The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics
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?