About the scene I call “The Sentence”


A reader requested that I write a bit about the climactic fight in the food bank in GAME OF CAGES. On the off chance that you haven’t read that book and don’t want it spoiled, here’s a cut:

For those who haven’t read the book and don’t care if they’re spoiled, here’s the Readers Digest version of the scene: the protagonist, Ray Lilly, is trying to track down a monster that turns people into maniacs. The exact details don’t matter, but Ray has failed in his confrontation with the monster and now the people that it has driven mad come after him.

He takes refuge in a food bank and, after a few initial sortees, climbs onto a desk and begins beating the hell out of people with a length of pipe.

To be clear, these were good people turned into raving lunatics by evil magic. My editor really really wanted me to revise this scene so that Ray escaped from and saved those people, but I wouldn’t do it. CHILD OF FIRE made a big deal out of the fact that Annalise had done things, while she was working for the Twenty Palace Society, that she was deeply ashamed of.

That was the point. The books are supposed to be tragedies. Ray really wants to be a hero but, despite all his skill and all the furious efforts he makes, he doesn’t get to save the day.

I knew the scene would be dark and I expected it to be difficult to read. At this point, only one person has ever told me that they thought it was TOO dark, which astonishes me.

The funny thing is, that scene was the reason for the book. It was inspired by a half-remembered bit from a Jet Li movie, but it turned out very different once it got on the page.

So, why is it a single sentence? Why write the sequence where Ray stands on a desk and pounds on basically-innocent people as a 550+ run on?

Well, precisely because it was so dark and difficult. I had an idea that, written out normally, the scene would be a huge turn off for readers. By stringing it all together like that it became a sort of ecstatic experience for Ray (I use those quite a bit in my books). I also hoped that the obviously artificial and exaggerated sentence would give readers the distance to keep going without being completely turned off.

Did it work? It’s hard to tell. I do know that a sizable number of readers never even noticed that the scene was a run on, which surprised the hell out of me. What’s more, Lawrence Block says that the first chapter sells the book in the reader’s hand, while the last chapter sells the next one. The book after GAME OF CAGES didn’t sell.

Maybe I should have revised it to a more traditional Indiana Jones ending, which actual heroism, but if I had done that and the books had failed anyway, they wouldn’t even have been my books.