Thursday, 31 March 2011

The author's promise to the reader

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.”

In most countries outside the UK you don’t have to actually pay for the mere right to have a television in your home. But even if you’re watching The Simpsons for free on Fox, you still get shown a bunch of commercials that aren't exactly an enrichment of your viewing experience. And then you give in and go and buy stuff you don't need and the advertisers give the network some money to thank them for bringing all those bees to the flower. So you did end up paying for that show, 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 keep up a running commentary all the way through a movie, please leave now). They are asking you to make them believe - and not only for the time it takes to watch the movie or read the book, 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. And after all, I don’t have to promise a ten-book arc with a sweeping 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'd feel under 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 hadn't yet thought about 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 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 leaving them in limbo halfway through or dragging them into an endless and directionless existence where nothing is ever resolved.

Obviously I’m thinking now 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 800 pages across four seasons. Then it’ll be January 1st 1902, the green comet will be gone, and all our loose ends will be tied up, leaving not a rack behind.

The harder promise to make is that the story will reach its conclusion. I would gladly swear to that right here and now, but it’s not just up me. Since the DFC folded, Leo and I have been continuing to finance the work at our own expense. At least in comics it's not too difficult to do that: digital publishing brings in a nicely regular if not (yet) huge revenue stream, and every time we sign to a print edition in a new territory, as with the upcoming Print Media hardcovers in the UK, that pays for a few more issues. Mirabilis #9 through #12 are already fully funded, and by the time we complete #12 we'll be able to say the same for the four issues that will tie up season two. A handful at a time moves the mountain.

That's why I'm glad I'm not doing this for television. Joss Whedon would love to have had enough viewers to make Firefly and Dollhouse viable; same goes for David Milch and Deadwood. My heart skips a beat every time Fringe's ratings are mentioned. Since they announced the season four renewal, the heart in question is looking healthy at the moment, and thank you for asking, but if I had to find $1 million per episode of Mirabilis then I'd be in cardiac arrest in a month.

If Mirabilis continues to build an e-readership as it has been doing since Christmas, and if we keep on picking up print publishers in the US and Europe - in short, if enough people care about Jack and Estelle to want to find out what happens to them - then we promise on bended knee at any altar you like to take this story right through to the end. We’ve planned out an epic with some really big surprises that we think you’re going to enjoy. Hope you can join the ride all the way to the end.

1 comment:

  1. I really hope you guys get to complete Mirabilis. The only thing worse than a tedious story dragged out long past its sell-by is the wonderful story that never gets finished.