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Writing Wednesday: Need to Know Basis

May 18, 2011

This is another entry inspired by a book review.  When reviewing The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith, I noted in my review:

It’s too bad the story doesn’t provide an answer to that or my other questions. (My first question, why is it called Marbury? That sounds like the name for a brand of marmalade.) Like I said, maybe Smith is hoping to answer the questions in a future sequel. But also as I said, I wouldn’t have much interest in reading it. Unlike Narnia or Middle Earth or other fantasy worlds, I don’t see Marbury as one worth revisiting.

And this brings up a critical issue for me:  how much should readers know and when should they know it?  For the most part this is important in series or prospective series more than in stand-alone novels, though it still might matter in those as well.

On one side of the coin you have what I described in my review with really no questions being answered.  There are some glasses this kid Jack uses as a portal to a dystopian world known as Marbury that’s mostly populated by cannibals who are becoming more and more of monsters thanks maybe to a disease.  You could find out most of that from the book jacket, but the problem is the book doesn’t really get any deeper than that.  I kept waiting like watching an M. Night movie for the big twist that he was dreaming (“Inception”) or insane (“Shutter Island”) or something, but there were no explanations provided.  What are the glasses?  Dunno.  Who made them?  Dunno.  Where/when is this Marbury place?  Dunno.  What happened to all the people there?  Dunno.  Why are people becoming monster cannibals?  Dunno.

My speculation was that this might be answered in future books.  I don’t really know that for sure.  If it’s not then that stinks.  But I don’t really want to read more books anyway, so I’m a little conflicted about all that.

Though I think the main problem was in the book the characters didn’t really seem to give a shit about finding any answers.  In Marbury it was mostly about staying alive and in the “real” world Jack was such a sullen brat he kept pushing away anyone who might be able to help him find out.  Don’t you want to know what the hell is going on?  I would.  Though actually if I found a portal to a world where I was running from cannibals I’d probably smash it into a million pieces and then go back to playing Grand Slam Tennis on my Wii.  I wouldn’t be drawn into going back there to risk my neck time and again.  But that’s why I’m not an action hero!

The opposite side of the coin is that if you answer everything in one book, there’s really nothing left for another book.  I wrote about sequels in one of the very early blog posts here and said how important it was not to paint yourself into a corner.  So if you say everything about everything, what are you going to do in the next book?  That’s where it becomes tricky.

It’s always about balance, though sometimes that balance can be hard to find.

Friday, another inconclusive entry about perhaps the biggest advantage of movies over books…

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7 Comments
  1. Hmmm, I don’t think I’m as bothered by unanswered questions as other people are. I figure, “hey, an unanswered question…oh well, I can make it up myself or move on.” LOL!

  2. The problem of sequels arises when you tell a whole story, and then have to come up with even more of a story — like when (STAR WARS REFERENCE!) George Lucas told the entire story in “Star Wars” and then decided he had to keep going, which ultimately resulted in “Even More Death Star.”

    The problem of PREQUELS was aptly explained by Cracked, recently: you have to take your character and make him/her LESS interesting than he/she was in the first and then have him/her become the character we love.

    You’ve touched on another one, here, though: how much do you tell in order to keep further books alive, and how much do you hold back?

    but it sounds like there’s a worse problem: Nothing is explained, which means there’s no motivation for characters to act. Why does Jack keep going back there? You point out that most NORMAL people would run like heck from that. Action heroes don’t because they’re motivated by something: Superman felt it was his destiny; Spider-Man acts based on guilt about Uncle Ben. Indiana Jones tries to collect important artifacts. And so on.

    Without explaining why people are doing what they’re doing, it just becomes a video game, in literary form.

    • I think in the book he wants to go back there to protect two other kids, but me (being a coward) would still say, screw you guys, I’m going home. But the thing with that is in the real world Jack doesn’t necessarily seem like the heroic leader type but maybe it’s one of those “Terminator” things where he grows into the role after the cannibal apocalypse or whatever.

      • There is one exception for the prequels rule you mentioned. If you take a secondary character from a series and then go back to give them a backstory they become more interesting. Orson Scott Card did this with “Ender’s Shadow” and I did it with the “Sisterhood” story that focuses on one of the witches from the “Scarlet Knight” series. In both instances a character who didn’t get a lot of face-time before suddenly becomes a lot more interesting since the book focuses on him/her.

        I would argue that’s why Obi-Wan was the best character of the prequels because in the original movies we didn’t get to know him all that much except as a mentor to Luke, whereas in the prequel he’s given more of a story. (Also Ewan MacGregor seemed like the only actor not with a rod up his ass.)

  3. The trend in writing these days is “pantsing” and I’ve no idea why that has taken over so much. Take George R.R. Martin for example (yeah yeah…I pick on the guy a lot). However, I do read his books and I like them and I’m watching the HBO series. Okay…so back to George… I’m sorry but Game of Thrones has no plot. The reason why the books are so intriguing is because life…just like his story…has no plot. All he’s doing is spinning different soap operas where the stakes are much higher because there’s pride, vengeance, lust, love, incest, thrones, money, life and death at stake. This isn’t a plot that goes from A—> B It’s a “lemme tell you what Littlefinger has been doing” oh and “let’s bounce back to the Aryns” oooh and “lemme show you what Dany is up to” etc. etc.

    My point ==> no plot is where everything seems to be headed. Shit…the author doesn’t even know what the fuck is going on. They just present a world to you and bam…characters take over. Is it brilliant? I dunno…I tend to not think so because you’re just adding conflict after conflict after conflict? Is it entertaining? Hell yes it is. I think that’s one reason it’s taken George R.R. five to six years to put out a book…he has no clue where the fuck his story is going. It’s all pantsing. Shit, in the last book, he left Arya blind after drinking some milk from the elite assassins that she joined…no explanation… just blind as hell. He’s had six years to connect the dots between that and the new novel…I suspect that it will all make seamless sense. However, did he know what the answer was back then? Hell no. He just thought it’d be cool… nice cliffhanger George. LOST the television series did the same fucking thing. I don’t think they had any idea where it was going…it was just all spin and spin and spin seat of your pants style.

    • Hey, I thought you chided me about swearing too much.

      I hope that trend doesn’t take over because I really don’t like books that wander around like that.

      I never watched “Lost” but I think part of the problem was they hadn’t really thought it would go on as long as it did. I mean most shows especially sci-fi type shows get the axe after one season unless they’re on a cable channel. So it wouldn’t surprise me that to make it last 7 years or whatever they just started throwing crap out there.

  4. I was jealous of your brazen ability to swear so openly that it encouraged me to do so as well.

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