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?