Children's column: The book - only part of the story

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Monday, 6th July 2009

Patrick Ness's short story, a prequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go , has arrived on Booktrust's website as part of his online residency.

It tells of how Viola came to earth from a spaceship that had been travelling for several lifetimes; it is also about teenage grumpiness and pettiness, and therefore much more recognisable to us than the plot might lead us to expect. It intercuts scenes from the months preceding Viola's arrival with scenes of the last minutes of her journey, creating, typically for Ness, tension, a need to read on, and an accelerating pace.
It is not the first time writers for young adults have published new work online. For example, Kevin Brooks was among the six Penguin authors in the We Tell Stories project (March 2008), which invited six writers to make stories in real time, with interactive input from readers. And the internet is awash with the work of otherwise unpublished writers, with downloadable classic stories, with fan fiction, with tasters. But it is rare for a larger work to have a supplementary episode only available online unless we count all the information about the Harry Potter characters that came from J K Rowling through online chat rooms (and personal interviews) but that was never published in the books.
In Patrick Ness's case, this is a legitimate literary exercise; but I wonder if it isn t part of a trend on the internet that feeds the notion both that books are incomplete, and also that (as we have always felt) characters exist outside the pages on which they were written. It is this feeling that makes it possible to have television and film adaptations, and sequels characters are not exclusively and inextricably made out of words, but walk off the page into their existence, about which we can gossip and infer further information. I suppose it is part of the magic of literature: characters become like real people, whom we might get to know better if we met them more often, or in other circumstances.
We are delighted to know more about Viola. But it is also an odd aspect of the web, with its capacity for speculation and circulating extra details, that it might lead to books becoming only part of a story, starting points in the creation of characters and to be supplemented later by authors, and maybe by readers as well. I imagine the day when people will often be able to follow up characters lives online, and continuing plots, and will say: Oh, yes, I read the book, but I haven t really kept in touch with the characters since.