Terry Pratchett: A Few Reviews

This is a double book review for Guards! Guards! and Good Omens.  The former is by Terry Pratchett alone, while the latter is both Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  They will be spoiler free and mostly an essay on the reason I don’t enjoy Pratchett that much.

I’ve tried to read four Terry Pratchett books.  I’ve only succeeded with these two.  The first two failures were Going Postal and The Colour of Magic.  Both had potential.  Both were funny.  But neither were well-written or any good.  At last, I struggled through Guards! Guards!  I started on Good Omens, thinking that Neil Gaiman’s influence would keep the book on track.  I definitely enjoyed it more than the former, and I wonder if I should try Gaiman in another book.

My problems with Terry Pratchett books in general can be summed up in the following points:

  • He has the inciting incident, or “hook”, a quarter of the way through the book
  • He can’t describe anything without going into its full history, all to make a paltry joke– too many tangents
  • He doesn’t make me care about the characters
  • The footnotes drive me nuts– too many tangents
  • Bad clarity
  • Too many tangents
  • Tangents
  • Tangents
  • Did I ever tell you about my second cousin, she fell last week into a bucket of–
  • Tangents

Ever heard that most beginning writers start their books a page too early?  I knew what that meant in theory, but I never knew how horrible it could be until I met Terry Pratchett.  But he doesn’t just start a page early– he starts years early.  Guards! Guards! was about a marauding dragon– or so the blurb on the back says.  I wouldn’t have known had I begun the book without reading that.  There was no conflict for pages and pages and pages and then, whoops, dragon’s loose!  We have a story!  It’s like watching a duck trying to take off with a brick tied to its leg.  It struggles for a very long while, then eventually lifts off and flies laboriously into the sunset, abruptly gaining and losing altitude as it squawks for help.  If anyone has stayed around long enough to watch, they might cheer.  (I’m not sure ducks can carry bricks, though– ask Monty Python.)

Yes, that’s what I’m saying– Terry Pratchett is an ungainly duck with a brick tied to its leg.  I think Pratchett enjoys carrying that brick around, though.  I wish he had listened to his first rejection letter telling him to get to the point.  This was why I didn’t finish the first two books I tried.

I’ve heard people say that Pratchett makes you care for his characters more than other humorous writers (specifically Douglas Adams) ever does.  I saw no evidence for that.  Perhaps if I had cared, I would have… well, cared.  In Good Omens, we didn’t really need to care about the characters– being angel, demon, and Antichrist, it was never a question of their safety.  There were a few instances where the characters were in danger, but I never cared.  In Guards! Guards! I should have been glued to the book with fear– a dragon bearing down on the main characters, who are idly discussing million-to-one chances, and I’m bored.  I tell you, I have never spent so much time listening to music as I did in between pages of that book.  It was like wading through mud… with an iPod.

Now let’s get down to tangents, shall we?  Descriptions, footnotes, plot– every sentence he writes is a tangent.

Before reading Pratchett, I thoroughly enjoyed the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.  Stroud uses footnotes in a style similar to Pratchett’s.  The difference is that Stroud uses footnotes to convey funny, irrelevant information that contrasts with the very relevant story.  Pratchett uses footnotes to convey irrelevant information within a story full of irrelevant information.  If Pratchett followed Stroud’s rules for footnotes, each of his books would be thirty pages long with three hundred more of footnotes.  It’s like hearing a magnificent symphony played note by note, with breaks for badly played chamber music in between.

We don’t need to know all the character background right up front.  More complicated histories than these have been conveyed through other means than lengthy interludes.  I like summing things up into hilarious synopses as well, but I don’t feel the need to start telling the story before it even begins to give them.  Pratchett is a classic example of bad editing.  Victor Hugo was full of brilliant characters and brilliant stories, but he took tangents to describe things.  Pratchett just takes tangents.

Good Omens was better on the tangential score, but it still looks like he has no sense of plot.  There was barely any setup, badly specified character motivation (but at least there was motivation), and it was a complete anticlimax.  The overlapping plot lines were confusing.  Someone once said, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be.”  I misunderstood almost everything in the last hundred pages of that book.  You don’t know how many meanings the words “four bikers” can take upon themselves until you see four motorcyclists followed by four kids on bikes, both referred to in the same terms.

All the books have amazing potential.  Any of them could be amazing to me, but none were.  It’s an example of how you can have good plot and good characters and have a bad book because you can’t write.

Brevity.  Empathy.  More brevity.  Clarity.  All these things Pratchett lacks.  At least he proved that characters and plot aren’t the only things that go into good stories– style counts too.

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35 thoughts on “Terry Pratchett: A Few Reviews

  1. I’m glad you brought up Hugo. I was going to catch you on him, if you hadn’t, and it would’ve sounded like “You read Les-Mis and now you’re complaining about tangents?”
    So, Pratchett writes info that is not useful to the story? Am I understanding this? He just describes random things that have no relevance?

    1. No, they have a little bit of relevance, but not enough. Usually it’s just to set up a joke. “This was the car in which he had run down three wild gophers in his youth…” Or something like that. He never wrote that sentence.

      1. So question: Do you think that every sentence must contribute to the story, that every word must be necessary? In general, not about Pratchett.

  2. My dad has actually been on a Terry Pratchett kick lately. Come to think of it, I’m the only one in the house not reading something by him right now.

    Now I need to read something of his to see what could cause you and my family to have such opposite reactions.

    Have you read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman? I don’t remember much about the style of the book, but I enjoyed the story.

  3. I’ll have to try those books, because I thought his Tiffany Aching trilogy and The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents were really good. He has written a LOT, though, so maybe the books you read were earlier than the ones I’ve read and he’d gotten better in the meantime? Or maybe Good Omens was written for adults and the Aching books were written for kids, and that affects his writing style? I don’t know.

    Honestly, I can’t even remember footnotes in the Aching books but I read them a long time ago.

    I do agree that his stories are slow to get off the ground, though. I think they’re good once they get going…

    1. The Colour of Magic was definitely the first Discworld book he wrote, so I thought he was just amateur. Guards! Guards!, Going Postal, and Good Omens were definitely later.

  4. Also, have you read Coraline by Neil Gaiman? I prefer the graphic novel to the book, actually. It’s weird like Pratchett but not as tangential, and it’s creepy. But not in a gory way. I like psychological creepiness better. 😀

  5. I don’t have very much of a frame of reference for the books mentioned here. However, I have read Douglas Adams. What is the comparison here?
    Also, on an unrelated note, do you read graphic novels often?

    1. Douglas Adams is to science fiction what Terry Pratchett is to fantasy… or so they say. They’re both humor writers, exploiting common tropes in their genres. I personally liked Adams better, but I was younger and definitely not as steeped in good literature as I am now.

      1. I see.
        Does that mean that you might have enjoyed Adams’ work less if you read it more recently? Do you judge books on their technical value or how they effect you emotionally? I guess a technically skilled writer should be able to move a reader emotionally.

      2. Yes, indeed; if I had read it now, I would probably like it less. Now, I prefer complexity of plot and coherency and skill to incessant humor for the sake of humor. I judge books on both technical value and the emotional impact, but mostly on the latter. Neither Pratchett nor Adams write emotional stories.

      3. Thank you! Not to ramble, but I love “certain” graphic novels. Most are too flashy and over-dramatic, if you know what I mean. Though nothing can replace straight literature, I (being a self-proclaimed artist) love the good graphic novels. If ever you should read another graphic novel, I would recommend a series called Maus.

      4. If you aren’t just saying that to humor me, Maus is a memoir about a Jew during WW2. All of the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Poles as pigs, the Germans as cats, and the Americans as, I believe, dogs. So yes, very unique.

      5. Yes. I just read it again a few days ago, the two books in succession. Even after reading Maus for the second time, I believe it is graphic/literary genius.

  6. I noticed the tangents in Terry Pratchett’s writing, but I never found that they detracted from my overall enjoyment of the books. I would recommend the Tiffany Aching books (especially I Shall Wear Midnight); they’re really great.

    As for Gaiman… tried reading several of his books, but he came off as pretentious to me. Did not like them much. I’m going to give his books one more shot before giving up for good.

      1. Honestly… I hated American Gods with passion, but many people seem to love it, so I dunno. Smokes and Mirrors is a collection of short stories, of which some were okay and most were mediocre at best.

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