Five Stories Afraid of Their Own Premise

Of course this group of hardened insurgents was given uniforms. Why wouldn't they be?

Every story has a premise that shapes what will happen. Some premises are good, like “a neglected orphan goes to a secret school for wizards.” Some premises are bad, like “a teenager gets into an abusive relationship with a vampire.” But no matter if the premise is good or bad, it will have a strong influence on how the story turns out.

That is, unless a story refuses to follow through on its own premise. Then you get strange stories that just don’t feel right. The author promised something but didn’t deliver. Sometimes it’s missed dramatic opportunity; sometimes it’s a lack of logical sense. Either way, the story suffers. Take a look at these five stories, each of which is afraid of its own premise.

1. Beauty and the Beast

The Beast and the Prince side by side.

Throughout its many incarnations, this is the story of a beautiful woman falling in love with a hideous beast, and the power of that love turns him back into a prince.* We’re most familiar with the Disney version, complete with singing teapots and a rose under glass, but many other adaptations exist. In the original novel by Madame de Villeneuve, all the Beast had to do to change back was sleep next to Belle, but in most versions since, he’s needed Belle to fall in love with him despite his hideous looks.

The problem is that the Beast is almost never actually ugly. In both Disney’s animated and live action versions of the story, the Beast is very appealing from a visual perspective. He’s a majestic creature with luxurious fur and a suit that fits perfectly. Because he spends so much more time in Beast mode, a lot more effort goes into those visuals, and his human appearance is always some generically attractive guy.

This badly sabotages the story’s urgency. In Disney’s version, the Beast must get Belle to love him before the last petal falls off a rose, or he’ll stay a beast forever. But so what? He seems fine as a beast. If he has a problem, it’s that he’s lonely, and Belle certainly doesn’t have any issues with his looks. The worst-case scenario is that he gets to stay as this awesome-looking monster. There’s more urgency if you consider that his servants will be stuck as objects forever,* but that’s never what the story focuses on.

The ending’s payoff is also lacking, because turning into a generic prince actually seems like a step down for many viewers. Certainly when people think of the two leads from that movie, they aren’t imagining Belle and some red-headed human. The movie’s real climax is when the Beast lives despite his wounds. His transformation back into a human is an awkward epilogue.

The underlying cause here is that despite the story’s conceit that the Beast is ugly, no creative team will actually show him as ugly because he’s part of a romance. Everyone has to be beautiful in a romance, even the vicious monsters who kidnap women and hold them prisoner for no reason.

2. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

Ron and Hermione in one of the many camping scenes.

The first six Harry Potter books fulfill their premises beautifully. Harry and friends go to Hogwarts, learn some magic, and stop whatever problem is brewing at the school that year. The stakes get higher with each book, up to and including world domination from You-Know-Who, but the conflict itself is always confined to Hogwarts.

That is until book seven when everything explodes. Voldemort takes over the ministry of magic, muggle born wizards and their sympathizers are rounded up, and dementors prowl the land! Not only are the stakes higher in this book, but also the conflict is more spread out, with Voldemort’s grip felt throughout Britain.

This is a natural evolution for the series, and it only follows that this book would be a story of the epic struggle against Voldemort’s tyranny. Except that it isn’t. Instead, we follow Harry as he does everything possible to stay away from the action. We hear some rumors about what’s going on in Hogwarts, but that’s it. There’s no mention of muggleborns being smuggled out of the country, of opposition politicians being jailed or killed, not even anything about the Order of the Phoenix, which exists specifically to fight Voldemort.

Instead, we get a handful of exciting escape sequences, followed by page upon page of Harry, Hermione, and Ron camping out in the woods. This takes up a huge part of the book. Supposedly they are trying to find the remaining horcruxes, but since they have no real leads, that plot stalls until Rowling eventually drops the answers in their lap.

The previous books were focused on Harry, and that worked fine, but this conflict is now bigger than one wizard. It’s now about an entire country ruled by the Dark Lord. For some reason, the book is afraid to follow through on its premise. Maybe it’s the fear of taking the spotlight away from Harry. Maybe it’s that Rowling wasn’t sure how to plot a book without a school year to give it structure. Whatever the reason, the most exciting part of the story is all but ignored.

3. Corpse Bride

The Corpse Bride herself.

Ah, the classic* story of boy meets girl. Except the girl is a corpse. But she’s a living corpse? Sure. Protagonist Victor ends up in an arranged marriage to Victoria, a woman he’s never met, so that his parents can gain noble titles. But through a series of shenanigans, he ends up engaged to a reanimated corpse instead. This corpse is Emily, and she takes Victor on a zany adventure where they bond over mutual attraction and shared interest. Then they get together and live happily ever after.

Except that’s not what happens. In reality, Victor ends up marrying Victoria, and Emily turns into a cloud of butterflies. Presumably this means she has found peace, unlike everyone else in the underworld.

Even though there’s some foreshadowing that Victor will marry Victoria, this still feels like a last-minute change because his relationship with Emily is so much better developed. They grow to like each other over the course of the story. He gets over his initial disgust at her rotted appearance and sees her for who she is. They have an adventure in the underworld. They even play the piano together!

On the other hand, Victor’s attraction to Victoria seems based mostly on the fact that she’s hot. They’ve never met before the film’s opening and have very little time to interact. Emily is also just more compelling than Victoria. Emily is genuinely funny, but she uses her awkward humor to cover up the deep hurt of being betrayed by a man she loved.

Everything seems to be building toward Victor marrying Emily and living with her in the underworld. He’s even ready to, until suddenly Emily decides she’s denying Victoria the happiness of marrying a near stranger. It feels like they had the whole film planned out with Victor and Emily tying the knot, but then someone in a focus group was grossed out by the idea of marriage to a corpse.

4. Shannara Chronicles

The Space Needle, fallen over and overgrown.

The Sword of Shannara books are technically post-apocalyptic fantasy, but that fact is heavily obscured until late in the series. The TV show, on the other hand, is much more blatant about its setting, with easily recognizable buildings, like the Space Needle, displayed in all-their-ruined glory. The exact cause of the apocalypse is a mystery, but the remnants of our world are unmistakable. Protagonists fight demons against a background of crumbling skyscrapers and broken streets.

With that kind of unusual premise, you’d expect the story to diverge from standard fantasy tropes. Describing the premise conjures images of spiky-haired elves riding souped-up motorcycles and dwarves charging to meet them in rusty, powered armor. Unfortunately, none of that happens.

The TV show plays as straight high fantasy with almost no deviation to account for the unusual setting. Everyone uses medieval weapons and armor. The horse is the only means of transport around. The land is ruled by an elven king.* Most of the buildings look like they were plucked right out of Middle-earth.

The trolls at least have a Mad Max inspired aesthetic, and there is one episode with a human village trying to regain their lost technology, but that’s it. This strains believability, as it’s difficult to imagine that so few people would be interested in the powerful technology of the past, especially in a land beset by demons and monsters. If nothing else, those ruined cities are sources of free building material that everyone just leaves alone.

Beyond believability, not taking advantage of the setting relegates the Shannara Chronicles to being yet another high-fantasy story. It’s plot is average at best, and the characters aren’t anything special. Going full post-apocalyptic would have given the show much needed novelty.

5. Voyager

Voyager fighting a Borg ship

Without a doubt, Voyager is the king of fearing its own premise. In a major departure from previous entries in the franchise, this show is about a starship flung to the other side of the galaxy and left to fend for itself. The ship has no hope of help or resupply, making the situation desperate indeed.

But wait, there’s more! Many of Voyager’s crew members were killed, and the only replacements available are a group of Maquis insurgents. The Maquis have been at war with the Federation for years now, so there’s no love lost between the two of them. This show sounds like the perfect recipe for high-stakes—inter-character conflict and difficult decisions stemming from a lack of resources.

But you know that doesn’t happen. Voyager is almost never shown to be low on any kind of supplies. On the rare occasion this is made into a plot point, it’s often resolved without any effort. They even have the surplus energy to run the holodecks twenty-four hours a day.* Worse, no matter how badly damaged the ship is at the end of an episode, it’s always in pristine condition for the next episode. Little questions like how they managed repairs so quickly with no help from Starfleet are left unanswered.

Conflict between crew members is nearly non-existent. The Maquis are fully assimilated into the Starfleet crew, with uniforms and everything, by the second episode. There’s exactly one episode about the Maquis having trouble fitting in on a ship that they were recently shooting at, and even then it’s limited to only a few troublemakers. The main cast isn’t immune to this either. Chakotay, the Maquis leader, is usually shown as a man of iron clad principles who shuns violence at nearly any cost. How he maintained that attitude as an insurgent leader is anyone’s guess.

Even the individual-episode plots seem to reject the show’s premise. Voyager is always stopping to explore some random phenomena or another, even though they’re supposed to be trying to get home as fast as they can. Some of these phenomena are incredibly dangerous, but Voyager flies in anyway despite the fact that there’s no one to call for help if something goes wrong. It leaves you wondering if they really want to get home.

Voyager does not feel like a show about a ship lost far from home. It feels like a poor-quality continuation of The Next Generation (TNG). In TNG, the Enterprise had little inter-character conflict because the crew were all hand-picked Starfleet officers. They explored dangerous phenomena because it was their job, and they could call for help if they needed it. If Voyager’s writers wanted to write TNG style stories, they should have picked a premise that would have supported them.

If you’re sitting down to write out that great idea you had, but the story won’t cooperate, it’s likely that you’re having trouble with the premise. That isn’t the end of the world! Often the story you’ve written will work fine with a different premise. For example, Beauty and the Beast would have worked much better if it were about a transformed prince deciding he’s fine with the way he looks now, and Voyager could have been a continuation of The Next Generation. The key is to recognize when this is happening rather than forging ahead with a premise you can’t follow through on.

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  1. Cay Reet

    About #2: This actually explains why I have much less of a yearning to read the Deathly Hallows again, even though I’ve read all other novels several times. I can remember someone doing a host of posters for a post-Hogwarts-battle world in which Voldemort won that battle (but without Harry dying) and Harry and his friends (plus Draco) went underground and are now high on the ‘most wanted’ list. I always thought that would make for an awesome story.

    About #3: The end of The Corpse Bride (as much as I love the movie) really is some sort of let-down. Even though the movie shows there’s a certain liking between Victoria and Victor (he does try to escape back to her from the underworld and she does try to find a way to free him from his engagement to Emily), there is no real explanation for that. Victor and Victoria meet for the first time when they come together to practice for their wedding the next day. Even in an arranged marriage, that actually seems strange to me, since I gathered from other stories I’ve read that you at least get to meet your future spouse a handful of times before the ‘I do.’ Emily and Victor make such a nice couple, too – and Emily would deserve love after what she went through to die.

    About #4: Of course there are Elven queens (sorry, can’t say much about Shannara). In my mind, though, Elves have a matriarchal culture…

  2. Bronze Dog

    I can certainly attest to Voyager’s problems. The ship being easily repaired was something that always gnawed at me. Without a Federation shipyard, I would think the ship would eventually look more patchwork over time, as they used alien replacement parts.

    Heck, I can imagine a spotlight episode where the engineers have to deal with the stress of making incompatible systems play nice with each other. Could even be a potential replacement for the negative space wedgie of the week: What systems will break down, causing trouble for the crew?

    Need an expensive replacement part? The nearest alien culture has strict regulations on that part, so the crew has to deal with the ethics and/or fallout of purchasing it on the local black market or making a deal with a crime lord.

    Salvaged a part from a derelict warship? It registers on the locals’ scanners and now the crew has to either avoid contact or convince the locals they’re not working for The Enemy.

    Get a sophisticated piece of equipment with its own internal computer. Something triggers it, and the ship’s systems start malfunctioning as the part’s computer tries to “repair” the strange main computer it finds itself connected to.

    • Cay Reet

      There could have been some great episodes coming out of that.

  3. GeniusLemur

    Further evidence “Corpse Bride” was supposed to end with Victor and Emily’s wedding:
    The title is “Corpse Bride.”

    • Cay Reet

      Well, Emily was killed and buried in her wedding dress, which means she was a corpse bride from the beginning.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    I would say the other fundamental problem with Voyager was that they didn’t see anything new and essentially stopped exploring.

    In TNG, Q summarizes the ethos of proper Star Trek almost perfectly: “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you’d better just go home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, filled with wonders to satiate desires both subtle and gross, but it’s not for the timid.”

    The problem was that starting with DS9, the writers of Star Trek seemed to really be running out of ideas. TNG was usually pretty good about showing new things, with the Borg as probably the best example, but as they were used more often they became a known entity. In DS9, this was less noticeable because they focused on the political drama that made the story work regardless. But with Voyager, in which they were in an entirely unexplored region of space, it became readily apparent that they were out of new ideas.

    Besides the obvious graphical limitations, this is also the fatal flaw of Mass Effect Andromeda, that despite appearing in an entirely alien galaxy, everything is oddly familiar. In their attempt to run away from the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, they failed to come up with anything new for their new galaxy.

    Though like with DS9, the problems actually began with ME2 and ME3, in which the threat of the Reaper invasion largely took away the sense of exploration of the first game. It was just that the Reaper invasion(or Dominion) was a sufficiently interesting antagonist that it mostly worked regardless.

  5. John Ferguson

    I disagree with most of your thoughts on Deathly Hallows. I think it might be more a matter of not being the story you wanted it to be than being afraid of its own premise. I think being cut off from the action and isolated from the rest of the wizarding world is sort of the point has Hermione and friends struggle to do the work that nobody else could do. It’s a spy/covert ops story, moving stealthily because the entire country is behind enemy lines.

    Slow moving until Ron drops everything in their laps though, I’ll give you that.

    • K

      Ron didn’t dropped anything in their laps. Can Ron fans seriously stop making the story about him?
      Harry realized that Bellatrix had a Horcrux hidden in her vault. Harry realized where the diadem was hidden. Harry even made the mistake of saying Voldemort’s name out loud which got them kidnapped and drove the plot further, since it really takes up speed from the point they were kidnapped in Malfoy Manor.

      Ron did spoke Parseltongue, but Hermione destroyed that Horcrux.

      You can just list Ron’s achievements (such as destroying the locket) without making it sound like he did all the hard work and everyone else sat idly.

  6. Steven

    Beauty and the beast isn’t meant to be about a visually ugly beast but redemption from within the beast itself and becoming a better person because of selfless love

    If your first thought is that the beast isn’t ugly enough than you messed the point of the Disney version entirely

    • Cay Reet

      The premise is that a beauty(-iful woman) is locked into a castle with a beast which is monstrous enough for her to want to avoid it. If you look past the Disney version (which, like all Disney fairy-tale movies, is watered down a lot), the premise is not that the beast has to change, but that the beast, despite being something to be afraid of, must make Belle see that it is human and worthy of love. Redemption for the Beast is not possible by only loving Belle. The point is that Belle also must love the Beast back. To make that a challenge, the Beast is not allowed to be easily lovable. The original novel and most books based on it make a point in telling the reader that the beast is monstrous and that everyone with half a brain cell would not want to be too close to it.

      If the story only were about redemption, making the prince is some other way suffering from a curse would be enough, he wouldn’t have had to lose his humanity (by being turned into a beast/monster). 1001 Nights makes do with a king cursed to kill his wife on the morning after the wedding night until Sheherazade as his new wife breaks this curse by keeping him entertained thoughout the titular 1001 nights. The monstrous side is an integral part of the story of Beauty and the Beast.

  7. C. R. Rowenson

    But the only person with selfless love is Belle, so why does that make the Beast a better person? I guess I’m just missing something.

    That said, I Shrek and Shrek 2 are perfect examples of what Beauty and the Beast could have been. There is a painfully common trend to have a character fall in love with someone that is hideous, deformed, or just a terrible person and have it all go away once they have someone’s love. The Shrek movies hit me so hard because Fiona wants Shrek to stay the Ogre she fell in love with.

    It hits me right here every time I watch them.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, the first two Shrek movies are a great example of how to subvert a trope well. First we have that whole ‘love’s first kiss, love’s true form’ thing. Fiona expects what you would get in a regular fairy tale: once she meets her true love, she’ll stay a human princess forever. But her love’s true form is the ogress, because her true love is an ogre.
      And the second movie actually goes a step further. Fiona has the choice to turn Shrek into the human everyone expects the princess of Far Far Away to be with (who even is good-looking in a way), but she chooses the ogre she fell in love with (and the form she took when she fell in love with him at first). It’s going completely against expectations.

  8. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    One movie I (personally) think committed this fallacy a bit was Moana. Moana’s storyline was good, but I didn’t get what they were trying to do with Maui. He gets a tragic backstory, believes he’s worthless, and emphasizes multiple times how his hook is what makes him important. He sacrifices his hook and says how he doesn’t need it… then he gets it back. I would have enjoyed the movie more if Maui had some power (besides being a good sailor) that he used to defeat Te Ka. The thing is, Maui actually has no powers without his hook. He does very few things without it, and for a story trying to show how he can do things without his hook, he does so little without it.

    • Jay

      I don’t think the point was that he can do things without his hook.
      The way I saw it, the point was that not having superpowers doesn’t make him worthless.

  9. Alyssa

    I actually found the end of Corpse Bride to be a refreshing twist to usual expectations. You assume Victor is going to end up with colourful and spunky Emily, she is more interesting than Victoria and we (and Victor) spend more time getting to know her. The audience falls in love with her and so naturally we want her to get the guy. But if you think about it, are not Victoria and Victor well suited? Does Emily not diserve someone as energetic and optimistic as she? Does she truly have to settle for someone who stumbled upon her in the woods and gave his word he would marry her?

    I think we deny Vicoria and Victor because together they seem dull and awkward. We, as an audience, want passion and excitement in a relationship such as Emily offers. But Victoria and Victor are two quiet, shy people, is a more blatant expression of love really necessary from them? Can they not be warm but low-key companions? Is that not love to some? True, they don’t know each other very well, but I don’t think he knows Emily enough to marry her at that point either. Love is different for many people, but more often the interesting and exciting kinds are shown on camera. Their type of relationship is rarely seen and perhaps should be shown more.

    I also like how Emily does not marry in the end. Her whole life and most of her death had been defined by the prospect of getting married. In reality, she doesn’t need marriage to be fulfilled and I feel like the ending says that.

    I didn’t think this first time I watched it. I felt cheated Emily didn’t get her happy ending with Victor. But on further analysis I came to respect the decisions made and love the movie all the more because of them.

    • Cay Reet

      My problem with the ending is not that Emily is more spunky, but that we hardly see Victor and Victoria interact. There is no real base for a marriage between them. If they had been childhood friends or had met before, perhaps without knowing their families planned their marriage, things would have been different. But like this, Victor spent a lot more time with Emily, learning things about her. He hardly spent time with Victoria and it seems odd to see him ending up with her. Not because they’re both a little shy, but because they hardly have a common base or an understanding of the other one.

      • A Random Passerby

        You also have to keep setting in mind. Near as I can tell, this takes place in the Victorian era (hence the names and personalities of the two in question), and such a time had different focuses on issues such as marriage (whether they were right or not is a different matter entirely). Marriages were entered into, especially in the upper levels of society, with very little knowledge passed between the groom and bride, as everything would have been pre-determined by their fathers, and passion – if there was any – was to be strictly confined to the bedchambers. From our modern minds, this is seen as dull and unsatisfying, but for them this was normal and even considered a good thing.

        In contrasts, in their age someone like Emily (putting aside the whole ‘corpse’ bit) would have been seen as a homewrecker – quite nearly being a whore – and was completely undesireable as a mate. In our 21-century mindsets, Victor and Emily getting together makes sense, but – and I actually applaud the genius of Burton here – it’s our sensibilities that are subverted and the wedding with the Victor and Victoria happens. Emily accepts the fact that they cannot be together, which is actually keeping in line with her morals, and lets Victor live his life, rather than trying to selfishly cling to him – and to the realm of the living, by extension.

        • Cay Reet

          Only, had Victor chosen to marry Emily, he would have entered the realm of the dead – that’s why the poison was around which the other guy drinks in the grand finale. Victor would have died and become Emily’s corpse groom, essentially. There’s no reason, even by then-time standards, why they shouldn’t have married. Victor would have left the realm of the living and the realm of the dead clearly is not as uptight as the living were.

          • Ally

            But… She was basically asking him to die for her? Dress it up with songs and fun in the underworld, but killing yourself for love (or forcing a romantic relationship based on attraction when it it’s not healthy) isn’t the best outcome of a story. There’s other things to weigh up when the story is about death.

          • Cay Reet

            The point is that he wasn’t given adequate time with Victoria. It was just attraction between them as well – just one duet on the piano, to be more precise. They’d never met before. He actually spent more time getting to know Emily than getting to know Victoria, but he marries her.

            And he wanted to die after learning that Victoria (again, he’d met her for half an hour at best) was going to marry another man, so dying and marrying Emily is not that horrid a plot as it might seem otherwise. He wasn’t forced to drink the poison, he would have drunk it out of his free will.

  10. Michael

    It’s “Maquis”.

  11. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    An interesting article, I have some slightly different perspectives on some of the points, but like the majority, the spiky haired elves on motor bikes VS dwarves in power armour sounds amazing as well.

  12. Siderite

    Yes, ST Voyager was a disappointment, but it was a thoroughly predictable one. Between rating wars, meddling corporate studio heads and the Star Trek legacy of having no true evil characters or horrifying moments, the show had no chance of following with their initial premise. Worse, shows that actually tried that, like Stargate Universe, were cancelled almost immediately, despite the high quality of the story and characters.

    Perhaps it is time to accept the fact that there will never be a time when we will only find stories on TV and the big screen and sometimes we need to read books as well. And not the ones everybody likes and recommends, either.

  13. natew

    I agree that JK Rowling had difficulty structuring the plot without the school year, but I also think that the school year disguised the weak plot. A lot of the first six books involve Harry going through the school year without an overarching goal. Most of the plot happens in the background and Harry HAPPENS to stumble across clues and overhear EXACTLY the right conversations.

    When you put these plot elements into the entirety of Britain, it becomes more unrealistic.

    Harry happening to stumble across Quirrell and Snape discussing the Philosopher’s Stone multiple times is contrived but believable in a school.

    Harry happening to be in Hogsmeade while the teachers talk about the Fidelius Charm is contrived but at least a bar is where they would go to discuss things.

    Harry, Ron, and Hermione choosing to Apparate somewhere in Britain that happens to be next to goblins who conveniently tell them that the sword in Hogwarts is a fake is ridiculous.

    • Cay Reet

      True. The plots of the first six books are tied very much to the school and happening within Hogwarts. A school is a relatively small cosmos where it is just about possible to stumble over a secret (if you’re a little prone to rule-bending and curiosity, like Harry and, to a lower degree, Ron). If you try that same ‘happen to be there’ approach with all of the UK, it gets ridiculous. In the last book, Harry and his friends would have had to research and follow clues that are leading them around, not just ‘happen to be’ where the next thing was going to happen. They would have had to properly act out a mystery plot.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      It should be mentioned, however, that the first six books take place over an entire school year. That’s 8-10 MONTHS, which would be plenty of time to build up these plots, and most of that time isn’t even covered.

      It’s entirely possible that Harry overheard plenty of other conversations about random stuff, but since that would be boring to read (and would make the books o̶v̶e̶r̶l̶o̶n̶g̶ unbindable), we don’t see that.

      TV Tropes calls this ‘The Law of Conservation of Detail’, and it’s one reason why there might be some elements in stories that seem contrived; we only see the plot-advancing moments.

      • Cay Reet

        I think the problem with the last book has nothing to do with the timespan. The problem is that Rowling tries to rely on the same ‘I overheard it by accident’ kind of giving clues to her characters while they’re on a (supposedly) time-sensitive hunt through Britain she used during books where the world was limited to the school and the grounds for most of the time (with a trip to a nearby village every now and then).

        Yes, Harry and the others probably overheard many more conversations during the school year and they were not in the books because they didn’t matter (which is a perfectly valid thing to do). That’s pretty normal for a book, as are the time jumps during parts of the school year. The problem is trying to put this ‘we stumble over the plot by accident’ approach to the last book, which is not set in Hogwarts, as well. Hogwarts is a small world where it is more realistic to stumble over something by accident, but landing in the right part of Britain to overhear two wizard talking about an important plot point is just too unlikely.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        (it should also be mentioned that this comment was meant as a reply to the original one, but it must have taken me a bit too long to write, so i ended up posting it after cay reet)

        • Cay Reet

          It still was a reply to the original one.

          It’s just that the problem, as mentioned in the original comment, is not even how the first six books work, but that the seventh, because of the bigger scope, just can’t use the same method.

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