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?