There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Trilogies, Chronicles and Sagas. Why Fantasy Goes On and On… May 25, 2013

   by Raewyn Hewitt

A friend of mine once said she didn’t read fantasy because the books looked like doorstops. Too many words, too much detail to keep straight and if there was a story in there, it was either too hard to find or it never ended. Ouch.

Although I’m the first to admit everyone has their own taste in reading material, she did have a point about the length of fantasy tomes. They often stretch across multiple volumes (just check out the recommended reading on this site), can finish at the most unsatisfactory places and occasionally fail to deliver on over-heightened reader expectations.

So what’s the deal?

The Realities of World Building:

I naively thought building your own fantasy world would be easier than researching a real world location. After all who is there to contradict you? Until I started building my own fantasy world and realised it was much harder than I’d previously imagined. Because although your reader will suspend disbelief to a degree, your world needs to be both believable and consistent.

If you have magic, it needs to have its own set of rules. Cultural diversity is complicated – especially when dealing with non-human cultures.  And don’t get me started on the rules of geography. Rivers flow down to the sea, certain types of harbours are suitable for ports and settlements and towns follow a sort of logic. Just thinking about the first map I drew (just to keep locations straight) still makes me twitch.

The challenge for the fantasy writer is once you’ve worked out the kinks in your created realm, you need to deliver it in such a way that your reader can grasp it and still be pulled into the story. If your story world is complicated this can take time to build up the layers and keep the readers hooked. But if you pull it off, the reader will be invested and may be prepared to take the long journey with you as you explore this brave new world through story.

And, after such a great investment in world building, who wouldn’t want to mine that world for as much story gold as possible.

The Big Picture:

Epic fantasy is, by definition, big. The stories are often greater than the fate of one person, nations or even worlds can be at stake and the very scope of the problem doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix. However when there isn’t an obvious place to stop, practical publishing considerations call for artificial breaks. As a reader I’ve on occasion howled at frustration at where a story is finished; but as a writer I am much more sympathetic. Tad Williams gave an eloquent response to similar criticism aimed at his own books:

I’ve received an awful lot of mail, electronic and old-fashioned-with-a-stamp both, about the first OTHERLAND volume. Most, I’m pleased to say, has been extremely nice and very favorable. The only note of discomfort has been from some readers who were upset by what they felt was the “cliffhanger” nature of the first volume’s ending.

I understand and apologize. However, the problem with writing this kind of story is that it’s not really a series—it’s one very, very long novel, which should be under one cover except that 1) it would take so long to write that my family and pets would starve, and 2) they couldn’t make covers that size, unless they were adapted from circus tents. That means I have a difficult choice to make: end each part in more abrupt fashion than some readers find ideal, or create artificial endings for each volume which I believe would change the overall shape of the book, and perhaps even adversely affect the structure of the story.

Thus, I can only ask for the indulgence of kind readers. I’ll do the best job I can not to end volumes in mid-sentence—”And then she discovered she was . . . oops, The End”—but please understand that what you’re getting is a part of a larger work, and may reflect that. I’ll still do the best I can to find some kind of closure for each individual volume.

He makes a good case for all fantasy writers!

I for one am the kind of person that gets a special kind of shivers when my newest fantasy purchase could also be used for resistance training. Content in the knowledge that when that new Patrick Rothfuss novel comes out it will certainly be no slim volume, but a hefty great serving of his extraordinary story-telling skills.

How about you? Are you writing a trilogy? A series? A saga? Does your story (and world) just seem to grow and grow the more you write it? Do you love long books? 

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13 Responses to “Trilogies, Chronicles and Sagas. Why Fantasy Goes On and On…”

  1. I’m writing a series because I love series. Once I find a world and characters I like, of course I want to revisit them every chance I get!

  2. Michelle Roberts (@michroberts90) Says:

    I really love the longer volumes in fantasy. If it’s a world I love, the longer the better, in my opinion. It’s hard to find something as meaty as what I’m looking for in my other preferred genre, YA, but YA Fantasy has a few that satisfy me. And I think that’s why I write YA Fantasy. I craved long tomes with protagonists like me at that age, and I know I can’t be the only one.

    • I think YA Fantasy is fast catching up! There is nothing like getting lost in a well drawn fantasy world!

      • katemsparkes Says:

        Any recommendations? I write YA Fantasy, and I have trouble finding worlds and characters I love to read in that genre. That’s kind of why I’m writing it, but I’d like to have something I like that I can compare my stuff to. 🙂

      • Well as much I tried to resist YA fantasy (was pretending I was too grown up for it) I am totally hooked by Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series and the new Clockwork prequel that is gloriously Steampunk / Gaslamp and just keeps delivering. I can’t think of many others off the top of my head – although I must give a huge shout out to Ironskin by Tina Connolly. I’m not sure if it’s YA, but it is amazing. And our lovely E.M Castellan needs to get Lily in the Shaows out there because it’s also sounding amazing.

      • EM Castellan Says:

        Oh, shush Raewyn, you’re making me blush here 😉

  3. katemsparkes Says:

    I do love reading in the same world over and over, and I love a big story IF the author can keep my interest. Often it seems that series just keep going because they either don’t know how to end it, or because the publisher said “keep going, the money is still rolling in!” Also, I hate being kept waiting years for the next installment, especially if there’s a cliffhanger/abrupt ending!

    I’m writing a trilogy… OK, might be four books, because the middle story is just too huge for one book. I’m trying to have each include a complete story arc, but overall it’s still one big story. I haven’t had a beta reader finish the first one yet who didn’t say, “great ending, but where’s the rest of it?” I’m trying not to let the story get too big, but it’s not a small world… there will always be more stories. 🙂

    • The keeping the attention is a huge thing for me too. It’s hard enough when you’re unpublished and the pressure comes from yourself. Reader and publisher expectations on top of that must create huge pressure. I’m totally with you on finding stories within your world. My little stand alone story turned into a trilogy and the more you work on the backstory the more interesting characters and storylines arrive.

      I’m so glad you’re writing in YA though. I love reading your WIPpets and I’m sure you’ll bring something fresh to the genre.

  4. A.J. Zaethe Says:

    Great post! I have spoken very often about worldbuilding on my own blog (currently down U_U) and making it something a reader can believe. And worldbuilding is definitley not as easy as it seems. I mean, you can get away with a more minimalistic sense of it, but true worldbuilding is something that comes through the characters, not so much their experience. A character from a certain world, land, region, and town, will exude the traditions and beliefs of this location. In other words, they are products of where they come from. I hate it when a character starts off in a story by stating or being commented on as knowing there were “always different.” Bull!

    • I agree! The characters need to be grounded in their world, as much as you or I, so as writers we really need to be able to get inside their heads and understand how their world functions from their perspective. As a rule I try to follow the character’s lead, but every so often you just have to stop and ask – how does this work?

  5. June Tales Says:

    I wanted to write one story but I realized that my world grew up (I have too ideas for putting it in one book only). Finally I would like to write a series because I love the fantasy world that I’m building.

    • It happens to a lot of us! I think part of building a fantasy world is understanding how it works. I’ve found the more I’ve scratched at the surface the more potentials for stories I find. Best of luck with your series!


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