Six impossible things

Onward and onward

I’ve been mulling over green_knight and accio_aqualung’s request for something on plotting multi-volume stories for a few days now. It’s not easy, because on this question, I’m working mainly from observation. The closest I’ve come to writing a multi-volume story myself are 1) the Lyra books, which aren’t really a multi-volume story so much as a group of stand-alone novels sharing the same setting and history, and 2) the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for which I started with Book 4, having no intention of ever going back and doing the prequels.

I have, however, had the opportunity to observe several writer friends as they produced various series and true multi-volume stories, and it seems to me that from a process standpoint, there are several types. Start with plotting: there are closed series and open series. A closed series is one that has a specific end in mind: after four or five or six or ten volumes, the protagonist(s) find the magical doohicky, recover the throne, save the universe, and it’s finally over. An open series is one that has the potential to keep going on and on, because there isn’t a background plot-arc that will ever be finished. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles in their current form are a closed series: the primary adventure is finished and the wizards are defeated for good. If I ever go back and write another of them, it’ll have to be about some completely new adventure, with a new antagonist (no, I don’t need suggestions, thanks… 🙂 )  The Lyra books are an open series – they share a setting, but that’s really all. Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is another example: Miles and his family are central characters, but each book is generally a separate adventure. There are a couple of story-arcs that cover two volumes, but none that string out for longer than that. Mystery series that follow a detective through various cases are another example.

Writing a book in an open series doesn’t differ much from writing a complete stand-alone, except that the writer has to pay a bit more attention to staying consistent with everything that’s been said in earlier books. (Unless the writer is Terry Pratchett, whose History Monks are possibly the most brilliant device ever thought up for justifying and explaining any and all background inconsistencies whatsoever.)

Writing a book in a closed series is a lot more complicated.  In most cases, and especially if the closed series is going to be longer than two or three books, the writer doesn’t want the current volume to read like a couple of chapters out of the middle of a stand-alone novel, yet progress has to be made toward the final series-ending goal or the series will stretch out to infinity without resolution and start losing readers after a while. This usually means that the book has to have a minor plot-arc or sub-adventure that can be finished up within one book, but that also moves the characters closer to their ultimate goal. And those two plot-threads have to be carefully balanced in the context of where the characters are in the whole series.

The structure of a long, closed series also needs careful attention (unless you’re the sort who does structure and plotting on a completely intuitive level and you can make this work over a multi-book project). The longer a closed series is, the more sub-arcs the story needs, to keep the reader interested and provide enough closure to avoid frustration (while not providing so much closure that they stop reading).

The other problem with a long closed series (one that runs for more than four to six novels) is that the writer frequently gets bored after four or five books if the end is still not really in sight. A bored writer is a dangerous thing. Quite often, this results in one of two things: either the writer starts branching out, doing side-stories and adventures for minor characters that have nothing to do with the central story-arc, or the writer sticks to the central story arc but stops paying attention. In the first case, all but the most dedicated readers eventually stop reading the series (since it isn’t getting any closer to a conclusion); in the second case, the quality of the books tends to drop, at which point, again, all but the most dedicated stop reading.

A good series, whether open or closed, provides a lot more opportunity for richness and complexity in both characters and background than a stand-alone novel. Plot…plot is another thing entirely. There aren’t really a whole lot of plots that need more than three or four books to tell, even in great detail.

Since this is getting a bit long, I’ll talk about specific tools and techniques for keeping tabs on a multi-volume story in another post.

  1. One great thing about a multi-volume series is that you can get the exploration effect. I once tried to write a traditional `hero’s journey’ story and I couldn’t do it. Every time I got attached to a place, it would be time for the heroes to leave. But when I divided the story into three books I was able to fully develop the different settings and no longer felt like my story was zipping all over the place like a pin-ball.

  2. I used to read Pern and Redwall but those series grew unwieldly long and I grew bored.

    Similar to Chicoy’s exploration theme – One thing I sometimes do is put everyone in an alternate universe. My Magnum Opus is set in some fictional kingdom with quaint horses and stuff. If their characters got stuck, I’d try dropping them in the 21st century to see what happened and work out some personality kinks. This was fun until the plot took off and I’m not sure if my characters will escape high school unscathed, so it kind of backfired on me. … er .. oops..

  3. 🙂 I used to love the Redwall books, too. (I stopped around Marlfox). They’re actually the books that made me decide to try a Heroic Quest.

    • Chicoy – Being able to dig deep into various different parts of an imaginary setting is one of the things that appeals to a lot of writers who do series…but it’s often easier to do with a set of stand-alones that share a background than it is to do with a closed series with a central plot-arc. With a set of related stand-alones, the author can spend an entire book in one spot, and then, if it’s not exhausted, another one; with a closed-end series, the central plot has to start moving along at some point, and that can be before the author is really ready.

      accio_aqualung – When the plot takes off, you know you have the characters in the right spot. Quite often, it’s not where you thought they’d be, but writing is like that.

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