Stories Don’t Need “Enhancements”

I remember when the first real Batman movie came out. I’m not talking about the 1966 attempt with Adam West, which was really just an extended episode of the camp (KAPOW!) television series. I’m referring to the 1989 iteration, directed by Tim Burton, with Michael Keaton wearing the cape and Jack Nicholson sporting the rictus grin.

That Christmas, someone gave me the novelization. It was an extremely unfulfilling reading experience – right from the start – because I was unable to draw my own internal pictures; the movie had provided a too-powerful tapestry of imagery for me to envisage anything else.

While this might be an unfair example, I’m sure everyone has had a similar experience when reading the book after seeing the movie. For this reason, I’m doing my best to avoid Game of Thrones on HBO because I want to read the books first. In fact, I can’t even watch an ad for the show; I know my mental landscape would be polluted by even the briefest glimpse of the director’s realization.

I don’t think I’m unique; I think this view is fairly widespread: people hold off on watching a film or television adaptation of something they are planning to read. But it goes even further than that.

Have you ever noticed how the model’s face on a cover is often cut off, or turned away? Have you ever heard the chorus of boos when the covers for a popular series are redesigned and the main characters are depicted for the first time? In a similar way, most readers hate overly descriptive writers because they leave nothing for the reader to construct in their internal pictures.

Readers don’t like their mental imagery being interfered with. I can think of nothing worse than “enhancements” to an e-book which would show me not only what all the characters look like, but how they dress, how they move, their mannerisms, what their voices sound like, and so on. It would be like reading the book after watching the movie – every single time.

I can see enhanced e-books having some uses, especially for non-fiction, educational, and kids’ books. The attraction of having a book about anatomy where you could (literally) peel back the layers and peek inside, or a Choose Your Own Adventure starring Dora the Explorer (or whatever), are obvious. But for adult fiction? I can’t see it.

When fiction really works, you become the main character who wakes up from a coma only to find the planet deserted, or who is hunted by a deranged killer while the police dismiss the threat, or who is locked in the vicious circle of a disintegrating marriage.

When the author has successfully woven their spell, the reader feels a strange emptiness when they close the book. Readers miss the characters, having become close to them. They miss the world you have built and the strange creatures you populated it with. They miss the hero they were rooting for, the girl they were urging not to enter the haunted house, and the diabolical villain who was always one step ahead of the law.

Often, of course, the author is less successful, and the reader feels no empathy when a character is summarily bumped off or when the protagonist doesn’t get the girl. The fault is usually the author’s who has failed to develop the requisite emotional connection, to invest the reader in the hero’s success.

Common reasons for that failure include two dimensional characters, an emphasis on telling rather than showing, or inexpert world-building and exposition through long info-dumps either in narrative or dialogue.

All of these are authorial intrusions, of a sort, and they jerk the reader out of the narrative, breaking the delicate spell that is necessary for the story to work its magic. They are big neon signs, flashing: you are reading a book. The reader loses that suspension of disbelief, and the author faces an uphill battle to win them back.

Nothing, I believe, could be more intrusive than a doom-laden score playing on Page 37 as the waif-like girl approaches the haunted house, or a piece of video triggered on Page 142 to show the divorced hero’s tragic descent into alcoholism.

Readers want to lose themselves in a novel, not be dragged out of the story by superfluous bells-and-whistles which can only detract from that immersive experience they crave.

Now, I can see some storytellers using this form effectively. But it’s very much a gimmick that will lead to one-shot successes, much in the same way that The Blair Witch Project scared the pants of many, but more or less killed that approach for anyone else, and certainly didn’t revolutionize the movie industry or the way celluloid stories are told.

If you read the trade magazines, enhanced e-books are the next big thing (or is it books-as-apps, or was that last year’s next big thing?). Strangely, I don’t see writers or readers clamoring for them. So where is this impetus coming from?

Big Publishing would love to bring back the barriers-to-entry. Digital self-publishing is cheap and easy. Anyone can do it. Writers don’t need publishers anymore (and in many cases, don’t want them either).

Large publishers used to have this game (largely) to themselves. By monopolizing distribution, they tied up the spots where most books were sold: stores. Small publishers and self-publishers were mostly shut out, that is, until the advent of online retail, the Kindle, and popularization of e-books.

Most self-publishers only need an editor and a cover designer, and can do the rest themselves. But if enhanced e-books became the preferred format, they would need to buy rights to music and video, or pay someone to create it from scratch. They would need to pay for voice actors, video editors, programmers, sound technicians, and studio time if they wanted to compete with the biggest releases.

If it suddenly cost $50,000 to bring an e-book out, you can bet that self-publishers would begin querying en masse, and large publishers would have dispensed with thousands upon thousands of able competitors in one fell swoop.

But I don’t think any of that is going to happen. If you break down the concept of an enhanced e-book, it becomes quite ludicrous. In case I’m accused of being a Luddite, let’s look at the various component parts. It’s a story with some music and video. Maybe it has a little interactivity too. And perhaps some gaming elements.

Congratulations, you just invented the X-Box!

David Gaughran is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should.

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