“I’m at the point,” my buddy Kyle said a few months ago, “where I just want to read a series that’s fucking finished.” The poor guy had that haunted stare that comes from waiting twenty-two years for Rand al’Thor to fight the Dark One already, from worrying about the health of various not-so-hale-looking authors, from seeing Firefly cancelled after eleven episodes. The recent release of the final volume of the Wheel of Time seems like a good opportunity for some reflection on the dangers and opportunities of long-form story telling.
I get Kyle’s frustration – the love of a series can feel like a romance in which you never get past second base. “Soon,” the author says, running a hand along your thigh. “I don’t want to rush. I want everything to be right. I don’t want you to be disappointed.” And this shit goes on for years.
As much as I feel for the reader, though, I’ve got even more sympathy for the writer of epic fantasy. More than any other genre, fantasy presents a unique challenge: you have to tell a coherent, engaging, dynamic story and at the same time… what was it? Oh yeah, create an entire world from scratch. It’s easy enough to have a few dudes thwacking away at each other with rusty swords beneath a castle wall, but the fantasy reader doesn’t just want the dudes and the wall, she wants something epic. Which means history, religion, politics, mythology, mysterious towers and forgotten fortresses. Which, in their turn, can easily get in the way of plot. This is how a projected trilogy ends up taking seven or ten books. You know the stuff:
Vlender is fleeing for his life from the undead assassin priests through a blighted hinterland when… Hey! Look! An old ruin! Did I mention that in the fourth decade of the third age the good king Mestalbam crafted from his blood the mortar that holds the stones and that…
Not only does the plot bog down when you pause to check out every ruin, but the series becomes fourteen thousand pages.
So what’s a writer to do? Robin Hobb and Joe Abecrombie have an interesting solution to the problem. The two are very different authors, but their approach to the handling of epic world-building is similar. The solution, in a nutshell, is simple – leave shit out. Instead of trying to follow a cast of characters the size of the Manhattan phone book across fifty years and five continents, both Abercrombie and Hobb pick their material and – here’s the tough part from an author’s point of view – they don’t try to tell the largest story available. Clearly they have more ideas than they include in the final tale.
It’s an old trick, but a good one. Homer used it. Plenty of readers know that the Iliad is about the Trojan War, and people know that the Trojan War took ten years. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that the action of the Iliad only covers a couple of weeks. It’s arguably the original epic (depending on whether or not you think Gilgamesh sucks and where you stand on the dating of the Ramayana and whether you think the Pentateuch qualifies as an epic) and the whole plot structure is predicated not on inclusion, but on trimming the fat, cutting the time frame, focusing the action.
The best part is that both Hobb and Abercrombie have gone on to write more novels in their invented worlds. They left so much great material on the table when writing the initial series that these additional novels don’t feel like lame attempts to suck a little more life out of a finished story, but real, necessary explorations of worlds that have plenty more vitality and mystery left in them.
It’s a tough balance for writers to strike, and I’m sure readers have a lot to say on the matter. I’m curious when others start to feel as though a series is bogging down. What are the telltale signs and warnings? Any cautionary examples?
About Brian Staveley
I live on a steep dirt road in mountains of southern Vermont, where I divide my time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. After teaching high school (literature, philosophy, history, religion) for a decade, I finally committed to writing epic fantasy. My first book, The Emperor’s Blades, is the start of a series (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne), forthcoming from Tor in early 2014. I’m on twitter at @brianstaveley, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.
Go to Brian's blog.
Go to Brian's blog.