Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

While we’re on the subject of epic fantasy —

So it turns out that Marie Brennen recently posted a long, detailed analysis of where Jordan went wrong with his immense Wheel of Time series, which I’ve never read, btw, so I can’t offer any personal commentary about that. But Brennen’s analysis is extremely interesting, especially in light of some of the problems I’ve had with modern epic fantasy. (And it’s even more interesting to me, because I can see my BLACK DOG duology stretching out to, say, five books or so, if all goes well with the first couple.)

Brennen says: “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.”

Whoa, is that ever true.

Brennen’s whole post is very much worth reading. She makes four main points:

a) The author had better figure out ahead of time the basic length of the series. Five books? seven? ten? — and set up some major goalposts up that are going to carry the overall narrative, and then stick to this basic structure, because otherwise it is too easy for the narrative to dissolve into chaos. Brennen says:

“As answers go, [discipline] 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.”

Then she goes on to make lots of good observations about what happens if the author loses control of the narrative:

b) The author had better not let the pov characters proliferate unchecked. To which I say, amen — even though I often struggle to keep down the numer of pov characters in my books. (Someday I will write a book where there is only one pov character period, and in fact I have that book in mind, but not this year.)

“But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital,” says Brennen. “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?”

Want to know just how many pov characters Jordan’s series wound up with, total? Go read Brennen’s post and laugh, because it really is, as she says, a totally absurd number.

c) The author had better not let the number of sub-plots proliferate either, which will certainly happen if the number of pov characters gets out of control. “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.” And also:

d) The author ought to try to centralize the action — to get all the main characters together at some point in every book, doing something important.

Yes, definitely, to both those points. Seriously, there’s lots more and it’s all worth reading, and the comments are worth reading, too, so you should click over.

Nor is epic fantasy alone in struggling with sprawl. You know who I find myself thinking about here? SM Stirling. I think this is a huge issue with the later books in his ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME series and particularly with his Novels of the Change series (the series that starts with DIES THE FIRE). I find the early books of those series much more compelling than the later ones, and in fact I have drifted away from the Novels of the Change because I’m just not that interested anymore.

Plus, moving into space opera, I think David Weber and Elizabeth Moon have had problems with this, too — the former with his Honor Harrington series, obviously, and the latter most distinctly with her Esmay Suiza series. I’ve always thought that was one big reason that Moon started her other space opera series, the TRADING IN DANGER one featuring Kylara Vatta — to start over with a much more tightly focused narrative. Though even that series, which works much better, dose start to lose focus toward the end.

You know what one ultra-long series comes to mind that does NOT suffer from any of these problems? CJ Cherryh’s FOREIGNER series. That’s up to what, twelve books? But the ultra-tight focus on Bran Cameron as the sole pov protagonist through the whole thing means that Cherryh completely avoids every problem Brennen discusses. That right there is a lesson for us all.

What do you all think? Got any candidates for series that lose focus, sprawl into a mess, and wind up becoming a salutary lesson for others? Or alternatively, for long series that keep their focus and wind up with a clean narrative arc through the whole thing?

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13 Comments While we’re on the subject of epic fantasy —

  1. Maureen E

    And Cherryh’s writing in linked trilogies, rather than a single long series. I suspect that may make a difference as well.

    Interestingly, the Queen’s Thief series, one of my favorites, seems to break all of these rules, or almost all, and yet I think it works just fine. Megan Whalen Turner originally wrote The Thief without thinking she would ever write a sequel; now there’s a planned 6 book series, though the books that ended up being King of Attolia and Conspiracy of Kings were originally one book, so who knows? And there are multiple pov characters, and multiple sub plots.

    It’s all much tighter than the Jordan and Martin series that Brennan focuses on, so perhaps that’s the difference. And certainly Gen remains the main character throughout the series. But I’m not quite satisfied with either of those answers really getting at why MWT works for me and Jordan or Martin wouldn’t.

  2. Rachel

    I think you are right that the linked trilogy structure probaby helps Cherryh keep her long series in order, though the tight focus on Bren is also a very important factor there, I believe. The series would be utterly different (and I think much weaker) if she scattered the pov.

    To me . . . well, the Attolia stories definitely work. Definitely. The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia in particular are two of my favorite books ever.

    But to me, it actually feels like the first book is less integrated into the series — I can tell she wrote it as a standalone; to me both Gen and the universe feel like they change between that one and the second. It’s not a huge big break that the reader stumbles over, but I think it’s there. And I’m don’t actually agree that Gen is the main character in either the 3rd or 4th book; I think there he is an incredibly important driver of the plot, but not the main character.

    MWT does really fascinating (and as far as I know unique) things with this series: starts off with a first-person pov with Gen as the pov protagonist; switches to a close third-person in the second book but still with Gen as the protagonist; then switches pov to third person for Costis but has Costis’ viewpoint totally wrap around Gen; then gives Sophos the pov in a blended first/third narrative for the 4th book and leaves Gen entirely out of sight for most of the book. I don’t know of anybody else who shifts person and viewpoint around like that in one series, and yet every choice works perfectly for what the book is meant to do because Turner is just that good.

    I can’t at this point even begin to guess what she’ll do in the next book. But I expect whatever she does to be a perfect choice or the book and to work splendidly.

    I also do think Turner has stuck to one central narrative thread from the second book on, with every story revealing more of it but not changing it: the Medes want to conquer everybody, Eddis is going to fall regardless; Eugenides is the only one who can hold the center while things fall apart; Turner is working to get him to a place where he can do that.

    Also, her books are all short — compare to GRR Martin, say — and she has definitely not allowed the number of characters and subplots to proliferate, because though she does add new pov characters, she also doesn’t hesitate to leave someone out of the action for an entire book — look at how she left Gen out for the whole 4th book. That’s exactly where Brennen is saying that those sprawling epics fail: they want to keep the reader apprised of what every single character is doing and they invent stuff so every character will always have stuff to do, and you wind up with a mess.

    So, it seems to me that Turner has a substantially better feel for story and narrative than, say, Jordan, and makes effective choices for each book that do in fact prevent confusion and sprawl. So I think that the only rule she’s really breaking is: Know how many books you plan to write before you start. And it’s easier for her to deal with that because the total number of words she’s going to wind up with will be about equal to two GRR Martin books, maybe less.

  3. Maureen E

    And I’m don’t actually agree that Gen is the main character in either the 3rd or 4th book; I think there he is an incredibly important driver of the plot, but not the main character.

    Hmm, I think you’ve touched on one of the central disagreements in the Turner fandom! Namely that some people said they feel like they’re getting further and further away from Gen, while others think the last two books are the closest to him. I don’t know that I have a firm opinion. I certainly take your point–I think the way I am using main character here is not so much protagonist in the normal sense as character-on-whom-the-whole-book-rests. While at this point several characters are very important, Gen is the only I see who is completely essential to the books.

    And you’re right about leaving characters out for entire books. Costis is another good example–he’s entirely absent in the 4th book. Even though–and perhaps this is important–he’s a huge fan favorite. Which is to say that MWT interacts with her fandom but doesn’t seem to be swayed by them. I don’t know to what extent that factors into the epic fantasy writers Brennan is talking about, but I know of TV shows where the writers react to fandom and it turns out terribly.

    I don’t know of anybody else who shifts person and viewpoint around like that in one series, and yet every choice works perfectly for what the book is meant to do because Turner is just that good.

    The only thing that comes close is Diana Wynne Jones’s Dalemark Quartet, which goes from Mitt and Moril’s 3rd person to Tanaquai’s earlier 1st person to a mixed 3rd person pov in Crown of Dalemark. Again, DWJ has the chops to pull it off, at least in my opinion.

    I think it really is partly that Turner is just that good and has the sense of craft that allows her to do things that could fall apart in other writers’ hands. And at this point she does have a sense of where she’s going and what she’s doing, though it may take her longer to get there than she expects.

    I can’t at this point even begin to guess what she’ll do in the next book. But I expect whatever she does to be a perfect choice or the book and to work splendidly.

    This is very true! Even though some fans were disappointed in the 4th book, because it was less twisty than the others, I thought it fit Sophos perfectly. He hides in plain sight, rather than having secrets within secrets the way Gen does.

    It’s also entirely possible that I’m just not very interested in the kind of epic fantasy that Brennan’s discussing, and so all of the examples I’m thinking of don’t track exactly. While it’s becoming more common in YA, bloated books are still rarer, I think, than in adult SFF.

    Also, long comment is long, so sorry! I love blathering about books.

  4. Elaine T

    CJC’s Atevi does have other POV characters than Bren. We get some from Jase in the middle of the series, and now she’s added Cajieri, which has added more interest and brought me back to reading it. I do think the the structure of telling one episode in three installments helps greatly.

    Katherine Kerr is another who has written a very long series; she broke it up in interesting ways, both in quartets (for the most part), and with reincarnation. The series covers several hundred years following a core of personalities reincarnated (without memory of previous lives) over that time, screwing things up, fixing things from previous lives, etc. I don’t think she was aiming for a grand finale, more of a ‘things are finally where they should have been’ and she mostly pulls it off. There are some dead spots along the way, and – according to my husband – the end is something of a fizzle, while certain threads never really play out. The books are structured so there’s a ‘story present’ section, then usually at least one historical/previous incarnations section, etc. And back.

    In a different genre, Dorothy Dunnett wrote a very well regarded six book series, where she ratcheted the tension mightily over the course of the last half. She later wrote an eight book series which IMO was a book or two too long (others disagree). She’d followed Brennan’s advice by setting hard markers – hers were historical events. In this case that caused certain storylines to stretch beyond all reason because of the years that had to be covered. And I do think she paid too much attention to what fans said to the detriment of the novels.
    As far as POV, she wrote in omniscient, as far as I could tell, usually with readers in one person’s head, looking at another. Less so in the second series, where we spend a fair amount of time in the main character’s head, but he still keeps secrets from us. Neat, tricky writing, there.

    I DO wish more writers would try omniscient instead of chapter by chapter POV changes.

    I need to reread MWT’s books, as it’s been a few years, and I don’t think I’ve got around to the fourth yet. So I won’t comment on them.

  5. Rachel

    Oh, yeah, like *I* can complain about long comments!

    I totally agree that bloated books are WAY more of a thing in adult fantasy than YA. I sort of flinch when I say this, but you know who one of the only YA examples I can think of is? The last several Harry Potter books, especially the last. {Flinches}

    Seriously, I thought Rowling should have cut the wandering-in-the-wilderness part by about, oh, nine-tenths.

    And although I personally love all three books, Tamora Pierce’s Bekka Cooper novels are very very long and in my opinion the last one could have been cut significantly.

    I am having a really hard time imagining feeling like you are getting closer to Eugenides in the 4th book. I mean, what? How is that possible? It would be interesting to read through a discussion thread where people are defending that reaction; you don’t happen to know where such a thread is, by any chance?

    Yes, I always personally mean “point-of-view character” when I say protagonist, never “driver of the plot”. It’s interesting when these two roles get seperated. The first author *I* saw do this was Dorothy Dunnett, and I was madly impressed and wrote a duology that way — which I will publish eventually because it is (modest cough here) really good, even though I never placed it with a publisher.

  6. Rachel

    Oh, yeah, you’re right! I can see why I didn’t really think about Jase, but how did I forget about Cajieri? I really love his pov sections, even though I personally never got bored with Bren at the pov protagonist. Still, Cherryh really is extremely tightly focused in this series compared to most any other huge series.

    And yes, how interesting that Dorothy Dunnett is appearing again in this thread, that’s unexpected. Yes, those are some long series. I think that the . . . . second? . . . I think second of the Lymond book could have been left out entirely. I don’t think it seems like Dunnett really figured out what she was doing until after that. And those are the ones where she almost completely keeps the reader out of Lymond’s head even though he is absolutely driving the entire plot, just a totally fascinating thing to do.

    The Niccolo books I didn’t like as well. On the other hand, I still have them all and don’t plan to give them away any time soon.

    Hey, omniscient is hard!

    And I think the fourth MWT book is excellent — even though Eugenides hardly appears.

  7. Elaine T

    Oh, I agree, the later Harry Potter installments would have been better shorter.

    Writers seem to think we need to see everything. We don’t. It’s okay to write something like: for four weeks Harry and Hermione camped out…. Then something happened.

    Or for one viewpoint character to have nothing worth dropping us in on to see. Sometimes that’s what happens. Someone is off having adventures, and life is going on normally without anything story-worthy in another part of the tale. It’s okay to cover it in a sentence or two, really! Not everyone needs to be doing story worthy stuff all the time, and if writers stop trying to make it happen that way, books will be tighter and (IMO) readers will be happier.

    I haven’t read Daniel Abrahamson, but I’m going to show your previous post to my husband who has read the first series and started the second.

  8. Rachel

    Well, hopefully your husband will have a higher tolerance for unpleasant pov characters than I do. Because, you know, BURNING PEOPLE ALIVE is pretty darned unpleasant. But I really do like Marcus. And Master Kit. Maybe your husband would be willing to offer a thumbs-up/thumbs-down assesment of the second book after he reads it?

  9. Matthew

    One thing I found interesting about Brennan’s essay (and the Smith one she references) is that I apparently gave up on the Wheel of Time at about the same time most people got frustrated — except that I gave up for a different reason. Near as I can recall, I was irritated that all of his characters went from being great friends and heroes to people who schemed to put their friends in almost certain death scenarios without telling them (because everyone thought they were the One knew how to make the prophecy come to pass and apparently fulfilling a prophecy can’t be a collaborative effort). I just didn’t like any of the main characters (except one who sensibly went home and vanished from the series for awhile) any more.

    A Song of Ice and Fire’s many POVs didn’t bother me either. It actually ramped up the tension because most of the storylines were fascinating and the satisfaction of knowing what happened next was always held off by a slew of intervening character chapters. Now, I only got up to book 3. Maybe afterwards Martin started making worse decisions or something… (or maybe I just have a high tolerance for the mess) The only reason I stopped that series is that it was advertised as a trilogy and when they realized it needed more books — six — Martin said book four would come out the following summer. Then winter. Then the summer after that. Then that winter. Then… This went on for five years and when it was about to actually be published he announced that the book was so huge that it was only going to be half the book AND that fans who pestered him about when the next book was going to come out were all jerks because he was a Writer and didn’t need to pander to fans or write on their schedule. (I can see his point, but on the other hand, if you are selling your books for money and leaving each novel with about thirty cliffhangers because you have thirty POVs… Perhaps he could understand people being a bit anxious) So maybe if he lives long enough to finish the series I might go back to it, but he’s averaging about five years between each book and we don’t know how many there will actually be in the end, so… I’m not holding my breath.

    Anyway, I guess I’m saying that lots of POVs might not always be a root problem? At least not directly. Then again, I can recall reading some Stephen King novels that had some really awful extra POV characters. I seem to recall one character that showed up, got a bit fleshed out, and then was killed by a Coke machine in just a few pages… He didn’t even need to create epic series to have some of the bloat issues during one era of his life.

  10. Maureen E

    Rachel, here’s a link to a brief discussion on my LJ about Gen being more distant. I’m elvenjaneite and the other commenters are regulars at the Sounis LJ community, where I’m pretty sure this has come up again. (I can’t find anything else, but it’s getting late.) It may help to read the original review above for context’s sake. As I said, I’m not sure I have a firm opinion, and it may shift again after the next book (please, dear book gods, soon!).

    I actually never got into HP, but I completely agree about Beka Cooper. As much as I love Tamora Pierce and enjoyed the first two books, the last one could have been MAJORLY edited down. In particular I remember quite a bit of what Brennan talks about–re-explaining things that the reader should already know from previous books.

    Given all the Dunnett mentions, I’ll have to pick up the Lymond series again. I LOVED the first one and then got so annoyed with the second that I gave up–not enough family dynamics, plus weird romantic subplots that kind of creeped me out.

  11. Elaine T

    Lots of POVs may be more of a symptom of the root problem of scattered focus than the problem itself.

    I gave up on Jordan earlier than most, never buying #4. But I don’t remember my thoughts around it, other than losing interest.

    On Lymond, there are eventually some family dynamics in the second. (I really like his brother.) And what goes on in QP carries over into the rest, and #3 has lots of family, because half of it is set in Scotland with family. I read #2 last of the series, so I don’t think it’s necessary to read them all in order. Although I don’t recommend skipping more than the second, because come #3 the rest are rather more tightly linked than 1, 2, and 3.

  12. Rachel

    I usually really enjoy having multiple pov characters, if the author writes them all well — until I start being forced into the head of characters I despise. Then I hate it! GRR Martin often gives each character enough time that you can get involved with that character’s plotline before he switches, which is really important to me, unless it’s an awful character and then I wish he would switch away faster.

    And yes, I quit reading his series. Someday when he actually finishes it, if ever, I will read it then, starting over from the beginning. But there’s no way I’m going to get back into it and then wait five years for the next one, rinse, repeat.

  13. Rachel

    Thanks for the link!

    I didn’t grow up reading Tamora Pierce, but only came to her books as an adult. That probaby colors my opinions. And I still haven’t read all that may of hers given her huge output. But I thought the first Beka Cooper book was a MASSIVE step up in terms of characterization and worldbuilding, and my love of the first book carried me through the third — but yes. What was her editor thinking, I wonder?

    Ah, I should warn you that weird romantic subplots are not absent from the remainder of the Lymond books. And I have a real problem with some details. And the first book is the only one that really feels self-contained. Nevertheless — onward! No matter how many quibbles you have after reading it, I bet you won’t regret having done so.

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