Leviathan Wakes: Cross-Cutting to Tension
Minor spoilers for Leviathan Wakes below
Leviathan Wakes is worth buying more or less for the cover alone, but it also demonstrates a lovely command of pacing and tension.
Reading Leviathan is much like reading an “airplane book” with one of those quotes on the cover saying “I couldn’t put it down” or “I dare you to read just one chapter”. It’s easy to be disdainful of the Dan Browns and Michael Crichtons of the world, but people rarely give them credit for their pacing abilities. I’m not entirely sure why that is, other than it seems simple and mechanical and therefore must be easy. It’s not. The Da Vinci Code had little to recommend in terms of prose, character, ideas, or historical accuracy, but there’s not one author in a thousand who could match Brown’s ability to get you to want to turn the next page. One of them is James S.A. Corey (yes, I know "he" is two people, but I watched The Prestige and will refer to them as one person).
Leviathan is structured around two protagonists, who alternate POV chapters. Among other things, this allows Corey to very precisely control our view of the action. Throughout most of the novel, each chapter ends with a twist. Each twist makes you want to turn to the next page by adding new information to a conflict that has already been established, and hinting at a new mystery or question that we want answered.
The prologue starts with a girl named Julie on a starship, the Scopuli, that has been captured by...someone, doing...something. Already, we are left to wonder what’s going on. Eventually she comes out, finds her attackers missing, and an odd, pulsing layer of mud over the reactor. Then this happens:
Not mud, then.
An outcropping of the thing shifted towards her. Compared to the whole, it seemed no longer than a toe, a little finger. It was Captain Derren’s head.
“Help me,” it said.
And we’re off to the races. Questions abound: what happened to Captain Derren? Why is his head sticking out of the mass of flesh? What is the mud-flesh? And of course, what happens next?
The next chapter doesn’t answer these questions. By using the multiple POV structure, Corey cuts away to a different thread of the story, leaving the reader anxious to quest forward and figure out what’s going on, and lending a sense of immediacy, of urgency. Chapter One introduces us to Jim Holden, a space trucker who chats with his crew and then finds a distress signal from a starship. And then this happens:
“What have we got on the broken ship?”
“Light freighter. Martian registry. Shows Eros as her home port. Calls itself Scopuli…” (16)
We know where Holden’s going and are eager to see more, but instead of showing us what’s next, the narrative jumps to the next chapter, where we meet Detective Miller. Here the new information is presented differently: we find that Miller has been assigned to find the missing Julie. Rather than end with a tantalizing new piece of information and promise of more to come, we get a line building his character (“Something was happening to the organized crime families of Ceres, and it was making him jumpy as hell. This thing with Julie Mao? It was a sideshow” (26))
This line does not tease as much, and while it drives curiosity, it doesn’t do so at the breakneck rate we were moving at. Why? Because in the transition to Holden’s viewpoint in the next chapter, we find out that two days have passed. With a small adjustment to style, Corey has managed to slow down both our reading and the passage of time within the narrative, the literary counterpart of having a fade in/fade out to transition to the next scene.
The rest of the book continues to demonstrate Corey’s virtuosic pacing. It’s small wonder that the book was successfully adapted to television-- screenplays are one type of writing where storytelling reigns supreme, and pacing is a key element. You can get away with lazy, poorly-paced stories in novel form if you have prose or worldbuilding going for you, but in the ultra-focused window of the screen, you live and die by your storytelling.