June 05, 2010
Not big enough
I went to see the second Sex And The City movie on Friday night. I was a fan of the series (what's not to love about female friendships, relationships and hot guys? Plus the whole Big and Carrie thing is exactly the right sort of on screen romantic relationship to suck me in and keep me watching) and really liked the first movie. But as much as the fan in me was excited to see the new one, the writer in me was nervous.
Turns out the writer was right. For me, the movie was uneven and just didn't feel like a big enough storyline for a movie. Leaving aside the advisability of the whole Abu Dhabi idea (which I'm not going to get into), the whole thing, despite some very funny and very poignant moments, felt more suited to a 2 episode TV arc maybe rather than a two hour plus movie.
Naturally, being a writer type, this made writer brain perk up and start wondering why I had the reaction I did. And, after much more pondering, I think it boils down to this.
Stories have natural end points. If you drag them on beyond said end points then they start to retread old ground and either feel tired or you feel like the characters are backsliding. Which makes writing an ongoing series a tricky, tricky proposition. Personally, I don't think I'd attempt an open ended series for this very reason. You have to be very very clever and skilled to pull it off. Of the ongoing open ended series I've read over the years, I think I can think of three that I still read and think still have legs after the 8 or 9 book point.
One of these is the Discworld series, which is probably a different kettle of fish as it's more a series of connected stories in a shared world. It jumps around between characters and focus and while the characters do grow, the books are more about the ideas than the characters. Pratchett is also a genius.
The other two are the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold and the Eve Dallas books by JD Robb/Nora Roberts. Again, two genius level writers. Both these series work because they have hugely hugely compelling protagonists who started off with an awful lot to learn and overcome. The Eve books have also had the added cleverness of only covering a relatively short period of time so far in Eve's life (a few years maybe) even though we're up to 20 odd books. But even these two series will have a natural stopping point I would imagine (though I would rather neither of them happened any time soon).
For most other series, I think it's better to have an arc in mind and then you have to give your characters their well deserved, hopefully mostly happy ending. Otherwise you circle around and around and no-one grows or changes and readers other than those who just have become completely enamored with the world and are the die-hard fans will wander off in search of other characters who are doing something. The same thing happens with TV shows. There's only so much stuff you can put a character through before they're either idiots for not figuring stuff out already or should be in a mental hospital because of all the life trauma. At least, imho.
There are some other open ended series that I still read off and on because I love the voice but I've pretty much accepted with those books that that is the reason I read them and they won't be blowing my mind. They won't resonate and stay with me. They won't give me the tingle a really great book does. They might feel comfy and nice and I'll like visiting with old friends but that's about it. Which is why I'm not attempting to write an open ended series any time soon.
But back to SATC2. I think the first movie worked really well because it did tie up some loose threads from the series (namely Big and Carrie's arc) and left you feeling like everyone was okay and they'd go on being okay in their little universe. So coming back to visit again and they're all having niggly problems does start to feel repetitive. None of the issues they were facing were big like in the first movie. And the problem is if they had been big (cheating or death or that sort of thing), then that ground had already been covered. So the writers made the other choice, to write about the ongoing hassles of married life and parenthood (which are worthy subjects, don't get me wrong but for these characters, it did feel like going back to old territory). Pretty much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Which is probably a good test of should we keep doing this...do we have anything new to say that ups the stakes for everyone and makes them change in ways that they need to change and doesn't make them over into entirely new characters for the sake of keeping the story going (which is the other thing that can happen). If not, then someone has to make the hard call of letting things lie.
Which I understand movie studios and publishers and televisions stations have a motive not to do. Going out on a high point is a tough thing to do when fans and the people who pay you still love the characters.
And each writer has to make the choice for themselves and their vision of their stories.
For now, I think I'll stick to shorter series and hopefully avoid the problem all together! Though that brings a whole other set of issues...
This writing thing, it's hard, people.