Scheherazade and the Franchise Zombie

Flickr from Stuck in Customs

A great concept gets slipped into If on a winter’s night a traveler at about halfway through: It is the classic dilemma of the author who is compelled somehow not to finish the story.

This is different than ending fatigue, wherein a story is ending but has many, many ending sequences that drag long after the climax. Some examples that come to mind of that flaw are The Stand, The Lord of the Rings, and most bizarrely in my experience, War and Peace, which has a hundred page epilogue, half of which is a heavy-handed essay on Tolstoy’s theory of history. (Let me know if you have any favorite books that deal out some nasty ending fatigue).

Ending fatigue is a flaw in the narrative arc, with too much resolution crammed into the denouement. The author is well on his way to ending the book, but he’s just got to tie up one. (gasp!) more. (sigh!) thing!

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, there is a different kind of endless narrative that is described:

The latest wife of the Sultan… is sustained by her insatiable passion for reading… The Sultan’s wife must never remain without books that please her: a clause in the marriage contract is involved, a condition the bride imposed on her august suitor before agreeing to the wedding… The Sultana receives regularly each evening the stipulated quantity of fictional prose…

This is what I call a Scheherazade, a demand for evermore content lest something terrible happen to the storyteller. This Sultana (who I reference in another post) and her relationship with her husband are a parody of the situation facing the original Scheherazade, where it was the husband, the sultan, who was prone to tantrums if he didn’t get his daily dose.

There are plenty of different sorts of Scheherazades. One kind, of course, is where there is a story being told in the novel (or a story alluded to in the novel) that cannot or struggles to end, like what Scheherazade herself faces. The novel at the heart of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is another example.

Another sort, probably the most common, is the franchise zombie. This is a story held off from ending by the public that reads it. Even if the author goes to great lengths to kill the hero and end the damn thing, there is pressure to keep the story going. In literature represented by the Master List, the best example of this would be the character Sherlock Holmes, who dies in 1891 and then, incredibly, returns alive and well three years later.

A third is where the actual author of the story has trouble finishing it. From reports I’ve read about Pillars of the Earth, that was the case there. Author Ken Follett was reportedly wracking his brains, trying to come up with a way to finish building that church. (I’ve heard Stephen King also went through a similar struggle with The Stand)

John Updike’s Rabbit series is sort of a combination of those last two. He wrote the first one and then, not so much because of the money but because he liked the story idea, he wrote a sequel. Then another sequel. Each one was more popular than the last, but he was also trying to find a happy place to settle his most beloved character. Even after killing him in the fourth book he couldn’t help but bring him back posthumusly in his novella Rabbit Remembered.

Some people just don’t want to let it end. Any Scheherazades I’m missing?

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