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Continuity Girls

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In case you read fewer thirties novels than I do–a continuity girl was a person on a film set who kept notes on what every character was wearing, how their hair and make-up was done, from scene to scene.  This helped stopped big problems from happening when you filmed scenes out of sequence.  If Martha was wearing a red dress and carrying a straw handbag when she walked out of the living room to the dining room, she shouldn’t be wearing a blue dress and carrying a leather bag when she finally entered that same dining room.

If you see what I mean.

If you want to catch a really bad example of somebody not paying attention to continuity:  in the first Harry Potter movie, the positions of Harry, Hermoine and Percy at the dinner table after the sorting ceremony are one thing when you first see them, and entirely another a few seconds later when the camera has gone off them for a few seconds and supposedly come back on.

The damned thing drives me nuts every time I see it.

The continuity that’s bothering me this morning, however, is the continuity of series characters in mystery novels.

The very minor characters cause one sort of problem–a series character that comes in only every third book or so tends to build up a backstory that the writer can’t always remember.   The most conscientious of writers keep charts and maps to make sure they remember that Susan broke her leg on a keg of ale in Book 3 and Tom was sent to juvenile hall for shoplifting when he was twelve but is now the world’s biggest stickler for honesty.

I’ll admit, right here, to not being one of the most conscientious writers.  Part of my problem has always been that I’m not always sure, when I introduce a minor character, that I ever intend to use him again. 

But the problems caused by characters of this kind are, well, minor.  The real problem with continuing characters in series come with the major but secondary ones–the sidekicks, they second-in-commands.

And these problems come because, given the nature of a series with continuing characters, you can’t leave them out. 

Once a character is established as a vital and important part of the equation of the series as a whole, you need to say something about him every time you write. 

And in any case where that character would ordinarily play a part,  that character must play a part, even if the story itself has nothing for him (or her) to do.

If two detectives always work as partners, if a Detective Inspector is always assisted by a particular detective constable–well, they’d better be there, even if the main character is going to have no actual practical use for them on the case in question.

One of the ways of handling this is to give the unneeded secondary character a subplot, something well removed from the mystery, just to make it feel as if he’s doing something. 

That’s why secondary characters often have home lives or love lives that sound like the notes from some psychiatrist’s case file–think of Barbara in Elizabeth George’s Lynley books.

This sort of thing can get really annoying, and I have had people tell me that they stopped reading one series or another because the whole thing just got too confusing, or unbelievable, or worse.

The problem with secondary series characters is, often, a mirror of the problem with main series characters–there is just so much to say about any one person, at least in a way that will work in a novel. 

Real people may live lives of quiet desperation–I always thought Thoreau was wrong about that one, at least in the case of the majority–but they almost never live lives of uninterrupted drama.  Most people don’t want to.  Only some people want the characters in their fiction to–some people must, because soap operas are not losing money.

In general, I have  very little patience with the kind of person who absolutely has to read an entire series in order, at least when it comes to mystery novels.

Something like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings do need to be read in order, but mystery novels are discreet and often self-contained plots.  Sleeping Murder and At Bertram’s Hotel are completely comprehensible, and satisfying as mysteries, even if you’ve never read The Body in the Library, or any of the books that came between it and those two at the front.

It’s things like the problem of the secondary characters that makes me just a bit sympathetic to the people who need to read everything in order.   If you have read everything in order–or at least read it–you know why this perfectly useless person is running around the book getting divorced and remarried every five minutes.

I’ve been trying to think if mysteries are unique among the genres in this regard.  Most romance novels are not parts of series, science fiction novels can be but don’t have to be.  I don’t know enough about westerns to comment. I do know that most of the horror novels I’ve read have been stand alones.

But I’ve talked about this before–there are advantages to series novels.  For one thing, readers prefer them, and once a reader is drawn into the continuing story, he’s likely to come back for more.  Even if a particular novel falls flat, he’s still likely to be back for more.  He knows how good it can get, and he knows that everybody has a bad year.

Series novels also work very well as frames.  If you think of the mystery, as I do, as a kind of literary frame for other things–much the way the form of the sonnet is the frame of what the poet wants to say, but not the point in and of itself of the poem–then series work better than stand alones for any number of reasons.

A novel about the lives of six not very important people in a dying rust belt city is a hard sell.  It’s an easier sell when it’s a mystery novel.  It’s an even easier one when it’s part of a series whose readers are committed to the continuing character of the detective.

Welcome to Precious Blood, still, I think, one of the best of the Gregors.

Eck.  I don’t really know where I’m going with this.  I’m spending my mornings these days orchestrating the debut of a new series detective–in fact, two–and the first book in such a series has to be a lot of things subsequent books do not.  That means I’m spending a lot of my time flailing at things that, if this series sees publication, won’t matter much in a book or two down the line.

But I also find myself being brought up short again by my eternal question–whether it is possible for a genre novel to be good as a novel, and not just as an example of the genre.

On some metalevel, of course, the answer is yes.  I can name half a dozen genre novels that are also good as novels first.

On the ground, though, the question remains–if it is possible that a genre novel can be good as a novel, then genre novels should be good as novels every time.

But that doesn’t happen, and sometimes, novels that are good as genre, that are among the best examples of the genre, aren’t very good as novels at all.

Written by janeh

October 23rd, 2010 at 8:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Continuity Girls'

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  1. The metaquestion first: I immediately flashed to Sylvester Stallone in DEMOLITION MAN explaining “LA wasn’t the wild west–even the wild west wasn’t the wild west!” It’s perfectly true that most genre novels aren’t good novels by the standards of mainstream novels–but it’s also true that most mainstream novels aren’t very good by those same standards.
    The supporting cast: nothing wrong with Wolfe just not needing Johnny Keems this time. Doesn’t even call for an explanation. And if the plot requires Eve Dallas to use a different medical examiner, someone can always be on vacation. Obviously this gets harder to work the more it’s a two or three-person show, but I think the ideal solution is not giving your idle character a random soap opera plot, but a plot which echoes the theme–either reinforcing or counterpoint. Whatever the main story is about, so too should the sub-plot be about. Otherwise–well, remember the old sculpting advise? Chip away all the bits that dont look like an elephant? If it’s a real story, everything is either necessary to telling the story or supports the themes of the story. Nothing should be in the story which does not do one of those two.

    Can’t vouch for westerns. In mystery, adventure romance and SF series work three ways. The bad series is all potboilers, and the characters and are described the same way each time–or, worse still, the author hasn’t bothered with his characters, and drives everyone nuts by being unable to remember whether Watson is married or just where he was injured. Conan Doyle wrote great stories–but the Holmes stories are a bad series.

    The competent series brings together a familiar cast and setting. The author remembers–more likely writes down–the characteristics and history of his characters and the regular reader finds them comfortable. The slow accumulation of detail makes them real without slowing down the story too much at any one time. In reading the novel, the reader is keeping tabs on his friends, even if the novel itself is a pot-boiler.

    The great series builds up, layer on layer adding depth. I just finished reading a novel in a great series. The end involved the funeral of an important character. Of the six pallbearers, I knew five. Four hadn’t even been mentioned in this novel, but because I’d read a dozen preceding ones I knew who they were, what they looked like and why exactly they were the ones chosen. Single lines flashed back to stories told over the previous 20 years–good decisions and bad, and how the 40+ years encompassed by those novels had changed the people involved. A one-off novel trying to do that would be longer than WAR AND PEACE and fail as a novel for lack of theme. But write a dozen stand-alone novels which share people and settings, and you have created a literary tool of great power. Of course, it takes literally thousands of pages and a decade or more of writing. Stretching the definition, I know of maybe half a dozen such series.

    Great takes talent–but it takes a LOT of work.


    23 Oct 10 at 9:50 am

  2. Okay.

    Now tell me how to manage a Wolfe story that doesn’t need Archie Goodwin.

    That’s a little tricky given the fact that Archie narrates, but think of a character that does not narrate that is in the same position as Archie is in the structure of that series.

    If you see what I mean


    23 Oct 10 at 9:58 am

  3. OK, shoot Archie in the first chapter–or before the first chapter. He’s in the hospital comatose. Saul tells this one–or Wolfe himself, or it’s done third person, like RED THREADS or THE HAND IN THE GLOVE, both of which use characters from the Archie/Wolfe continuity.
    Seriously, I think it’s an invented problem. I’ve got books from easily 30 series on the shelves–a few romance; mostly detective or SF. Some of the best don’t have any character who is present in every story, and hardly any of the others have more than one. Wolfe and Archie, of course; Holmes and Watson. But there are Poirots without Hastings, and Miss Marple trades off policemen regularly. I think even Reginald Hill has a story or so with Dalziel and no Pascoe. He certainly has one or two in which the other gets only a cameo.
    You come closer to using them all each time than most, but there are certainly Demarkians in which, while Bennis or Tibor may show up in the story, they wouldn’t show up in a plot outline.
    Often writers have a team–detective, military or what have you–in which case someone can be unavailable and a substitute found. Or else the relationship is personal, in which case operating without someone may be easier on the plot outline. There is no “how are we going to drag the civilian in this time? Of course, the writer has to show the effect of the character’s absence–but weren’t we talking about getting closer to novel writing?

    (I prefer what I believe was the Heinlein analysis: “Good science fiction is–good fiction.”)


    23 Oct 10 at 2:20 pm

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