Wednesday, April 08, 2015


“I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.” -- The Mikado


Can you have a "sequel" to a "fairy tale"?

If a fairy tale is a story which ends "and they all lived happily ever after" then the answer is "no", you cannot have a sequel to a fairy tale. Because we have just defined "fairy tale" as "a story which cannot have a sequel".

This is not to say that Cinderella and the Prince did nothing for the rest of their lives. Doubtless they held elegant balls and launched ships and made speeches to the nation at Christmas. It is even possible (let us hope) that Princess Ella used her new-found power to improve the lot of abused scullery maids up and down the country. I suppose they became King and Queen eventually; and I suppose the Prince must have been sad when the King died. But to live happily ever after means to live as happily as anyone can, not to never have a single bad day.

Eventually, Queen Ella and King Charming must have got old. We don't want to see that. We can take it for granted. I think the King probably dies first. The Queen is sad for a bit, of course, but she is a pious lady and believes that they'll be together again in Heaven. She lives on for a few years as a very contented widow, taking the title Queen Mother, and dies at a very advanced age surrounded by children and grandchildren and one very small great grandchild. Which is as happy an ending as anybody gets.

That's why we use the term "fairy tale ending" to mean "everything came out fine in the end". Because everything doesn't usually come out fine in the end in real life.

Because stories lie to us and we shouldn't read them, particularly not to children.

Because stories arbitrarily stop before Prince Charming contracts typhoid fever and Cinderella crashes her golden coach in a tunnel in Paris.

Because a story is a thing made of words, and a fairy tale is a particularly beautiful but particularly artificial creation precisely because it is closed off, finished, complete in itself.

As a matter of fact, the Cinderella story doesn't begin with the words "once upon a time". It begins "There was once a rich man whose wife lay sick..."  But that's still a beginning.

Stuff must have happened before Cinderella's mother got sick and her father married a nasty widow with two beautiful but wicked daughters. (It is only in the most vulgar versions of the story that Cinderella's sisters are ugly). But that's where the story starts. You could say things about Cinderalla's life with Baron Hardup before the Baroness got consumption (I assume it was consumption) but they wouldn't be part of the story. They might be part of a different story, but that story wouldn't be worth telling, because right up until her mum died, Cinderella was a perfectly ordinary little girl. (Grown ups sometimes read books about perfectly ordinary little girls to whom nothing interesting ever happens, but that's because they are too old to know any better.) Unless, I suppose, you think that Cinderella was a special little girl from the beginning. That the very moment she was born, a chorus of Fairy Godparents sang to the world that this was the Chosen One whose destiny was to marry the Prince, establish an alliance between House Hardup and House Charming, establish a dynasty, bring peace to the land...

But that's a different story. And it's turned "Cinderella" into a different story, and not such a good one. "Cinderella" is the story of an ordinary little girl who falls in love with a Prince.

(Cinderella was different from other little girls because she was lucky enough to have a fairy godmother. So I suppose you could tell the story of how her godmother came to be a fairy, and if she remembered to send a card for her confirmation, and whether the Vicar minded. But so far as I can see it was normal to invite fairies to Christenings in those days. Things only went wrong if you forgot. And anyway, in the Grimm tale it's the spirit of Cinderella's mother in Heaven who arranges the miracle. That's a much better story.)

So that's the answer to my question. Yes, you can continue telling a fairy story after you have said "and they all lived happily ever after." And yes, you can extend the fairy story backwards and say what happened before you said "once upon a time". But what you would be left with would no longer be fairy tale.


If you are briefed to write a new story about an already existing character, there are two questions you could ask.

a: What was fun about this character to start with? So Let's create more stuff which is fun in just that way!

So if you are creating new Spider-Man stories, it is your job to think of better wisecracks than ever before; ways for Jameson to be meaner than every before; and an animal themed bad-guy who is more ridiculous and more scary than anything Steve Ditko and his assistant ever dreamed up.

If you take this approach, the audience will say "What the hell was the point of that? We already have loads of good Spider-Man stories!"

b: Let's suppose this character and their situation is perfectly real -- what would follow logically and realistically from that?

If you take this approach, it is your job to pretend that no-one apart from you has ever written about Spider-Man before. And to suspend your disbelief and assume that there really was a 15 year old boy with insect-like powers in 1960s New York, and that he really did decide to become an urban vigilante in his pyjamas. What would really have happened?

If you take this approach, the audience will say "What was the point of that? It had absolutely nothing to do with Spider-Man."

Star Trek: Wrath of Kahn was the product of the First Approach. It does all the stuff that Star Trek does on the TV, only more so. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was arguably the product of the second approach: granted that there were such a person as Batman, it asks, what affect would he have on the world? What would the authorities think about him? What would happen when he's too old to carry on?

There are, of course, other approaches as well. Maybe the existing stories were told by unreliable narrators and you are going to reveal that the "real" Conan was a wimp and a braggart and the "real" Sherlock Holmes was a fool. Maybe you are going to tell an origin story in which some unrecognizable character gradually turns into the famous one. (This appears to be the only approach Hollywood now permits. An origin myth for Paddington Bear, forsooth?) And, of course, you might very well decide to slap the character's name on some entirely unrelated property and affect incredulity that anyone ever thought that your Tarzan character would have anything to do with some book by Edgar Rice Borroughs.


In 2001, Marvel Comics did a thing called Ultimate Spider-Man which may have been the last comic I unreservedly loved. (*) The idea, in case you have forgotten, was to do create a new comic, unconnected to the Marvel Universe and 40 years of Spider-Man continuity which would sort-of kind-of retell Spider-Man from scratch, as if it were happening right now, and sort-of kind-of make sense. Spider-Man was no longer a thirty year old college lecturer and photo-journalist married to a supermodel who had experienced the tragic deaths of his entire family, several fiances, and defeated the Mad God of Titan. He was Peter Parker, a 15 year old school kid who was just about to have an unfortunate mishap involving a spider.

The cool thing about this was that it didn't matter if you hadn't read Spider-Man for a decade and didn't know that Peter had sold his soul to Satan in return for the clone of his second dead girlfriend not having been sleeping with the resurrected clone of his worst enemy. You could go back to reading about the young kid whose got superpowers and hasn't figured out how to use them. Which is what was cool about Spider-Man to begin with.

But within within a year — within five years — this new Ultimate Spider-Man was not really recognizable as Spider-Man. He was a pretty much an unrelated character in a similar costume some of whose villains had some of the same names.

Not because the writers hadn't been true to the original brief. They had been. "Let's suppose that Spider-Man is a real kid, in the real world...what would happen?" they asked.

And the answer, of course, was Stuff. And if you a trying to tell a realistic story once Stuff has happened, it can't un-happen. The character grows and mutates and evolves and become a different character.

In the end they killed him off, which I suspect was the plan from the beginning.


Opera-buddy sometimes refers to the Great Underpants Question.

How is it, she asks, that the Famous Five can go on camping holidays that seem to last the whole summer long and never once change their underwear? If we assume that the underpants washing happens off stage, who does the laundry?

This matters more in some universes than in others. It doesn't break genre too much to assume that, from time to time, Frodo and Sam find a bit of water to bath in; and when that happens Sam takes the opportunity to do a bit of laundry as well. (I am not sure if people even wore underwear in Middle-earth. We are all a lot more sensitive to bodily smells than people were in the days when the Queen had a bath once a month whether she needed it or not.) And there are lots of stories in which underwear and laundry and other boring smelly things simply don't exist. Winnie-the-Pooh would be one example. Hamlet would be another.

I think that the the point of the Underpants Question is that it is perfectly okay not to ask it. But once you have asked it, you can't unask it. If, on just one occasion, we decide that we can't go and ask questions about the mysterious foreign gentlemen in the big house because we’ve been sleeping in tents for four days without a change of clothes and smell to high heaven; then we can’t say in the next chapter "oh, everyone was locked in the mysterious foreign gentleman's cellar for three days without needing to go to the loo, but that’s fine, because it’s not that kind of story."


I read the first couple of Timothy Zahn books with enthusiasm, and kept reading the old Marvel comics out of bloody minded loyalty. But I never properly bought into the Star Wars "extended universe".

Of course we want more Star Wars stories; but of course novelisations and sequels are only ever going to be novelisations and sequels. There is no Aristotelean mean between "All you have done is told the exact same story as A New Hope all over again only less well" and "What the hell did that even have to do with Star Wars?"

George seemed to have recognized this in the early days, when he was still talking in terms of a IX or XII part history of the Skywalker clan. Star Wars 2 is not a sequel, he kept saying, it's a different story set in the same universe.

Dispatches came to me from the extruded universe from time to time — Han and Leia were married, with twin children; Chewbacca had died. Luke had got married: to a lady named Mara. Later on it turned out that Jedi were celibate, and always had been. I assume this was covered. Although there were occasional smiles of recognition, this was not a setting I recognized or had much desire to visit. Shadows of the Empire was quite interesting, if a little preoccupied with underpants. Too much Stuff had happened. Each book added a Clone of the Emperor, a New Empire, an Invasion of Cybernetic Cockroaches or a Galactic Civil War. Each book made Star Wars, my Star Wars, my Journey of the Hero to save the Universe from the Emperor's Ultimate Weapon smaller and smaller.

An on-line Star Wars resource tells me that Mrs Skywalker was an agent of Palpatine and "a Force Using operative in her own right". That Anyone can type the words "Force using operative" and still believe that you are talking about Star Wars eplains why I never bought into the Extended Universe. (And now it has been decanonised.)


I suppose this is why the great poets invented Tragedy.

The story of Cinderella and Prince Charming is over because the story teller has declared that it is over: he can't stop someone else from writing, or everyone else from imagining, a story in which they feud and quarrel and then decide it's fairest on the kids if they have as amicable a separation as possible. But the story of Romeo and Juliet is much more satisfactorily over because they are perfectly and irrevocably deaded.

(*) Nova. I positively like Nova. But it's only doing Ultimate Spider-Man again, in the "official" Marvel Universe which seems now to be distinguishable from the Ultimate universe only by checking Nick Fury's skin colour. The point of the the Ultimate Universe was that it was more realistic and less comic-booky than the Marvel Universe, but in the last decade the Marvel Universe has stopped trying to be comic booky. So Nova is a pretty good run on "what if a young lad got crazy superpowers in an otherwise realistic universe." So is Ms Marvel. So, obviously, was the original 1960s Spider-Man. 

If you are interested in fairy tales, you should totally buy my game.

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