more thoughts on the epic fantasy thing

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.

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0 Responses to “more thoughts on the epic fantasy thing”

  1. Anonymous

    I think the trilogies being easier thing is at least in part because so many of us have imbibed Aristotle’s dictum about stories having beginnings, middles, and ends (or at least it was presented to me as Aristotle in secondary school). Which is not necessarily to say that that’s the only way worth telling a story, but might make sense of why it’s one of the easier ways for… for want of a better word, culturally Western writers ?

    Personally, I think Nolan’s Batman films would be a much better work without the third volume, and arguably would not lose much for not having the first; the second is the essence of the tale, and I have very limited patience for the superhero movie’s seeming obsession with origin stories. And come to think of it, superhero comics do not fit that story shape – they doe beginnings over and over, and endless middle, but real genuine ends are few and far between.

  2. Marie Brennan

    Re: Batman, I meant mostly that Nolan’s approach to the character implied an expiration date for Bruce being Batman (because his body would give out, even if he never sorted his psychological issues), and I would have felt betrayed had he tried to make the series ongoing. Much better for it to be a trilogy, as planned, and then end. (I agree that I’m getting bored with the assumption that a superhero movie must start with the origin, but that’s neither here nor there. Ditto the lack of genuine endings in superhero comics, which is part of the reason I’m not interested in them.)

    Regarding trilogies, yes. Especially in the West, we expect things to come in tripartite structure: not just the beginning/middle/end of Aristotle, but three brothers, three tasks, three riddles, etc. Three macguffins for the quest fantasy to retrieve. (Native American folktales tend to have things in fours instead, and I’m not sure about other parts of the world.) It’s a firm enough pattern that we have lots of guideposts to help us judge how we should pace our story to get three books out of it.

  3. Marie Brennan

    Thanks! It seems to be on several people’s brains lately.

  4. Anonymous

    Traditional grimdark (grittygrotty) still repeats the ersatz Campbel/lite mythology of “the hero’s journey” in Byronic mode — it’s like Satanists reenacting Christian rites by inverting old stuff, instead of a new framework. So the mode is both regressively gendered and derivative, except that its practitioners want to pass it off as something new and radical by arbitrary (and a-historical) definitions of “realistic” reconstructions.

  5. Anonymous

    “birth control certainly isn’t ‘unlike any real society’ though I think it’s unlike medieval ones.”

    Not really. There’s a summary of evidence of ancient and medieval use of contraceptives here. John M. Riddle’s Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994) goes into more detail.

  6. Anonymous

    My mother ditto. In fact, she came down with polio at age 16 in the mid-1940s. Luckily, she was one of those who recovered.

  7. Anonymous

    And the un-muting of a speaker is really key, because…she did know her son. She just apparently never accepted that this is how he really is. And I just…having my Rob, my godson, being autistic, means that this makes me cry tears of rage whenever I think about it too closely, that someone would be looking at him and thinking he was not the real Rob. Thinking that his real reactions were somehow different and hidden somewhere because they weren’t what that person planned on–I can’t ignore that thing with Kevin. I just can’t. (Also she only has one kid at a time. Jenna doesn’t exist when she might be inconvenient. So it’s not only about the autism.)

  8. Anonymous

    My problem with AFFC was that I could see the problems looming on the horizon, or maybe closer than that. When Martin said he had to split the book in two because there was too much material, it sounded like it was action-packed, full of our favorite characters doing things; then I got AFFC and discovered that, no, half the book was about new people I’d never met and didn’t care about. Given that I’d seen the same kind of fragmentation and pov drift happen with Jordan, I found AFFC extremely ominous. After reading it, I said I would reserve judgment until ADWD came out, because it wasn’t meant to stand on its own — but when it had to stand on its own for six years, I had no choice but to take it on its own terms, and those weren’t very good. Now that I’ve read ADWD, the previous one looks even worse.

    What appalls me is that there are more than twelve hundred five-star reviews on Amazon. Seriously? This is one of the best books those people have read, so filled with wonderful moments, so powerfully moving and awesome that they will remember it and revisit it again and again? No, I’m pretty sure that’s the fanboy impulse talking: they love the series, therefore they love everything about the series, and cannot bear to think negatively about it.

  9. Anonymous

    Now that’s odd. I can’t remember to ever had trousers or jackets without pockets, and my style tends towards the elegant, not blue jeans. Even most of my skirts have pockets except for the tartan plated ones (which I wear with a sporran, gender stuff be damend). Maybe it’s an American thing.

    Though I do usually carry a handbag because you can fit more into it – not even men’s trousers and jackets would hold books and water bottles. 😉

  10. Anonymous

    For hardware, my HP desktop has been running for ~3.5 years without a hitch.

    You can probably run Steam games on medium settings with a low-cost graphics card. Just be careful about the power requirements, since at some point graphics cards start needing bigger power supplies that are not found in typical mini-towers.

    I’m running Win8 on my non-touch laptop. As others have said, you can mostly avoid the Metro Start menu in the stock Win8 install. The main thing to understand is that the hardware Windows key is pretty important – hit it to get to the “start menu” and hit Windows-D to get to the Desktop.

    It still has cmd.exe and Control Panel. If you want to rummage, the bits are there.

    If you want to add a start button replacement, I hear good things about these guys but haven’t tried them

    There has been significant work and improvement “under the hood,” so I’d give Win8 a shot. Disclosure: I work at Microsoft.

  11. Anonymous

    Three system-independent thoughts:

    * Taxes

    * Crime, both “organized” and “white-collar”

    * Liquidity traps (“OMG, if I buy anything more than off-the-street plate armor, I’ll be reducing coin reserves below the level the bank demands!”), scarcity of coinage, and the greatest source of evil short of nuclear weapons: accounting “irregularities”

    These are all ways to force the PCs to turn management over to NPCs without a decree from the GM. And once NPCs are between the players and their money, the fun REALLY begins…

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