Sunday, October 14, 2012
Arcing in Chicago: the Dresden Files
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading the Dresden Files, and it’s getting really, really good. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly why it’s such a good series, and I think I’ve finally got it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of very obvious reasons why it’s very good. First of all, it’s an example of a fairly new subgenre called ”urban fantasy,” which is a moderately cool thing in and of itself. The standard definition includes the urban setting (natch), plus the supernatural elements, which are typically varied and often unusual. Oh, sure: there are often your standard vampires and werewolves, but usually an urban fantasy goes far beyond those. The central idea behind urban fantasy seems to be all the monsters that we’ve ever imagined are out there, somewhere, living amongst us in the modern world, and where better than the crowded, dirty cities, the sprawling metropolises (metropoles?) for the monsters to hide? If you’ve ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, if not, why not? it’s excellent early Whedon), you’ve probably already got the picture.
But a lot of urban fantasy is more about private investigator-type characters, which means it combines the best of horror fiction with detective stories, usually of the hard-bitten crime drama / film noir type. Although Harry Dresden is not technically a PI, his status as Chicago’s only openly practicing wizard puts him in the position of finding lost people and items, and helping the Chicago police department on their weirder cases. So he might as well be. This is of course a great recipe, but let’s face it: it isn’t substantially different from any of the other urban fantasy series I’ve read. Well, there’s only two of them, really—Greywalker and Kate Daniels—but they’re both pretty darn cool, at least in terms of concept. In fact, strictly based on premise potential, Dresden isn’t the big dog in this pack. And yet he leads it.
Part of that is because Jim Butcher is a stellar writer. Now, Kat Richardson is no slouch either, although the husband-and-wife team known as Ilona Andrews is a definite step down (repeated consistency errors tell me that they need a better editor, at the very least). But Butcher is a real cut above the rest: not only does he have a wry, witty style that endears him to the reader, and personally reminds me of first falling in love with horror, reading King and Koontz, but his pacing is insane. You know how practically every paperback you pick up has, somewhere in amongst all the blurbs proclaiming it to be the best book ever, at least one which calls it a “roller coaster ride of thrills” or somesuch twaddle? Yeah, well, they never are. But the Dresden Files is the real deal: after tearing through seven books at breakneck speed, I’ve practically got whiplash. As a would-be writer, I’ve of course analyzed this to see just how the hell he does it ... my personal pace is pretty deliberate, being acquired primarily from reading folks like King, Straub, and Barker, folks who like to take their time. I think I’m a bit north of Rice and Jordan, certainly, but no one will ever accuse me of being fast-paced. Butcher, on the other hand, is practically dizzying. He does it by starting off the first few chapters—perhaps anywhere from a tenth to no more than a quarter of the book—as normal chapters, regular pacing, nothing special. But then he picks it up, and he does it by ending every chapter on a little mini-cliffhanger. I’ve literally taken to choosing my stopping points in the middles of his chapter, because I know if I get to the end, I won’t be able to stop. It’s almost exhausting. But exhilirating, too.
And of course the characters are interesting as well. The central characters, Harry Dresden and head of Chicago “Special Investigations” Karrin Murphy, are well-drawn, with interesting backgrounds. They have some of those plot-demanded misunderstandings towards the beginning of the series, which I find very frustrating, but those get resolved and then we can move on. The other characters we meet—Michael Carpenter, Thomas Raith, Billy the werewolf, Warden Morgan, and many others—are likewise interesting, and only a few of them (notably Morgan) are one-note stereotypes. But, again, that’s not particularly unusual: lots of series have very interesting characters.
No, I’ve finally figured out why this series is so damn good. Allow me, if you will, a brief tangent.
Let’s think in terms of television series (it’s a bit easier than starting with books). We can divide the world of television series into two basic camps: episodic, and story-arc. An episodic series is a series of disconnected stories. Each episode has little to do with the others. In fact, you can watch them pretty much in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference. Almost all sitcoms are like this. Most of the Star Trek series are like this too, as are almost all crime dramas, and doctor shows (all the CSI’s, all the Law & Order’s, ER, House, etc etc). In fact, once upon a time, nearly all shows were like this.
But lately there’s been a tendency to try to make the other type of shows: the story-arc shows. These are the shows where every episode is just part of one giant story. Now, if you have to worry about your show getting cancelled constantly, you can see why this is a dangerous road to start down. For just two examples of the cruelty this can engender, we could mention the decent Invasion and the excellent Carnivàle. But, then again, if your show survives the caprice of network executives, you can end up with a fantastic story. Six Feet Under, Babylon 5, Twin Peaks ... these are all excellent story-arc shows. Few other shows are, particularly in television history, but all soap operas are, including prime-time soaps such as Dallas. The best way to identify a story-arc show is to miss an episode and then see if you’re completely lost. If you are, that’s a story-arc show. Of course, that’s a disadvantage too: especially for a long-running show, if it’s difficult for people to jump in in the middle, how are you supposed to attract new viewers?
Now, I say there are two kinds of shows, but you guys know me: I don’t actually believe in binary descriptions of anything. This, like most everything in life, is a spectrum, and there are all kinds of attempts to blend the two or come up with something in the middle. It could be something simple, like just trying to apply some basic continuity to an episodic show: actions should have consequences, after all, even in a fictional world. One technique I see becoming popular these days is shows like True Blood or Dexter, where each season is a story-arc, but the seasons themselves are episodic: with perhaps the exception of the first season, you could pretty much watch the seasons out-of-order and not notice much in the way of oddities. A slightly better technique is to let most of the shows be episodic, but weave in some story-arc episodes to tie things together. Monk is a good example of this, as are early seasons of Fringe, before it devolved into the sort of insanity vortex that J.J. Abrams is seemingly inexorably sucked into.
Or, what you could do is make every episode like that.
The only example that springs to mind is the quite excellent Burn Notice. The vast majority of episodes have a pretty simple basic structure: The main plot is an episodic one, where Michael Weston helps out the victim-of-the-week with their problem-they-can’t-go-to-the-cops-with. And then there’s the secondary plot, which advances the overall story-arc of the series, which is about Michael trying to find out who framed him. So the subplots of the episodes are the main plot of the story-arc. Every single episode advances the story-arc, but usually only a little, so if you were to miss one, you wouldn’t be lost. And nearly every single episode is also a stand-alone story, so it’s fairly easy to jump in, even without knowing the whole history, and still enjoy the episode. It’s quite brilliant, if you think about it. Best of both worlds.
Now let’s hop back over to books. Most book series, particularly fantasy series, are story-arc series. They’re actually one giant book, just broken up for your convenience, so you won’t break your back carrying it around in your school backpack. In fact, the Lord of the Rings, which is generally considered the original fantasy series, was actually written as a single book, but Tolkien’s publishers made him break it up. Thus, the modern fantasy trilogy. But, no matter how many volumes, most fantasy series are one giant story. Narnia, Amber, the Wheel of Time, a Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, the Dark Tower: all story-arc series.
But of course there are exceptions. The Conan stories, for instance, are so episodic that they weren’t even published in the “right” order. There are a few other notable fantasy series like that (the Vlad Taltos novels and I believe the Black Company books as well), and a few that are chronological but still basically episodic: the Xanth books, the MythAdventures series, and some others. Also, the urban fantasy series that I’m familiar with tend to fall into this category as well. For instance, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the Greywalker series, the stories are very self-contained; the Kate Daniels book has a little more of a story-arc, but it’s still moderately episodic.
Then there’s the Dresden Files.
It starts out with a very episodic feel to it. Oh, sure, there’s some background info on Harry dropped in the first book, but it feels like just that: background info. Filling out the backstory. Just some interesting tidbits to keep us interested in our erstwhile hero. Even the second book, which fills out a bit more of our understanding of Harry’s past and his family situation, still feels like just another episode in a show about a paranormal PI.
Then it starts to pick up. More and more info about who Harry really is and what his past has been like comes out. Then Harry starts to learn stuff about his past that even he didn’t know. As I say, I’m only on book 8, and there are 14 (so far!), so for all I know it gets even better as you get even deeper in. And it seems like Butcher intends to keep on going ... one of the advantages of an episodic series is that you can keep writing it forever, if you like. Of course, you may not like, and then it can be difficult to stop, as luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have discovered. But the Dresden Files feels to me like it has enough of a story-arc basis that there will probably be a natural end somewhere down the line.
I’m looking forward to seeing where this one is going.