Vying with Readers’ Imaginations

Hello, readers. It’s Tyler (Rii’s husband; I’ve done enough of these guest posts that I figure I might as well start using my own name) again.

A few months ago I was reading a post where the author was explaining what disappointed them about the Star Wars prequels. What set this post apart for me from the myriad other diatribes against the prequels was one specific point that the author made that I had never heard before. He pointed to the scene from A New Hope where Obiwan takes Luke to his home and gives him Anakin’s lightsaber. It is here that we get the first (and if I remember correctly only) refernce to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy. The thing is, the name is essentially all we get. We are told that there was a conflict called the Clone Wars in which Anakin fought, and that’s about it. And since there was next to no detail given about this conflict, the author of the article had filled in the details with his imagination as a child. Knowing that Anakin was a Jedi Knight, he envisioned a war of Jedi clones. Just take a moment and imagine that. Entire battlefields of Jedi fighting with lightsabers and the force.

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This, but TWO ENTIRE ARMIES.

That is a mental image that is so awesome it borders on undeniable.

Instead we got this:

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The author of the article was understandably let down.

The thing is, when I read this person’s account of the disappointment that the clones were not Jedi and that they were fighting droids (instead of more Jedi), I thought about how we got the war that we actually got in the prequels. Of course the Sith (who were behind the creation of the clone army) wouldn’t want their clones to be force users. Their modus operandi is to try to get rid of all force users beyond the two Sith. A Jedi army would be completely antithetical to what they were trying to do. However, making clones of a Mandalorian, the go to Jedi killers, that makes sense. The clone army makes perfect sense in the context of the story that was being told.

All that reasoning, however, does precisely nothing to mitigate my disappointment that the Clone War was not a war between armies of Jedi clones now that the idea’s been presented to me. I want to see that story told, and will now add its absence to the list of things that will always disappoint me about the prequels. And this is after the fact. I can only imagine how much stronger my disappointment would be if I already had this headcanon of the Clone Wars for years before the new movies came out.

And this is perhaps the central problem of doing prequels. Your audience will have filled in the information they don’t have with something that is so awesome to them that it is nigh impossible for you to top it. That’s why I don’t think fans would actually appreciate the Marauders book/movie that they keep asking for. As fans of Harry Potter, we have envisioned what Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs were like at school, and anything that J.K. Rowling writes about that time period is bound to produce dissonance with that vision to the point of disappointment. To be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t think that fans could enjoy it, but I am saying that they would not enjoy it as much as they think they would. Because their headcanons¬† would be contradicted and nobody likes to be told they are wrong about something that is so important to them.
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There’s SO MUCH fan art and fan theory about the Marauders; a movie couldn’t encompass it all, even the parts that do all fit together. (This piece is found at atalienart.tumblr.com)

This really is an extension of what Stephen King talks about in On Writing. He says (and this is certainly an oversimplification) that the unseen monster is always scarier than the monster that you show the reader, because the reader will fill in a more personalized terror that will seem worse than whatever you end up showing them. To put it in terms of what I’m saying here, as soon as you prompt the audience to fill in something you haven’t shown them, you make it very hard to live up to what they expect.

So what do you do if you want to write a prequel? What do you do if you want to leave out information to be revealed later? I have two suggestions.

There is another Harry Potter prequel that is being released soon: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I personally think that this movie will be much better received than a Mauraders movie would be, for the simple reason that I don’t think a single reader has ever wondered about the adventures of Newt Scamander. It’s something we hadn’t thought about before the movies were announced, so we don’t have any preconceived headcanon in jeopardy. We’re free to enjoy this entirely new story. So if you really want to write a prequel maybe you can try to pick something that fans won’t have thought about but that would make an interesting story. Pick a Newt Scamander.

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My second suggestion is to leave LOTS of careful breadcrumbs. The more carefully hidden clues you give the audience, the softer the blow when they are told they’re wrong. Part of the problem with the Clone Wars example is that we had no information about it. There was nothing we could point to after the fact and say “Oh, I see how they told me before hand that this is what it was. I just missed this information in my original analysis.” Not only does this make it easier to accept something besides what we have always thought, but it gives the original work a lot more lasting appeal. Going back through the whole Mistborn trilogy after finishing The Hero of Ages gives the books a whole new feel as you can see all the evidence that seems inconsequential except in hindsight. So leave as many cleverly hidden breadcrumbs as you can. Of course, this obviously only works if you had the prequels envisioned beforehand.

In the end, vying with the audience’s imagination is all about the balancing act.
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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
This entry was posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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