Sunday, 25 January 2015

Fixing Arthas and Narrative Time-Travel

[Edit 25 Jan 2015: I was meaner than I ought to have been in this review. Arthas is not good by the standards of novels, generally; it is possibly quite good at what it is supposed to be and do, that is, produce a fictionalization of the games on which it's based, maintaining much of the narrative tenor of those games, for an audience which cares about very different things than the standards of good novels, or good genre fiction. I guess I can't judge either Golden for attempting to make such an object or the book's target audience for caring about the things they care about. That said, my specific critiques still hold: Golden doesn't trust her audience, and that mars the book.]

Image source: Connor on Flickr. This image depicts a sign reading "To Time Bridge."

In November my brother showed me a book that a friend had lent to him: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden. In case you don’t know, Arthas is one of many novelizations based on the Warcraft franchise; it follows one of the games’ major protagonist/villains from his childhood to his ascendance to the Frozen Throne, an emblem of terrible and evil power. In many ways it is a typical tragedy, with a hero who becomes a villain, feeling compelled toward a fate which he could have avoided at any time. It depicts the events in the game and fleshes out what happened off-camera and how the characters came to be who they are. It’s also awful.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s supposed to be a good novel. It is not even a novel so much as it is a novelization; it is a supplement to the games. The book is written, I think, for people unused to reading novels: the prose is simple and the characterization simpler. Golden does have a few clever tricks up her sleeve. For instance, she sets up echoes throughout the novel, so that certain episodes or phrases in the first quarter of the novel allude to events later in Arthas’s life—and therefore events later in the novel—that players will remember from the games. He is knighted by a man he will later kill; a horse he later resurrects from the dead is born and dies; he meets Jaina and then they part, as you know from the games that they’ll reunite and then be estranged for good. You can see the foundation for the familiar story unfold before you, and then that story unfolds before you. It’s a nice touch. But it doesn’t make up for the rest of it.

The story is obvious, clich├ęd, overdramatic, frenetic, and disorganized. (This is not entirely Golden’s fault, since this is also true of the games.) It has not so much atmosphere or texture as it has references; mentioning items you can find in World of Warcraft does not make Azeroth seem real. The great blocks of exposition are tough to read. But the worst mistake is that Golden doesn’t trust the reader. Whenever two characters have some history with one another that impacts their current interaction—for instance, Kael and Arthas were romantic rivals over Jaina before becoming political enemies as well—either the narrator or the characters themselves summarize that history. Golden does not trust that the reader will be able to remember an event that happened a few short chapters ago; or, perhaps, she does not trust that reader can connect that event with the character’s current motives and emotions. She digs out all of the subtext and just makes it text. Not only is this repetitive, but it also renders the dialogue unrealistic and scuttles all of the tension. The characters live on the surface of themselves; any time they may have depth, they dredge it all up for us to see.*

So I wondered whether I could improve the novel in a quick and easy way. Could I, for instance, simply rearrange the chapters?

A friend of mine has told me that she never reads novels in the order they’re presented. She skips between chapters, backward and forward; she doesn’t even read a page in order, but jumps all over it. And this is of course a way of approaching novels: if we imagine a novel as a structure, rather than a flow, then you can see how visiting parts in a different order is still sensible so long as you can keep track of how those parts relate. I asked if she is more likely to read something in order if it’s not a linear narrative, and she said she was somewhat more likely to, because then she feels as though the order is more deliberate and less arbitrary.** But, of course, most novels aren’t entirely linear; even absolute genre-trash skips around in time a little bit. Mystery novels are most notable for narrative time-travel: they almost always refer back to the past, or to several hypothetical pasts, over and over again, to the point of obsession. And it’s not just mystery novels: flashbacks (technical term: analepsis) are common in all genres. And there are popular films and novels that play with this. Memento, which happens in reverse order, seems to me a deliberate play on the mystery novel’s obsession with the past. The page to which “analepsis” links mentions that in the Harry Potter novels, the Pensieve—a magical device for experiencing another person’s memory as though it were currently happening—is a way of making flashbacks an in-world event rather than just a narrative technique. Once Upon a Time divides each episode between the present and the past, where the present (almost) always proceeds in order from episode to episode while the past jumps all over the place. These stories maintain a linear chronology as a frame, but within that frame they still skip about, and so non-chronological narratives seem more common than you might at first think.

So, when trying to fix Arthas, the first thing I thought I could do was simply run the chapters backwards. Read the last chapter first, then the second last, and so on. The tension would come from the fact that you didn’t know how Arthas got to this point; you are thrown in the middle of history and are trying to uncover its origins. And, in fact, that’s the point of this novelization. For those of us who’ve played the games (or skimmed the wiki), we already know how it ends; we’re reading the book, presumably, to see how it begins. So why not make that part of its very form? For a few pages, this actually makes Arthas half-decent: the references to creatures and landmarks are off-hand enough that the fantasy world feels both mysterious and real because it isn’t over-described. And the opening image, with Arthas and his army climbing out of a subterranean world into the freezing Northrend wastes, is a fairly powerful cold open (pun mostly not intended).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work after a few pages. As I said, Golden does not trust the reader, so all of the banter that happens during the climactic battle rehashes the conflicts that have already occurred. The last chapter contains a summary of the whole novel. So, if this were to work, you’d have to not only reverse the chapters but also cut large parts of the dialogue and exposition so that the past is only hinted at and not revealed outright. Even worse, though, the first few chapters aren’t very interesting, so the ending would be disappointing. There’s a certain poetic resonance to the first chapter: Arthas, as a child, watches as a foal is born, and then he encounters a friend who mourns the death of his father; this friend says, “I hate winter,” which is a somewhat heavy-handed reference to Arthas’s whole life but makes a good enough end for the book. There could be something bittersweet to it, if the third and second chapter set it up properly, but instead they limp a bit without the future to compel them. Nothing about those chapters ties the boy to either the hero he could have become or the villain he did become, and the narrative potential is squandered as a result.

So I worked away at a few other possible chapter arrangements, and the one I liked best switched between the first half and the second half of the novel, with the Culling of Stratholme (the event in which Arthas turns from hotheaded protagonist to aspiring villain)† as the point which joins the two half-narratives. However, the dialogue would still have to be fixed or removed, and the echoes that I mentioned before would be flattened: the set-up and the resolution would appear side-by-side, which means they wouldn’t stretch out across the novel any more. That would be a shame, because that echoing was one of Golden’s better choices. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experiment. I’ll include my suggested chapter order at the bottom of the post.

This exercise got me thinking: if a person were writing a novel from scratch, how might that person organize the chapters in a non-linear way? Part of the problem, as I see it, is that while some readers would be pretty excited about the idea, a number of other readers would be reluctant to read a book that’s “out of order.” So you could make a compromise: print the book so that all of the pages occur in one order, but at the bottom of each page there is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style direction. Instead of a choice between two branches of a narrative, however, the direction would simply read, If you want to read the book in the author’s recommended order, go to the next page. If you want to read the book in chronological order, go to page 48. Indeed, you could have multiple narrative orders: If you want to read the book in the editor’s recommended order, go to page 79. Whichever order the pages were in would be the easiest order, so you’d have to decide which experience you want to be easier to follow and which you want to require more work. In an electronic medium, you could use hyperlinks rather than instructions, or toggle between the two arrangements.

Of course, this would only work for a story that is told best out of order (as I think the Arthas story would be). Some stories might in fact be best told in chronological order. However, since that’s the conventional choice, it’s probably the case that many stories would be better told in another order than that one but haven’t been because no one thought of it. You would have to consider this on a novel-by-novel basis.

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Proposed new order for Christie Golden’s Arthas: Rise of the Lich King:

Prologue, Chapter 24, Chapter 13, Chapter 23, Chapter 11, Chapter 22, Chapter 10, Chapter 21, Chapter 9, Interlude 2, Chapter 20, Chapter 8, Chapter 19, Chapter 7, Chapter 18, Chapter 6, Chapter 17, Chapter 5, Interlude 1, Chapter 16, Chapter 4, Chapter 15, Chapter 3, Chapter 14, Chapter 2, Chapter 12, Chapter 1, Epilogue

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*In an article on American Sniper, Alyssa Rosenberg writes, “This is not dialogue. These are placeholder words that tell us what dialogue is supposed to convey.” Her assessment applies to weak dialogue in every novel, television show, and film.
**Arbitrary is not quite right, but the linearity of linear narratives is usually an unreflective decision on the author’s part. It’s a convention most people don’t question.
†Other people might point to the moment when Arthas takes the sword Frostmourne as his transition from hero to villain, but despite Blizzard’s best efforts, in neither the game nor the book is that scene as emotionally turbulent as the events at Stratholme; furthermore, at Stratholme he crosses a moral threshold which drives all of his friends away from him, sends him in Frostmourne’s direction, and probably makes the reader like him a lot less. How Arthas acts at Stratholme makes the tragedy seem inevitable, so it works better as the story’s turning point than the Frostmourne event does, even if the latter is the turning point in the games.

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