They say anticipation is half the fun. Sometimes, it’s all the fun.
One of the hardest parts about writing a novel series is knowing when to quit. It’s probably a tad early for me to blogging about this because, well…I haven’t quit, at least not yet, but it’s something that’s been on my mind as of late, since a couple of weekends ago Lib and I were discussing TV shows, philosophy and books. Clearly, we don’t get out much. Anyways, somehow our discussion veered onto the topic of when to stop writing a series or story.
The Blood Skies series was originally going to be six books long. That’s since changed to nine. For a time I considered extending it to ten, but that was largely because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to squeeze everything into Book 6 (Chain of Shadows) that I wanted to. I’m happy to say I’ve since remedied that situation, re-thought what I wanted to accomplish, and stuck with my nine book schedule, which is good because I honestly don’t want to drag things on for too long. (Though, to be fair, three of my books are the size of a single installment in, say, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, so really I’m writing a trilogy…in nine parts. ;D)
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m actually not a hardcore “plotter”. I tend to write in bullet points and allow my imagination to fill in the blanks as I go along. Sometimes the specifics get revised a bit as I go, and sometimes an unexpected twist comes out of nowhere and alters the overall trajectory of the story.
I’ve asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook what they consider to be the ideal length of a series. Some people prefer trilogies (I’m usually among that camp, honestly), but most answered: “Until the story is done. Don’t drag things out.”
A. Freakin’. Men.
Now, some novel series can get away with continuing on ad infinitum. Urban fantasy, for example, which often uses the “serial hard-boiled detective stories” as their model (think the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series or The Dresden Files), can carry on pretty much until the author gets bored of writing them, since aside from a few recurring sub-plots each novel is more or less its own microcosm, and it’s easy to jump into the series with almost any given book. A series with a more connected and coherent story line, however (like Blood Skies) is more difficult to join halfway in, and the author needs to stay focused on the overall plot and determine how long it’s going to take to get to the end.
But sometimes a series just goes on for too damn long, and part of the reason is because it peaks too early. Allow me to explain by diverging off on a different path for a moment…
In film circles there’s something known as “middle movie syndrome”. This is where a story doesn’t feel complete because it’s a direct continuation of the first film but doesn’t actually resolve anything, leaving the door open for film #3. The Two Towers is a classic example, since the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy is really one gigantic movie, and Two Towers just happens to be the middle chunk. The Empire Strikes Back is another good example, since the setup essentially mandates you saw A New Hope to understand what’s going on and then demands you see Return of the Jedi to find out how it ends. (Hint: the Ewoks shoot Kennedy.)
Sometimes, however – and Empire is a good example of this – the reality of what happens next is nowhere near as good as our anticipation of it. Empire (and a few examples I’ll outline below) ends on such a high note, and we’re so caught up with the characters and events, that when we find out what actually happens in the next installment it either a) doesn’t live up to our expectations, or b) just feels superfluous. Now I’m not saying Empire should have been the last movie in the series, but it’s hard to argue that what follows in any way matched the anticipation.
Sometimes, it’s best to quit while you’re ahead. I give you three examples, each of them about as different as can be: the television series Lost , George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and the film The Matrix.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Lots of ‘em.
Lost: This show was an absolute phenomenon when it arrived on the air, and even more than Alias really made the careers of J.J. Abrams and company. The tale of a group of (seeming) strangers trapped on a remote island with all sorts of mind-twisting mysteries surrounding them captivated hordes of fans, and entire online communities formed in an attempt to decipher all of Lost’s secrets. Everyone wanted to know what was happening, what connections might be formed between the characters, and what more twisted secrets about the island or “The Others” might be revealed.
Lost peaked, in my opinion, with Season 3, which for those of you playing the home game opened with Jack, Kate and Sawyer as captives to Ben and The Others and concluded with the arrival of the freighter, Ben’s dire premonitions regarding the island’s fate and Jack’s mind-twisting “flashback”. By this point, following a very popular Season One and a very unpopular Season Two, the creative team behind the show had come to understand how to balance what worked against what didn’t, and they did a nice job keeping the story rolling and maintaining the mystery without stretching out the painful melodrama that bogged down Season Two.
The Season Three finale was utterly brilliant and, honestly, could have doubled as the series finale. Yes, it would have driven some people absolutely bonkers with all of the unanswered questions, but think about it: we saw the deaths of several major characters, we got a good clue (without a definitive conclusion) regarding the nature of Jacob, we came to know that the survivors would indeed be rescued, and we got a very strong indication that said rescue was, in the end, a very terrible thing to take place. Yes, we’d never learn why all of the characters seemed to share so many dotted lines in their lives; yes, we’d never find out who was on the freighter, or what they were really looking for; yes, we’d never know who was in the damn coffin or why Jack was losing his mind years after they’d escaped.
Now answer me this: having watched Seasons Four through Six, do you feel more enlightened, or just let down? Exactly. That Season 3 finale was the zenith of the series, and as infuriating as it would have been to many of the viewers I honestly think the show would have been more fondly remembered if it had ended at that point, while it was still on top of its game.
A Song of Ice and Fire: Far be it for me to criticize a man who’s arguably one of the most talented modern fantasists around. With the exception of the late Robert Jordan, Steven Erickson, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and a few others, not many authors have attempted anything with the scope and breadth of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s story has captivated millions of people even without the aid of the excellent HBO series. That being said, I have one major problem with the series: it should have ended with A Storm of Swords.
Again, let me elaborate. Through those first three books, the main thrust of the plot is the war for the Iron Throne being waged by the Lannisters, the Starks and the Baratheons (with the heirs of the Targaeryens off in the distance). We’re treated to a host of characters and plot lines, a tremendous amount of twists and turns, and more than a few heartbreaking moments. There are epic battles, betrayals, and full character arcs, and by the time the end of Book Three rolls around the series has, in my opinion, peaked. Most of the characters have completed a full cycle: they’re either at the end of their journey or at the beginning of a new one. Daenerys has found a city where she wants to stay and a cause worth fighting for, at least for the time being. Tyrion and Anya are both leaving for distant lands, as are Bran and Rickon. Stannis and company have given up on the throne and gone north to do some good. Jon is entering an important new position in his life. And the war for the throne is more or less over, with some disastrous consequences.
Are there unanswered questions? Hell yes! And yet I felt at the end of A Storm of Swords that a conclusion of sorts had been reached. I felt like if I were to leave the story I’d still have that sense of wonder, that anticipation knowing things weren’t yet complete, yet I’d be satisfied that I’d seen enough of the tale of Westeros to know there was more to that world, like I’d glimpsed into a foreign place’s true history and watched an important series of events.
Very few will disagree when I say that A Feast For Crows was a colossal letdown, though most argue it was because Martin shifted away from the main characters. Fair enough. How then to explain A Dance With Dragons? Honestly, I didn’t care for it, largely because it feels tacked on, like we’re continuing on with stories that don’t need to be continued. We’ve come to know and love these characters, and I want to remember them fondly, not as elements of a story being needlessly dragged out for the sake of commercialism.
Now that doesn’t mean the final installments in the series won’t be remarkable. But I have to admit I’m skeptical, because what came before reached a pinnacle I doubt can be matched again.
The Matrix: The Wachowski’s groundbreaking film suffered an early peak, and, to be quite blunt, the second and third films should have never even been made.
The reason is the same as for the reasons I’ve already discussed with the other examples: the possibilities, the sense of wonder and awe and potential we felt at the end of The Matrix is vast…too vast to have ever been followed up with anything other than a good trailer. Now I won’t argue that The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions were terrible, because there were aspects of those films I enjoyed, but they were certainly disappointing. Like Lost, The Matrix suffered from too much explanation – some things are better left a mystery, and over-explaining them only leads to the logic of the story being utterly picked apart. Alfred Hitchcock referred to this as “refrigerator syndrome” – it stays fresh so long as you only keep the door open for a very short time. If you leave the door open (i.e. examine the logic of the story too closely) it starts to go bad. Such is the case with The Matrix, a brilliantly realized and surprisingly simplistic story whose sequels fail on almost every level to build on the promise left by the open-ended conclusion to the first film, and for a very simple reason: you can’t build on something that’s already reached its plateau.
The trick, it seems, is to keep all things in moderation, to not let your story peak too early and, if it does, to have the good sense to bring it all to a close. That doesn’t mean hold back: don’t ever do that. If you have a great idea, go with it, use it, because those inspirations sometimes only strike once. But also have the good sense to know when to end a story, money or guaranteed sales be damned. Anything short of the whole tale is a cheat, but anything more is just a waste of everyone’s time.