Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, 1931
Charles Dickens died in 1870, leaving his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. His readers, who had followed the story of Drood, his Uncle Jasper and the Landless siblings, were left with an unfinished story abounding with unanswered questions. Who killed Edwin Drood? Who was the Dick Datchery character who had been hanging around Cloisterham in recent weeks?
In the following 140 years, many writers have tried to complete the story, maintaining the appropriate tone and finding an ending that makes sense of all the juggling balls of plot that Dickens had thrown into the air. In most Jasper is the killer but not all of them have Drood dying from his uncle’s murderous attack. And as to the real identity of Dick Datchery, authors have alternately plumped for Neville Landless, an investigating detective or even Edwin Drood himself. Each author who has approached the matter has had to make sense of what has gone before without the aid of any notes or direction from the original author.
When George Lucas set out to make his Star Wars prequel trilogy, he had to create a storyline that worked as a story by itself but also concluded in such a way that it slotted directly onto the beginning of the original Star Wars films. Whether he succeeded in doing this is extraordinarily doubtful (e.g. how could Princess Leia claim to remember her own mother if she was hours old when she died?) but writing with future events fixed would have put a large number of constraints on the plotting of the films.
Any writing activity which attempts to add to or stitch together pre-existing stories comes with some specific challenges. Heide and I are at a point in our novel where we do have to address such issues. We don’t have a monumental task like finishing Drood or writing a prequel to one of the most popular film series of all time but we have a tricky task ahead of us nonetheless.
We have been writing alternate chapters of our Clovenhoof novel (still called ‘that Clovenhoof novel’ for reasons I will explain in a future blog) over the past six months and we are now at the point where we actually need to wrap up the story and present it as a complete novel. We have the advantage over Drood’s multiple authors in that Heide and I have been working on this thing together all along but just like George Lucas we have saddled ourselves with little details and facts here and there that need reconciling. Of course, we don’t have exactly the same problem as Lucas because none of our story has been unleashed on the world and we have the luxury of being able to rewrite what we wish.
But this issue isn’t doing the rewriting, it’s identifying what needs to be rewritten to make sense of the whole story. And it isn’t just a matter of continuity. The fact that Clovenhoof meets a vicar in chapter four and doesn’t know her name but, in the subsequently written chapter two, he meets her and gets to know her is easily handled with a few lines of altered dialogue. The issue we have to deal with is overall tone and believability of characters and events.
Dickens books are known, even loved, for their surprise turns of events. Previously unknown relatives, hidden wills and secret desires spring up all over the place in Dicken’s works. This is partly a narrative device but also a result of the fact that Dickens wrote for serialisation and couldn’t go back and write these things in more subtly. If he needed a secret inheritance to appear to save his heroes from debtor’s gaol then a secret inheritance would appear without warning. We can’t have that in our novel. Such unsuspected surprises could seem ludicrous in modern novels and smack of deus ex machina.
We need to create subtlety and plausibility (yes, even in a novel about the devil’s comic exploits in suburban Birmingham). Surprise events need a bit of foreshadowing. Changes of personality need to be made believable by earlier hints and transforming situations.
To this end, Heide and I have a Dropbox document that we share in which we note ideas that need threading throughout the story. It includes oddities like “Ben needs to buy more air fresheners” and “Nerys needs to start a correspondence relationship with a convicted armed robber” which, we hope, when put into the finished edit will make the whole story hang together more convincingly.
If we don’t, our finished novel will be some sort of Frankenstein’s Novel in which each of the individual elements look fine by themselves but the overall effect will be something hideous to behold.