Teasers and backstory: Holmes vs Harry Potter

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Conan Doyle was the master of the teaser. The Holmes tales are packed with little throwaway references to past cases, hinting at a world of untold stories, and spawning a healthy publishing industry of pastiche writers who are only too happy to speculate about ‘Merridew of abominable memory’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’ or the madness of Isadora Persano, involving ‘a remarkable worm unknown to science’. (Although the one about ‘the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant’ is taking the mickey, if you ask me.)

These little references give us a hinterland. A confirmation that the character exists outside the page, a sketch of landscape to populate with our own imaginations. If there were no untold stories, some of the magic would be lost.

And then there’s Harry Potter. A massively realised, detailed world, where the author knows everything down to preferred brands of cereal and the parentage of characters who appear once on p.312 – and where the reader hears about it. If JK Rowling had come up with the giant rat of Sumatra, we’d know what part of Sumatra it came from, how giant it was, and that the captain of the Matilda Briggs was a Hufflepuff who once dated Ron Weasley’s aunt.

Remember the fuss when Rowling announced that a ‘major character’ in HP4 was going to die? It turned out to be – I had to look this up – Cedric Diggory, and a lot of people felt very cheated, because he was not a major character by any definition. But in Rowling’s head, he was a major character, because in this massively realised world in her head, everyone was major. There was no Basil Exposition or Jimmy Plotfunction, just there to do a job in the service of the story. Everyone had a fully developed existence. Which, when that information is in the author’s head, informs the text on the page, creating a huge richness and reality.

I tend to think some of it ought to stay in the author’s head.

Many will disagree. A large part of the pleasure in Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter / The Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the author puts every possible bit of worldbuilding on the page, and the reader can wallow for hours and know all there is to know.

Me, I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want the author to know it, sure, but I like the sense of a story existing in a larger world. I love China Miéville’s books because of the joyful wastage of invention: he’ll casually toss out a two-sentence mention of some brilliant abomination that anyone else would use as the basis for a trilogy, and then never use it again. (But now we know it’s out there…)

This isn’t an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’. HP/LoTR etc are vastly popular with good reason. The immersive experience of reading a mammothly detailed series is an incredible one. But the untold story has pleasures too.

I’m thinking about this because there’s a point in The Magpie Lord,  where our hero, Crane, is asked why he has seven magpie tattoos.

“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”

“…forced to have a tattoo?”

“It’s a long story.”

It’s a long story I didn’t tell the reader (Crane tells it off-page), and quite a few people have commented on this in reviews, wanting to know what happened. I’m delighted to the point of embarrassing public dancing that anyone cares enough to mention it. And yet…

For me, the throwaway line conveys that Crane’s life has been so extraordinary that he regards being forced to have a huge tattoo as, meh, just one of those things. By leaving it as an untold story, the reader can fill in the gap with her own speculations and ideas. As a told story it’s a little piece of his past nailed down, a little mystery revealed. And I wonder if a single truth (about the tattoos, the giant rat, or even that stupid trained cormorant) can be as pleasurable as the imaginative vistas opened up for the reader by not knowing. After all, seven is for a secret never to be told…

Then again, it’s a pretty good story.


Should authors tell all? What do you think?

15 replies
  1. MishaBurnett
    MishaBurnett says:

    I think that an author alluding to events which are not described in detail gives a world a feeling of depth and reality. I call them “objects outside the frame”–as if the reader were watching the events through a window and some things lie outside of the reader’s field of vision, partially or entirely.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Nicely put. And yes, there’s always far more out there than we’ll see or know, so I like fiction to reflect that. (I also love it when the author lets us know things that the main character never finds out, for much the same reason.)

  2. Tina
    Tina says:

    I agree and loved this part of your story telling. I found this part of the charm and I LOVE the explanation that Crane’s life was so outstanding that this is an inconsequential fact of his life. Thank you for the above discussion.

    It is often a fine line and as long as it does not have the reader ‘miss’ an entire part of an important fact OR detract from the overall story. I have seen many reviews (not of Magpie) that complain about too many side stories that it takes a reader out of the direct path and into the weeds of the current plot line.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! Agreed about running into the weeds. I can’t see where I could have put the full tattoo story (which is long!) without bringing the forward momentum of the book to a stop. And since the story itself isn’t plot relevant – it’s only the *fact* that he had the tattoos that’s crucial – it felt self-indulgent to go into it in the context of the book. If I’d written it as a 100,000 word novel, maybe…

  3. Nora BBreen
    Nora BBreen says:

    I don’t stalk all authors or want to read everything they wrote. If an author has given me life in a new place and I’m in like or in love with the people there, then my curiosity is insatiable. I want as much as I can get, and it’s pure foolishness to tell me to use my imagination to flesh out the missing pieces. The author made these people and knows them inside out. Whatever I make up is pale and dull, and I try all the time. You’re an author, you know if there’s a friend who makes a difference, a button, a craving, a belief or chance meeting with an enemy. How would I know? Even if you never tell me everything, I do need to believe you could.

    Given that you could, and given that you’re feeling beneficent, then why not do it! Give up the tattoos and the rats cause they’re much finer than my tattoo and rat story.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It’s really good to have this perspective, thank you. There’s not an easy answer to this one. Although, these days, it’s so much easier for an author to make Easter eggs, deleted scenes etc available – as a way to give the reader more if she wants it, without risking unbalancing the book. Maybe that’s a way forward?

  4. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I absolutely love little throwaway lines like the Doyle ones you mention. I’ve dropped them into my stories for years. And sometimes followed up on them later, sometimes not. Maybe it’s the fanfic writer in me that loves those little bits in canon that ficcers can pick up and run with.

  5. Dianne
    Dianne says:

    I found myself nodding at all of the comments above – such an interesting topic. A part of me would love the entire tattoo story from the author, however, as I was reading The Magpie Lord, I completely appreciated why it was not divulged. It obviously was not of direct relevance to what was happening at present, beyond the fact that Lucien and Stephen were sharing their histories with one another, they were communicating and connecting. That is what was important to me at that point in the story.

    I do enjoy that many authors are making short “fill in” stories available – either as freebies or for sale. Of course in a series, there is always the opportunity/option to re-visit and flesh out some mere mentions from the previous books with each installment.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Series raises a whole new set of questions, of course, as the author knows more about the world and feels more tempted to fill in the gaps and nail it all down. Which readers really didn’t like when it came to the Potter epilogue.

  6. ABE
    ABE says:

    When I get Pride’s Children finished and published, there will be a website – and some of those peripheral stories will be there, as Easter eggs for those who might click through.

    Like deleted scenes on the movie DVD, there are pieces I may tuck in out of the way places for the person who wants more – a lot of this stuff is written already.

    This makes the website the book’s Silmarillion. I kind of like the idea. I have SO much extra material, and it’s NOT going into a sequel, but MOST readers won’t be the least bit interested.


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