Friday 13 November 2020

Scene Breakdown: Rainbow Six Opening

Ever sat there looking at one of your scenes and wondered if the pacing was right? Too long, too short? Dithering too much before getting to the main event or getting there too fast? I really hope so, because I don't want to be the only one. Some people will say just write but the reality is many of us have a habit of including the wrong things, putting them in the same order, and so on. Getting that right is a skill many writers pick up through osmosis but doing some detailed analysis work can really help.

Why this scene? Honestly, I hadn't really meant to. I was looking at Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six mainly for some ideas on Action Thriller plotting, but it occurred to me that I could use the opening scene as an interesting example of an action set piece opening. I don't think it's one of the best examples of it's ilk I've ever seen, but in a way that makes it more interesting. 

Now, we've got to remember while analyzing that Clancy wrote this as an incredibly successful mid-career author. That makes it interesting in that you can both call this the standard in that it represents a genre great at work, and also a bad standard in that you've got to ask whether everything Clancy does is something a writer without his name can do. It should also be remembered that Clancy's style isn't for everyone inside his genre, nevermind out, but equally that what he did had huge results. Just because it mightn't be to your taste doesn't mean there isn't material to mine here for scene structure - particularly with an author like Clancy whose success came down to his storytelling, not his prose.

Here's a quick synopsis of the scene for anyone who's not read the book before (although it's probably easier to read the thing yourself) -

John Clark (a protagonist from previous Clancy books) is a former CIA operative, on a plane to London with his family and a friend to start his own small agency. It is his bad luck to be on the same plane as three rogue terrorists targeting an ambassador - but after realizing how dangerous the situation is, he decided to make it their bad luck instead. Thanks to a little acting and knockout punching, he and two of his men take back the plane. The scene ends with the plane captain asking who Clark is and getting no answer.

I broke the scene down into 82 paragraph sized beats (apologies if I'm using beats wrong). Some of them are longer than others (and some are two small paragraphs), but this should give a rough idea of how far in or not we are. Other technical details include that this scene is roughly 7k words and takes up maybe 2% of the book. This isn't really a lesson about economy - but a lesson about how a writer can hold a bunch of people with them for a 7k book intro and action scene? That has value. Onto the breakdown with the opening line:

“John Clark had more time in airplanes than most licensed pilots, and he knew the statistics as well as any of them, but he still didn’t like the idea of crossing the ocean on a twin-engine airliner.”

This sentence tells us three things about the story very quickly:

a) Where we are - on a plane!
b) That the character John Clark is a very experienced and educated man (on this at least), but he's still just a man - he still gets scared by fairly mundane things.
c) The technical details in this story will matter. They will not be brushed aside.

C to me is maybe the most important one. It is an important style marker for someone new to Clancy's style (and while this is a mid-career book, it is the first Tom Clancy I read, so this does happen). There's very little chance of getting the wrong expectations with this sort of opening. In any case, Clancy packs a lot in here.

The next ten beats (that was the first, this takes us up to eleven) are dedicated to establishing a sense of normal, introducing us to Clark and his chums, and setting out his tone and style. The latter is crucial. Part of Clancy's appeal was the big play he made to American values, Western values, patriotic values, and so on. Presenting a world view his readers can buy into is a big part of many of their enjoyment. Come, says Tom, let's watch the heroic CIA ex-Seal think about Football and exchange small jokes with his wife about how murder's cheaper than divorce lawyers. Even if you're not super into Clancy's cultural standpoint, it's still a cosy little tableau that does a good job of introducing John Clark as an all round human being, not just a murderhobo.

Is ten beats a good amount here? Honestly, it seems a little self-indulgent. In my notes, after beat 7, I wrote "I'm bored" and that's pretty much true. There's only so many ways you can give the same information. Now, we can afford to be a little patient as Clancy makes clear through Clark that something's happening here - even if neither us nor Clark know what - and his prose is easy to churn through. But this could be compact.

Beat 12 is when the tension starts to rise. Clark notices a passenger still wearing his jacket. Why wouldn't he take that off on a Transatlantic flight? The way in which the tension is introduced is a good example of show, not tell, and a good example of the way Clancy is determined to act as our guide in this world. Clancy's books aren't just books - they're borderline manuals.

Clancy uses the next eight or so beats (up to 20) to establish this situation. He shows the terrorists' actions - because the man in the jacket is a terrorist using it to conceal his gun - those of Clark, and those of the people around Clark. Now, we are told when writing scenes to consider who has the most to gain and to lose, to use agency. True. But in a very micro-sense, that can't always be true. Right now, John Clark has zero agency. These men are armed and in control and while he does have a gun, he stupidly left it in the overhead compartment (likewise his friend and second Alistair). Clancy doesn't try to force agency on Clark here. He goes out of his way to emphasize how the only smart thing the passengers (panicking a little), the captain (cool as the cucumber in a Hendricks G&T, wot), and Clark can do is go along with the passengers. This is an important part of Clancy's world. Yes, it's about American heroes, but these heroes are professionals, not a comicbook Conan.

Beats 20-22 are given to Clark's 1) EMOTIONAL REACTION: 2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON: 3) ANTICIPATION: 4) CHOICE: That list? I took it from Jim Butcher blog posts on scenes and sequels. Clancy's using a similar structure in a micro-sense - a little action, a little reaction. This is the order of the reaction, more or less. Clark never has a specific emotional reaction, but his constant admonishments (out loud to his wife but mainly to himself) that others shouldn't panic is the clue to his own. In many ways, how Clark pushes his emotions onto others is a deft piece of characterization (would be defter is Clancy doesn't pretty much call this out a few paragraphs later but oi vey). Then he starts surveying the tactical situation. Then he anticipates what he'd do if someone was threatening his wife. Then he decides there's nothing he can do right now. One last interesting wrinkle - Clancy's prose style slows down, making heavy use of ellipsis as he tries to capture the way the information will be entering Clark's head here:

Chavez did the same . . . and Ding was still wearing his jacket. He was more used to hot weather, John thought, and probably felt cold on the airplane. Good. He’d still have his Beretta .45 on . . . probably . . . Ding preferred the small of his back, though, and that was awkward for a guy strapped into an airliner seat.

The action-reaction dichotomy continues for a while, each time getting closer to Clark deciding he must take action. By a while, I mean we're up to roughly Beat 50 (so a bit over halfway through). Is this too much? Yes and no. It's a question of style. Clancy is working on the painstaking accumulation of detail, details that will lead Clark to switch his mind from "they have the power, more lives will be saved by co-operating" to "they do not have control and are likely to try leveraging their power by taking lives, so more lives will be saved by whupping their asses". In this regard, the timing is roughly right, particularly as the beats are shorter than they were to begin with. In a longer novel, the midway point usually gets the biggest explosion yet - so above, so below.

However, once again I found myself getting a little bored by the latter stages of the to and fro. Here Clancy's tendency to throw in a free manual doesn't help him. Certain elements, such as Alistair's interactions with the terrorists and Clark, are good. Others, like Clark mentally replaying stuff about terrorism, not so good. In terms of technical writing, the PoV looks a bit wobbly. There's a few details thrown in that don't seem to have come from Clark's mind, and a few that are shown but don't necessarily ring true. There's three dickwads on a plane liable to get you killed and you're internally monologuing about how smart terrorists don't do that rather than being razor-focused on the situation? Well, maybe. Maybe this is Clark's way of displacing his emotions. I'd go with that, but some stuff was too loose PoV wise, so there's a question (i.e. "even John Clark, experienced as he was, saw flaws in others that were perfectly natural to himself"). I think my big takeaway at this stage is that if you're going as long and as depth as Clancy, make sure you really do have enough interesting material to use.

Once Clark decides to go, he decides to, er, go. That is, he asks one of the terorists if he can use the toilet, acting like he's going to piss himself. I'm slightly reminded of Die Hard at this point. The terrorists eventually decide yet, with another case of what looks like wandering PoV ("What turned the trick was Clark’s size. He was just under six-two, and his forearms, visible with the rolled-up sleeves, were powerful. Number 3 was smaller by four inches and thirty pounds, but he had a gun, and making bigger people do one’s wishes is always a treat for bullies.") Now, that could just be Clark's opinion stated as fact, but it feels a bit of a stretch. It'd be fun characterisation if it was, but we're dealing with a little too much uncertainty.

The first terrorist is lured a little further down the plane after the piss break, so Clark and Ding can deal with him together. That moment of action is a single beat; there's perhaps three beats leading up to it. From there it's another four beats leading up to the second terrorist going down (this time Clark and Alistair). There's a bit more of a to-do before the last terrorist is approached; they want to lure him out of the cabin rather than go in after him. It's a good way to heighten the tension and give this a fitting finish; it's also a case of playing to the details. Sucker punching a guy looking the wrong way in the aisles is one thing. Having a firefight in a cockpit is another. From concocting the plan to executing it with a gun to the head is another 4 beats, with the terrorist's surrender taking 2. Clancy's style is very much lots of planning, quick execution.

There's another 8 or so beats after this, mainly consisting of the technocratic resolution of the scene and Clark insisting on keeping his professional mystique. He wants the world to think this was just three lucky air police (things that wouldn't fly today).

So what's happened?

When people talk about good openings, they often talk about the question that gets people to turn the page. Here, the question is:

Do you want to see Clark and chums waste some more terrorists?

There is very little plot set up. Those poor terrorists, as Clark makes firmly clear, have nothing to do with anyone. His allusions to his agency tell you nothing more than is on the blurb. This opening is simply about establishing the world and characters Clancy wants to sell you, and giving you a taster of what it's all like. John Clark is a badass special operator who loves his wife and dotes on his daughter and incipient grandkid, who's a little scared of flying and whose hands sometimes shake after combat. His world is that of process, of tech, of clandestine battles.

Perhaps this is why this first chapter feels like a short story (technically a prologue but whatevs). It certainly follows story format, albeit in a flabby way. One quarter for the establishing shot. The decision to take action is actually 70% in now I double check. The scene could be shortened and I think if I was building my own beginning in a similar vein, I would, and I suspect an editor who wasn't aware your big books would sell and sell would demand that. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that's the interesting question here - how much could you cut this and still get the feeling?

The opening section could probably be condensed to around 1k, saving about 4-500 words. You could shave another 500 of easily just by ending earlier. That's one thousand words saved without effecting the action at all. I'm less sure about how much you could save there, particularly if you're a writer going for technocratic details heavy but it's got to be some. Could you get this whole passage down to five thousand words? I think so. If you can't, can you spice it up?

Not without losing the whole point of what is Tom Clancy. What this scene does well is a long build-up to sudden moments of violence. I think arguing for a shorter, leaner piece to avoid the build-up being stretched too far and losing its tension is wholly consistent with the author's seeming aim. Lots of action here isn't. Which maybe means calling this an action setpiece to begin with was wrong. Whoops. But it is worth studying.


Well, very tentative conclusions, not all of them on structure as promised. Here goes

1) You don't have to sell the book on mystery if the scene is fun
2) Around a thousand words is a good point to check whether you're still carrying the reader
3) 3-4 beats between an immediate plan being put into place and it coming to fruition looks good. The beats don't have to be long.
4) The scene-sequel model works pretty good on a micro-level, particularly the chain of reactions

All sound good? Any questions?

Tune in next time as I tackle a scene of less than 7k words.

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