Thursday, December 20, 2007

Being Versus Telling

So I just started reading Book II of the Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials, which begins with The Golden Compass. Right away, I stumble over what is one of Pullman's biggest faults. For me personally, it's a huge problem. It's enough to make me fall completely out of his stories, especially when it happens during an important plot scene, which it does often enough in a Pullman tale. (In fact, you could say that the entire plot of the first novel was predicated on this error.)

Basically, Pullman ignores his characters. He creates characters and writes about them from a distance, as if he were merely reciting the text of some play rather than being an actual actor who dons the makeup, dress, and physical demeanor and then speaks and acts as if he were the character.

Here's an example of what I mean: The story begins with a boy searching an old abandoned house from top to bottom for some special notebook that contains a raft of mysterious letters, which, once he finds it, will reveal tons of answers to questions that have dogged the boy for many years. I mean really HUGE questions, like, "Who is/was my father? Why was he so special? What happened to him? Why are my mother and I being chased by dangerous, bad people? Who are they?" And so on. So he finds the tablet and gets away from the bad guys, then by some miracle he ends up in a mysterious paradise where he has literally tons of time to do nothing.

We all know what he will do next, right? He'll do what any other boy, man, girl, woman, or space alien would do. He'll tear open the tablet and read the contents voraciously.

Wrong. He never opens the tablet.

Yes, he's dying to find out what's inside. Yes, he has waited his whole life to find out these answers. But he DOESN'T OPEN THE TABLET! Instead, he meets a mysterious girl and they talk. Then they eat dinner. Then they make plans to go on a trip. Then he says that he really wants to know what's inside the tablet, gee whiz, but instead he'll LEAVE IT BEHIND! It's safe here, he says, so he'll just read it when he comes back. Off they go, tra-la-la!

At this point I say something like "J. F. C.!" I drop the book on the table, and I swear I won't finish it. (I probably will.)

Note to self: If a character "wants" to do something, either let him do it and then find a way to make the plot work around it, or change the precipitating events so that the character no longer has any real knowledge of or opportunity to do that thing, or change the character entirely. But never, NEVER, force a character to do something stupid and obnoxious just because it's expedient for the plot.

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