The Regional Office is Under Attack and Structure
Manuel Gonzales's The Regional Office is Under Attack is about forces of darkness, those out to stop those forces, and others out to stop the forces stopping the forces. It has assassins, oracles, and robot arms. And it's riveting.
It's also a structural masterpiece that engages a large cast of characters and handles multiple timelines and espionage-style plotting quite deftly, all while maintaining a quick pace and building suspense. I think this happens in large part because of the way it is broken into small sections that interact with each other.
Words are defined by our language (more-or-less). So are sentences. We can break the rules, but grammar still gives us guidance. Chapters, sections, even paragraphs
are much more arbitrary. There are conventions, but not rules. Whether a sentence belongs in one paragraph or the next or a scene in one chapter or another—it's just
a matter of style. And these divisions don't add content. In fact, stories can exist entirely without line or space or page breaks.
But breaks are still really important! When breaks occur (or don't), we feel the intentions of the writer, for good or bad. And they certainly affect how the story is taken in by by the reader.
The Regional Office is Under Attack, contains three "books" (another artificial division). The books each contain what I'll call "chapters" which have titles to match the primary character. There are also "interludes" that occur before, within, and after the books. Each of the chapters is made up of short sections, usually about four pages long.
I want to talk about the first chapter of Book I, called "Rose" and the sections that occur within it. It's more or less a braided narrative, as if two longer chapters were cut in pieces and interspersed. The book begins with Rose, a young assassin, at the beginning of a dangerous mission. At a moment of high suspense, the section ends and we move into a chapter that describes a time before Rose was an assassin. In fact, it's the day she is recruited to become one. Throughout Book I, sections that deal with Rose's current mission alternate with sections regarding Rose's past as
ordinary(ish) teenager and how she was recruited for the team and trained.
The technique is not unusual. It's often smart to begin a story with action, something high-stakes to pull the reader right in. Then it's often wise to give some relief from
high-tension moments by moving away from that action and giving some background. It builds suspense, obviously, and breaks up backstory, which might otherwise weigh down the action.
But what's particularly masterful in this braiding of sections is the way the two threads push at each other. We cut off of the "mission" thread at dramatic moments,
as expected. But this style of cliffhanger also happens in the thread dealing with Rose's backstory. There are high stakes in both places, as well as dramatic moments of suspense.
And this is really interesting to me. In the "mission" thread Rose climbs down a ventilation shaft at least a mile underground to a place protected by magic, as well as the futuristic technology, including guns, robots, spinning blades, and poison gas. Then she has a fight to the death with a magically enhanced hand and its user. In the "background" thread, she's being chased by a couple of asshole teenage boys. But it's well-balanced because in the "mission" thread, Rose also has magical protections
and a whole lot of training. In the "background" sections, she just has her wits. In both threads, she's a hell of a fighter.
It's a good lesson in the relativity of stakes. It's not about what the danger is, but how the character is equipped to deal with that danger. It's not about any objective
value of the desire or the fear, but about what that desire or fear means to the particular character at the particular time.
I should also talk about the way continuity is created between the threads. We get a jolt when we're yanked from one to another, but we're also quickly situated each
time, because the character is the same. She's more or less trained, sure, but she's still got the same impulses and the same attitude. She has honed her strengths through her training and become more aware of her weaknesses, but even before she is trained the reader can identify the same general strengths and weaknesses in her.
It's also smart that in this example, each set of stakes builds intensity by way of the other thread. In Rose's backstory, we learn about her early life and how awful it is.
We root for her to get the hell out. At the same time, we're alarmed at the life we already know she is escaping into. And we only know this because of the "mission" thread. In the "mission" thread, the stakes intensify because we know Rose well enough to guess how she might screw things up, despite her training, and so our fear increases. We also have a better grasp of what it will mean to her to screw up.
This only happens because we get her history.
I said it wasn't the suspense-building I was excited about, but in fact, all of this supports that work. For the reader to accept the jump away in a moment of high tension, we must be redirected to something equally engaging. This work of building the stakes in both threads assures that.
Because of the quick cuts and the way each half feeds off the other, we can experience the two threads at once. We can think from the perspective of naïve Rose
and already-trained Rose, holding both versions of her in our brain at the same time. When this happens, it makes the character more complex and dynamic.
And let me talk for just a minute about my favorite thing that happens in stories: that incredible mind trip that pulls us from the experience of one-word-at-a-time into something with depth and dimension. Our brains hold competing ideas in the same space and so that brain space not only exists, it widens. I think this has a lot to do with the ways stories sweep us away, so we're not just reading but fully imagining the space and time of the story.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com