Katherine Neville (The Eight, The Fire) is generally credited with pioneering the quest/adventure novel in which the current-day and primary plot is greatly influenced by past events. Dan Brown made the style famous in The Da Vinci Code and related novels.
The Da Vinci Code had a compelling plot that kept readers engaged in spite of the fact that great swaths of text were instructional in nature, that is, one character tells another character about the history and symbolism as a device to inform the reader what the current-day plot means.
I’ve just completed reading three quest/adventure novels that, while they kept me reading, spent too much time in the backstory. I won’t mention the author because my intent here is not to trash her books. We have current-say plots which are exciting, but the meaning behind them comes from memories of part events or past lives that might have occurred many centuries ago. In general, I liked the books. However, she spent too much time with the backstory.
Imagine this. A character is trying to puzzle out a mystery and it’s kind of a page-turner. Then, the next chapter is titled Accra, Ghana, 1578. Suddenly the current-day plot is put on hold and the reader finds himself/herself reading about people s/he’s never heard of from many centuries ago. In some cases, they’re living heroic lives; in other cases, they’re everyday people doing about their daily tasks.
Then the novel switches back to the current day for a chapter before the author delays the mainstream plot with a chapter called, let’s say, Constantine, Algeria, 1830, and now we’re suddenly following a French soldier at the beginning of France’s occupation of the country.
While these past events usually factor into the reader’s understanding of the mainstream plot before the novel ends, the past-history events are a distraction. For one thing, they stop the present-day story and introduce new characters. For another thing, they drag on for multiple pages when all the reader wants to do is get back to the primary story. In each case, the novelist would better serve his/her story by cutting the number of words in each of these ancient history chapters.
It’s interesting, as it was in Neville’s and Brown’s novels to see the influence of the past, but it becomes a tedious distraction when past events occupy a large portion of the novel. Even if we learn, let’s say, that our protagonist name Dan actually was that French soldier in a past life, it doesn’t justify (in my view) spending ten pages in Algeria while the primary plot sits in limbo.
If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know I take issue with fiction that spends a lot of time teaching its readers something rather than telling a story. In different ways, The Da Vinci Code and the Celestine Prophecy are examples of this. Actually, I enjoyed both books–probably because I liked the messages. I’ve also like Katherine Neville, whose 1988 novel The Eight more or less introduced the heavy-on-teaching/mystery-thriller/ancient-secrets approach to fiction that Brown, Raymond Khoury, and others have used in a fair number of other novels. When one finds the secret and/or the message fascinating, it’s easy to forgive the fact that these novels have too much lecturing in them.
For the rest of us, our research gets out of hand when we become so fascinated by it, that we left it take over our fiction–presumably, this happens when think our readers will love that research as much as we do or when we’re just sloppy.
Before I write, my research always gets out of hand, as others see it, because I insist on knowing a lot more about the novels’ subject matter, location, and characters than I can possibly use. My conjure-related, blues-related, and other historical notes for Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman are longer than the combined word count of the books.
I do this because I want to internalize the information so that whenever and wherever it’s needed in the story, it naturally appears there without seeming to intrude. In “real life,” most of us act in accordance with our views and beliefs without the need for a Dan Brown-style lecture in the middle of an event that explains to others who are there why we’re doing what we’re doing. I do too much research because I want the result of it to be a correct novel that doesn’t have to tell the readers why it’s a correct novel insofar as, say, conjure or the blues or the Florida piney woods go.
One never wants a reviewer to say “the research shows” about a book. When it does, it’s gotten out of hand.
One thing one learns when writing nonfiction is that the more often one quotes other people (other than in research papers where you have to do it), the less one understands the material. If you understand it, you don’t need to tell it through others’ words. I believe the same thing about research and the novel. If you have to keep pasting in globs of research, then you probably don’t understand your own subjects, locations and characters well enough to just tell the story.
Yes, it’s easy to say a little too much here and a little too much there and only realize later (probably after the book has been printed and it’s too late to change it) that while correct facts and ambiance are important, they need to support the story and the story’s wont to be continuously moving forward. Right now, my research for an upcoming novel is almost out of hand because I’m fascinated with the subject matter and could just as well keep reading about it if I don’t admit that–past a point–I’m delaying writing the book rather than creatively getting ready to write the book.
So, it’s almost time to stop and to let what I’ve learned become a part of me. Only then will it help the story. Just a few more pages to read, and then I’ll start writing, oh and just quickly check another book or two, yeah, right, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
To learn more about my two conjure novels, read my spooky web page.
Three things are clear about Dan Brown’s novels: The reviews don’t matter because fans are more addicted to them than drugs. Years from now, his fiction will comprise the body of work most-often associated with the spate of globe-spanning puzzle novels linking historic events to modern day criminal plots, even though the form was pioneered by Katherine Neville in The Eight. And, while his style continues to evolve, every book he writes will forever be chasing the sensation of The Da Vinci Code.
Inferno is another Robert Langdon thriller that mixes exotic locations (Florence and Venice) and ancient symbols and texts (Dante and The Divine Comedy) with a world shaking danger (the threat of a plague). Brown uses an interesting plot device here: Landgon wakes up in a Florence hospital with a head wound and retrograde amnesia. He has no idea why he’s in Florence and who may or may not be trying to kill him. (It becomes clear before he leaves the hospital room that somebody is.)
He must simultaneously solve the puzzle of symbols linking a prospective plague threat from a genetic engineer concerned about reducing the world’s population and the personal puzzle about his nightmarish dreams and how they’re connected to the story’s prospective heroes and villains. While solving the puzzle, Langdon and Dr. Sienna Brooks find numerous secret doorways and panels, life threatening moments and people who are determined to stop them for reasons as yet unknown.
In the past, Brown has been criticized by using endless historical and cultural monologues from Langdon and others to fill secondary characters in on the importance of historical events and their related symbolism. Obviously, this device was used as a way of telling the readers how centuries old stories and symbols played into the solution of an urgent problem of the present day.
Brown has toned down those monologues a great deal in Inferno and provided dialogue that more naturally fits into a story with one chase scene after another. You will no longer find five-hundred-word Langdon lectures being delivered while the bad guys are only seconds away. You will find a lot of Florence and Venice travelogue.
Brown describes the streets, museums, and ancient buildings in exhaustive detail. Imagine being chased across a town by the bad guys while having the luxury to notice every building, monument and street corner along the way, including those that don’t pertain to the story. The descriptions slow down the action but are easy to skip.
The descriptions also serve the plot because they tie into Dante and to the mad scientist who’s a Dante aficionado. The travelogues allow physical time to pass in the novel so that Langdon will have an opportunity to process the symbolism as well as the returning snippets of his fragmented memory.
Brown has done a good job stirring the characters into an ever-changing mix of people who–at any given moment–might be trustworthy or untrustworthy. The characters’ motivations and allegiances aren’t engraved in stone. The novel’s over-arching themes are the dangers of overpopulation to humankind’s survival and whether or not one should use cutting-edge advances in genetic engineering to “fix” the problem before Mother Nature solves it by purging the planet of a lot of people.
Since the themes are real, they add a compelling dose of prospective reality to a story filled with symbols, iconography, Italian art and architecture, and the multiple meanings of Dante’s levels of hell. For Langdon and the other characters, a real or figurative hell may well be the story’s destination. Brown, I suspect, hopes readers will ponder whether hell is also Earth’s destiny.
Few questions are more important to a writer. So, what if Harry Potter bought the house next door and wasn’t shy about who he was and what he could do? Really, Harry Potter himself, not Daniel Radcliffe.
Of course, the real Harry Potter—if there is one—is part of a secret world that “in real life” we would never know anything about. There’s a reason for that: people who are different are usually shunned, persecuted or worse.
The first traditional rule for the adept—alchemist, psychic, shaman, wizard—is KEEP SILENT. If he lived next door to any of us, the real Harry Potter would probably appear as unassuming as Clark Kent in the Superman stories.
But, as long as we’re playing WHAT IF?, let’s say Harry is sick and tired of staying in his figurative closet. (Actually, he did stay in a closet at his foster parents’ house—what a nice touch of symbolism on Rowling’s part).
Time for the Welcome Wagon
When a new family moves into a neighborhood, people are curious. They drop by with pies and casseroles partly as a way of starting things off with a friendly “hello” and partly as a way of getting a look at the new folks to assess how they’re going to fit in. Times might be changing, but even today there are many neighborhoods in which the “welcome committee” will be displeased if a Black, Jew, Muslim, or Gay answers the door. In other neighborhoods, Whites, Catholics, and Japanese “don’t belong.”
In scholarly literature, those who don’t belong are often referred to as The Other. They are outside the mainstream. In the Harry Potter books, witches, elves, wizards and giants are outside the mainstream of English society. Even within the magical world itself, there’s a hierarchy about who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
Fantasy offers readers unlimited opportunities to come to terms with what’s different, what goes against the mainstream scheme of things, and to consider whether the consensus reality of “real life” must be engraved in stone or not. Fantasy lets us safely question “what is.” While reading a Harry Potter book or watching a Harry Potter movie, it’s easy to feel simpatico with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore, and perhaps even to feel a bit sorry for the everyday people in London who don’t know anything about the magic in their midst. Just think of all they’re missing!
But What Happens When We Get to the End of the Book and the Last Movie?
Picture this. The moving van has pulled away and the new family—who looked normal enough while carrying boxes into the house—has gone inside. So, you put together your best cherry pie or your favorite Hamburger Helper meal (depending on your skill in the kitchen), and you go next door and ring the bell.
A dark-haired guy comes to the door. He’s wearing well-aged dungarees and a polo shirt. He smiles and says “Hello.” But, before you can introduce yourself, his son—whom you can see down the entry hall in the living room—shouts Avis! and a flock of pigeons appears out of nowhere and flies past you en route to the wide open sky.
What happens now?
The guy who answered the door says, “Hi, I’m Harry,” and acts like the thing with the birds didn’t happen.
You ask, “How did he do that” and Harry says, “No big deal, it’s just James Sirius having a bit of fun.”
It’s not quite like seeing it in the movie, is it? As I play with this WHAT IF question, I like to think that the world has progressed a lot between the time when TV viewers were watching Rob and Laura Petrie at 148 Bonnie Meadow Road in the Dick Van Dyke Show and all the Wisteria Lane families on Desperate Housewives. We are more likely to welcome Harry today than we were in the 1960s, aren’t we?
What do you think happens if Harry Potter moves in to your neighborhood and, along with his wife Ginny, makes no secret of his skill with spell casting and potions? Will the neighbors accept him with open arms the way they did while reading Rowling’s books, or will they stay away?
This is not a WHAT IF question I plan to use for the plot of my next novel. If I were Dan Brown, I might show that Rowling’s books weren’t fiction at all and that the guy next door is probably attracting the wrong kind of attention from, say, Homeland Security, the mob, and various terrorist groups. If I were Katherine Neville, I might show that in spite of his skills, Harry needs the help of my protagonist, say, Bill Smith, who has to go on a search for the real Nicholas Flamel to save the neighborhood. Or, if I were Tom Clancy, I’d probably have a couple of CIA operatives show up to assess “which side” Harry was planning to help “win” with his most powerful spells.
Do We Want the Fantasy Characters to Just Stay in Their Books Where They Belong?
We love fantasy whether it’s epic, contemporary, urban, steampunk, heroic or another sub-genre. In the books, Harry Potter was viewed as the hero who saved the magical world and (by readers) as one of the most-loved characters in fiction.
But WHAT IF Harry, Ginny and the kids moved into your neighborhood. Would it all become one happy family with baseball games on Saturdays and Quidditch matches on Sundays? Or, would Harry, Ginny, and their friends from Hogwarts and Diagon Alley remain separate in their house and yard as The Other?
What I think would happen and what I would like to see happen don’t match up here. Even so, I like asking the question WHAT IF?