Please do not Adjust your Internet

Profound apologies for not posting in a while. I would love to claim that the pause in transmission was due to exceedingly large amounts of work to do, but the opposite is true. I’ve had an idle couple of weeks, readying myself for the next big push and have been altogether far too lazy…

It’s not been all web-surfing and playing Call of Duty (though there has been plenty of that). Amongst the sitting-in-pants-playing-computer-games I did manage to write a short story for the BL Live! Chapbook. Entitled The Dark Path the story concerns one of the events of the Sundering, building on the life of one of the characters from Malekith.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the length of the story was a potential issue. In the end it was redrafted at 6,000 words long (a thousand longer than initially planned). The nature of the story – its content, publication and purpose – made some particular demands that strained this word count, which I’ll share with you.

First and foremost, a story is a story. It should comprise a self-contained narrative that entertains, informs and otherwise engages the reader on its own merits. As demonstrated here (thanks again to Angry Robot) it is possible to tell a story in as few as six words. Compared to that, 6,000 are plenty! The tie-in nature of the story – a spin-off from the Sundering rather than just a Warhammer tie-in – requires that the story does some other things as well.

The purpose of the Chapbook story is not only to deliver an entertaining read, but to open a window on the wider Sundering series. In short, I did not assume that readers are familiar with Malekith (and they can’t be familiar with Shadow King as it isn’t out yet!). This means that The Dark Path needs to address the larger issues involved in the series, give an overview of the characters and what has happened, and also leave a hook of interest in the reader to explore further (buy Malekith :-).

Each of these requirements demands time and space in the story and finding the right balance can be tricky. Too much foreshadowing and not enough delivery and the story will feel like a literary trailer. Not enough characterisation and setting and the story will be thin in itself, and thus not a commendable advert for the novels… If the story is too self-contained, it fails in its purpose to intrigue the reader into finding out more.

How does it Fit?

When planning a story, consider the wider context. Often as a writer you might not know all of the context, for example whether the story will ultimately be published in a magazine, anthology, online and so on. As a writer you can understand the story’s context within your own work and plans.

Is it a one-off? If so, does it contain everything it needs – plot, setting and character – to be complete? Is it part of an ongoing or intended series? If this is the case, where does the story fit in terms of adding something to the sum of the setting? A series does not have to involve the same characters, but it might involve the same world. Does it explain the setting to the new reader whilst adding in something to those who may have read (or will read) other stories in the series? If the story features recurring characters, how is their meta-story addressed – that is, their development not only within the story itself but also the series? Is there a chronology to be considered, and if so, how does one address previous events that the reader needs to be aware of, whilst ensuring that there still remains some appeal to reading stories earlier in the chronology? Is the story a prelude or epilogue or addition to a novel? Black Library frequently does this, with short stories setting up series to come, or created for the omnibus editions to add value to the compilation.

If the story is created for a specific context, the writer must understand the potential for it to be read outside of that context. Your reader may be right up to speed, a dedicated follower of your work, or this may be the first time they have read anything you have written. These are two opposite requirements that seem to be in conflict and a compromise might be seen as serving neither properly.

It is important to bear in mind that regular readers take comfort from the familiar. If they know the characters well, they expect them to act in a certain way and confirmation of that expectation is a reward. Often there is enjoyment simply from seeing a well-liked character behaving the way they are meant to behave – witness the enduring appeal of Jack Bauer in 24, for example, or the ongoing interest in the Hulk. Viewers want to see Jack being Jack, readers want the Hulk to smash things up. It is an affirmation to the reader that what they know is right.

All Aboard the Arc

For the first time reader the story is their initial contact with the character(s) or setting, so it isn’t wise to present them with something that may be hugely atypical, even if such a change may appeal to established readers. If something is uncharacteristic, it needs to be established as such within the story.

Consider, for example, the murder mystery. Let’s say you’ve written half a dozen detective stories, in which your protagonist catches the bad guys (or gals) and they go to jail. For a change of pace, you think it is a good idea to set up a bad guy who gets away, to return later in the series. In the context of the series this seems like a cool idea. Imagine the surprise of the reader when the detective can’t solve the murder, or the murderer gets away! Good stuff!

Then imagine the reader’s reaction if this was the first story they encounter. A detective who lets the bad guy (or gal) get away? What sort of conclusion is that? Who writes murder mysteries where the mystery isn’t solved? The denial of expectation in that context could have the opposite effect, driving away the reader.

This is something that writer’s have been juggling with for a long time, particularly writers of TV series. For many years the accepted wisdom was that readers, or viewers, can come and go at any time, and therefore every instalment of the series needs to be entirely self-contained. There is no meta-plot, nothing that happens in one instalment affects future instalments. This has the advantage that readers can drop in and out whatever they please, read the stories out of order and still understand what is happening.

It has the disadvantage that every story becomes slightly ephemeral. Outside the context of each individual story, nothing much matters. Kirk won’t have his alien girlfriend next week. Another red shirt will have been recruited for the next away party. The world doesn’t change, nothing really affects the characters. It’s a poor reflection of our life experience, because we know that things aren’t reset as soon as the end credits roll (something that has been lampshaded in the Simpsons and other comedy shows).

The story arc – a change in characters and setting that occurs from instalment to instalment – has now become a regular feature of genre fiction (and in other forms too). The loyalty of readers and viewers is rewarded over time, each story or episode contributing something to the larger picture. Many fantasy novels are now heavily influenced by story arc, to the point where the stories they tell are no longer self-contained at all – and many TV shows are the same, such as Lost. They make little or no attempt to introduce the new reader/ viewer and assume that the reader has been with the series from the outset. Quite often this is born out of practicality, the plot and sub-plots have become so involved that to reiterate them in every novel would be repetitive for regular readers and utterly boggling to new readers.

TV shows can sometimes get away with a quick ‘Previously on…’ segment at the start. It’s hard to recreate that sort of montage within the written form, so the backstory needs to be woven into the main story, in a way that doesn’t seem forced. It is too easy to fall into the trap of exposition, with characters explaining things to each other solely for the purpose of the reader. “Just how did Dr Thrombosis infect New York, Daphne?”, “Well, Nick, here’s what happened…” Avoid At All Costs.

And of course, once you have arc-driven stories, one gets into the issues of continuity. But let’s not go there for the moment..

Screech of Brakes, Train of Thought Narrowly Avoids Derailment

I’ll go back to my mantra of making conscious decisions about writing. When thinking about meta-story and context in your work, do so with a deliberate plan. Decide if you want a series to be episodic or arc-driven, and then decide how, and even if, you want to address the issue of new readers wandering in at a later date. Be careful of compromise, of desiring to do the best for everybody and ending up with something that pleases nobody. If the big story you want to tell needs to be read from the start, accept that reality and embrace it. Conversely, if you want readers to be able to enter at any point with a reasonable degree of understanding (and defining reasonable can require lots of thought) then be sure that every novel or story or episode gives as defined and as satisfying a narrative as possible.

Trilogies in particular can suffer from compromise. The second book can end up as nothing more than a bridge between the first and third instalments. Worst of all is an inconsistency across a series, as might occur when a first novel is written and is successful, and then subsequent arc-driven additions are made onto a self-contained story. If you are fortunate enough to find yourself in this position, bear in mind the original context rather than the new one. With the number of ongoing, arc-driven series that seem to dominate the genre market (particularly fantasy) it is easy to forget the appeal of the simple one-off novel, or series of one-off novels. Don’t be tempted (or pressurised) into thinking that an arc-driven series is the only way to go. Some of the most successful authors have based their careers on writing many one-off novels based in the same setting, and sometimes even using the same characters. David Gemmell, Terry Pratchett*, Iain M Banks (who spring to mind simply because they are on the closest bookcase in my line of vision) and many others have created large catalogues of works without resorting to the ‘story in ten parts’ approach. Choose which one works best for you and for your stories.

*It is interesting to note that while all of Mr Pratchett’s novels are entirely self-sufficient, he has introduced an arc-like development into the Discworld. While plots in earlier novels are not directly related to the plots of later novels, their influence can be felt . This is most obvious in the many developments of Ankh-Morpork society and technology, with inventions and institutions created in earlier novels continuing to exist later in the series.

Published in: on March 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. An increasing number of books are resorting to printing a ‘The Story So Far…’ section at the start of books after the first. This strikes me as a bad sign – they’re neither self-contained, nor are the stories really so integral to one another that the author and publisher are willing to make the seemingly obvious statement of ‘No, not this one, start at the beginning…’.

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  2. Malekith just came in the mail; hubby’s reading it first and is enjoying it thus far. one of his first questions, though, was, “Is this the first? Is there something else I should read before this?” I told him to just read the book.

    But since this is something I’ve been thinking about in regards to my own writing, I’ll state it here: I think books should stand alone. Even if they’re part of a series. Terry Brooks annoys me to no end, and I’ll no longer read his books (i know: sacrilege)… Is this right? wrong? indifferent?

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