In the Best.Episode.Ever of The Simpsons, the Comic Book Guy is asked what right he has to complain about Itchy & Scratchy. “As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me,” he says, to which Bart replies: “They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.”
If you’re not British then don’t have to actually pay for the mere right to have a television set in your home. But even if you’re watching The Simpsons on Fox, you still get shown a bunch of commercials that, let’s face it, really don’t enrich your viewing experience. And then you go and buy stuff and the advertisers give the network money to thank them for bringing all those bees to the flower. So you paid for that show, matey, whatever the writers at Gracie Films may think. There are no free lunches, and no free TV dinners either.
The contract that exists between writer and audience is more complicated than that between a craftsman and his customer. The reader or viewer or player gives you their money, but on top of that they give you their undivided attention (the ones who gabble away in the back row can leave now). They are asking you to make them believe - and not only for the time it takes to watch the movie, but an enduring belief. That’s why I can’t abide plot holes. A story should bear scrutiny if it has any right to my time.
Neil Gaiman says that the reader’s contract when buying a book is for that book only; it’s not a mandate upon the author to deliver more in the series. The problem I have with that, as an author, is that I know the power of suspense. It’s the best trick I have in my writer’s toolbox to keep you reading. You want to find out what happens next - at least, I hope you do. Now, I don’t have to promise a ten-book arc with a massive, intriguing plot that hinges on many secrets with which I am enticing your attention. I could just tie up everything in the one book. If I choose not to, it’s because I’m trying to plant a compulsion in you to buy my next book - and in that case I feel I’m under a bit of an obligation to deliver.
The corollary is that if I do start to weave a story around some far-reaching mystery, I’d better have in mind the real answer to that mystery. At the point when it because clear that Lost’s writers didn’t know why the polar bear was on the island (much less why it was also in a Green Lantern comic) and they were just going to figure out something later - at that point, the contract is broken. Why continue to pay their wages when you can make up your own ending and it’ll be just as good?
The flipside of all this, and just as undesirable, is when stories are spun out indefinitely. “A beginning, a middle and an end,” is what Aristotle stipulated, not “a beginning and then endless variations on the theme until you finally jump the shark.” Success is the usual culprit, as endings then have to be left open enough to leave room for a sequel or a new season. Prison Break is a perfect example of the problem: what would have been a memorably taut, single-season narrative suddenly splurged into the diminishing returns of patched-on plot developments. And, although I realize this is heresy, maybe we could say the same of The Sopranos. I know we got six seasons of the best soap opera on TV, and thank you, David Chase - but what about the pitch-dark Greek (okay, Italian) tragedy that the first season was building up to? The network’s need for more of the same possibly deep-sixed a climax that, had they gone ahead and ended the show there, would be remembered now as the chilling, thrilling apotheosis of TV drama.
Any sense of obligation a writer may feel to his or her readers, beyond delivering the script or book that they actually paid for, is of course self-inflicted. George R R Martin and Neil Gaiman rightly take their own view on this. However, the writer’s duty is to the characters is not up for debate. You brought them to life, so it’s incumbent on you to give them a life. That means a proper story, not either leaving them in limbo halfway through, or dragging them into an endless and directionless existence where nothing is ever resolved.
Obviously I’m thinking mainly of Mirabilis. I can certainly promise that the story will not be spun out ad infinitum. Leo and I have one year of narrative, which we currently expect to take about 600 pages across four books. Then it’ll be December 31st 1902, the green comet will be gone, and all our loose ends will be tied up, leaving not a rack behind.
The harder promise is to say that the story will reach its conclusion. We would gladly promise that right here and now, but then it’s not just up to us. Since the DFC folded, Leo and I have been continuing to finance the work at our own expense to ensure that at least the Winter book will be complete. Joss Whedon would love to have had enough viewers to make Firefly viable; same goes for David Milch and Deadwood, etc, etc. That’s why our guarantee comes with ifs. If we can find a way to get Mirabilis out in book form, and if enough people care about Jack and Estelle to want to find out what happens to them, then we can promise to take this story right through to the end. We’re planning an epic with some really big surprises that we think you’re going to enjoy. Hope you can all join us for the ride!
SFM: Brennan, Edelstein, Kress, Sterling, Sobin, Grant - Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that...