Information without info-dumps in Craig A Hart’s short story ‘Loose Ends’

I’ve read enough free books that I always go into them with low expectations. That way I’m not so disappointed by poor storytelling and writing, and anything half-decent is a bonus. So it’s a pleasant surprise when a freebie makes me sit up and take notice.

This happened recently, with the short story Loose Ends by Craig A. Hart. Not so much for the story itself (which was an enjoyable way to spend half an hour), but for the quality of the writing. One of the things that stood out was how Hart feeds the reader information.

cover image of Loose Ends by Craig A Hart

The story is a noir thriller, with a typical wisecracking protagonist. This is set up perfectly in the opening line:

Nothing ruins the benefit of a good night’s sleep like being awakened by the muzzle of a pistol being jammed into one’s ear.

There’s no panic in this phrase, even though such a situation would be terrifying for most people. So the narrator‌—‌the man with the gun to his head‌—‌is either used to being in scrapes like this or he’s calm under pressure. Or both.

Already, we’re intrigued, and want to read on.

The narrator has been woken up, and it’s only natural that he’s a little disorientated. His thoughts start to wander‌—‌specifically to his ‘lady friend’, who he imagines being

thrust into the role of a modern day Sisera, playing the part of Jael by hammering a nail through my temple.

I’ve no idea who Sisera and Jael are, but I assume they’re characters from old stories, possibly biblical or mythological. And this tells me something about the man in the bed‌—‌he’s well-read. And, again, the way he’s not focusing on the gun at his head says he’s still calm.

But he’s a detective, so he has an analytical nature. Hart reinforces that in a quick summary.

I was lying in my own bed, in my own hotel room on Key West, and a gun was pressed to my ear.

It’s blunt, a stark reminder of the situation. It also drops clues about the setting‌—‌we’re in the man’s hotel room in Key West. His hotel room, so this isn’t a ‘wake up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night’ situation. He hasn’t mentioned anyone else, so we can assume he’s alone‌—‌apart from the person holding the gun.

We’re still missing a lot of information, though. Who is this man? We need to know more, and we get that in the next few lines.

“Not a move, Wolfe,” a deep voice growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, quite truthfully.
“You expecting visitors?”
“Yeah. King Jabin’s army. You’d better get out while you have the chance.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I take it you’re not a scholar of ancient texts.”

So, we have a name now. We also know that this isn’t a random hit‌—‌the gun-man is targeting Wolfe specifically.

We also get another reminder of Wolfe’s intelligence, with the reference to King Jabin’s army (again, not something I’m familiar with). But we also see more of his character. It’s a stressful situation, but he’s calm enough that he’s wise-cracking. This might be a trope of noir thrillers, but it’s a fun one, and it’s something we expect in a story like this.

Hart’s given us so much information here, without forcing it down our throats, and we’re not even off the first page. He’s also set up an intriguing situation. We’re hooked.

A good thriller won’t give us everything straight away, of course‌—‌there has to be mystery and intrigue. But we’re still missing information that will help ground us. For instance, when is this story set? We might assume it’s mid-twentieth-century simply because that’s the golden age of noir, but we can’t be sure. That is, until Hart again drops a beautifully placed clue in dialogue.

“I’m just joshing you,” I said. “Trying to lighten the mood.”
“Keep your day job,” the little man growled in his paradoxically deep voice. “You’re no Jack Benny.”

The only thing I know off the top of my head about Jack Benny is that he was an entertainer or comedian around the mid-twentieth-century. It’s unlikely that the gun-man would reference someone who wasn’t contemporary to the story’s settings, so our original assumption of time seems to be correct.

But there’s more in this little exchange. The gun-man’s reference of another person mirrors Wolfe’s mention of King Jabin, but also highlights their differences‌—‌one contemporary and popular, the other older and more esoteric. It also hints at cracks in the gun-man’s confidence‌—‌he’s trying to beat Wolfe’s wise-cracks, but it doesn’t quite work. Even though he’s the one with the gun, it already feels like Wolfe is in control of the situation.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how the craft of writing is as important as story itself. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to give information without resorting to info-dumps. It shows how phrases can do double-duty (providing information and giving insight into character while moving the story forward.)

And it’s definitely encouraged me to read more of Hart’s work.

It’s worth reading these freebies. Every so often, you come across a gem.

Ready Player Two and the problems with sequels

I’ve just finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two. I enjoyed Ready Payer One‌—‌fun, action-packed story, with loads of eighties references that reminded me of my childhood. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the sequel. The first book felt complete. I wasn’t sure it needed a sequel.

Cover of Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

See, I’ve read and seen too many sequels that failed to live up to the promise of the original. Too often, they feel driven by commercial considerations rather than a desire to tell a good story.

Before I go any further, I should stress that I’m not talking about stories in a series. I don’t see The Empire Strikes Back as a sequel, but as the continuation of the Star Wars series. Also, I’m not thinking about series like James Bond or Jack Reacher, where a recurring character goes through a number of separate adventures.

I’m thinking of those cases where a second story was created after the success (or non-success) of the original. Often, the original is a self-contained story, with no real need for any kind of follow up.

Of course, sequels aren’t necessarily inferior to their originals. The Godfather Part II is widely viewed as a better film than The Godfather, paying respect to the original while also expanding the story’s range. When James Cameron took the helm of Aliens, he built on the claustrophobic horror of Alien but took it in a new direction, producing a film that is both different and also a worthy sequel to the original. Sometimes a sequel can feel more like an improved reboot or retelling‌—‌think Evil Dead / Evil Dead II or El Mariachi / Desperado.

Toy Story is an interesting example. The second film was expected to be a straight-to-DVD release, but when it turned out better than expected it was given a full theatrical release. Many people consider it as good as, if not better than the original. The series has evolved over two more well-received sequels, proving that it is possible, even for a financially-motivated major film studio, to produce sequels that are artistic as well as commercial successes.

Unfortunately, there are many examples where this isn’t the case. Take Jaws. The original is widely regarded as a classic, with nuanced characters pushed to their limits as the tension increases. But the sequels fall short of that original standard, and by the time we reach Jaws: The Revenge we’re pretty much into (unintentional?) parody territory. Even those involved, such as Michael Caine, don’t think much of it. When asked about the film, he’s quoted as saying ‘I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.’

Sometimes, sequels can be lost in the glow of the original. There are probably more examples of this in books, such as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time, sequel to his famous Catch 22, or Dodie Smith’s sequels to 101 Dalmatians, The Starlight Barking. Many people know of Robert M Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (even if they haven’t read it), but fewer know he wrote a sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

The desire to produce a sequel is understandable. There’s the aforementioned commercial/financial draw (the sequel will already have an audience in those who enjoyed the original), but there might be more to the original story that the writer wants to explore. Heller’s Closing Time catches up with the characters of Catch 22 years later, and imagines how their earlier experiences have changed their lives (and it’s worth noting that these stories also pretty much book-mark Heller’s own writing career). After dealing with the question of ‘value’ in Zen…, Pirsig used his sequel to look at morals. Since writing Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh has returned to that novel’s characters a number of times to explore how they’ve changed. After completing his Foundation trilogy (yes, I know it’s a series, but it’s possible to view it as a single story, ending with the location reveal for the Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov decided there was more to tell in the universe he’d created, writing Foundation’s Edge and a number of other sequels and prequels.

So there are varied reasons for producing sequels. But sometimes it’s better to resist. So far, Andy Weir has not written a sequel to The Martian, although from listening to interviews I get the impression that he considered it. He didn’t follow through because the ideas he came up with were either increasingly unrealistic (’Oh, look, Mark Watney’s got himself stranded on a distant planet again’) or would involve him telling a far-too-similar story but with a different main character.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider how sequels attempt to ‘improve’ on the original. In essence, they attempt to take what was successful in the original and increase that aspect. For instance, in Alien the crew of the Nostromo battle a single alien, but in Aliens there are far more, as well as a mother-alien. The stakes are usually higher in a sequel, too. Sticking with the Alien example, the first movie pits the alien against a small crew, but in the second the aliens have already destroyed a whole settlement, indicating that the single beast in the first film was not an anomaly, and that the aliens now represent a serious threat to humans.

Sometimes these attempts to make sequels ‘better’ backfire, or produce something totally different. In the first John Rambo film and book (First Blood) he doesn’t actively kill anyone (although his actions in self-defence do result in one death). But the sequels have higher and higher body-counts. In the Jaws sequels the shark attacks become larger (including a helicopter in Jaws 3 and a sea-plane in the fourth film), and also less realistic.

So how does Cline’s sequel to Ready Player One hold up? (Note: there will be spoilers ahead, for both books.)

He does increase the stakes. In …One, there is a real threat to the lives of the main characters, but in Two the fate of millions hang in the balance. The original focuses on the ownership of the Oasis, but in the sequel the whole world is at stake.

Cline also doubles down on the task/nostalgia elements from the original. The game-quests in Two are more specialised and more detailed. The quest is more personal, too‌—‌it’s made clear early on that Wade is the only one (apart from Og) who can actually complete these tasks. This does take away some of the fun of the original, where much of the excitement was in Wade struggling to complete each task before others.

The technology’s evolved, too. Rather than relying on gloves and goggles, players can now access the Oasis pretty much directly through their brains (it’s explained better in the book). And one thing I liked was how this new access method was also important to the plot.

So is the sequel a success?

That depends. On its release it received a poor reception, but looking at Amazon reviews suggests that a lot of people love the book (a 4.3 average, compared to the original’s 4.7).

For me, it doesn’t work. There’s a great deal of potential in the (over-long) set-up, but I don’t think the rest of the book delivered. I found myself skimming much of the action, especially in the quests. Where the original relied on a combination of obscure 80s trivia and Wade’s thoughts and actions, the sequel too often has Wade simply following another character around or being directed to complete the quest. I found Wade too passive to be an interesting main character.

There are sections that I could imagine looking great on-screen, though.

And it’s not a bad book. But, like many other sequels, it’s simply not as good as the original.