Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

 

 

 

 

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37 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

  1. Your posts always give me something new to explore. I’ve never heard of Coraline—not the character, the book, the author or the movie. Perhaps because the book and movie were released in the US or perhaps because my children are grown and not yet (if ever) producing grandchildren. The storyline (I looked it up) rather reminds me of the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’. Now to see if the local library has copies of either. Thanks.

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  2. You’ve hit on exactly why I liked this book- the unanswered mysteries. I love an author who has a big grand world all worked out, and just gives you a peek through the door. Mind you, I have run into stories like that where I felt the ending didn’t answer the key questions of the story, (for instance, if then hand in Coraline had been left skittering around, it would have been ok, but definitely less fabulous 😉 It’s a balancing act, leaving the world open enough to dream in and … my son just tried to throw a plastic boulder at me so I lost my train of thought! So I shall just say, down with midichlorians and bring on some open endedness!
    Along these lines I’m assuming you’ve read Lowis Lowry’s The Giver- did you know that she made it a trilogy, have you read them, and did you think having more info strengthened or weakened the original story?

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  3. I love having unanswered questions. I felt similar but also conflicted about the Silmarillion. It is so amazing to know everything. But it also answered so much that the distant lore mentioned in Lord of the Rings is less mysterious.

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    • Excellent example! The nice thing about the Silmarillion is that it’s not a required read to enjoy LOTR, just like you don’t to read Hobbit in conjunction with any of those stories. The book’s there for those who *want* more answers. Can you imagine if Tolkien forced all of Silmarillion’s information into LOTR? Those stories would be incomprehensible!

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  4. True, not all the children like things to be explained to them. Most children prefer their own version and a lot of dreaming and imagining 🙂 As to me, I enjoy all your explanations and analysis 🙂
    Have a wonderful week! xx

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    • Indeed! There’s a comedian named Patton Oswalt who had this brilliant rant about George Lucas when the Star Wars prequels came out. It culminates with this: “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!” I’ve found that’s my take when it comes to the fantasy world. Don’t tell me why the world is as it is. Just give me lots of the world, and I’ll work it out as I go. 🙂

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  5. “As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives.”
    Not a fantasy at all, but the strange and dark world of the Cohen Brothers vouch for that. Their films are often up for analysis and rightly so, but sometimes they would just throw (more like lob, like an incendiary device,) something in their work, just for the hell of it – no need to analyze though people still would – and just enjoy! 🙂

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  6. I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan and the funny thing is, “Coraline” the movie was the first I’d heard of him. I adored the dark and foreboding nature of it and the crazy characters inhabiting the film, but none of my kids liked it. In truth, I think it scared them as it looked at things that most kids would rather not think about. Your review makes me want to watch it again with a writer’s eye. I’ll make sure to do it. Thanks for the insight.🙏

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    • Yes, my kids don’t care for it, either, and they’re not exactly old enough. I think that’s why I connected to the Nostalgia Critic’s talk on dark movies for kids: I was raised on the darker animated Don Bluth films like American Tail, Land Before Time, Secret of NIMH, and so on. I was made to think about such things, and became all the stronger for it. 🙂

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  7. Great post as always. I agree completely. I love imagining possible backstories to explain a character’s mysterious characteristics. I’ve only recently got into Gaiman’s books but I’m really enjoying them. American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are wonderful.

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