Friday, November 27, 2009

Sequels, Series and Neccesity

By Russel D McLean


Stephen King the other day mentioned that he had an idea for a sequel to “The Shining” which would deal with a grown up Danny Torrance, in his forties, helping old folks cross over and betting on the horses. Now, in some ways it might make for an interesting book, but I for one ain’t so sure.*

Sometimes you just need to let an idea go. Sometimes you don’t need to know “what happened next”. You know everything that you need to know.

I get it, I do, and I know it’s what fuels the “series” market, this need to know what happened next to beloved characters, but honestly I don’t think we always need to know. I think sometimes we’re better off not knowing. Or just figuring it out in our own heads.

Now, I loved The Shining, but I don’t give a toss what happened to Danny forty years later. For a start, forty years later he ain’t gonna be that same wee lad whose dad went mental and who had to face shape-shifting bushes, killer wasps and some bloody weird spooks hanging around the Overlook Hotel. He’s going to be an entirely different person and not one that I’m sure I want to know, particularly, at least in the sense that I’d know he was also that terrified wee kid. Now, maybe I could take a return to the Overlook, but honestly I just don’t want to know what happened to any of the folks we met there first time around. Far as I’m concerned, their story was done and dusted, and in the way that King tells his germ for the story, I don’t see why it couldn’t just be some other guy with some cool psychic powers he was writing about.

Here’s the thing; some characters just need to be around for one story. Or maybe a few more if they cry out for it. I’m not against sequels. Just against ones that feel redundant (and boy, there are a lot of those around). I’m not even against series (Technically I’m writing one), but I am against those that outstay their welcome and their relevance.

I always admired the chutzpah of British writer Ray Banks who created a character that lasted over four books. And then he put him away. No fooling. And that’s cool, because he told the stories that needed to be told with that character. I’m a fan of sequences in fiction, but not necessarily of series, which I think can often play themselves into the ground or, even worse, start repeating after a while. There is at least one top-selling writer I can think of whose more recent books I have started skipping over because, while I have fun with them, I know exactly what’s going to happen and have no fear that everything will turn out right in the end. I mean this guy is now writing the same damn novel every time and while that’s cool and a bit of “fast food for the brain”, it is beginning to really irk me because I’m a reader who doesn’t want to know what happens next, who wants the unexpected and occasionally the unwanted if it makes for a good and unpredictable reading experience.

I couldn’t go this far without mentioning George Pelecanos, of course, who tends to drop series after three or four books, ultimately creating some of the most memorable characters you’ll ever read. Despite a cameo in a later novel, I’m glad he left Nick Stefanos behind and I think he was right to drop off the Strange Investigations books where he did because, man, those stories said what they needed to say and said it well. Just because some characters were still living does not mean that I want to follow them to death.

Maybe its because I have some kind of literary commitment issues. Or maybe its an extension of my need for brevity and clarity in writing which has previously been applied to the length of novels. I don’t know, but I don’t always see the need for sequels unless they advance the themes and/or characters in some way that feels natural and pertinent. Its one of the reasons I talk about McNee only lasting a certain number of books, because I wonder just how long I can evolve the character before he starts repeating himself. I still remember the crushing disappointment of the day I realised one of my favourite series characters had quit evolving, had started standing still, had resorted to cheap tricks to keep me interested.

And I wished that his story had ended one book earlier. Knew that if it had, the sequence of books as stood would have been perfect.

*it should also be noted that King hasn’t fully “committed” to writing “Doctor Sleep” as he tentatively titled the novel. But it serves as a nice jumping off point for me here.

10 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I agree that sequels turn to crap more often than not. And writers run good characters into the ground. Chandler was perfect. Eight novels and a handful of short stories featuring Marlowe.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The lure of the dollar may be more than the lure of the story. Of course, everything he writes attracts readers.

John McFetridge said...

He’s going to be an entirely different person and not one that I’m sure I want to know, particularly, at least in the sense that I’d know he was also that terrified wee kid.

Funny, that's exactly why I would be interested in knowing him now. It adds so much depth to the character.

But here's what I think it is. Stephen King is over sixty now. At the risk of being an ageist, I'm going to say lots of us, as we get older, start looking back more than we look forward.

Chris said...

Good post. Speaking of Pelecanos, I attended a panel discussion re: The Wire with Pelecanos and David Simon. Someone asked why they didn't do at least one more season -- or even more -- and Pelecanos said they were happy with the stories they'd told and didn't want to run anything into the ground. He said, "No one ever talks about Hawaii 5-0 and says 'oh, the 8th season was the best season!' or anything like that." I thought that statement said a lot.

Now, though, as my wife and I just watched the first episode of season 5 of The Wire and we know it's all coming to an end, I'm wishing they HAD done more!

Scott Parker said...

Lehane's pulling Patrick and Angela out of retirement next year, aging them ten years in the process. That will be an interesting thing to read. Wonder how it'll go?

Ev said...

I like the distinction you make between series and sequence fiction. It's the perfect way to express the difference between types of continuing character novels and to describe why some work so well and some fail to engage after a few books.

~Ev

p.s. This is the first time I've visited your blog. I like it.

Russel said...

David

Its always easy to forget how few Marlowe novels there actually were. Even stranger is the fact that many people believed Spade was a long running character. But is shows how good these guys were that the memory can play such trick.

Patti

I can see why King might consider it, even just for fun, but it still strikes me - from his description - as unneccesary/

John

I can see why you'd be interested, but I'm still struck by this feeling of "why do we need to know?"

Chris

Oh, TV is a perfect example of things that can go on too long. But then I find the current crop of crime fiction's almost fetishistic obsession with long running series to be baffling. Sure, if they work, but half of them lose steam after three or four and could easily have been reworked into fascinating sequences.

And of course there are, as ever, one or two exceptions.

Scott

I don't know Lehane's work too well (shock, horror), but iirc there weren't a huge number of novels about those guys to begin with, were there?

Ev

Welcome. Welcome - - they're a good bunch here at DSD, so do hope you'll stick around.

And, yes, I think the distinction between series and sequence is important. And as a reader, I personally find sequence far more interesting. I love the idea of events that can play off in other books and the idea of over-reaching arcs etc. Prime current example, as mentioned, is Ray Banks whose Cal Innes sequence is a bloody tremendous achievement (in my somewhat humble opnion, of course!)

Mike Dennis said...

Russel--
A sequel to "The Shining" would indeed be meaningless. The kid is middle-aged now, and is truly a different person. Only his memories would link him and the reader to the original character. King is just trying to get people to say "Ooh, I wonder what he's like now."

It brings to mind the disappointing sequel to "The Hustler", Martin Scorsese's "The Color Of Money". I know, I know, Paul Newman was great, but the original electric persona of Fast Eddie was lost in the sequel.

"The Hustler" was about Eddie's discovering his own ethic, or "character", as they called it. In "The Color Of Money", this never came up, not even once. Newman even played the two roles as if they were two different people, rather than like one person who finally found himself after hitting bottom only to return 25 years later as a redeemed version of that person.

I fear a similar result if King goes ahead with his sequel.

Russel said...

Mike

You kind of hit it for me - - my question is, why does it have to be Danny? And, yes, a person changes so much over the course of forty years that you might as well be writing about someone utterly different.

But, hey, I'm always intrigued by King and when he nails it, he nails it. But the very idea of this project makes me antsy.

Dana King said...

The biggest risk could be the same problem movies made from books have. The reader has an idea of what a character looks like, and the movie doesn't meet it, so that reader/viewer may be put off.

Same with the many years later sequel. Readers may have had an idea of what happened to the kid (or whoever), and if the resurrected version doesn't match, the book is a disappointment.

THE WIRE did it perfectly. When it was over, I never had a feeling these characters didn't exist anymore, just that we weren't going to be allowed to follow them around.