I’m full of turkey and not time (Happy Thanksgiving, Canada, and to all a good return of the Winnipeg Jets to their rightful place), so I haven’t had the chance to compose the post I was intending. (On monsters! But we’ll have it before Halloween, don’t you worry.) In lieu, a quick one on trilogies and heptalogies and your-series-is-how-longs?
I think the idea of writing a series in some ways snuck up on me. My general preference as a reader is for stand-alone novels, and while I love fantasy, its mainstream expressions don’t, for the most part, provide that. (Apart from most of the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, whom I will plug at any opportunity).
Certainly, fantasy isn’t the only genre that makes heavy use of serialization, but it’s probably the only one so completely committed to it. Even crime, a few doors over, is episodic rather than truly serialized. We may have a billion books about Detective Jimmy O’Magnum, but they’re rarely in service of a larger narrative. They tend to follow a well-loved character around a number of stories, rather than through one really big one.
I have a few theories as to why this is. Certainly, there’s simple tradition. Tolkien did it, and who are we to argue? Business concerns are also well served by the fact that it’s probably easier to hook the average reader into a series than a set of unrelated books – the what-comes-next instinct is strong – which of course means certain contractual obligations here and there.
Mostly, though, I think fantasy just lends itself well to the series thing. We’re big on big. World-spanning orc attacks, the fates of nations, entire dynasties politicking over the succession. Big stories with big plots require big word counts, and that’s especially true when you need to spend time and words hiding exposition to ensure that the readers understand the rules of the world they’re playing in. Crime doesn’t need to spend any time explaining what an unmarked car is, or what a gun does when the trigger is pulled – it works, predominantly, within the framework of the modern day. Those saved words add up.
This emphasis on scope can get unwieldy; sometimes to the point of self-parody. I’m sure every reader of fantasy has picked up one series or another and gotten to a point, say, five books in, when the whole thing starts to feel as though it’s spinning its wheels. A morass of side characters. Adventures entirely disconnected from what we thought the point of it all was. Forgotten plot threads left dangling.
I’d suggest that it’s no great mystery. Bored writers bore readers, and we’re a flighty bunch. I simply cannot imagine stretching a single story out for a half-million words without losing the motivation to keep at it, particularly with my brain screaming about all of the shiny and exciting things just over there, in New Book Land, that could be mine if I’d just kill the monster already.
But I do have a certain soft spot for the big stories. Really, I love them. I grew up on them. That’s why I wrote one of my own, even though I hadn’t actually intended to. I figured it just wasn’t right to introduce Chekhov’s political unrest without eventually pulling the trigger of mangled metaphor.
It’s a bit of a balancing act, and I think Tolkien had it right. Three is a cosmic sort of number. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. So does a trilogy. It’s tailor-made for big stories, told in three installments.
Book 1: Introduce the stakes and the threat, introduce the characters, introduce the rules of the game.
Book 2: The adventures and tribulations of heroism; the character studies and quiet moments; the first-hand look at how the threat spreads and whom it affects.
Book 3: Reel it all in. You’ve done the set-up, here comes the payoff.
Simple, right? Clean. Three is good.
Next week, I’ll post a bit about my experiences in writing a trilogy, and about some of the things I’ve learned that can help to smooth the process out a little. For now, I’d love to hear how you folks feel about the serialization of fantasy. Big books or small?