Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Story about a Story

One book I picked up at garage sale day was The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. I can’t say I’m enjoying it much so far. I’m about 40 pages in, and it’s been very slow.

The main problem is that it’s a story about a story instead of just being a story. Let me explain.

The tale begins with two older newspapermen, both Islanders, and a younger female reporter talking to a mainland reporter. The mainland fellow doesn’t get what he came for, a story about some unsolved mystery, and leaves. The young woman begins to ask whether there are any unsolved mysteries on the island, and the two older men begin to tell her the story of the “Colorado Kid.”

Do you see the problem?

Fiction is already a second hand report. We begin reading with the clear knowledge that we’re being told a story by someone else, the invisible writer. If the writer does his or her job well, we soon forget we’re being told a story and start to live it.

But now, with “Colorado Kid,” I’m being told a story by Stephen King about two guys who are telling a different story to a young woman. It seems like I’m trying to hear the primary story of the “Kid” with a loud conversation going on in the background. So far I’ve not been able to slip inside the story. I’m outside looking in, and I don’t much enjoy it.

Last week I read a tale set in ancient Rome that was told in a “letter” written to someone else. I kept thinking, why not just tell “me” the story, instead of telling someone else and letting me listen in? You could have saved a few hundred words. Now, I can enjoy stories told in letters when the story is “inside” the letters, when it goes back and forth between the letter writers. But this was just “one” letter, explaining everything that happened to one person. Why distance readers further than they already are?

With “Colorado Kid,” at around 35 (its actually 50) pages we read about a couple of young joggers who find a dead body on the beach. Bingo! There’s where the story starts. Show us the joggers, show ‘em seeing the body, approaching the body, realizing it’s a dead man. And I’m with you. I’ve already forgotten the writer. I’m living the tale. Cut out the prelims.

Maybe there are times when the “story about a story” technique is useful, and maybe old Stephen has a plan up his sleeve. I’ll go ahead and read some more, because at least the book is pretty short. But it isn’t a good sign when I pick up the book I’m currently reading, and instead of opening the cover to where I left off, I gaze longingly at my pile of to-be-read books. The “Colorado Kid” cut ahead of a bunch of books on that pile, and so far I’ve regretted that rash decision.

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54 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

Haven't read it but I somewhat did a story about a story with Plundered booty. Though it is the first person narrators own story. I did purposely make it somewhat author intrusive.

Sidney said...

Dolores Claiborne is kind of like that as I recall, it's like all unfolding in the police station. Haven't read "Colorado Kid" so I don't know if I'd like it there or not, but generally I like things straightforward. On the other hand, I had to get through Absalom, Absalom, which is kind of assembled in pieces from various narrators, and I liked that book immensely after I finished. it.

Gabby said...

Reading this reminded me of the book I recently read The Name of the Wind, and it is exactly that: a story within a story. However, the book begins with a brief hint of something going on in present day, and when the "storytelling" begins, you get a thought that whatever is happening outside can be resolved with the knowledge contained in the story being told. I agree, it can be awkward, but in this book, the one telling the story is telling it about his own life. Even though it is an odd convention, I find it really works well in this book AND I really enjoyed it. (And the second one is coming out this month, which I'm excited for!)

Chris Eldin said...

I agree whole-heartedly!!
You make me want to pick up Stephen King again, after too many years...

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, I do think it can work when handled adeptly, but it can sure be distancing if things don't flow right.

Sidney, you're right. And I eventually did get into that one. And I think under the right circumstances it can work well. It's just risky.

Gabby, I have read books this way that work, but I often wonder if they might not have worked even better without the convention.

Chris Eldin, if you haven't read "The Cell" by King I can highly recommend it.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with you, charles

late last year i was asked to review a book by a bestselling ny pub'd author... to my consternation, i waded thru 22 chapters before the tale began!

well written? sure, even superbly so

but the info in the 22 chapters should have been interspersed throughout, not loaded up at the front end

a lot of it was bs [back story], but it drove me crazy, waiting for the meat of the course :(

Middle Ditch said...

Is this perhaps a story he didn't get published until he was a best seller and the publisher thought that the name would sell the book? If so, that would explain things.

Often you find a good TV series followed by a dull one from the same script writer (here in England anyway). A good example are the writers of 'Life On Mars', which was excellent. The series about archeologists finding the most ridiculous digs (Indiana Jones style) soon followed. A switch off.

Heff said...

Sounds pretty disengaging.

L.A. Mitchell said...

The only way I can think this technique would be effective is if the reader gets perspectives on the same story from different viewpoint characters...and the book becomes one about perception. Other than that, I agree. It is distancing.

I haven't read this SK story, so I'm interested what your take is at the end.

Scott Parker said...

IIRC, The Colorado Kit is a book King specifically wrote for Hard Case Crime. It's the 13th book, I think, and frankly, it doesn't fit the mold of HCC. Yes, it's the biggest selling HCC title and probably sustained the imprint for awhile but it's not representative. I listened to it on audio and I was bored. I listen during commutes and there were a few days where the radio traffic reports were more interesting. Easily my least favorite HCC title and King title. I hate to think of the folks who bought this title as a taste of HCC...and never returned.

Lisa said...

That device is used quite a bit in books and movies and I think it only seems to work well if, for some reason, the story within the story has an impact on the story tellers in the end. An awful lot of the time it just seems gimicky to me, but now and then, it seems like a good choice. I think the question becomes the same question people often ask about prologues. If you take it away, is the story just as powerful, or not?

jodi said...

Charles, every SK that I have ever read seems to start out that way--at least in the fact that it takes awhile to gel. Because they finish strong, I can't figure out if it's his style or just me being slow.

writtenwyrdd said...

You've put your finger on why epistolary novels generally don't grab me.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

As POV, the story within a story can work very well. With epistolary novels the passage of time between letters can be critical. Both techniques can be used in a particularly pointed way - like a phone ringing on a TV show, to move plot along. A guy as high end as Thomas Hardy was notorious for using this technique, which might be called abuse of coincidence. When these devices don't work, they can be deadly.

I read the "Colorado Kid" and the best I can say about it is that it went by pretty quickly, not much of a complement because it was, well, short. Too bad, too, I think he might have been on to something with the story if he'd allowed it to be told -

Don

Anndi said...

Haven't read it, and maybe I'll skip it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Seems like he was trying to stretch a short story into a novella.

Steve Malley said...

That bit of once-removed distance does turn out to be important to the story, such as it is.

Colorado Kid was written a few years ago, during that period where Stephen King was fascinated by the fact that not all of life's mysteries see resolution. Sometimes, *very* strange things brush against us and are gone, and we never find out what, or how, or why.

Frankly, it's not one of his stronger works. Probably it would have been a nice novella bookended in a collection of short stories, except that a very nice fellow named Charles was launching a new imprint to bring back the pulp fiction of the 50's and 60's.

Mr King, a fan of those great old works, contributed the closest thing he had to a mystery novel in order to give Hard Case Crime a fine running start. For that, if nothing else, I'm grateful...

Jack said...

I had the same problem with the Colorado Kid. I didn't finish reading it because I was right in the middle of moving and it got packed away with a bunch of other books. It hasn't shown up yet.

Cath said...

Not read it and it seems to be one of his weaker ones, judging by your review and some comments here.

I hope it redeems itself for you, but I'm not holding out...

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, I think I’m becoming less tolerant of this as I get older too. Maybe I’m thinking of the time I’m wasting.

Middle Ditch, it’s either that or a more recent one that he didn’t really take as much time polishing perhaps.

Heff, I’m drifting off while reading, not a desirable thing for me.

L.A. Mitchell, I’ll follow up when I finish the book. I can see it might be important in some stories but the distancing effect could easily backfire.

Scott Parker, I actually figured it was kind of misleading for HCC but I’m glad to have that confirmed. Honestly, I might have hesitated at giving another HCC title a read. Thanks for the feedback.

Lisa, I always say that no tool should be completely removed from the writer’s toolbox, but some techniques are pretty risky and I think this is one. The proof is in the pudding, as you say.

jodi, that’s one of the reasons I’m still going with it. King often develops very slowly, although not always, as in “The Mist” or “The Cell.” I quite probably wouldn’t have given an unknown writer this much time.

writtenwyrdd, it takes a special one for me.

Issa's Untidy Hut, I agree with you about good epistolary novels. When energy comes out of the interaction between the letters, when it is critical to see their spacing and so on, then it can work very well. It depends on how the writer works the story about a story into the plot.

Anndi, I’ll let you know what I think when I finish.

pattinase (abbott), You know, I didn’t think about that possibility but it certainly reads a bit like that.

Steve Malley, well, I’ll certainly work my way through it and see what I think after it’s done. I do understand it was HCC’s biggest seller as a launch book so at least part of the mission was accomplished.

Jack, sounds like you haven’t been too upset by that. Lol.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cath, not as good as the Mist of the Cell, which were really exciting works, I thought.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've seen this technique used effectively many times in short stories. I think I would find it distracting in a novel if the bookend story wasn't interwoven with the other story (such as occurs in M.J. Rose's The Reincarnationist and Michael Flynn's Eifelheim).

Cloudia said...

Excellent points about story-in-a-story, Charles.

Though Brennert's "Honolulu" is a story being told - but I forgot that and got well into it.

Thanks for the tutorial. You are just a sucker for westerns, I think. LOL Aloha-

laughingwolf said...

time wasted is something we can never get back... i don't mind using it up in happy pursuits :)

Erik Donald France said...

Didn't he write that under a pseudonym?

I generally don't like stories of stories about, or movies abnout making movies about stories.

Cut to the chase -- yes!

spyscribbler said...

Interesting. I'm reading The Shadow of the Wind, which has a character investigating a story and trying to almost protect that story, while dealing with the mystery of it first hand. It works, but it's certainly not normal.

What you describe sounds quite boring, LOL!

Scott said...

Charles,

Personally, I think King shot his literary wad years ago, to put it crudely.

ARCHAVIST said...

This is King's hard case crime effort - incidentally the bestselling hard case crime title to date - but that's probably on the strength of the author's name. It was OK but nothing special.

Randy Johnson said...

While reading the comments, I was wondering how I could voice a point without giving things away.

That seems to be already done.
If you are disappointed now, it doesn't get any better. I'm a long time Stephen King fan and I found the book less than satisfactory. It was written after his near death experience and everything published since then hasn't been up to early standards.

That accident seems to have changed his writing in my mind.

Miladysa said...

Sounds like a frustrating read - I hope it continues to improve.

I'm in the minority I know but I've never been a fan of King's.

the walking man said...

With Stephen King and I our relationship has been very rocky. Either I totally loved or totally hated what I was reading.

Loved the Green Mile (hated the original marketing gimmick)and hated the Tommyknockers so bad I went ten years without reading anything he wrote. Re-read it after a decade and still hated it.

But I will give him his due if he is experimenting with a different technique, trying to make it work. Be glad you only paid less than a buck for your lesson.

ANNA-LYS said...

Let's see if I can pull some strings for You (hope You are aware of our income taxes in Sweden)

;-)

Greg Schwartz said...

hope the book gets better! i saw that book on a clearance rack the other day and almost bought it, but i'm glad i didn't.

Vesper said...

You have some very pertinent observations here, Charles. Your post got me thinking...

I abandoned "The Cell" about halfway in but, after reading your opinion on it, I'm thinking of resuming reading it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna Roberts, I do think it works better at shorter lengths where you aren't waiting long for something to happen. I haven't read that Rose book.

Cloudia, the key seems to be to be able to lose yourself in the tale. So far that hasn't happened with this one.

laughingwolf, yes, I'm more and more cognizant of time that is wasted.

Erik Donald France, no, you may be thinking of the Richard Bachman books. But this one was written specifically for Hard Case Crime under his own name, I think. I'm the same way myself about movies about movies. Or poetry about poetry.

spyscribbler, sounda at least in that book as if the character has a personal stake, which they don't seem to do in Colorado Kid.

Scott, he's definitely not writing the stuff that I find intersting reading today.

ARCHAVIST, I'm not even finding it terribly OK so far. But yeah, it wasn't his strongest.

Randy Johnson, I read the afternote he wrote about it already, before finishing the book, and I'm not sure I understand his point. I don't read to reflect absolute reality. I live reality. I read for the story.

Miladysa, I'm not a huge fan either. He can be very hit or miss, although I've tended to like the vast majority of his short stories.

Mark, good point. 50 cents I think. Or a quarter. Yes, I really disliked Tommyknockers too. But I loved Misery.

ANNA-LYS, LOL. I'll make so much money the taxes won't matter!

Greg Schwartz, I'm well over half way now and it is just irritating me.

Vesper, I liked the Cell quite a bit. King doesn't necessarily do great endings, but mostly the Cell worked for me because the action kept moving and I wanted to know what happened next.

Lana Gramlich said...

You sess.

Anne Vis said...

Interesting point! It's not really the story, but the writing style. Like the difference between writing a story in the first or third person ...

ivan said...

Favourite trick of some old writers:

"I am not a professional writer, but there is this story I have to tell you...."
And then the book gets really, really professional...Like why not?
I think Dostoevsky once used such an opener.
Ah,the ways of backing into a novel, including the "as told to's".

BernardL said...

Ah... don't you tell novel length stories from manuscripts presented to you by your character Ruenn Maclang? :))))

Sorry, Charles, I couldn't pass it up.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana Gramlich, no ----->

Anne Vis, yes, it's definitely an approach to the story, but I find it distancing.

ivan, well I suppose I could forgive Dostoevsky.

BernardL, touche. That part in the Talera books is just a frame to suggest a certain realism to the story, though. Once you're past the introduction it's just Ruenn's story, told in his voice. In Colorado Kid, we see the people who are telling the story throughout. They stop for danish at one point, and at another point stop for a coke, then get back to the story. I wouldn't mind a set up like that for a few pages, but I really am bothered by the constant interruptions. Like I say, there may be a place for it at times but it does seem dangerous.

SQT said...

I am so with you on this. Literary devices that frame the story rather than just letting it be told bug the heck out of me. My husband just picked up a non-fiction book and they waste the first two chapters telling what they're going to cover in the rest of the book (?) Why bother? Just get on with it already.

SQT said...

Oh, I just read Gabby's comment-- and she's absolutely right. The Name of the Wind is a great book and it does use similar devices very well. It shifted from the present to the past, but the story was always told from an immediate perspective, so it worked. At least I liked it.

tsduff said...

Stephen King is my most read author to date. I have not read The Colorado Kid but even the less than warm review will probably not deter me from getting around to it. I like your review though - thanks.

Travis said...

I guess I don't mind the technique so much as long as it's not boring.

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, I think any technique can work and benefit a book under just the right circumstances. But any technique that distances the reader has to be very carefully applied.

tsduff, I find King somewhat Hit and miss. I loved Misery, and Salem's Lot, liked The Shining quite a bit. Didn't care for The Tommyknockers. I thought the stand was great at beginning and end but sagged in the middle. Some of his short stories are really good, though.

Travis, I think that hits the nail on the head. If it works then it was a good technique.

Barrie said...

Can you think of story-within-a-story books that you've enjoyed? Now I'll have to pick up the Stephen King book just out of curiosity!

Jon said...

I think this can be quite a fun device if the outer story isn't allowed to intrude on the inner one.

Tanith Lee wrote a wonderful collection of short stories about a sword and sorcery hero called Cyrion. Each story is told by guests at an inn. It works because the stories are complete in themselves. Finally its all tied together when one of the guests at the inn is involved in the final story which happens in real time. (highly recommended)

- Jon

Charles Gramlich said...

Barrie, I enjoyed the "frame" on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars books, but that was only sort of to introduce the story and then it moved right into the character's head.

Jon, I haven't read that one but it does sound intersting. I'll have to check it out because if it is just a single person telling the story and then not interrupting the story I probably could enjoy it.

J. L. Krueger said...

I'm guessing it got published after he got famous?

The "masters" seem to get away with a lot of crap that would doom mere mortals.

I read a Stephen King interview once where he said he had dozens of unpublished books piled up in filing cabinets. Maybe he's going through his personal slush pile.

benjibopper said...

that method used to be really popular back in the day. joseph conrad used it a lot. i agree that it distances - i found the same thing about heart of darkness, a revered classic. amazing, shocking, profound story, but i felt distanced from it.

i recently wrote a story using postcards within the story from one character to another. i guess i could have just gone for a straight first-person account from the postcard writer, but the second character was useful for his cynicism of what the postcard writer was saying - it adds a layer of perception, or misperception. so there can be an upside. of course whether i pulled it off, that's another question.

oh that cursed to-be-read pile and its millions of starying eyes.

Charles Gramlich said...

J. L., it looks alot like something that might have been a good short story padded and padded and padded out to a novel. To me at least.

Benjibopper, that's so right about "Heart of Darkness." I found myself distanced from that too and was trying recently to understand why. I think that's it. Good point, thanks!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've tried writing frame stories only to fail miserably -- but those were third person narratives. A frame story told in the first person would definitely be an annoyance to the reader.

Rachel said...

Using the letter as a framework for story telling is supposed to be the first version of the novel. Fanny Burney, I think ? And Oronoko didn't use the letter, but it was very short. But it's an old style way of writing. I agree. I like it when it's done well. When it's not done well, it just doesn't sit right.

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, as with anything, it depends on the extent of it being used and the talent of the author.

Rachel, I'm reading a collection by HOward Fast that has several "letter" stories in them. It is distancing and seems rather old fashioned, but in some cases it works pretty well. Depends on the subject matter.