As an author of a fantasy series-in-progress, I feel honor-bound to defend them against negative comments.

Tonight I participated in a class chat as part of my MFA program in genre fiction. The chat's theme was characters and point of view, but about halfway into the the chat we started crossing from character into plot. We were talking about the requirements of series writing, and how to carry characters and plot over the course of a series. Someone made a comment about mystery and romance series being different than fantasy series, and I chimed in that a lot of fantasy writers view their series as one huge story/book chopped into volumes. Another member of the class shot back that that was lazy writing, a la the Wheel of Time.

A chat room isn't the best place for an argument, or even a discussion, because you can only enter so much text and in this case there were twenty or so other students who wanted to talk about other things. So my only rejoinder was that I didn't mean that the individual volumes didn't or shouldn't have their own story arcs.

But now that I have time and leisure, I want to talk about the fantasy series, and to defend my views.

The first point is that we have Tolkien to blame. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he did not write it as a trilogy. He wrote it as one book and for various reasons (one being the cost of paper post-WWII), his publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes. I would never suggest that other writers blindly ape Tolkien's example. After all, if you read the entire book it does have a plot arc and character development (though confined primarily to the hobbits). Tolkien knew what he was doing, but was forced to do something else instead. I mean, who would end The Two Towers with Frodo taken by the enemy and Sam in possession of the Ring? When the movies were made, they shifted events around so that Towers would have a more satisfying climax and conclusion, and it's one of the few changes I agree with.

Modern fantasy readers want their books to have good character development and good plot structure. Just furthering the overall series plot isn't enough- you have to tell a good story every time. But that big picture or big problem that follows/pushes/is pushed by your characters throughout the course of the series is just important.

I think of the modern fantasy series as an ocean tide. It's all the same water, and the goal is to hit some high point on the shore, but it is going to take a number of waves breaking on the sand before the tide comes all of the way in. Each wave is a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In each, the characters are pushed further on their own journeys and grow and change as the wave swells and curls. At the climax they crash upon the shore and then sweep back to regroup for the next book/wave. Every time they get a little farther toward their goals, and meet new challenges along the way.

Fantasy readers want big, sweeping stories with lots of scenery and characters and plots that aren't easily resolved in one 500 page volume. Stand-alones exist, but both publishers and readers are going to beg for more.

So when you write fantasy, you can't neglect the individual book problem or the overall series problem(s). You have to consider both.

July 2011

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