Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What justifies an epic series? - Joyce Alton

I’m going to hit hard and deep today, with Robert’s indulgence. What justifies an epic series? How much plot do you need? How big should the cast of characters get? The world-building issue and juggling multiple points of view? It’s too easy to be writer-indulgent when writing an epic series.

Let me start off by saying, if you’ve decided to create an epic series based on worldbuilding, you’re in for trouble. For the detailed post on that subject, read this.

Okay, so what is the right trigger for an epic series?
a) You have a compelling plot, large enough to need several volumes to cover it. Complex plots work too, which usually (but not always) leads to…
b) a larger than normal cast to tell the story.

Story first. Usually these kinds of plots have a save the world type arc. Politics, war, etc. all come into play. Your story isn’t a simple love story, or a fun romp. The trick is identifying if you have enough plot. It’s easy to get carried away with too many side-plots and tangents.

So let’s break this down some. Assuming your not writing an episodic series
a) You need a main arc. This is the core of your series. What provoking question or problem will hover over everything else? It’s crucial that this arc is big enough to justify an entire series. You aren’t doing your readers any favor by dangling before them a weak arc. In fact, by the end of the series, if this arc doesn’t pan out, they’ll want to string you up. Have it planned out from start to finish. If you try to outline anything, this is it.
b) Individual story arcs per book. Your main arc is the glue which holds the series together, but you will also need a definite arc for each volume in the series. What is the main goal of this volume? You need an identifiable start and end. Something big must be resolved. Whether it’s the next stage in a war, a character coming to power or losing it, some hang-up being resolved, etc.
c) Side-plots. Careful with these. This is where many writers lose their audience or derail themselves. You need side-plots, but those also need to connect with the volume’s main plot or the overall main arc in order to be justifiable.

Moving on to characters and point of view.
This is another potential pitfall of disaster for a writer. Most epic series have a large cast of characters. But – you need to be sure each of those characters are necessary, just as if you were writing a standalone 300 pg. novel. Don’t fall into the attitude of “we’ve reached a twist in the story, let’s make a new character for that.”

Identify your POV characters. Who has the most to lose most often? This should be your main character(s).

Are you planning on giving the villain(s) POV voices? First off, think about your storytelling. Will this demystify your villain? Will it kill the suspense or enhance it? The same thing goes for throwing in POV characters other than your MC. Does one character start off as a side character in book 1 but by book 2 he becomes a MC? Are you killing off any MCs? A good series outline will help answer these questions and cut some pain and anguish in the editing stage.

Another common trait in an epic series is location. You might have some characters in one place while another group is elsewhere, but just as vital to the story. While this calls for more POVs, you still need to ask if you are using too many. And while a character list helps readers out, remember it also takes readers out the story to look up who is who and where they are.

Which leads to using multiple names for characters. Sure thing, in history, some people had titles, names, and nicknames. That’s a reflection on reality. But if you’ve already filled your series with a lot of characters, think for a second again about your readers and their patience level. The worst thing a writer can do is confuse their audience. That’s the con. The pro? Can’t think of one good reason why having a lot of names for one person, multiplied by 20 or 100 characters, will benefit the reader. Perhaps only one or two people need a secondary title to create a sense of mystery. If a character has an official title, choose between the title and their regular name and stick with that for most of the book. Your readers will thank you.

If you’ve realized you have a bloated cast and need some help condensing characters, I’ve covered that here.

Next up, worldbuilding. Necessary? Oh yes! Especially in epic fantasy. One thing to be wary of is not piling all of your worldbuilding into the first volume or the second or even the third. Spread it out, when it counts and when it’s needed. That way you don’t info dump too much on readers at the get-go (and consequently lose some of them) and you’ll still be able to create that sense of amazement in the later books. Lackluster worldbuilding at the end of a series often means the series has dragged on too long. Restraint as a writer is key. For more on worldbuilding see:
Worldbuilding: Think Big, Be Creative, Have Fun!
How Much Worldbuilding Do You Need?
Falling In Love With Your World

Now to get a bit more personal. I’ve been writing for many years. One of my first loves was coming up with epic fantasy ideas and planning out series. I’ve had to learn each of the points I’ve brought up in this post. It was so much fun to think of a new volume to add, to try to come up with enough titles to do my fantastic world justice, or more ways to drag certain casts of characters from one volume to another. You can rightly guess very few of these stories will ever be published. Writing a series for the sake of a series is a mistake.

Readers get tired unless you have a solid main arc for the entire series and carry it off. They get bogged down in keeping characters straight if you have too many or if your nodes of conjunction are non-existent. A series based around worldbuilding and not plot will hold up about as well as driving a car on balloons instead of tires.

#1 example of a well thought-through fantasy series is Harry Potter. The author knew the beginning to the end and she delivered. Each book had its own main plot. The sideplots enhanced either the main plot or the main arc. She had a lot of characters but not too many and each one was distinctly different and usually served more than one purpose. The worldbuilding caught readers’ imaginations on fire, without overwhelming them with too much too soon. We were still discovering new things up to the last volume in the series. She knew when to stop and write The End. Is it any surprise it became a huge bestselling series?

So take some time to think about it. Is your story big enough for a series? Honestly?

Joyce Alton, also known affectionately by her screen name Clippership (or even just Clipper), is a writer of speculative fiction and the moderator of that topic on Agent Query Connect. She shares some interesting insights in her bio and posts on her blog, Yesternight's Voyage. And don't forget to follow her on Twitter.

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