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The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics

September 8, 2011

Read an interesting article this week on “the perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series” by Zack Handlen.  The article seems to conclude, ultimately, that all very long, multi-volume epics are by design doomed to disappoint – and yet we love them anyway.  It’s a difficult conclusion to reach.

Zack Handlen appears believes this happens because readers become attached to the characters in these stories – a true enough proposition.  I know I’ve become strongly attached to characters in long-running series.  The readers, Zack argues, are involved in an intimate “relationship” with the series that is ultimately “one sided”.  With each successive volume, the epic fantasy author raises the stakes – and reader expectations – for the final volume, making his job increasingly difficult.  Part of the problem, the article suggests, is that the once a book is published, it’s “set in stone”.  The author can’t go back and tweak it, revise it, and refashion it.  As the story changes in the telling, the details at the beginning of the series may no longer mesh with the reality that comes at the end.  The series accumulates so many threads, some are left loose and other resolved unsatisfactorily for at least some readers.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the general thesis that all long-running epic fantasies necessarily lead to disappointment.  Unlike the author of that article, for instance, I enjoyed the ending of the Harry Potter series, and found it generally fitting.  While The Wheel of Time series definitely slipped in quality towards the middle of the series, the author picked it back up in the last volume published before his death – and the author finishing the job has done notably very well with the materials given to him, and has picked it up even more.  In fact, I don’t recall ever actually having been disappointed with the ending of a long fantasy series, though my sample on this is very small.  (How many endings of long fantasy series have I actually read?  Hmm…   That’s a rather smallish, one-hand-needed kind of number.)  So perhaps I  haven’t encountered this phenomenon of inevitable disappointment.  But I can certainly accept that some readers inevitably will be – whether the majority or the minority being an open question.

Interestingly, the article actually obliquely suggests a possible solution to the problem: rather than “publish-as-you-go”… why not write the whole thing first, from beginning to end, before publishing.  Then the author and editor will be able to edit the whole story, as a single unit, rather than individual parts, and maintain a grander-scale narrative consistency.

But that’s a solution that really only works if you’re not worried about immediate commercial viability – or in other words if you’re not worried about making a living from your writing.  Oh wait.  Hey!  I know a guy who’s not immediately worried about making a living from his writing.  Who?  This guy! (*Thumbs point to self*)

Okay, okay, I jest.  But the point remains: might the problems of long-running fantasy series be mitigated by very in-depth planning of the entire series, from beginning to end?  It just so happens that on my back-burner long-form epic fantasy series (i.e. “Project SOA”) I am planning on exactly this approach.  I anticipate knowing to a great depth of detail the plot and events and characters of each volume well in advance of actually writing the thing.  In a way, my current novel, “Book of M”, is a test-case for the method of writing and novel-planning that I’m developing.  Granted, this is a single, stand-alone novel (although with potential for sequels), which is on a different order of magnitude than a long, multi-volume series.  But I think this approach is scalable.  Large-scale work will require a lot more up-front investment, true.  But that’s why it’s a “back-burner” project and not a “trunk” project.  Where time permits, I still do bits of research with the purpose of filling out “Project SOA”.

So, what do you think about long-running epic fantasy series?  Are you a fan of the genre?  Why or why not?  Have you ever been disappointed by the end of such a series?  If so, why?

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 2:34 pm

    The Wheel Of Time series turned me away from these for years (Until I recently took a chance with Game Of Thrones). After about the 4th or 5th book in the Wheel Of Time series I began to seriously doubt the author needed more books in order to tell his complete story & felt more like he was “milking” the franchise.

    Great post!

    • September 8, 2011 2:49 pm

      Thanks. I definitely don’t disagree that “Wheel of Time”, as a whole, could probably be a few books shorter than it is to effectively tell the story. The series probably would’ve been better for it. And I suspect a big part of that is caused by poor planning. (It was evident to me, as a reader, that there were some big planning holes in WoT. Ironically, though, I think WoT is one of the better-planned long fantasy series.)

  2. September 8, 2011 2:44 pm

    I can’t speak for High Fantasy, because I’m not into the stuff myself…but I’m planning on turning my novel into a long-winded series, so I was immediately drawn into your post when it showed up in my inbox.

    The problem with long series(es?) is just as stated here…if it surfaces in book 12 that Solirium has a half-life of 800 years, instead of 1200, as stated in book 1, then you’ll have a problem. Even worse, is if in book 1 Great-Aunt Josephixe has been a horse-trainer for years, but in book 2 it turns out that in order for things to work, she will have had to be a horse-trainer for no longer than 2 weeks. Of course, once it’s published there’s nothing doing about it,.

    Not because it’s a work of fact. By no means. But, because Fiction is nothing but well-told lies, we have to make sure it’s tightly-knit. Problems like these can make readers lose faith in us, therefore dropping our ratings/income.

    Also, we have to be true to our own stories, even if to satisfy the writerly compulsions within us.

    So for a world to sort of “evolve” through a series is possible, even the beauty of a long-running series. But for us to go back and fix something will be either impossible or detrimental to our career. (For the most part)

    • September 8, 2011 2:59 pm

      Yeah, that does seem to be a potential problem. I don’t think that most series actually do go back and retcon their published material (unless we’re talking about comics…) Instead, what happens is some writers find themselves having to write around the canon they’ve already written, forcing them to write even more. At least, that’s what Zack Handlen’s conclusion was, and I think I buy that.

      • September 8, 2011 3:23 pm

        That does make sense.

        And it sounds like a huge pain in the neck too. >:(

      • September 9, 2011 11:37 pm

        Oh, don’t get me started on comic books and retcons and reboots and retconned reboots (I think that’s what they did with last year’s reboot of Wonder Woman, by the way, they retconned it so they could reboot her again with the whole line…

        Anyway, don’t get me started. There’s more on my blog, if you’re looking for a rant or two.

      • September 12, 2011 9:43 am

        Yeah… Just… yeah. I really dig the superhero genre, generally… but I can’t abide the endless retcons and reboots and etc. (I also can’t abide a weekly crack-addict-like buying habit.) I’m more for “Let me read one, canonical version of the story, contained in a single-volume graphic novel”. Or… you know… catch it as a television series (either animated or live-action) or movie version. That’s pretty much how I consume comic-book superheroes.

      • September 12, 2011 10:13 am

        Well, we’re operating from opposite impulses. You want comic books to be more like novels, where you buy an entire story in one chunk (apart from the question of series), Me, I like serial fiction (I first read Stephen King when he published The Green Mile in monthly installments). And, yes, I’ve been buying comics every week (with a few interruptions) since around 1965. These days I read very few (around 2 a week usually), trying to focus on the writers I like best, trying to ignore all the nonsense and crossovers and so on. The best writers (I talk about Gail Simone on my blog this week) make it worthwhile.

        I do have to tell a quick story about the weekly “habit.” At one point I was such a regular at a comic book store that I wouuld answer the store phone if I was closest to it. One day, I picked it up and the caller asked when the new books would be in. I said there would be no new books that week (I forget why — weather or holiday, probably). “No books?!” he demanded in anguish. “What am I gonna DO?” He was obviously sincere, and I was completely speechless. I think I hung up on him.

        We spent the rest of the day concocting a list of things he could do, in case he called back, but he didn’t.

      • September 12, 2011 11:12 am

        LOL. Yes. That’s what I’m talking about. My semi-weekly habit of choice, for a long time, was D&D – which also, as it happened, was typically at a comics shop. But yeah, in general I think I like discreet chunks of story. I’m not opposed to the idea of ongoing series – but I want a clear beginning, middle, and end. If a story continues indefinitely, I don’t get that… and I rapidly lose interest. As a kid, this always frustrated me about comics. I’d be reading a comic someone got me… and at the end it appeared that Superman or Spiderman or some-other caped/masked crusader was dead! Oh Noes! Whatever will the world do without them? Turn the page aaaannnnd… Find Out Next Time Folks! This was monumentally frustrating. Being as I didn’t have a regular allowance to blow on comics (and was a compulsive saver when I did finally get something like an allowance)… by the time I could’ve bought a comic it was waaaaaaayyy too late to find out what happened in that particular storyline. Because of experiences like that, the medium of comicbooks was tainted for me. It was only when I discovered that complete stories were being repackaged as graphic novels that my interest in them was rekindled. Throughout that, though, I never lost interest in superheroes though – but I realize this was most probably because of several very good comic-book movie adaptations from the early 80s and 90s (i.e. Superman 1 & 2 and Batman and Batman Returns) as well as animated series adaptations in the same time period (notably the old X-Men cartoon, which hasn’t aged well, but which I loved back in the day).

  3. September 8, 2011 3:50 pm

    Oddly, I’ve never finished an epic novel series, and it’s not because of the length, but the waiting time. Because of what happened with WoT, I swore I would not pick up another epic fantasy series until it was done, and I was sure it would be finished. I gave up at about book 5, and realized that I’d forgotten everything that happened in between because of the intervening years.

    I think a trilogy can be planned, and anything more than that might be biting off too much, but similarly not all writers are planners, and can’t write that way.

    • September 8, 2011 4:00 pm

      Agreed, not all writers are planners and not all can write that way. I do think that a very long series with a single, continuous story line can be very difficult to do without a lot of planning. Actually… a single continuous story over a very long series is very difficult to do well regardless… and poor planning can be even more damaging such an endeavour. I could be wrong… but I do think some of the flaws of the large, multi-volume series that I’ve read can best be explained by poor story planning. I’m not sure how a non-planning writer approaches a project like this… You’re something of a seat-of-your-pants writer, right? How would you approach it?

      • September 8, 2011 5:48 pm

        Somewhere along the line I’ve gotten the impression that RJ and GRRM are both pantsters (I could be wrong) which could explain some of the length issues. Unexpected developments need to be followed through and tied up.

        As a somewhat panster, If I were to do an epic, I’d probably know the beginning and the ending, but much more in between except a general idea for what each book in the series is about (so a sense of how many I’d need to write and why). I actually ave something like this on the back burner. But ugh! So many ideas, and not enough time ;) I already have the ending, but the number of books to get there might change.

      • September 8, 2011 5:54 pm

        I don’t know about GRRM… I haven’t read enough about his process. But it was clear to me both from content in WoT and from things I’ve read about RJ and his process that he was largely a pantser. Apparently part of what took so long in later books was that he couldn’t really pants it anymore… there was so much material he had to cross-check to get it right.

      • September 9, 2011 7:17 am

        Well, if you read the History of Middle Earth series, you find out that Tolkien was largely a pantser, too, but the wrote and rewrote the Lord of the Rings until it was right. The key being that he wrote the whole thing as one novel (which it was, to him) and then published it, as opposed to going book-by-book.

        I wrote about that article, too:
        http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2626

      • September 9, 2011 1:43 pm

        In part, that’s exactly what I’m talking about/suggesting-but-not-really-seriously here: would the whole work shine better if it were completed, in it’s entirety, before publishing? On the other hand however, LotR doesn’t quite really count as a “long-running fantasy epic”. The latter two words are accurate enough, but LotR, as you say, is only three books that are actually one book. …From a certain perspective, all long-running, continuous-story, non-episodice fantasy epics are one book split over many volumes, but in the case of LotR the pertinent point is that it was split over only 3, and length-wise is much shorter than most long-running contemporary fantasy epics. (i.e. LotR total wordcount = 473K words, versus about 1.1 Million words for Harry Potter, about 3.9 Million for Wheel of Time, 1.8 Million for ASoIaF, and so on.)

  4. September 9, 2011 2:14 am

    Well, as for “pantsing” a trilogy, I’d like to think you could actually plan for some pantsing ahead of time, funny as that might sound. Decide on key elements early on that will carry over into the last two novels and tie into each other, let the plot revolve around those things (make quests of them) and then allow yourself to either engage in more in-depth character exploration, the exploration of a new character(s) and settings, or even a bit of both; plan the plot and settings, pants the finer points of character development. You’d still have to deal with the normal issues that come with completing a single novel, or course, but at least you’ll have set goals to aim for.

    That’s my plan, anyhow; I don’t know how else I would do it. (I’ll let you know how that works out…so many years from now, heh.) Even as I’m revising the first novel, I rather have a good portion of the second one planned out in my head in fairly vivid detail–over half, I’d say. (I’m not entirely against planning, just certain methods of planning. I guess I plan more by generating visual-audio sequences than written outlines–like the storyboards they use for movies, only as visualizations, quick journal entries and voice-recordings.) I also have a few scene ideas for the third novel and a general idea of the “quest goal”. While editing, ideas just come to me, and I jot ‘em down then go back to editing the first story. (It would probably help to know the endings, too, but I really hate the idea of knowing those up front and have so far left them open in my mind.)

    Who knows? Maybe by the time I get through this edit, I’ll have the rest of the series planned out, as well! LoL. I don’t know if I could write the whole thing first then submit it, though. (Hey, Anthony actually talked a little about this, too.) I think to be able to put the first book out of my hands and submit it would be refreshing for my psyche, in the end–a milestone that allows me to focus on “the next big thing” so I can’t go back nitpick later when I’ve already done plenty.

    I wonder if Philip Pullman might have taken a similar approach with his trilogy His Dark Materials. He stuck with the same main characters, Lyra and Will, and had them travel to new locations in each book with new quest goals that tied in together. We also learned more and more about the characters as we went along and met some new folks. I think he did a good job of tying up loose ends and whatnot, for the most part, though I did get the feeling that the last book, especially, was rushed and forced. By a deadline or what, I wouldn’t know. Also, his characterizations, which I thought were so sharp and clever in the first book, seemed duller in the rest of the series. (Perhaps he just got tired of maintaining that same quality. I know it can’t be easy.)

    Finishing one novel is hard enough; trying to tie three or more together seamlessly and with the same amount of energy and dedication…yeah. I don’t read too many, to be honest, though I seriously give props to anyone that completes a series, even if I don’t like the ending. (Didn’t Rowling take several years to plan out her series before she even started writing it?)

    • September 9, 2011 7:10 am

      I agree completely about His Dark Materials. The only one I’d ever read again is the first one (though I did like the wheel people). I hadn’t thought about the characterization getting dull, but you’re right. My objection was that the plotting got more and more implausible, as if he knew where he was going to end up and goldarnit he was going to get there no matter where logic and his characters wanted to go.

      People keep capturing Mrs. Coulter and then, instead of killing her (as any reasonable person would have done), they hold her and then, inevitably, allow her to escape so the plot can proceed. And the decision at the ending was too obiously set up so that Will and Lyra would have to make a Big Moral Choice.

      The second and third books are not bad (they’re quite good, actually), but they were a disappointment based on the high standard established by the first book.

      • September 9, 2011 9:11 am

        “My objection was that the plotting got more and more implausible, as if he knew where he was going to end up and goldarnit he was going to get there no matter where logic and his characters wanted to go.”

        Yeah, that’s exactly what it was! It’s like the last two became waaay more plot-driven and the characters kind of suffered for leaning too heavily on that end.

        And I agree; the only book I’d reread was the first. It was certainly the best out of the trilogy. Lyra’s tricking the ice bear king into battle with Iorek… I thought that was the best display of her wily, clever character. It was brilliant because Pullman set up the whole story for it perfectly, but it wasn’t done in an obvious “oh, I saw that coming” kind of way.

        To be able to do that kind of thing again and again in the following novels… Yeah, tough shoes to fill.

      • September 9, 2011 1:36 pm

        This, in particular, seems to be a common phenomenon: that the first in a series far outshines the rest. Typically, I’ve seen it attributed to the fact that many unpublished writers, yearning to get published, take years to polish their first volume, so it really, really shines. Once they get that deal, however, suddenly they’re on a deadline, and a schedule, and they don’t have the time or luxury of polishing and polishing each subsequent volume. In the case of “His Dark Materials”, however, that explanation doesn’t hold up, because Northern Lights/Golden Compass wasn’t anywhere near Pullman’s first book.

    • September 9, 2011 1:27 pm

      Well, see, I see that as a certain amount of planning going into what you’re doing. Maybe not outlining, but there’s some plan. I guess maybe it’s different, though, if you’re not writing with a specific end-goal in mind, which I honestly hadn’t considered. (When I talked about pantsers, I was still sort of assuming that a pantser was writing toward a specific ending.) If you don’t have a specific ending in mind… maybe that’s okay, becuase whatever happens grows naturally out of what has already happened, and you don’t have to force the ending into the mental mold you’ve prepared ahead of time. For Rowling, I’ve heard she knew how Harry Potter would end, ultimately, before she began. I don’t get the impression, however, that she knew each step along the way before she wrote it. I suspect she had a rough outline, but not a detailed and meticulous one. Either way, it worked well enough for me.

      • September 9, 2011 8:58 pm

        Well, when I say “ending” I’m thinking more in terms of the protagonist(s) and what the ending means to them personally rather than the plot itself. Your general plan could be, “And they defeated the dark lord by doing such-n-such-n-such (necessary steps to complete the quest, perhaps), got married and lived happily ever after” (kidding), but that’s more of a planned plot ending. It’s more difficult for me to foresee the resolution of a character arc. I feel like I need to walk in their shoes for a while then later tweak my idea of how, exactly, the story should end based off what develops after pantsing a bit.

        On another note, I think would be interesting to learn more about the processes of different authors who’ve complete series. I’ve never really looked into that before. :/

      • September 12, 2011 9:08 am

        Well, if you take the line that characters drive plot, the difference between the two isn’t that big. But I see your point. And yes, it would be interesting to compare and contrast different author’s approaches. I’ve followed a number of authors and read about a lot of different methods, but I’ve never done any direct comparisons.

  5. September 9, 2011 10:03 pm

    Interesting discussion. I admit that I have abandoned far more fantasy series than I have finished because the later books become so unsatisfying. The Sword of Truth novels come to mind. I stopped reading after… Faith of the Fallen? My husband finished them but didn’t like the way it ended at all.

    I agree though that the Harry Potter books avoided this. It really felt like J.K. Rowling knew what she was doing the whole time instead of just pulling bigger and badder threats out of her butt like some authors seem to. The Chronicles of Prydain are another shining example of a series done right.

    But I don’t think its just long series. I was severely disappointed with Patrick Rothfuss’ second book in his trilogy. I dread the coming of the third, though I will probably read it. (But not buy it.)

    I’ve always liked Terry Pratchett’s way of doing it. He writes standalone books in the same setting. None of the stories cover more than one book, though many of the characters are recurring over many books. I’ve never, ever been disappointed by a Discworld book.

    I hope to do something similar. I have one setting, one imaginary world, which I will write many one volume stories about, though they will be connected by a theme explored in short stories that tie it all together. So that you can read the books individually and just enjoy a complete story, or you can dig deeper through the short stories that go along with the novels.

    • September 12, 2011 9:37 am

      Funny you should mention The Sword of Truth series… It gets a (dishonorable) mention in a post I hope to have up sometime this week (or if not then early next)… As for the Terry Pratchett style, that’s definitely one way to avoid the problem. Although, I can’t say I’ve ever seen serious Epic Fantasy done in this sort of episodic style – more often I’ve seen humorous fantasy done this way. There are still dangers and pitfalls with this, though: if you have a persistent world from book to book, even if each book’s plot is self-contained, the changes to characters and the world due to events in one book need to be believably managed in other books that take place later, chronologically, especially if there are repeat characters.

  6. September 10, 2011 11:30 pm

    I am clearly not alone with the WoT struggles. I gave up after Book Eight or Nine…or, eh, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if I’ll ever pick that one back up, even with Sanderson finishing it off.

    As for satisfying fantasy series, I was happy with the ending of Harry Potter, the Twilight saga, Mistborn (okay, a trilogy) and both of Eddings early series: The Belgariad and The Mallorean. I shouldn’t forget the The Dark Tower series by Stephen King which I really liked as well. So, those are all on the plus side.

    On the minus side, I started but couldn’t finish Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, so nix the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. I couldn’t finish Game of Thrones, so nix that series. I complete Wizard’s First Rule, but it left a bad aftertaste in my reader’s palate so I dropped that series after one book.

    The jury is out on Rothfuss, Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, and Farland’s Runelords (I’m on Book Two).

    That’s my input from the top of my head. And I can’t really say what I liked most about the few series I finished other than they were resolved in a manner that fit the story. I obviously liked the characters enough to follow them until the end, so naturally I was pleased by an ending that made sense and resonated with the plot, theme, etc.

    As for my own writing, I aspire my long form epic fantasy series to be in groups of trilogies, so I can manage the planning and plotting. I’m a semi-planner first and then change to a panster as I write and then wear both hats during revision to make the pants fit the plan. If that makes any sense.

    I believe in long form epic fantasy, it’s my favorite genre to read and my genre of choice to write, so long live epic fantasy!

    • September 12, 2011 10:15 am

      No, you’re definitely not alone. I pressed on through… yeah, it was Book Eight or Nine, I can’t recall precisely which, that was a series nadir. But I was a really big fan all throughout, so I pressed on. And I do promise, Jordan’s last book (before passing away) really regained some of the steam from earlier in the series – it felt more like, say, book 4 or 5. And Sanderson kicks it up another notch – his two contributions, so far, each feel like one of the first three books. I know that’s not going to be enough to woo back some of those former fans who fell by the wayside when Jordan lost his way. But I’m glad I stuck through it, because those last two books really felt worth it.

      I’ve never tried the Thomas Covenant books. I’ve just heard too many things about it, and I know I wouldn’t enjoy them. The protagonist sounds like a really nasty person, and I just can’t relate to a protagonist who’s intentionally nasty. At the time, when I was young, I really enjoyed boht the Belgariad and the Mallorean… but in retrospect there were some pretty poorly-executed plot circumstances throughout those series – most notably, in my memory, the ending of the third book in the Belgariad (Magian’s Gambit), which relied on a very forced and nonsensical action by the primary villain of the book in order to resolve the conflict. Still… that’s a middle book, not an ending, so it doesn’t say much about how the series ends.

      For myself, I’ve considered the “groups of trilogies” strategy that you’re discussing. That’s been my plan for my long-form epic fantasy series on and off – mostly currently off, but that’s still an unsettled question.

  7. September 11, 2011 7:51 am

    I actually find it a real turn off when I see “Book X of the Blah-de-Dah Saga” on the cover of the book because it just feels like too much commitment. How many volumes am I going to have to wade through before I get any resolutions of feelings of conclusion? And – as you’ve pointed out – will it really be worth it?

    I’ve got so many other books and things I want to read and do that taking a chance and committing myself to just one series isn’t something I’m really up for. Having said I am slowwllly working my way through The Dark Tower which although I’m enjoying very much, is a lot of hard work, I’ve been putting off starting Wolves of the Calla for some time now. Also, with the story arc being so massive you only ever get to see small glimpses of it at a time which is never that satisfying.

    I think your proposed strategy is correct – no matter how long the story, EVERYTHING needs to be mapped out in advance. I believe King reached the end of vol. 4 of The Dark Tower and still had no idea of how it was going to end that. That worries me. Whereas I believe J K Rowling had the entirety of Harry Potter mapped out in detail before she even began book 1 and although I have my own mixed feelings about Potter, it does show. Everything slots into place by the end.

    For me I guess it’s that the destination of more important than the journey. If I reach the end of a story and it’s got a pish or unsatisfactory ending then I don’t care how great everything was that came before. Flash fiction or epic saga – I’ll forgive my blips along the way as long as you give me a proper ending.

    • September 11, 2011 9:14 am

      I remember so many times my father came home from seeing a play and his curt dismissal would be, “It fell apart in the third act.” The first act had got his hopes up, but he’d been let down at the end. “Anybody can write a good first act,” he often said.

      I’ve applied this rule to Thomas Pynchon’s novels, too:
      http://u-town.com/collins/?p=458

    • September 12, 2011 10:34 am

      Hmm. I’d say I weight the two about equally, 50/50. The journey’s got to be a good one, but the destination has also got to be worth the journey.

  8. jessicaminyard permalink
    September 15, 2011 6:26 pm

    I think part of the success of Harry Potter as a series comes from the fact that each book has its own story arch. Yes, the books are a series. Yes, they’re connected. But each book has a beginning, middle, and end with a resolution. For example, at the end of the first book, we’re not left wondering what the sorcerer’s stone is, or what it does, or have to wait until book 2 to find out if the heroes find it. Each book ends with a conclusion. The “defeat the Dark Lord” plot is the thread that runs through each book — thus making them a series — but each book is a complete story.

    I’ve never read Robert Jordan, partly because I’m not willing to invest that much time to it and partly because I haven’t heard a lot of good things said about it. I am, however caught up on A Song of Ice and Fire, and after A Dance with Dragons, I feel like I am going to end up disappointed with the ending of the series. Giving your characters a hard time is one thing…but killing off any character the readers might actually like is something else. And now I’ve got to wait 10 more years for the next one.

    I recently finished Jennifer Fallon’s The Palace of Impossible Dreams, and I was under the impression that is was supposed to be the last book in a trilogy. But — surprise! — the series isn’t over! So not only did the third book resolve nothing (and I mean nothing), it ended with a cliffhanger. Oy. A prime example of why readers give up on multi-volume epics.

    • September 16, 2011 10:15 am

      I think what you describe is emblematic of any well-written series. You see the same thing in the most effective Television serials (as opposed to series): each episode, individually, is a self-contained story with a specific plot arc and resolution. But each forms a part of a grander, larger plot arc as well. That’s part of the challenge of writing a good epic fantasy series: having each book follow a complete plot arc with a beginning, middle, and end, and yet fit seamlessly into a single overarching meta-plot across multiple books. There are different ways to approach this, and Harry Potter had one that was built into the series at a structural level: each book represented a single school year, which enforced a natural rhythm. And then, as you say, each was predicated on a specific problem or question that was part of the larger conversation, if you will, of Harry Potter’s world.

      I have to agree, so far (I’m only midway through Book 2) on Martin’s ASoIaF: there’s a difference between making life tough for your protagonist and presenting them with difficult but ultimately surmountable challenges and… outright killing them off. The latter is going to make it difficult to attach to the series on a long-term basis. I guess it helps that a lot of hard-core fans of the series, it seems to me, are enamored of one of the villains or another (i.e. Jaime Lannister… for what reason I can’t comprehend)… since they seem to survive relatively unscathed. Although… that might just be a misperception on my part…

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