Nos4a2 author Joe Hill is well-acquainted with mysteries: before he became a full-fledged thriller, fantasy, horror, & mystery writer, he was a mystery himself. The son of Stephen King, Joseph Hillstrom King chose to rise to the heights of his career with his parentage kept secret. Hill is a genre-bending whirlwind of a novelist, whose works have found mass-market success both in airport bookstores and on screens large & small. Hill’s Horns stunned audiences with its star, Daniel Radcliffe; the terrifyingly original premise; and all the moral quandaries that come with it. Nos4a2 is currently airing on AMC Sundays at 10 PM, thrilling (and chilling!) viewers with its whimsical nightmare of a setting—the inside of its protagonist’s (and villain’s) minds. At BookCon, Hill gave fans an insight into something almost as scary as Charlie Manx… actually writing your novel.
For many genre fiction writers, one major challenge is explaining how the world got to this point—whether ‘this point’ is a society in which alien clouds hold skydivers captive (“Aloft”) or one in which Polaroids can steal people’s memories (“Snapshot”). Sure, you could have a drunken NPC stumble up to your protagonist and describe the mechanics of the world in meticulous detail… or you could NOT do that and have a better story for it. Hill distinguished what needed to be explained in a story and what could be left alone:
It depends on what the reader needs. In The Fireman, I never got around in the book to explaining where [the human combustion plague] came from. John and Harper have a conversation about it, and one says ‘I like the idea that the ice shrunk and a pathogen got out from under the ice.’ One character thought it was weaponized athlete’s foot… they don’t know, so why does the reader have to know?
Image Via Sharp Magazine
One of the things Hill recommends avoiding is bombarding the reader with a lengthy villain backstory. While we know it’s suspect to wave away a villain’s actions with one depressing childhood anecdote, according to Hill, it can actually slow down the plot. He opened up about the role of Charlie Manx in Nos4a2, perhaps his most ambitious work to date:
I went into the backstory of Charlie Manx and it was an info-dump, a giant dump of information, and it brought the story to a screeching halt… no one cares what life was like for the shark in Jaws when it was a baby. No one cares if the shark’s mom didn’t love him well enough. They just want the shark.
Image Via Tell-tale TV
Of course, that isn’t to say that explanations are the devil (nope, that’s actually Daniel Radcliffe in Horns). Hill merely suggests that they’re something to be cautious about. There are aspects of the story that the reader does have to know, and then there are aspects of the story the AUTHOR needs to know: to clarify, everything. “Only a jackass would publish a book and create these mysteries without knowing [the answers],” Hill explained, “and I realized I was that jackass… I began building more of a history [in my stories] so that I would know for me, so I wouldn’t have to do a lot of shovelling later.”
In Hill’s own words, “explanations suck.” But he’s still pretty damn good at them.