How to write a long fantasy series

It took three years and two months rather than the two years I initially planned, but I have, at very long last, finished the Wheel of Time re-read and analysis. And as I promised quite some time ago, we’ll end with what I’ve learned.

This post, unlike the others, is not WoT-specific. I’ll be referencing the series, because it’s the primary source of my thoughts on this topic, but the point here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series — here defining “long” as “more than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.” (So something like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books wouldn’t count, since they’re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so I’m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.

I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Tor’s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.

With all of that intro material out of the way, let’s get to it.

On the basis of my re-read, and comparing to other series that attempt similar tasks, I have come to believe there is a single, fundamental principle, underlying all the other points I’ll make throughout this post, which governs the author’s ability to keep the narrative from spinning wildly out of control, to the detriment of their story.

It’s simple:


Most of us, when we set out to write a novel, have at least a vague sense of how long it’s going to be. We can be off in that estimate — In Ashes Lie ran about thirty thousand words longer than I originally intended — but generally speaking, you know that you’re aiming for 60K or 100K or 200K, and you use that to guide a thousand decisions you make along the way. Should you introduce new subplots, or is it time to start tying things up? Does your protagonist’s next action need some complications along the way, or would it be better to just handle it offscreen and move on to more important things? Can you bring in a new character for this strand, or should you find a way to take care of things with the characters you already have? These are questions of pacing, and we’ll come back to that a bunch of times along the way. But you can’t gauge your pace when you don’t know how long the race will be: at best, you’ll end up going through the whole thing with a steady, slogging, workhorse pace that (to switch metaphors) loses all sense of dynamics.

Pick a structure, and stick to it.

By “a structure” I mostly mean “a set number of books,” though I allow that there might be other ways to conceive of it. J.K. Rowling knew the Harry Potter series would be seven books, and each book would span one academic year at Hogwarts (plus or minus a little time before or after). The actual size of those books varied wildly, and you can certainly make the argument that she would have benefited from tighter editing as the word-count ballooned. But does anybody think that situation would have been improved by her saying, “There’s an awful lot of stuff to deal with in book five; I think I should split it in two”? I doubt it. (The decision to split the final film was likely drive as much by financial aspirations as artistic, if not more so. And oy vey is that the case with the two Breaking Dawn movies. But by then the material was set; the end was in sight.)

I haven’t read Steven Erickson’s Malazan books, but I’m told he set out to write a ten-book series, and that’s what he delivered. And you know what? Based on what I’ve heard from readers, some of them thought it was great, some of them thought it was flawed, but none of them thought it was the trainwreck of apocalyptically bad pacing the Wheel of Time turned into. Whether or not you liked where the story was going, it was indubitably going somewhere, and at a reasonable clip.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by contrast, was supposed to be a trilogy. Then a quartet. Then a sextet. Then A Dance With Dragons got too long, so Martin split it and now the series is a septet. In a recent interview, he said it might run to eight books instead. Step by step, I can see him walking into the same swamp Jordan got lost in.

Tom Smith discusses this in his essai Zeno’s Mountains, wherein he cites David Eddings saying that a man who’s never walked a mile has no real sense of how far a mile is. Most of us learn how much Stuff goes into a novel by writing one; we learn how much Stuff goes into a trilogy by doing the same. How many of us ever write more than one seven- or nine- or ten-book series, though? Jordan never got a chance to learn from his first attempt and do better the second time. Martin likely won’t, either.

Smith says, “I do not know of any general solution to this problem; perhaps no general solution is possible.” I say there is a solution, and its name is Discipline.

As answers go, it isn’t perfect; keeping your series confined within its intended boundaries may result in a less satisfying arc for various plots than you would get if you let them stretch out to their fullest. But letting them stretch may very well be detrimental to other aspects of the story. Keep one eye always on the larger picture, and know what must be accomplished by the end of the current book for you to remain on schedule.

Doing so may require some ruthless editing. And it’s entirely possible that such editing won’t be in your best commercial interests: it costs time and effort, laid against the odds that allowing the story to sprawl will translate into more money for you and your publisher alike. From the standpoint of craft, though, rather than the bottom line:

Pick a structure, and stick to it.

Continuing onward from there, I have learned several other salutary lessons, most (if not all) of them standing on that structural foundation.

1. Control your points of view.

A friend of mine, in discussion regarding an epic fantasy series she’d like to write, proposed that this should be the number-one item on my list. I put it at number two because I believe structure is one of the major yardsticks by which the decision to add a new pov character should be measured.

I could point to any number of cautionary examples from the Wheel of Time (goddamed Vilnar Barada comes to mind, or Alteima), but I think it’s best to look at the moment where I first noticed Jordan going wrong. That would be the pov scene for Jaichim Carridin in The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of the series — the one where the branching nature of the story is at its strongest, right before passing from being a feature into being a nigh-fatal bug.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Wheel of Time, Carridin is a minor villain character who gets four pov scenes in the entire series. In this particular scene, we discover that he’s scheming with Liandrin (another minor villain; she gets four pov appearances, too) on behalf of one of the factions he serves, and with the King of Tarabon on behalf of a different faction. Which sounds good, except that the key word in that sentence is “discover” rather than “scheme” — relatively little action takes place. Most of Carridin’s 3,194 words are spent on him thinking about stuff: the current political situation in the city, the current political situation outside the city, the way his evil overlords have been slaughtering his family one member at a time to motivate him, etc.

Some of the information that appears in this scene also reaches us via different channels in the story. Other parts aren’t terribly relevant, because they don’t come to anything in the long run. Jordan could easily have cut this scene, and we would have lost very little of substance; the few salient details could have been brought in elsewhere, by other means.

But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital. Does that justify spending time in the head of this minor villain?

No. Because here’s the thing: switching to Carridin is lazy. It’s the easiest way to tell us what the bad guys are doing — and I do mean “tell,” given that most of the scene is Carridin thinking rather than acting. Had Jordan restricted himself to a smaller set of pov characters, he would have been forced to arrange things so that his protagonists found out what Carridin was doing. In other words, they would have had to protag more. And that would have been a better story.

Every time you go to add a new point of view character, ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and then ask yourself again. Do we need to get this information directly, or see these events happen first-hand? Can you arrange for your existing protagonists to be there, or to find out about it by other means? Are you sure?

Given what I said above about sticking to your structure, there may indeed be times where it’s more word-efficient to jump to a new pov, rather than constructing a path by which your existing viewpoints can pick up the necessary threads. But be careful, because taking the lazy way out appears to be a slippery slope for authors. This page lists no less than sixty characters who get only a single pov scene each during the entirety of the Wheel of Time. Nineteen more get two apiece. Eleven get three, seven get four, and then the numbers start ticking upward faster, until our six primary characters have between fifty-seven and two hundred — just to give you an idea of scale.

If I am counting correctly, this series has ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-NINE POINT OF VIEW CHARACTERS.

That is absurd.

Martin is starting to have a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. He has thirty-one viewpoint characters so far, according to this page. Fifteen of those — nearly half! — have been introduced or received pov in the last two books, and most of them have only one or two chapters apiece per book, well below the usual average for this series. One character in A Feast for Crows died at the end of his sole chapter, whereupon pov transferred to one of the people he’d been traveling with. Why not give that person viewpoint to begin with? Why not spend the pages developing that character, instead of the one who won’t be with us for long?

John Scalzi once pointed out the inexorable consequence of multiple points of view on pacing, which authors of long epics would do well to bear in mind. If you have a 120K book and one pov character, that’s a hundred and twenty thousand words forwarding that character’s story. If you split it evenly between two characters, they get 60K apiece. Four characters, and now each of them has only 30K in which to move forward. Pretty soon, it feels like not very much is happening with any one of them.

Of course, you can mitigate this to some extent by having those characters interact, so that A’s story is progressing even while we’re in B’s head. But that brings us to our next point . . . .

2. Control your subplots.

Once you have multiple pov characters, it’s easy to let them wander off from one another and start doing different things. This isn’t inherently bad; if you want to write a long epic fantasy series, you’re going to need a high degree of complexity. But if you lose sight of your structure, you’re liable to also lose sight of how many subplots is too many, and which ones are taking too long to resolve.

There are two ways to fall off this particular cliff. One is that you know X is going on in Y part of the world, but you’re afraid it won’t seem reasonable if you spring it on your reader at the point where X begins to affect the rest of the plot. (Or you just think it’s too shiny not to show, or whatever.) So you decide you need to show X happening — and probably add a point of view to facilitate that. The other path starts with the point of view: having given a character pov rights, you feel consciously or subconsciously obligated to justify that decision. On a small scale, this leads to pointless crap like Vilnar Barada thinking about the girl he wants to marry; on a large scale, it leads to things like the Shaido Plot From Hell, which I am convinced was Jordan creating makework so that Perrin would have something to do, and also justifying Faile as an ongoing pov character.

It may annoy readers (especially when you do it badly), but I’ve come around to the philosophy that you shouldn’t be afraid to give one or more of your characters a sabbatical from the story. The example of Jordan doing this right is Perrin’s absence from The Fires of Heaven: Perrin had just won a great victory and settled into some necessary but unexciting work of consolidation, so it was a dandy time to step away and focus on other characters. The story would not have been improved by inventing a subplot to fill that gap. The example of Jordan doing it wrong is Mat’s absence from The Path of Daggers: Mat had just been trapped under a collapsing wall during the invasion of a city. It turns out nothing interesting had been going on with him during his book-long absence . . . but given where the story had left off with him, readers expected a great deal more, and didn’t get it. If you’re going to step away, choose the point at which something has wrapped up, not begun.

Making up subplots to keep a character busy is a cascading problem. The proliferating points of view created and/or abetted new plot complexity, which meant the central ropes of the narrative got stretched out farther than they were meant to go. You can’t shelve your main character for three books, though, so Rand — ostensibly the driving force of the whole shebang — didn’t have a lot to do for a while other than run around micro-managing the politics of several nations, creating a lot of material that didn’t really add all that much to the story. It did add words, though, which meant Jordan had to find something for Perrin to do while Rand was occupied, so Faile got kidnapped by the Shaido, and then next thing you know, you’ve created a monstrosity of a plotline that 80% of your readers will hate with the fire of a thousand suns, and oh by the way now you need to keep all those secondary characters busy, too, the ones who started this problem in the first place. It’s the principle of the Lowest Common Multiple, played out in narrative form: if one character is cycling at 13 rpm and another is at 20, you have to keep rolling until you hit 260 to get them both wrapping up at the same time. And that way lies the ever-expanding tale.

If you stick to your structure, you at least have a metric by which to gauge whether a subplot is worth the time it will take to cover it. Of course, most of us can’t really eyeball an idea and say “why yes, that’s fifteen thousand words’ worth of subplot” — would that we could! But this gets back to the “ruthless editing” I mentioned before. If it starts stretching out too far, find a way to accomplish the necessary elements more efficiently. If you can’t do that, cut the subplot. Yes, it may be shiny, but is it worth throwing off the balance of everything else in the story?

3. Centralize.

This is closely-enough related to the previous point that I almost folded it in there, but I think it deserves to be pulled out and looked at on its own.

A long series is going to have a certain amount of sprawl, which is both necessary and desirable. But keep an eye on how long it’s been since your major characters interacted with one another. In the Wheel of Time, the fourth book was the first one where the main protagonists didn’t all come together for the finale; not coincidentally, it’s also the last one where the story’s sprawl felt truly effective. Something like eight or nine books passed without Rand and Perrin seeing one another, or Perrin and Mat. There was a point in the story where Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Elayne were all in different places doing different things, and had been for some time; that’s five major plots rolling without reference to one another, in addition to the countless minor plots. We may also consider that Martin’s story and pacing have begun to fall apart as he lets his characters separate further and further: when’s the last time you had any two of Arya, Jon, Bran, Sansa, Catelyn, and Tyrion in the same place at the same time? (Not to mention Daenerys, off on the other side of the planet this entire time, or the host of other pov characters Martin has begun to introduce.)

Remember Scalzi’s point above: the more you fragment the perspective, the less forward movement each one gets per book. Remember my corollary: you can mitigate that by having the viewpoints overlap. Apart from the simple mathematics of pacing, this helps deal with the subplot issue, because you can keep important characters in the narrative by having A work with B on whatever it is B’s doing. (Or oppose it, or interfere with it, or whatever.) And it will assist in maintaining your structure, because if Aragorn’s got to be at the Black Gates when Frodo arrives at Mount Doom, then you’ve got to get that Pelennor thing done on schedule, which means not letting the Paths of the Dead episode overstay its welcome.

(Note that I am NOT holding up Tolkien as a model for how to construct the kind of narrative I’m talking about here. His approach was to ignore half his story for half a book, which isn’t a tactic that will serve any modern author very well. But Lord of the Rings is familiar enough to serve as a useful example.)

So yes. By all means let your characters wander off and do their own thing . . . but not for too long. Bring them back together periodically, and look for ways to get multiple stones to work together on killing that bird.

4. The further you go, the less you have to show your math.

This is less tied into the structural base than the rest of my points; it’s more a simple matter of word bloat.

Early on in your story, it’s useful to show how your characters pull off their small accomplishments. It demonstrates their competence to us, if it’s something they’re supposed to be good at, or conversely shows them developing new skills, if they’ve been thrust into situations outside their usual depth. Or it establishes the realism of the world, or gives the reader information about a topic they may not know very well. All of that is perfectly fine.

But when you’re ten books into your series, you really don’t need to show the camp logistics of the army your hero has been in command of for the last four books. You don’t need to walk through every step of how the heroine, having attained her throne, arranges a meeting with some fellow sovereigns. You’ve already established that these are tasks well within their skill-set. We will not bat an eyelash if you go straight to the meeting, or have the army keep trucking along in good order. If you introduce some element that makes those tasks hard again, then by all means show how the new challenge is overcome — but even then, you’re allowed to only focus on the challenging part, and let the routine stuff go.

Because in theory, the further you go into your series, the more exciting the story should be. Tensions mount! We’re building toward the climax! Now is not the time to stop and do the simple math all over again. Think of it like a geometry proof: once you’ve proved the basic theorems, you’re allowed to just cite them and move on, rather than having to go through every step every time.

One of the corollaries to this is more debatable. Re-reading the Wheel of Time, I was struck by how many times the story explains Min’s visions; it felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. Arguably, however, that sort of repetition is necessary, because some readers may not have read the previous book in a long time, and may have forgotten who Min is and what she can do. (Or they may have picked up the third book without having read the first two, though I tend to be of the opinion that people who do that deserve what they get. I note that many series, including both the Wheel of Time and Harry Potter, eventually give up on holding people’s hands — it just takes a while.) This is more a matter of exposition than showing the narrative math, and I’ll allow that some amount of reinventing the wheel may be required. But keep an eye on it anyway, and try to keep it to a minimum.

There are many other things I could say about the flaws in the Wheel of Time, or in other long series. But these are the main points, the ones I think are universally applicable, rather than specific to a particular narrative — along with, of course, the basic lessons of good writing, like not using twenty words where five will do. A story’s quality depends heavily on its shape, on the timing of various twists and revelations, the pacing of its arcs and the rate at which the characters grow; and good shape rarely happens by accident, especially on a large scale. Ergo, I firmly believe that you need some fixed points by which to navigate during your journey. Know how many books you’re going to write, hammer in a couple of pegs to say that certain events will happen at certain points, and then hold to your course. If you stray from the path, you may never find your way out of the woods.

Rumor has it, of course, that Jordan was asked to stretch the series out, because it was making so much money. I have no idea if that’s true. But as I said at the start, my concern here is not the commercial success of a series; I’m addressing the story itself.

I’m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other people’s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Smith in the comments to “Zeno’s Mountains,” there’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.

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0 Responses to “How to write a long fantasy series”

  1. livejournal

    Thoughts On Long Form Fantasy… as in trilogy-plus

    User referenced to your post from Thoughts On Long Form Fantasy… as in trilogy-plus saying: […] s work for single novels as well… Originally posted by at How to write a long fantasy series […]

  2. anghara

    Applause. This is a masterclass.

  3. marycatelli

    When I have a work about 50,000 words long — aka unpublished from length alone — I look for subplots. But the chief question I ask for subplots is “Can this bit character find the action of the novel more significant to him?”

    • Marie Brennan

      Within a single novel, yeah, you generally have to find ways to weave the threads together like that. In a long series, you have more room to let them separate before they come back together. But even then, your question is a good one to ask.

  4. mercwriter

    This is a great post, thank you!

  5. shadowkindrd

    I’ve been thinking about this post, as well as talking about it with friends, and I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with you, esp. about what you term structure, and also with what you say about POV and centralization.

    I think you’re conflating length and structure. The length of a story, or even how many books it takes to get there, isn’t necessarily the same as structure of the story. I think part of the control that Erikson has vs. the sprawl that Jordan and Martin dealt with is that Erikson outlines, and both Jordan and Martin didn’t/don’t. There’s also a tidbit about epic format that I think is relevant: structurally, epics ofter have multiples of 12 involved in them. Now think how many books were supposed to be in Jordan’s series. And remember that he had some classical training…

    You write heroic fantasy, which has a very specific set of story architecture; epic fantasy has a different set of story architecture, and these two do not overlap as much as people would think they do. In heroic fantasy, the focus is on the hero, on what the hero does, and how the hero affects people around him/her/it/them. It really does require a major centralized focus on that character, or on that very small group of characters. That narrow focus makes the story work.

    For epic fantasy, the world is the focus, not the characters. What changes the world goes through that the characters embody. That’s why there’s an apparent loss of character and event centralization. How does the world change, not just in one spot, but on a wider scale. Hence the plethora of POVs in many epic fantasies. This is also why subplots multiply worse than plot bunnies; the world is a big place, and subplots are the best means to show off that focus.

    Also, it is very clear you haven’t read Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, or you’d have shrieked about how many POVs he uses, too. *grin* (Hint: more than Jordan. But Erikson does a much better job with the stray POVs.) Michelle West does the same thing with multiple POV’s.

    I do agree with you on the “show your math” aspects, not because less is more (epic fantasy is not a place for minimalism), but because you don’t want to bore your reader with things they already know. Adding new details, though, or giving a different angle on what’s going on, later on is a good place for these things.

    Still, thought provoking post, and one that reminds me of things I need to think about. Thank you.

    • Marie Brennan

      I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with you

      I’m not sure we disagree as much as you seem to think. 🙂

      I think you’re conflating length and structure.

      I don’t think I am. I’m just saying that at longer lengths, it’s easier to suffer structural failure, because it’s harder for you to hold the entire thing in your head at once/you can’t go back and revise early volumes when you’re working on later ones.

      The length of a story, or even how many books it takes to get there, isn’t necessarily the same as structure of the story.

      I chose to call it “structure” because the division into volumes is relevant to the arrangement of the story, and because in some ways I’m more concerned with those units than with the sheer wordage. From what I can tell, it’s safer to have each book run fifty thousand words too long than to change your mind as to how many volumes the series will be. “Structure” isn’t the ideal word, but it fit what I meant better than the alternatives.

      I think part of the control that Erikson has vs. the sprawl that Jordan and Martin dealt with is that Erikson outlines, and both Jordan and Martin didn’t/don’t.

      Which certainly helps with sticking to the plan. But not everyone can outline rigorously; the alternative is that you need to keep a constant eye on these issues.

      There’s also a tidbit about epic format that I think is relevant: structurally, epics ofter have multiples of 12 involved in them. Now think how many books were supposed to be in Jordan’s series. And remember that he had some classical training…

      Jordan didn’t actually plan for 12, though. He aimed for it eventually, but he didn’t plan for it from the start — and that’s part of the problem.

      You write heroic fantasy

      You appear to be using that term in a different sense than I’m used to. Most stories we tell, including most “epic fantasy,” are focused on the characters, even if there are a lot of them and the scope of their action is world-shaking. Lately we’ve gotten more decentralized series — but even then, there’s a core cast whom readers invest in and want to follow through the tale.

      A plethora of viewpoints is fine; what isn’t fine is when the artist keeps tacking new bits of canvas onto the edges, until we’re in danger of losing sight of what the actual picture is supposed to be. (In theory someone could write a truly postmodern epic fantasy, where the entire thing is designed to be a pointillist mosaic whose through-line is thematic rather than character-based — but no one has done it yet that I know of.)

      This is also why subplots multiply worse than plot bunnies; the world is a big place, and subplots are the best means to show off that focus.

      Yep. But if you let them multiply too far, you lose the focus. It’s like listening to someone tell an anecdote, but they keep sidetracking to explain how their cousin came to live in Detroit and why they like dogs so much, and eventually the point of the story is lost. If you’re going to digress (as epic fantasy often does), you can’t do it willy-nilly.

      Also, it is very clear you haven’t read Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, or you’d have shrieked about how many POVs he uses, too.

      That’s why I only reference him at the beginning, re: sticking to the plan. Having not read his work, I can’t judge the success of any particular aspect; all I know is that his fans didn’t scream the same way Jordan’s did, and Martin’s are increasingly doing.

      • maladaptive

        But not everyone can outline rigorously; the alternative is that you need to keep a constant eye on these issues.

        It’s so funny– writing advice is always “do this, do that” and outline is always, always DO THIS. But talking to actual writers and you get more of that split between outliners and non-outliners.

        I’ve done them both. A really detailed outline was helpful for a YA romance with 3 POV characters (this was during my fourth attempt to write the thing so I already had about 40k words to base the outline on), but the 5 book series has a document of Cool Things I Want To Include and a very sketchy bullet point outline. Dunno how well that’ll work out for me, yet.

        Outlines just don’t work so well for everyone, but you don’t get to hear it until you’re already in pro circles it feels like. Of course, you don’t learn that until you’ve had to rewrite the outline for the tenth time….

        • shadowkindrd

          There’s a difference between the craft end of this discussion and the analysis end of the discussion.

          On a craft basis, I would totally agree with you; each writer has to do what they have to do to get the story down. If outlining kills the story, don’t do it. Write organically, then spend the time afterwards to pull the story together and make it cohesive.

          In analysis, though, it’s pretty clear that the organic/pantser method doesn’t aid Martin and Jordan’s storytelling. They get lost in the subplots and characterizations and such in the first draft. That’s all fine for a first draft, but then they don’t take the weedwhacker to it. They let the sprawl happen instead of tightening it down. They don’t take the time during revision to hone the story, and it shows.

          Erikson, on the other hand, does take the time to focus everything into one interconnected story. While his prose is incredibly thick in the first five books, he does get better at writing clear prose. But every sentence is loaded, and everything points back to character, plot, or theme of what’s happening in either the book or the series.

          In the end, it’s not the drafting stage I am pointing out; it’s the revision, or lack thereof, that makes or breaks an organic writer. Obviously what Martin and Jordan is writing/has written works for a lot of people. But they’re also highly complained about. Erikson, which has many of the same hallmarks, isn’t. Neither is David Weber.

          Michelle West has gotten some flack on her Sun Sword series, and she’s constantly complaining that she has a hard time judging how many words/books it will take for her to get through her stories, but when I look over that series in particular, I see that even with the high POV amounts, she still stays focused on the central story, this story of trying to prevent demons from taking over the southern country. But in her latest series, she’s on focus. She’s also mostly an organic writer, if I understand what she’s said.

          So yes, as craft, write how you have to. Your readers won’t care how you get there. But the story on the page will be evaluated right up against everyone else’s, and if it doesn’t come up to par, that will be noted. Calling technique into question is part of that evaluation, in my experience.

        • Marie Brennan

          No piece of writing advice is universal. 🙂

      • aamcnamara

        On postmodern epic fantasy–does Neveryona count? Linked via Twitter; thanks for the interesting read.

  6. rysmiel

    I entirely agree with your general point about structure.

    I am inclined to wonder whether there is, at some level, something about structuring a really long wavelength story that is as much different from novels as novels are from short stories; it’s hard to put words to, but I feel there are odd similarities between multi-novel epic fantasies and long-but-limited comics like Sandman or Preacher and TV series with season-length arcs, though it’s hard to get a handle on them because so relatively few people get to do really long wavelength more than once so that one can see what they learned from the first time. (I am incidentally quite impressed with what Jim Butcher is doing on this scale, sfaict from a structure that is Joseph Campbell with some Tarot overlay.)

    For what its worth, while the Malazan books did not strike me as doing the scale of pacing mess that WoT rturned into, they are still really a mess by any less extreme standard, particularly book 8 in which even the ox standing on the side of the road gets a POV, and a goodly chunk of the ongoing plotlines just get dropped, seemingly largely for Ian Cameron Esslemont’s series in the same world to pick up.

    • Marie Brennan

      I am inclined to wonder whether there is, at some level, something about structuring a really long wavelength story that is as much different from novels as novels are from short stories

      Very much so. And I do think TV series with arc-plots can offer some instructive lessons on the subject; among other things, they are required to hold to a structure whether they like it or not. Twenty-two episodes (or whatever), forty some-odd minutes per episode, no wiggle room. They get jerked around in a lot of ways novelists don’t (you’ll get another season! Wait, you won’t!), but they have to figure out how to tell a good story within the space allotted.

      For what its worth, while the Malazan books did not strike me as doing the scale of pacing mess that WoT rturned into, they are still really a mess by any less extreme standard, particularly book 8 in which even the ox standing on the side of the road gets a POV, and a goodly chunk of the ongoing plotlines just get dropped, seemingly largely for Ian Cameron Esslemont’s series in the same world to pick up.

      Heh. Well, like I said in the post, I haven’t read them. But do you think it would have solved any of Erickson’s problems had he stretched the series to twelve or fifteen books instead? 🙂

      • rysmiel

        And I do think TV series with arc-plots can offer some instructive lessons on the subject; among other things, they are required to hold to a structure whether they like it or not. Twenty-two episodes (or whatever), forty some-odd minutes per episode, no wiggle room. They get jerked around in a lot of ways novelists don’t (you’ll get another season! Wait, you won’t!), but they have to figure out how to tell a good story within the space allotted.

        Oh yes, and I’m reminded of Mike Carey’s comment about going from writing comics to writing novels being like a whole extra dimension of freedom because he could fix something in chapter 3 when he realised it while writing chapter 15.

        Well, like I said in the post, I haven’t read them. But do you think it would have solved any of Erickson’s problems had he stretched the series to twelve or fifteen books instead?

        No, but cutting it down to 60% or 70% of the wordcount might have improved it significantly; personally, I’d have kept the physical volume divides except for merging the last two.

        (incidentally, I am here via , which I don’t think I remembered to say at the time.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Oh yes, and I’m reminded of Mike Carey’s comment about going from writing comics to writing novels being like a whole extra dimension of freedom because he could fix something in chapter 3 when he realised it while writing chapter 15.

          I think RPGs have been good training for me, in that respect. You can’t retcon something that happened six months ago in game; you have to figure out how to roll forward with it.

  7. Marie Brennan

    I was thinking that, yeah. Two books ago, and longer than that for the rest of them — you had Tyrion and Catelyn in A Clash of Kings, I think, and for every other pair it’s been since book one? And I do think that letting each strand wander off on its own for that long a span can be either a cause or a sign of problems — it starts too feel too much like a bunch of disparate stories crammed together, rather than a tapestry.

  8. leatherdykeuk

    What a superb post. Now, of course, I want to write a septet.

  9. livejournal

    This is a masterclass on writing.

    User referenced to your post from This is a masterclass on writing. saying: […] Swan Tower – How to write a long fantasy series […]

  10. cofax7

    This is an excellent discussion. As I am structure’s bitch, I shall be sharing the link.

    I also feel the need to point you towards this essay by Kate Elliott on structuring trilogies. I think it’s really worthwhile looking at Elliott’s work in light of the question of structuring long series, because what I see in her work is a very clear learning process, going from Jaran (which although entertaining feels rather shapeless and episodic) through Crown of Stars (rather better structured, but still quite sprawling) to the Crossroads trilogy (which is very well constructed: epic within its scope, but efficient in its focus on the story she is telling).

    And as others have said, I think this is very much relevant to other work. Fanfic writers often post as they go, and as a result even if the sections are smaller than entire novels, they too get stuck in the swamp that Martin & Jordan fell into. [I really love Bedlamsbard’s epic Dust (a Narnia AU of quite astonishing scope and thematic power), but I can’t help but wonder how much better it would be if it were written in entire, revised, and then posted.]

    OTOH, as a fanfic writer I reserve the option of posting-as-I-go and then revising the frell out of the story before reposting it. This may result in some confusion on the part of some readers, but the end result is a work with a lot less rambly bits that don’t serve the story–and a structure that mostly holds together.

  11. Marie Brennan

    I know this sort of thing has been done in the more rarified end of mainstream fiction, too. But try maintaining that approach for seven books . . . .

  12. Anonymous

    Hi, can I link this at metanews?

  13. Anonymous


    I was going to bring up Michelle West’s long serieses, but someone else already did. I think she’s doing it more right than not, by keeping her eye firmly on the ball. Even if I do think she didn’t need the first three books of backstory in her current series. She may have needed to write them, as a reader, I’m not persuaded I needed them. But she’s keeping the focus, and splitting her over-arching story – the fight against the Lord of Hells – clearly in mind. Each series in that world handles an aspect of that, and moves the overall story forward.

    Now if she could get her current protaganist, Jewel, to protag a bit more instead of whining so much about how she doesn’t want the responsibility….

    Anyway, I don’t think it requires firm outlines so much as a firm sense of ‘got to get to this, and this has to be happening/have happened by then…” and a desire not to go on forever. Those hard points you mention, like Frodo at Mt. Doom and Aragorn with the army at the Black Gate.

    Ryk Spoor (yeah, that’s a real name) in PHOENIX RISING has characters from another as yet unwritten story pop in and play a role when appropriate, but they have their own arc, and he’s planning to cover their story in another planned trilogy, after the PHOENIX trilogy finishes and sells well enough for another set to be bought. He points out that if you’ve got a world spanning threat, you ought to have a world spanning response, but he’s not going to even TRY to cram it all into one series. He’s hoping for a threefer. West seems to be taking the same tack. As a reader I think that’s a lot more likely to be successful with readers overall, and cause fewer complaints.

    And on a completely different subject I just finished A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS and enjoyed it quite a bit. The resident teenage dragon lover is now reading it. We discussed the number of limbs sparklings have over dinner last night. From the sketch it looks like 8?

    Elaine T

    • Marie Brennan

      I think there’s a great deal to be said for writing an epic series that’s explicitly divided into smaller units. The larger arc is a world-spanning metaplot, but the way you tell that story is by doing a trilogy about this part, and then a trilogy about that part, and so on. Very few writers hit the Jordan/Martin/etc lottery, where the publisher will just sign on for however many books it’s going to take, and sales are good enough to support that. Working in smaller units like trilogies means that even if you only get through twelve books of your planned eighteen-book epic, you’ve still delivered satisfying moments of completion to your readers.

      And yes, sparklings have six legs and two wings, for a total of eight limbs. (But ignore the bit where it says “actual size” — the image was supposed to be shrunk down for printing, and it wasn’t.)

      • mindstalk

        This made me think of Robin Hobb’s Farseer/Fool/etc. trilogies. 3, working on 4, trilogies in the same universe, with some of the same characters and related events, but their own stories and structures (Liveship having multiple POVs, vs. the single of the other two.)

        • Marie Brennan

          It’s a very sane way to approach the subject, whether you start out wanting to tell one big story that can be broken up, or write a trilogy and then realize there’s more to say. But it doesn’t work for every kind of story.

  14. livejournal

    linkspam of writingy things

    User referenced to your post from linkspam of writingy things saying: […] later with author interviews & people talking about books, too. *How to Write a Long Fantasy Series […]

  15. Anonymous

    Don’t know if you saw it, but Patricia C. Wrede wrote up some good stuff about the why’s behind the what’s of this post.

  16. goodalls_clone

    I like your analysis of WoT…the middle books were just too sprawling and repetitive (oh, there’s a Forsaken running a country, we must attack it. Plan, plan, plan. Attack! Finite and repeat).

    I’m torn about #4 though; I always found that kind of detail to be part of Jordan’s style, part of painting that vivid picture.

    • Marie Brennan

      Early on it was vivid; after a while, it felt like he was showing me the same damn picture I’d seen twelve times already, when I really wanted him to show me something new.

  17. Marie Brennan

    Nice, thanks for letting me know!

  18. Anonymous

    late to the party–sorry. i actually read this post when you first wrote it and wanted to come back and re-read with an eye for how much applies to my Real Life. i know a ton of this doesn’t apply to the mystery/crime/thriller genre, but certain things do. e.g. switching point of view: it’s almost ALWAYS laziness (you’ve hit the nail on the head), and when a mystery novel veers into the Bad Guy’s perspective, i almost always slam it shut in disgust. unless the novel is a carefully executed character study with some really tangible and story-driving reason for showing the antagonist’s decision-making and thought process, it does nothing but weaken the protagonist’s narrative authority and dispel tension. i’ve told this to so, so many writers. i can’t tell you how many (even old pros) suddenly think it’s a good idea to write a counterpoint narrative from the serial killer’s point of view–guess what. he’s a sociopath. his decision making is NOT INTERESTING.

    anyway. selfishly, i hope the reason you’re writing this all down is because you’re thinking strategically about your own epic series 🙂

    • Anonymous

      sorry–i also forgot to sign my comment

      that was juliet.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, very belated, but as to your last point — only very vaguely. As in, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing such a series since I was in high school, but am no closer to doing so now than I was then.

  19. livejournal

    Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics

    User referenced to your post from Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics saying: […] to have incited Marie Brennan to write a piece of her own: ‘How to write a long fantasy series’ […]

  20. mindstalk

    There’s Cherryh’s endless Foreigner series…

    • Marie Brennan

      Are those a single coherent plot arc? I was under the impression they were more episodic/modular. (Never read them myself.)

      • mindstalk

        Dunno. I didn’t read more than the first three and have avoided them since. Don’t know if they still follow Bren tightly or what. But it keeps going…

  21. mindstalk

    Somewhat wrong. I know jack about the new trilogy, but Liveship features, as fairly important, a character who is also important to the first and third (central, even) trilogies. The events of Liveship also have climax-level effects in the third series, including appearance of another character IIRC.

    I suspect Rain Wilds (4th one) is “back to the Liveship region, what happens next?” *checks Wikipedia* Yeah. Some minor characters are major characters from Liveship, though the main cast seems all new. Also, it’s become a “4 book novel”.

    • lenora_rose

      Interesting. Good to know. I’ve said before that I ahve no interest in reading the Farseer Trilogy after reading the Tawny Man (Because the bits of story I get from there seem to me to be better as backstory than frontstory) but the others intrigue me, and if there is more reward in reading the lot than the disparate elements, I may have to look closer.

      This is all of course well to the side of the actual post…

      • mindstalk

        I enjoyed reading them all, though I don’t know if I’d go back and re-read them — the sheer length was nice while traveling Europe lightly with electronic copies — the first one prompted me to ask my LJ “so who’s more bleak, Hobb or Martin?” (Total consensus was “Martin, but we understand why you ask.”)

  22. Anonymous

    I wonder, with this recent conversation on Grimdark fantasy, if Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove’s HOUSEHOLD GODS bears re-reading in this context. I do recall the book did do some thinky thinking about how a modern American woman would find the life of a 1st century Roman woman.

  23. Anonymous

    Nice title! I like how it fits with Natural History.

  24. Anonymous

    Actually I voted for the punk Tam Lin because Tam Lin!

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