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David B. Coe or davidbcoe is a full time writer of fabulous epic fantasy novels for Tor Books.  His LonTobyn Chronicle won the William L. Crawford Memorial Fantasy Award given by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.  He's also written the wonderful Winds of the Forelands series, which, I'll warn you now, has been known to make readers lose all track of time, and the new Blood of the Southlands series, which starts with a bang (otherwise known as THE SORCERERS' PLAGUE).  He's also an all around great guy and more of his words of wisdom can be found in our Author/Agent Dialogues, which start here.

"Narrative Arc and the Multi-Book Fantasy Series" by David B. Coe

First, I want to thank Lucienne for asking me to be part of her "Fantasy Week".  I think that she provides a tremendous service to all of us when she arranges online discussions of this kind.  "Mystery Week" was terrific, and I'm glad to be able to contribute to this week's conversation.
It's not an exaggeration to say that most fantasy novels published for today's market are actually parts of larger projects.  I'll be publishing my tenth novel in January, and every one of my books has been part of one series or another.  And I'm typical of authors in the genre in that regard.  There are some excellent stand-alone fantasies out there of course, but multi-book series are far more prevalent. 

Writing multi-book projects places unique demands on an author, and I'd like to discuss some strategies for dealing with these demands.  First though, I want to define a couple of key terms.  We often use the word "series" to describe any multi-book project.  But a true series is something different from most fantasy trilogies. (Or tetralogies, or quintets, etc.)  A true series consists of a sequence of stand-alone novels that are connected by a recurring character or world or theme.  For instance, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels are parts of a true series.  Each book stands alone as a mystery, but taken together they tell us about Harry's life and career.  A project like George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire on the other hand, is best described as an extended story arc.  It's a multi-book sequence, but taken together it tells one story.  A project of this sort can have many narrative threads, but it is, in the end, a single tale. 

I write extended story arcs (or at least I have thus far), as do many of my fantasy colleagues, and this is the form I wish to discuss in my post. 

A novel ought to have a narrative arc, one that builds tension as it progresses, peaking just before the book's conclusion.  If you care to visualize this arc, draw the outline of a symmetrical mountain, and then erase most of the right side (you need a bit of a denouement after the book's climax).

Well, with an extended story arc, an author needs to modify that image of narrative slightly, or at least add to it.  The story arc for a trilogy, for instance, should consist of three similarly shaped arcs connected to one another.  The second arc, however, needs to begin at a slightly higher level than the first, and it needs to peak at a higher point.  And the third arc needs to start even higher than the second did, and that final climax needs to be the highest of the three.  Also, the final denouement is, of necessity, longer and more gradual than the other two, simply because there are probably going to be more lose ends to tie up.

In other words, each book in an extended story arc needs to ratchet up the tension in the series.  The stakes need to rise, the cost to the characters of every setback needs to increase, and the action needs to become more and more dramatic.  But at the same time, the narrative needs to progress.  It's not enough to give your characters new adventures to deal with, or to introduce new characters and circumstances simply for the sake of doing so.  It all has to contribute to the advancement of the plot, so that at the end of the volume the reader feels that he or she has accomplished something toward completing the story.

This is especially hard to do in the middle book or books of an extended story arc.  These books have to strike a balance between continuing a familiar story for those who have already read book one, and being accessible for those readers who, for one reason or another, have come to the series for the first time with the middle volume.  So (for example) the second book in a trilogy needs to have an opening that both catches the reader's attention and introduces the storyline, characters, world, etc.  And it needs to end in a way that completes that portion of the story arc while hinting at the narrative that's yet to come.

So how does a writer do all this?  Part of it is simply a matter of pacing and planning one's narrative.  Every story has certain plotting milestones -- big events that impact the narrative and/or character development.  These events can't be frontloaded into the first volume and they can't all be saved for that final volume.  They need to be spread over the entire arc of the tale, and they need to build in intensity.  That first milestone, the one that ends the first book, has to be dramatic and significant.  But the second one needs to be bigger.  And, naturally, the final one needs to be biggest of all.  (There can be more than three such milestones in a trilogy -- indeed there should be -- but for simplicity's sake, I'm reducing the discussion to just three.) 

In addition, at least for the first half to two thirds of the series, new story elements (subplots, new characters, narrative twists) need to be introduced along the way, so as to feed the intrigue and danger that are central to any good fantasy story.  My Winds of the Forelands series was five books long, and it included many narrative threads.  The first three volumes of the series continually widened the conflicts that were central to the plot and thus the story continued to build.  With the ending of book three and the beginning of book four, I began to resolve those conflicts one by one, which gave me a natural source of milestones to use as volume climaxes.  Of course the central conflict came at the end of book five, but with each of the earlier volumes I gave my reader cause to feel that he or she had reached a milestone.  And I also gave my reader reasons to want to read that next book.

Writing a multibook story presents unique challenges to a writer.  It also offers unique opportunities.  Writers of extended story arcs can play with complicated subplots, introduce a broad range of characters, and explore an imagined world in great detail.  Just remember to keep the narrative focused, to build tension throughout, and to give your readers milestones along the way so that they feel they've made progress toward the ultimate resolution of the story.

Tune in tomorrow for a blog on worldbuilding by Diana Pharaoh Francis.

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 16th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC)
very helpful post--thank you.
Sep. 16th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
Glad it was helpful to you. Thanks for the comment.
Sep. 16th, 2008 11:56 am (UTC)
This is a timely post, thank you. It's something I'm struggling with right now, trying to work larger plot arcs into my current series.
Sep. 16th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the comment, Jim. Managing multiple major storylines is the toughest part of this, I think. And I certainly haven't mastered it yet. The challenge for me is the pacing -- balancing the amount of attention each plot thread receives throughout the series (you don't want 20 chapters of plot line A and 3 chapters of plot line B) and making them resolve at the same time. Good luck with the current WIP.
Sep. 16th, 2008 01:01 pm (UTC)
Great post. Thanks so much! The bit about handling subplots was especially helpful.
Sep. 16th, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
Glad that worked for you. As I mention in my reply to Jim Hines' comment above, the balancing of plot threads really is one of the keys to making a good series work.
Sep. 16th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Ah, David. This was perfect. I didn't realize I had an extended story arc going.

"Writers of extended story arcs can play with complicated subplots, introduce a broad range of characters, and explore an imagined world in great detail."

Yep, that's what I adore about this. There are so many plots within plots and interesting paths to pursue.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. It was very helpful.

Sep. 16th, 2008 05:52 pm (UTC)
Great to know that this was helpful, Julie. Thanks for the comment.
Sep. 16th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)
Great post! This was very eye-opening, to say the least. Writing a series is a great undertaking and feels so overwhelming sometimes. It's nice to see it broken down into something logical instead of a mess of plans swimming around inside your head!

Sep. 16th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
It can feel overwhelming -- even a stand alone book can feel that way. I work in discreet units. I don't think of myself as writing a book, but rather as working on a chapter in a series of chapters. During a given day I only think about writing that particular scene. Otherwise I would have given up long ago. Thanks for the comment.
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome. And yes, that is exactly what I have to keep thinking, instead of focusing on "holy cow, I am writing a book." I've written three, and they have taken forever because I get so distracted by thinking about how much I have left to do. I seem to have solved the problem by writing different chunks of the book out of order. It's the only thing that keeps me from losing track, even though it makes no sense. Thanks for the advice!
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
My pleasure. Good luck with your work in progress!
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:17 pm (UTC)
Oooh, this is WONDERFUL! Thank you!
Sep. 16th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!!
Sep. 16th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the great post, David, and thanks to varkat for hosting the week's festivities.

I especially appreciate your discussion of middle books in trilogies--I'm in the plotting stages of a middle book, and it's curdling my brain. The concept of milestones helps immensely.
Sep. 16th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
My pleasure (and Lucienne's too, if I can be so bold as to speak for her!). There's really no delicate way to say this: plotting a middle book sucks. Good luck with it. ;)
Sep. 16th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC)
Very nice. Thanks.

I find myself writing a series without having planned it (meaning: I sold a book and I was told to get to work on sequels) so each book is a stand alone.

At the same time, I want an overall narrative. How detailed are you plans? Did you work out all five books before you started the first (changing it where it needed to change, 'natch) or did you have a general idea or a lot of characters to create conflict or something else?

Sep. 16th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
Good questions. My plans tend to be detailed enough that I have some sense before beginning a trilogy (for the sake of discussion) of what needs to happen in each of the three books, but loose enough that the changes in plot that invariably come along the way can still work within the structure I've created. There are always events that happen unexpectedly in the narrative, and/or characters who introduce themselves along the way. If that isn't happening for me, I feel the book or series must be lacking in some way. That sense of surprise and spontaneity is part of what makes writing so much fun. But I need some structure. I need to be able to see those milestones I mentioned in the post from a distance. Otherwise I'll lose my way, and that can be disastrous. So that last question you ask, which seems to be an either or thing, is prompting a not-entirely-helpful answer of "Both." Sometimes even the milestones change a bit, though usually not so much that they're not at least recognizable versions of the original idea. But that's the balance I shoot for: Enough structure in an outline or synopsis to keep me focused on the big narrative goals, but enough freedom (vagueness, generality -- choose your favorite word) built into the outline to give my storyline and characters room to grow. Is that at all helpful?
Sep. 17th, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
Yep. Thanks.
Sep. 17th, 2008 11:10 am (UTC)
The stakes need to rise, the cost to the characters of every setback needs to increase, and the action needs to become more and more dramatic.

This is exactly what I need to keep in mind as I embark on a quest to commit trilogy. I have my milestones more or less in place, but I have to make sure that those in book one don't trump those in book two and so on... I've got to get that scene list out and think some more on this. Rising action, rising action....

Thanks for this timely post, David. :)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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