The plotting in Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK threw me for a loop.  Here’s why: I’m a big fan of the story question.  I like a driving question that keeps you turning the pages because you just can’t wait to see how the thing ends.  For example, in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, the concept of something being hidden at Hogwarts is introduced when Harry first goes to Diagon Alley.  The reminder of the mystery is peppered through the first half of the book and is even more essential to the plot in the second half.  And at the end you find out why it’s been so closely guarded.  That isn’t how THE GRAVEYARD BOOK works.

Officially, the overarching plot question is: Why was Bod’s family was murdered and who did it? And, yes, Mr. Gaiman does revisit that question from time to time.  However, I think THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is set up more like a series of smaller questions that propel you through individual chapters than one big question that propels you through the whole book.  For example, by chapter two, the question becomes What’s the thing inside the hill? In chapter three it’s What will the goblins do to Bod? In chapter four it’s Will Bod manage to get the witch a headstone without getting himself in big trouble? And in five, it’s What is the Macabray? Some of these elements are important later in the book and others are not.

I think that the reason why it works is because the question that’s really driving the plot of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK isn’t a plot question at all.  It’s the question: What is it like to be dead? Very subtle stuff, that.  And brilliant if you can get it to work.  Mr. Gaiman provides vivid and entertaining answers a series of questions that Kate the mortal, spiritual being wants answered even more than Kate the reader does–so I finished the book.  And even thought I know it’s fiction, and Mr. Gaiman has no more of an idea what the afterlife is like than the rest of us, it’s fun to imagine what my personal graveyard existence would be like.

To me, as an author who’s just figuring out how to build a story, there’s a danger to using smaller story questions.  I think it makes it easier for the reader to put the book down.  When the question that’s pushing me through the book isn’t answered until the last ten pages of the book, you’d better bet I’m going to make it to those last ten pages.  When the question I’ve been following for a chapter is answered at the end of the chapter, I feel satisfied.  In fact, as good as this book was (and I really, really enjoyed it), I did put it down a couple of times.  Which is why, as an author, I’ll probably stick to big, high-stakes questions that arc over an entire plot for a while.  If I’m ever at Mr. Gaiman’s level of story-telling, I may attempt this more challenging style.

On Monday I’m going to talk about the author’s writing style in this book.  Spoiler alert!  Like the rest of the book, it was a delicious treat!

So, what do you think?  Do you like a book that lets you off the hook at the end of a chapter, or one that keeps you up until way past your bedtime because you just can’t put it down?

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