Sunday 24 March 2013

These are not the resolutions you're looking for...

So I've been meaning to write this blog for a while but Chuck Wendig went and wrote it while I was cogitating.

The tl:dr version of Chuck's post and this one is that very often the reader doesn't want what they think they want, and that story telling is often all about withholding.

What prompted me to want to blog on the subject was a conversation I had with Peter V Brett about his latest book, The Daylight War which I review HERE.

The tl:dr on that is: excellent 5*, if you haven't started this series go buy The Warded Man right now and thank me later.

So, to the meat, which will shortly bring us full cycle to Chuck's well made points.

I was speaking to Peat shortly after the release of The Daylight War and we'd both been reading reviews on the book. As with every book ever published the range of reviews ran the whole gamut from toilet paper to holy tome of awesomeness. A quick check on Goodreads will show that the thousands to rate the book average on the awesome side of great.

A fair number of reviewers of any book point out things that didn't work for them. Some of them point these things out as if they were mistakes - as if there is a chance the author will on reading the review slap themselves soundly on the forehead and beseech the heavens, "If only I'd known!!"
... when in fact in the overwhelming majority of cases the offending aspect is a choice rather than a mistake. A choice that works for one person, and maybe doesn't for another.

The particular issue we talked about was pacing. A number of reviews picked out the pacing of the book as a failing in a 'what were you thinking' kind of way. As if Peat might be reading the review and suddenly (see diagram above) apply palm to forehead and say "OMFG! The pacing, I forgot all about that... what the hell was I thinking."

The complaint (far from universal) was that over the course of the book the actual progression of the foremost timeline is modest. [I have previously blogged on the issue of 'There is no NOW in storyland']. And additionally that the war on the demons makes only modest advances.

This takes us back to Chuck Wendig's point. In Peter Brett's five-book Demon Cycle there is a war between humans and demons. The demons are fascinating and we know little about them, gaining knowledge as we go. The reader wants (and I feel that desire as I read) to know about the demons. The reader wants to see the demons confronted, beaten, chased down into their world. The reader wants to meet the demon queen, learn the mysteries, the why and wherefore of it all...

The plain fact though is that we could have all that information spilled on us in 50 pages (10 probably) and we'd sit there holding the shards of the ruined story saying, 'Oh!' and realising far too late that we'd broken what we tried to reach for, like a baby trying to clutch the irridescence of a bubble.

(Fire Demon - by Luke Fielding)

Moreover - although the demons are fascinating... THE ARE NOT THE STORY. They are the pressure. The characters are the story and Brett puts them under pressure so we can see into them, so they can be exercised in front of us, so their story is driven on. And their story doesn't exist in any pretend 'now'. I'm learning about and enjoying the dynamics of these characters whether the things I'm being told about happened twenty years 'before' or 'right now' ... it's on the page in front of me - that's what matters. And the pace that really makes the difference to my enjoyment is the pace of the story about these people - not how rapidly the global conflict with demonkind is collapsed around me.

So that's the choice that Peat made here, not a mistake in pacing but a writing choice. It's a choice that like every important writing choice will work for some and not for others. It worked for me, it worked for a lot of people... check it out and see how it works for you.

Another truism of writing is that 'boss battles' are often anticlimactic. Even in video gaming boss battles often suck compared to the journey of reaching them. We think we want to see X confront Y and sort this out once and for all... but really, that's not the resolution we're looking for.

At the end of the day writing is a strip tease. The story could walk on and toss all its clothes on the floor in five seconds flat. you might think you want that - the story wants you to think you want that - but it's not going to give it to you because if it did you'd want your money back.


  1. This comment will reflect on both the topic above, and the "there is no NOW" topic you linked to in the blog.

    The feeling that the reader wants, is that they want to get to the end. The tension that the reader feels is, how does it all end? So any meanderings, side-stories, any going back into the past, focus on different characters, etc. is pulling *away* from the resolution (similar but not the same as pulling away from the "now"), and readers will naturally resist that.

    But that's where your point that these are the not the resolutions a reader is actually looking for comes in. The fact is, you could tell the reader the end, but then it wouldn't have any value whatsoever. Though the reader wants to find out what happens next (a minor or major resolution) RIGHT NOW and seeks that for their enjoyment, if they find out RIGHT NOW then there is nothing to enjoy.

    I'll use Peter V. Brett's works as an example. When I first read the Desert Spear, before I fell in love with Jardir as a character, I resisted the idea of reading "the past", and "the past" was difficult (on that first reading) to enjoy, because it 'meandered' from the 'resolution' I was hoping for (what happens next to Arlen). I felt that even though the Daylight War spans literally one month, it was more balanced between its "before" and "now" portions, and it was easier to enjoy Inevera's POVs. Whether Peter could have told the same story if he had further split up Jardir's portion and interlaced the "now" portion in, as he did in Daylight War, is very difficult to tell. Maybe it would make a better book, maybe it would make a worse book, maybe it simply wouldn't be possible.

    But to conclude, while it's true that "it's all about the journey and not the destination", it has to be understood that you wouldn't be on that journey in the first place if you didn't have a destination.

  2. I'm going to be that guy, aren't I? Ugh. I hate being that guy.

    I do agree with what you wrote, I really do. One of the hallmarks of a great book is that it makes you want something in it to happen, enough to bring that want with you back into the Real World once you're done with the book. Just like you said, that doesn't mean you would be happy getting what you want. And I loved "The Daylight War" to pieces, despite the cliffhanger ending that made me feel like the only reason why I'm not strangling Pete is because then there would be no Book 4. Books -- and especially series of books -- like this are too rare and I treasure them.

    So okay, I guess the previous paragraph established that I both love "The Daylight War" and agree with you.

    Here's the thing, though: as a guy who really loves video games and has studied the art of making them because of a stupid dream I refuse to grow out of, I really have to disagree with your "boss fight" metaphor.

    If a video game leads me to a boss fight -- especially the final boss fight -- and that fight doesn't blow my freaking mind, then that video game has just registered one big failure, one big red mark against it. Doesn't mean it can't be a good game or even a great game, but the rest of it has to be damn near perfect to forgive it the boss fight failure.

    A good game designer will design the final boss fight in such a way to test all of the skills you have acquired so far and validate the effort you've spent acquiring them. A great game designer will compound that with a plot twist or something similar to blow your mind away. The effect has to be such that you're left feeling both pride at your accomplishment and amazement at how that fit in the overall setting and story of the game -- something that leaves you feeling special, yet part of something much greater.

    Games like that are few and rare, just like books like Peter's Demon Cycle are few and rare. Both should be treasured and used as an example for aspiring creators.

    1. "If a video game leads me to a boss fight -- especially the final boss fight -- and that fight doesn't blow my freaking mind, then that video game has just registered one big failure"

      Dragon Age 2, anyone?

      Sorry for the derail there. Great post with great metaphors. Bubbles and strippers. Brilliant!

  3. First off I should say I just finished Emperor of Thorns and it was absolutely superb, great great work.

    On this particular blog post though I think you're way off. Your own series and the demon cycle had a lot in common for the first two books but look at the differences in your approaches in the third book.

    In Emperor of Thorns you kept everything that was good about the earlier books of the series and brought the story to a satisfyingly conclusion.

    In Daylight War Brett chose to explore the same set of historic events yet again through another characters eyes. Sigh, OK, bit boring but I'll read through that if I must.

    However that wasn't the main problem, and isn't what most people were complaining about in reviews. The real prbolem was that the book was very boring and in comparison with Painted Man seemed pretty badly written, to the point where like many reviewers I'm left trying to remember what it was about Painted Man that drew me in to begin with. There could be many reasons for this but my own personal opinions is Brett only had one and a half good books worth of material and in addition once it was successful he decided to pad things out to make a bit of dosh.

    With that in mind though I find it odd that what you are saying in this blog post is inconsistent with the (correct) approach you took in your own series. Every book in your trilogy is as laser focused as the first book, the characters grown and change but you never lose sight of the story you want to tell.

    In addition in the afterthought in the final book you spelled out why you didn't try to stretch it out to 4, 5, or 6 books. I actually almost disagree, Jorg was still as interesting in the third book as in the first but I can totally see what you were saying and why you made that choice. However what you say you wanted to avoid doing, having a character stay beyond their sell-by date, is exactly what Brett is doing. Look at the Painted Man in the third book, he was an annoying country bumpkin walking around saying "ent the deliverer" and making you wonder why you bothered to get into the series in the first place.

    To be honest my only hope for the demon cycle series is Brett reads Emperor of Thorns including the afterthought, re-reads Painted Man, realises what an idiot he's been, and brings out a fitting conclusion to the series.

  4. I typically dislike Flashbacks and I truly did feel as if they were poorly developed within the framework of the existing prose that he had been developing for his saga. I have no plans to continue reading the rest of his planned series as I experienced what can only be described as exhaustion in attempting to enjoy Daylight. A shame.

    However, with your second book, I felt that the flashbacks were appropriately designed due to the fragmented nature of Jorg's memories. It was well done aesthetically and incredibly written prose. These are the two fundamental differences that I experience between these two narratives but, as always, there is a subjective perception to be counted for.