I sometimes think that every type of media has its own way of telling a story. If you watch a movie, sometimes good movies have snappy dialog, visual splendor and a soundtrack. Books, on the other hand, have a vast array of characters, multiple parallel plot lines, a lot of details. When taking a story first published as a book and turning it into a movie, one needs to pay attention to these media preferences.
As readers, we learn to experience stories in particular ways, depending on context. I expect snappy dialog in movies. If it doesn’t deliver, I’ll note.
When it comes to Fantasy books, it seems to me that the books written have changed and our expectations have similarly changed. The Conan stories by Robert E. Howard were just short stories. Other people started to write novels. Successful novels got follow-up novels and got turned into a series. As a kid, I loved the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey and the Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Every book was a self-contained story. Every story shared its world with all the other stories in the series.
As I grew older, expectations changed.
I wanted a lot of value for my money and that meant that I wanted thick books. I loved books with five hundred pages and more. I loved to read more about the people and places I loved.
The market went farther than that, however. Authors started telling epic sagas that required trilogies to tell. These trilogies got extended by appending another trilogy. I’m thinking of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, for example. Sometimes, I didn’t understand how trilogy after trilogy got added after the first. Hello, David Eddings.
What had happened? Authors no longer tried to tell the story of a single protagonist. I’m not sure where this all started. Was it The Lord of the Rings? It was published as a trilogy. It featured multiple protagonists. Their respective story lines diverged. The rest of the story was told using interleaved chunks.
I loved J.R.R. Tolkien but I did not get into David Eddings. I started to read less. I just could not keep up. The turning point was reached when Robert Jordan wrote The Wheel of Time. At first, I hated it. It seemed like such a cheap Tolkien rip-off. Then I started to like it. But when I reached book six I realized that there was another problem. The author just wanted to tell too many damn stories, all at the same time. He introduced more people, more plots, more stories, and in order to tell them, he started to interleave the shrinking segments more and more until I felt that the story had hardly progressed over a thousand pages.
And then he died. Ever since Robert Jordan’s death, the phrase “pulling a Robert Jordan” has turned into a short hand for a series that just keeps on growing and one has to fear that the author won’t live long enough to tell the entire story.
I have started to notice the same ennui with A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I think I stopped around book three. There just wasn’t any progress because too many stories were being told at the same time.
Recently I discussed this with some friends after we had begun talking about A Song of Ice and Fire RPG campaign and the latest book in the series, telenovelas and TV series like Lost and Six Feet Under.
It seemed to me that my expectations had fallen out of sync with what authors were publishing. I still expected stories to be self-contained. I was expecting a climax and closure.
The market, however had moved on. It seems to me that many successful authors now expect to keep adding to their corpus for as long as they live. Instead of reading a short story, a book, a trilogy, or a ten volumes series, readers are now expected to keep on sharing a part of their reading life with the living and breathing world of their favorite author.
In a way, I don’t mind. Perhaps the same thing is true with Arthurian romance. There’s the story of the love triangle, the grail and Merlin. But if you want to, you can add Tristram and Isolde. You can add Parcival. You can focus on Morgaine Le Fay. The older versions of King Arthur’s story is in the public domain and therefore anybody can add to the whole. People can rewrite, retell, edit, merge or highlight aspects of the whole. If you are interested, you can spend a part of your life with Arthurian romance.
I am a traditionalist in many things and I find this sort of explanation soothing. Spending a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories is not new after all.
Comics work the same way. You can spend a part of your life with Superman or Batman. A gazillion stories are told about the various protagonists. Sometimes authors change, sometimes there is a reboot (2011 DC Universe reboot). It’s all good (unless you are talking to nerds).
Perhaps I just have these two problems:
I cannot help but wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire would be more palatable if I could just read the various plots in separate books.
Sure, the main events of the story will be revealed in the first book, but it seems that spoilers don't reduce the reader's enjoyment of a book.
Wow, this post wasn’t short at all.
I wanted to add a final, role-playing related thought: I’m suspecting that there is a similar divide in expectations when it comes to typical campaigns. In one of my games the characters can have followers (Entourage Approach). These followers can earn experience as the older characters turn into NPCs (or die), players continue playing the followers. Thus, barring a TPK, the campaign can go on forever. My wife told me so: “I could keep playing in this campaign forever!”
It wouldn’t make a good book with a climax and closure, but it obviously is a good way to spend a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories.