Fun Pulp Action: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Serial Fiction

No, the other sort of serial.
No, the other sort of serial.

Today sees the release of Avast, Ye Airships!, featuring the latest adventure from my recurring Victorian heroes Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms. So what better way to celebrate than a nice cup of tea? No, wait, I mean a blog post on writing serial fiction.

Origins of a List

A fellow writer and I recently discussed what makes good serial fiction. Not a slowly unfolding plot like Game of Thrones, but something like The Dresden Files, where readers can dip into and enjoy any episode that comes to hand, but fans who follow the series can get a little more out of it. From this discussion I’ve assembled a list below of key points that I think make this fiction work well. It’s not meant as a definitive list, more a work in progress. Like any template, its usefulness would come as much in carefully ignoring points sometimes as in following them all. Still, I think that following these points could help to structure an accessible series that keeps people coming back.

The trick with this sort of series is working out how to make it exciting without anything much changing, and the list is built around that. Have a read, see what you think.

Protagonist

Unchanging character.

Fully formed at start – probably save origin story for later, as it’s the sort of story you’re never likely to top.

If start with origin story, make sure to wrap it in one go.

A decent person just trying to make their way in the world.

Honourable.

Sidekick

Friendly sidekick.

More likeable than the character.

More moral.

Less competent.

Can be the point of view character, especially if the protagonist has skills or thought patterns that are hard for the writer to portray in detail, eg. genius or expert in an obscure field of study. Think Holmes and Watson.

Setting

Unchanging environment.

Rich and varied – plenty of variety to explore.

Romance

String of short romantic entanglements

and/or

Ongoing sexual tension with secondary character (a book and a half into The Dresden Files, I’m thinking of Murphy, though James Bond’s Moneypenny also deserves a mention).

Arch-rival

A nasty but charming antagonist.

Sympathy for the antagonist.

Individual antagonists can be defeated, but the arch-rival remains present in the background throughout, often setting up other problems.

Individual Story Structure

(A lot of this came from the other writer, and is apparently taken from James Scott Bell, whose Write Your Novel from the Middle is now waiting for me on my Kindle)

98% closure on each story.

Invite readers to continue, don’t make them obliged by cliffhangers.

Trouble starts on page one.

Unpredictability.

A spiral of trouble.

A love triangle.

A fluid, no-speedbumps writing style.

A ticking clock.

A resonant ending.

Overall Structure

Subtle hooks – set up characters and details in background of earlier stories to use in later stories – adds interest and substance.

Potential Uber-Structure

(This is where I got over-excited and went off on one…)

Say you’re writing a sci-fi crime drama, and the main villain is Mr Z. You don’t want him in every time, but you want him to be behind everything. You can’t have the hero permanently beat him, but if he only ever beats a villain of the week type it’s less satisfying.

So structure the series in groups of three or four books. You have one or two in which the hero faces and defeats villains just for that book, while a henchman of Mr Z is built up because of his connections to them.

Then you have a book in which, after building this henchman up, you let the protagonist beat him, permanently getting rid of that henchman. By then it’s become clear that these two or three stories have led up to a bigger plan by Mr Z.

In the last book of that particular cycle the hero thwarts said plan, significantly setting back Mr Z, but still leaving him around. Maybe Mr Z gets sent to prison and is busted out during the next cycle. Maybe he just loses out in some big way. The important thing is, the villain’s still in play.

What’s Missing

So, fellow readers and writers, what do you make of that? What have your experiences with serial fiction been – what works for you and what doesn’t? What have I missed or miss-judged?

And if you ever feel like using this list, please let me know how you get on.

Picture by frankieleon via Flickr Creative Commons.