I have talked about the messages behind Twilight and Harry Potter, and now, I think, it is time to actually discuss these two ladies as writers.
I know, crazy talk.
There are many different aspects of writing, so I’m going to try and go through them individually, since each writer has strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of aspects to consider, so there will be a fourth round as well.
I’m going to give Stephenie Meyer a head start…
(A note about spoilers: I will keep Harry Potter spoilers to a minimum, only letting go the kind of information that you could pick up from your standard movie trailer and have probably picked up on already, unless you live in a world without other people. Twilight spoilers, on the other hand, abound, because I can’t “spoil” Twilight any more than I can “spoil” a compost heap.)
Titles: They Should Not Suck
Stephenie Meyer wins this one hands-down. The titles Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn may have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the story after the title page, but they sound good. It sounds like there’s meaning there. It sounds artsy, even. They’re good titles.
Titles are important.
Did you know that one of the working titles for Gone With The Wind was “Pansy”? That the original title of The Great Gatsby was “Trimalchio in West Egg”? That Northanger Abbey was originally “Susan” and Of Mice And Men was first called “Something That Happened”?
The Harry Potter titles are crap like that, only no one saved them at the last minute with timeless brilliance.
Starting all the books with Harry Potter and the… is just an awful idea. It makes it sound less like an excellent piece of literature and most like a children’s Saturday morning cartoon.
I mean, imagine if The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe had been called “Lucy Pevensie And The Magic Closet” or if Charlotte’s Web had been named “Wilbur The Pig and his Spider Friend”?
I bet half the reason no one seems willing to consider Harry Potter as serious and meaningful literature is the gawd-awful titles of the books.
So you win, Stephenie Meyer.
Meyer didn’t name Twilight, her editor did.
Meyer’s original title for her first book was “Forks”.
…Possibly to be followed by the sequel, “Spoons”?
You win, er, Meyer’s editor. Rowling’s editor should take notes.
PLOT: It’s a good starting point to have one.
The Harry Potter novels are just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” – Stephen King, “On Writing.
JK Rowling is wonderful at writing the plots of her books.
As you probably know, a book should slowly build toward its climax, like this:
The early books are slightly formulaic. You start to wonder why Harry bothers to fret before, oh, say, May, because nothing serious will happen until just before school ends, and in the fourth book this causes plot holes you could drive a truck through.
But at least there IS a clearly and coherently constructed storyline.
Meyer’s books don’t build properly.
Twilight is the worst offender. We just follow Bella around day after day while she struggles with the weather and moons over the creepy boy that seems to be the only person in town who doesn’t like her.
At one point (and if you haven’t read the book, I know you won’t really believe me), you end up watching the vampires playing baseball. There’s no reason for it. Baseball never comes up again throughout the course of the entire series. But there’s a whole chapter devoted to watching them do it… while misusing sports lingo.
Then, even though the whole primary storyline is the Bella-Edward drama, each book has a random action scene as a climax. It’s bizarre and out of place. The books look like this:
It may satisfy the romantics of the world, but it’s not a PLOT.
Not only does Rowling use an actual plot when writing her books, she constructs it very cleverly.
It is rare, in Harry Potter, to find a scene or a moment that doesn’t somehow relate to the story. Rowling lays out important points well ahead of when she’ll need them and she does it so well that you don’t even realize what she’s done.
In fact, often it isn’t until the end of the book that you realize how much of it WAS building the story, because it is thrown in so effortlessly that you skim right over it, only to realize later how vitally important that casual line of dialogue or description actually was.
She also sets up her climaxes well. You never see them coming, and it never turns out the way you would have expected. Then, when you re-read them, all the clues are right there, hidden so cleverly that you never would have spotted them in advance.
The entire series is leading you to a final conclusion, and it takes you down the path firmly and clearly, with no fruitless wanderings off the point. This ends up being quite complex, like someone gathering hundreds of strings and twining them into a single rope, but she does it.
The more you re-read the series, the more you spot those little moment that ended up being vitally important later on.
The following are examples of sentences that had plot importance, even if you didn’t realize it at the time:
“Er,” Ron said. The truth was that Scabbers had never shown the faintest trace of interesting powers. The witch’s eyes moved from Scabbers’ tattered left ear to his front paw, which had a toe missing
“You haff a water beetle in your hair, Herm-own-ninny.”
I heard – that awful boy – telling her about them – years ago,” she said jerkily.
All of the above sentences contain information which becomes hugely significant when you reread the books, but on first reading there is basically no way you could spot them for being as important as they are.
Stephenie Meyer rarely tries to do this, and when she does, it’s full of fail.
She doesn’t surprise you with plot twists so much as announce their approach with a loud speaker and klaxon.
Meyer operates under the delusion that if she keeps her characters in the dark, her readers will be equally ignorant.
Somehow, I don’t think Agatha Christie would have been as popular if her books had gone like this:
Witness: “So, I heard a gun shot, and when I looked out the window, Bob Smith was running away from the scene of the crime with a smoking gun in his hand.”
Miss Marple: “Hmm. This needs serious investigation.”
Police: “The murder victim’s last diary entry was “Bob Smith wants to kill me”
Miss Marple: “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN”.
Bob Smith: “Yeah, it was me. I did it.”
Miss Marple: “OMG, THAT’S SO SURPRISING. AREN’T YOU SURPRISED? I’M SO SURPRISED.”
So really, I’m thankful when Stephenie Meyer doesn’t try to set up a mystery. Maybe she should just stick to romance. Jane Eyre didn’t need murderous vampires to keep things interesting.
Creating A Universe: Take Notes Or Something
One of the advantages of fantasy is that research rarely applies.” – Stephenie Meyer
Every author builds their story into a unique universe. Since fiction is just that – fiction – every story also takes place in a fictional world. You, as the author, have created that world. So you should really make it your own, and not just hope the real world will accommodate your story for you.
The interesting thing is that the more effort you put into making your own imaginary world distinct, the more believable your story becomes:
If you create a place called Middle Earth, and announce that there is such a thing as hobbits and dragons and wizards, people nod and say, “OK.”
If you invent a place called Narnia, where animals talk and godlike lions are resurrected from the dead, people think “Sure…”
But it is a fact of human nature that when you try to tell people that your story took place on planet Earth, in the 21st century, in a world that follows real-life natural laws, but happen to mention that snowflakes in your story have eight points instead of six, people will yell “Shenanigans!”
The more the story is based on real life, the more difficult it becomes to make the fictional parts of your story believable; people will compare how things happen in your world to how things happen in the real world… and woe betide you if things don’t match up.
That’s why people piss and moan about the ridiculousness of immortal vampires attending high school over and over, but don’t piss and moan about the concept of owls who deliver the mail without even needing to know the address of the recipient.
When you create-a da world, you can make-a da rules.
This is where J.K. Rowling is a viking. She butts heads with Terry Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to being named the valedictorian of world-building.
The richness of the Potterverse grabs readers’ attentions when they first pick up the first book. Rowling has cleverly invented an entire world with its own natural laws, culture, restrictions and freedoms, and inserted it into the supposed real world.
The world is so well drawn, its boundaries extend well beyond the pages of the novels themselves. As the recent debut of Pottermore demonstrates, Rowling has scads of notes on the Potterverse that never made it into her books.
Did you know that McGonnagall used to be married? That Dean Thomas’s father was a wizard who knocked up Dean’s mom and took off? That George ended up marrying Fred’s girlfriend (and Rowling agrees that that is messed up)? That Ron ended up working for George? That Hermione actually did go into magical law?
Well, Rowling knows all of it and more.
She often doesn’t volunteer the information until someone thinks to ask her, and then out it pops. Hell, the whole “Dumbledore is gay” thing even came out by accident, because someone happened to ask about his love life.
Rowling said she always knew Dumbledore was gay, but didn’t think this was important enough to make it worth mentioning anywhere in the actual books.
“If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!” – J.K. Rowling
The best thing about the Potterverse, though, is simply that Rowling always has answers. When pestered about why such-and-such did/didn’t happen, she has an answer, and it makes sense within the already-established canon.
…And then there’s Twilight.
Despite the creative fantasy of lawful-good vampires who sparkle instead of crumbling into dust and voluntarily attend high school over and over again, the Twitverse is oddly… non-fictional, while still being completely nonsensical.
The problem is, the story and the real world keep getting in each other’s way.
Everything, from the physical location to Jacob’s Native tribe, actually exists in reality. Sort of.
I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs, and looked for the place with the most rainfall in the U.S. This turned out to be the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I pulled up maps of the area and studied them, looking for something small, out of the way, surrounded by forest… And there, right where I wanted it to be, was a tiny town called “Forks.” It couldn’t have been more perfect if I had named it myself.
Or she could have INVENTED a town and actually named it herself.
It’s funny how hard Meyer tries to make her story as believable as possible, while actually getting further and further away from convincing anyone of anything.
This is due to several problems in the Twitverse:
1. Certain things are often stated as fact – who killed who, how vampires work, etc. These “facts” are frequently contradicted later on for plot purposes, sometimes accompanied by hurried explanations as to why the universe is violating its own rules.
2. Science is used to explain many of the happenings in the Twitverse, such as vampirism, shape shifting and so on. Unfortunately, Stephenie Meyer was an English major.
3. Meyer seems unable to keep certain things straight within the Twitverse, often contradicting herself in small details such as: the timeline, what characters are eating for breakfast (Bella makes her father pancakes, the next thing you know he’s speaking into his ceral bowl), and whether or not a vampire’s sparkle is visible in artificial lighting (supposedly high school is safe, but then Bella notices Edward glinting in a windowless room in Italy…) and so on.
If you base your fantasy in the real world, you probably should do a little research. Meyer seems unwilling to do this.
Or you could just blame magic.
Magic is a wonderful tool for the fantasy author. I mean, basically, the definition of magic is “that which science cannot explain”, right? So in the Potterverse, if Rowling wants to have flying brooms and invisibility cloaks, it’s easy to explain how it all works – Magic!
Think of how easy that makes everything.
How does an undead creature manage to produce the sperm required to impregnant a human female?
How does Jacob survive with such a high body temperature?
Why doesn’t the venom in Edward’s mouth turn Bella into a vampire the moment they swap spit?
But does Meyer use the handy explanation of “Magic!” to explain her fantasy creations?
She tries to use SCIENCE.
“Try” is the operative word here, because she certainly doesn’t succeed.
Like, oh, to take a random example – Explaining the transformation from human to undead creature by adding two more chromosomes to every cell in the body, via totally-not-magical-oh-so-scientific venom.
DID I MENTION THAT SHE WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR?
When someone presents you with “science” which makes absolutely no sense (the movie “Armegeddon” comes painfully to mind), it brings the suspension of disbelief crashing to the ground much more dramatically than if you had just said “it’s magic!”.
When you bring science into it, you’re working with real-world laws, and the science nerds (read: anyone with high-school level science) are going to pick your theories full of holes with gleeful abandon.
Meyer’s belief that science can be used in fiction without any research on the laws of science result in a Twitverse where Down Syndrome would just turn you into a werewolf, where snowflakes are octagons instead of hexagons (because in Twilight, even the snowflakes are special snowflakes), and you get to the coast of Brazil by driving West through Rio De Janeiro (and yes, I checked Google Maps to see if Rio was on a peninsula or something, and it still did not make sense).
Laziness on the part of an author does not charm me.
If she doesn’t treat the world like a believable universe, why should I?
Narration: Don’t Give The Job To A Blind Monkey With A Speech Impediment
Narration seems like a fairly important aspect of a book, but there are many ways to do it, and no wrong choice (except, arguably, Second Person).
The method of narration that is easiest to write is Third Person Omniscient. The narrator, being the author, knows everything. They can tell you what other people are thinking, how they feel about each other, and what is going on behind people’s backs. It’s easy to write because you don’t have to hide anything and it’s really hard to do it wrong.
J.K. Rowling takes a step forward into the more disciplined realm of Third Person Limited, with a few rare exceptions (the opening chapters of Philosopher’s Stone, Goblet of Fire, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows). This means that while she tells the story in the third person, she only tells us about what is happening to Harry, and only what Harry sees/knows. That means that we don’t learn what other characters are thinking or doing most of the time, unless Harry learns it himself.
Meyer, in Twilight, has entered the even more difficult realm of First Person. However, she has made a few unusual stylistic choices.
First Person narratives usually share the same limitations as Third Person Limited, with a few additional restrictions. Not only can we only know what the character knows, but the character must be able to express it clearly. At least in Third Person Limited, the author’s voice is still in sway, so no matter how tongue-tied or thick-skulled the protagonist, the story can be told clearly.
But in a First Person perspective, we have to hear it from the character’s own mouth.
For this reason, First Person narrators are usually quiet observers with a gift for story telling. Dr Watson, for example, who observes and reports on the extraordinary adventures of his friend Mr. Holmes. Or James Herriot, the self-effacing country vet, who is usually the butt of his own jokes. Or Jane Eyre, who describes her life to us with a quiet but passionate clarity.
…And then there’s Bella Swan.
Bella is unusual for a narrator for two reasons:
Firstly, she often manages to know or notice things that a normal human wouldn’t normally be able to know or notice, such as what other characters around her are thinking and feeling or becoming intuitively suspicious of totally normal events.
Secondly, and paradoxically, Bella is the most stunningly unobservant person you could hope to imagine.
We were halfway to the hospital when I realized he was still shirtless.
I only realized I was sobbing when Alice dragged me to the living room couch and pulled me into her lap.
I realized it was Jacob’s arm I was gripping for balance.
It wasn’t until my teeth started to chatter together that I realized I was cold.
I realized no one had moved.
I think I forgot to breathe.
It wasn’t until my head started to swim that I realized I wasn’t breathing.
I realized I was holding my breath
I realized again that I was alive.
There is only one section of the saga not narrated by Bella, and that is Book Two of Breaking Dawn. This is also the best-written section of the saga, largely because Jacob doesn’t feel the need to constantly describe everything (we’ll get to that next time).
However, Jacob also suffers from realization syndrome.
I didn’t realize my legs had carried me forward until Rosalie hissed at me
I hadn’t realized I was slowing down, but suddenly he was on my flank
I realized I didn’t care
It took me a second to realize that the voice was talking to me
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the narrator of a story be able to tell simple things, like, say, whether or not people have moved about the room, or whether or not someone is speaking.
Even if one has the mistfortune to be the kind of character who regularly loses track of one’s autonomic functions and has no awareness of how to maintain homeostasis, one doesn’t need to be given the job of narrator as part of the pity party.
Harry Potter wouldn’t make a great narrator. He doesn’t have a lot of insight into his own actions or behaviour, he is uncomfortable discussing feelings, and he doesn’t really have a gift when it comes to using words. But that’s all okay, because he’s not the narrator. Rowling tells us his story for him.
And the crazy thing is, she still does it better, with better observance of what Harry can and cannot know, than Meyer does when she writes it coming directly out of Bella’s mouth.
I rest my case for today.
Coming up next – Rowling vs Meyer, The Writing, continues.
Highlights will include Description and The Ability To Use Words.