’t be able to follow what’s going on. Check out this excerpt: 

      “Suddenly the wind roared, and the Muninn spun like a toy boat above a bathtub drain. I was thrown to my knees.
      The Scrimshander lunged at Hallgrimsson and batted aside the trident. The two of them crashed to the deck. Hallgrimsson yelled, ‘Run, Harrison!’
      I jumped to my feet and ran, skidding and swaying, to the other side of the boat. Lydia stepped out of the other side of the pilothouse, the wind whipping her hair, and pointed.
     The water under the cloud break seemed to boil, churning with white tops. The Muninn was caught in the outer rim of a huge whirlpool, circling at great speed and rotating at the same time, like a spinning planet caught in the orbit of a sun. 
     The center of the whirlpool was a circle of smooth water like the center of a roulette wheel. The raft floated in that eddy, spinning slowly . . .  The Albatross was stationed well back from the whirlpool, Montooth standing at the bow. But that wasn’t what she was pointing at . . . The Muninn spun like a compass dial. I hung on, and then the raft appeared, perhaps a hundred yards in front of us” (291-292)

This setup involves two things of note. For one, descriptive metaphors that take this large battlefield and give it a meaningful, consistent image. He uses metaphors of scale, one small (a toy boat circling a drain) and one enormous (a spinning planet orbiting the sun) and what i notice is that these metaphors are essentially creating the exact same image, except the first begins with a scale we can fathom, and then the second expands that scale into a huge one, giving a sense of the immensity of the field on which this scene will take place. 

The second activity in this segment is the creation of monuments that you can imagine in various places in this orbit or around this drain. There’s the Muninn and the Albatross, the raft and the glassy center of the whirlpool, as well as the whirlpool itself. Being able to paste these monuments onto the metaphors above is key to tracking the events in the following scene. 

2. Use the Monuments as Touchstones

The action largely oscillates between “big” events and “small” events, switching from the macro choreography of whirlpools and boats, to the personal tale of Harrison struggling to get to his mother. When we emerge from these moments, often rising up from underwater, Daryl returns to these monuments to show us where we are (how far from the raft, how far from the Muninn), as well as to track the passage of time (the Munnin swirling back around the pool). Consider the following excerpts, only three of such moments: 

     “I tried to take a breath, but my chest had seized up. My jaw felt like ti was trying to grind my teeth to nubs. I pawed at my chest and was relieved to find the knife still there.
     A wave carried me up, and I looked around frantically. The Muninn was less than ten feet from me. Then I spotted the raft, much farther away. . .” (293). 
     
     “A thrill ran through me, a hot jolt of energy better than Aunt Sel’s tea. I turned about, spotted the patch of clear air. When the next wave came, I dove into it. I kicked hard with my meat leg, and then the buoyancy of the vest pulled me to the surface
     Swim. Don’t think. 
     Some time later I realized that the wind has ceased howling. I stopped and treaded water. The surface was a s glassy as a lake, and the raft was only fifty feet away” (296). 

     “I got to my knees, scanning the water. The raft still stood in the center of a glassy lake. The Muninn still orbited at the edge of the whirlpool . . . Behind them, safely outside the whirlpool, was the white bulk of the Albatross. I could see a huge figure on its frond deck” (299).

These two strategies work in congress to produce an obvious-in-hindsight but invisible-in-situ effect that left me feeling total clarity and increasingly impressed. I’ll definitely be stealing this going forward. 

Finally: 

Be methodical, be obvious. What may not appear to be a smooth strategy on the surface could very well pass unnoticed when readers are knee deep in the climax of your novel. Part of the genius of this strategy is how close it comes to simulating how we orient ourselves in real life. Consider a time when you passed onto a busy street, the light so bright you couldn’t see your surroundings at first. As your eyes adjust, you look for some touchstone that can guide your way, tell you how long you have to go.

That’s exactly how Harrison is colliding with his antagonists in this scene. 

Do you have any tricks for managing huge scenes of battle? Any particular stories or moments come to mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you think I missed anything at all. 

Thanks for reading!

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