More Thoughts on Epic Fantasy

[Originally posted on LiveJournal.]


My post on writing a long epic fantasy has been generating some interesting discussion in a variety of places: the comment thread, Twitter, etc. I wanted to come back to it long enough to highlight a few lengthier responses that I think make very good points.

The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener’s Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about “theme” because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)

The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede’s two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that’s a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don’t set out to write seven books because that’s precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.

Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it’s called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno’s Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker’s series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that’s what we said we’d do. It’s only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip — because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it’s ten instead of nine than when it’s four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you’re selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they’re eager for you to make it ten instead.

But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no “please just one more ep” or “sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long.”

Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one’s discipline to falter. And I say — with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue — that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.

(“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)

It isn’t easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet’s structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.