At the moment I’m reading a terrible book. I picked it up because I thought it would be a fun kind of terrible, an impression that was mainly formed because of this glorious bit of cover work.
Look at that cover and, in between bouts of gleeful laughter, fully take in the crazy that’s in front of you. That’s an old man with a truly impressive beard, wearing robes which for some reason flash a bit of old-man-leg (because that’s what the people want, kids. Never deny the people what they want). Then you’ll notice that he’s actually drawing back, preparing to punch the dragon… thing. Finally, finally, you’ll stop laughing long enough to notice the demon crawling up the mountain, just about ready to get a handful of old-man-crotch.
Like I said, glorious.
How could I not go into this book expecting great things? If nothing else it should have been entertaining beyond belief. In my head this was ‘Old-Man-McSexy-Leg: Dragon Puncher’
The back cover promised me that this old man was, in fact, an old man that had god-like powers on Earth but that that counted for nothing where he was going: TO HELL!
So when I began reading I was expecting pure, delightful, brainless silliness.
What I was not expecting was one of the clumsiest uses of a framing device I’ve ever seen.
A framing device is finding a way in your story to tell your story. Sounds confusing but it’s something that you’ve encountered heaps of times. Think of something like The Princess Bride (You HAVE seen/read that haven’t you? If not I don’t think we can be friends). When the grandfather sits down with the book, ready to tell his grandson a tale of adventure and true love, that’s a framing device. Or if a story begins with a hapless narrator meeting someone with an interesting story to tell- that’s a framing device. Basically, it’s a way to tell a story as a story rather than simply throwing the reader in to the scenario and expecting them to catch up.
Framing devices can be really effective in stories, either by simply making your readers aware that they are being told a story (which might be the effect you’re going for) or to make your readers aware of some kind of end state that your characters will be in after the story’s over (whether someone important is dead or in prison maybe…).
Our framing device? Good, old-fashioned torture. And not just any torture. Graphic, limb-ripping, squelchy torture.
See, our dragon-punching hero has been caught by a demon (…I think it’s a demon anyway, it’s not that clear) who is out to get his god-like powers. In order to do so, the demon must do some kind of mind-meldy thing to sort through Dragon-Puncher’s memories and find the secret of his power.
And so we come to our story which is made up of pertinent memories of Dragon-Puncher’s friends (through convoluted means, not all of the memories are his own) all wandering around and talking to each other about how now the earth is really boring without him and how they somehow get the feeling that something’s going on…maybe.
This narrative of memories periodically cuts back to the demon getting frustrated that he’s not being shown the right memories and unleashing some more of that sweet sweet torture.
So what exactly does this framing device do for the story? Do Dragon-Puncher’s memories become tainted by the pain he’s going through? Does he start to remember things wrongly just so he can stop the pain?
What about if he began throwing out all of the most relevant memories but they all became confused in his rush to get them out there.
Or, what if he did the opposite and began making up his own memories, convincing himself that those were the real ones in order to protect his true knowledge from the unholy beast?
If you guessed that absolutely none of that happens you’ve obviously picked up on the dangerous level of snark dripping off this post.
Instead, we’re treated to memories written at an almost leisurely pace, filled with detail that I’m pretty sure simply wouldn’t be there when the mind’s busy with y’know surviving being tortured. Those memories are interrupted at appropriate points by the demon swearing that this is definitely the last time he allows Dragon-Puncher to go off track and that he better start showing some of those god-like powers sooner rather than later. Dragon-Puncher then diverts into an equally meandering and slow memory.
What this framing device does is strip away the urgency and drive from both parts of the story. We can’t get too worried about Dragon-Puncher’s situation because he clearly isn’t. He’s too busy remembering his friends’ memories to think about how he’s going to get out of this situation. And as for the other narrative? It’s too choppy for you to become attached. There is no clear storyline or point to the memories. There’s a vague threat of some darker power at work but it’s never elaborated on because everyone’s too busy looking at each other’s limpid eyes and admiring the lush scenery around them.
Torture in itself is not a bad framing device. It’s effective in getting your characters to spill information and details that they might not normally have done to their antagonist. However, torture comes with an inbuilt sense of urgency that your framed narrative must reflect in order to make your story even semi-believable and cohesive. If the torture was used to somehow direct the memories or maybe to affect what was seen, rather than simply punctuating the memories with a well-placed moan or scream, it would be very effective. As it is, however, it just feels ridiculous, slow and boring and not at all what the cover promised me.
Framing devices can be great. In The Princess Bride it’s used to savagely remind the reader that they are hearing a story and that the goal is to get to happily ever after despite impossible odds. In 1001 Nights it’s used as a reason for these fantastic stories to continue unfolding. In Titanic it’s used in order to remind the audience exactly how this is all going to turn out so they can properly appreciate the tragedy of watching all of these soon-to-be-dead people dance around on tables. But, as with most things, they need to be used in a way that serves the story rather than distracting from it.
And if anyone knows of a story where that amazing cover is done justice? I need to hear about it right now