Stand Alone

I just read a fantasy novel – not naming names, sorry – but it was a good one. I liked it so much it kept me awake until 6 in the morning one night, but, at the same time, it was the first in a continuing series, and when I got to the end of it, I found it did a thing that bugs me. It didn’t end. In fact, it hadn’t even properly begun. The entire book was the ‘assemble the team’ part of the movie that comes at the beginning before the leader sits his band of misfits down and says, “Okay, ladies, here’s the situation.”

Yup. That’s where it stopped, right before that meeting. So, although there were great character bits along the way, and lots of interesting stories within the story, after five hundred pages, nothing of consequence had happened. The main plot will start – at least I hope it will – in the next book.

This, as I said, bugs me. But it also got me thinking about what I like to read, and how I want to write.

I love series fiction. Some of my favorite books are ‘The Continuing Aventures Of…” of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, of Harry Flashman, of Conan the Barabarian, of Travis McGee. But there’s a difference between continuing adventures and books with no end. In each of those series I mentioned, the individual books stand on their own. Each is its own separate story, and though earlier adventures impact later adventures, each one has its own beginning, middle and end, its own plot that pays off before the book is over. Even if there’s a cliff hanger, it is generally the beginning of a new adventure, after the main story has been tied up – a little peek at tomorrow’s menu after you’ve had a full meal.

That’s the way I like series’ to work, and that’s the way I like to write the ones I work on. I feel cheated if the whole story isn’t in one complete volume, and I would feel I’m cheating the reader if I did anything like that myself.

So far I think I’ve done pretty well. The Blackhearts trilogy had a few overarching story lines and cliff hangers that carried the series from one book to the next, but each was a self-contained story. The mission set up at the beginning was resolved at the end. And I think I’ve managed to do the same with the Gotrek and Felix books. Whatever menace rears its ugly head at the beginning, is dealt with by the end.

This insistence on completion goes back, I think, to my love of structure, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Part of what makes reading a novel a satisfying experience to me is the emotional payoff at the end, whether that emotion is joy, heartbreak, triumph, bemusement or anger. A joke isn’t  joke without a punchline. A novel isn’t a novel without an ending. So, a novel which is only a first chapter, in which the plot doesn’t pay off and the main characters have only just met each other might be a book – as it’s got the right length – but it isn’t a novel.

This then is my promise to you for all my future writing. I will do unto you as I would have others do unto me. If you read a novel of mine, you will get a complete story in one volume, with a satisfying pay-off and a proper ending. I may drop a cliff hanger on you, I may hold some things out for the next book, but the main plot will begin and end in the book you hold in your hands.

Unless, of course, someone has torn out the last three pages. Then you’re screwed.

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Date: Thursday, 28. January 2010 3:28
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  1. 1

    Bloated fantasy series are bad enough – but when they don’t even offer a ‘complete’ story in each novel, the sucking sound can be heard from orbit.

    This reminds me of the ‘decompressed’ style in some TV and comic series. A single story is spread out over several episodes – it doesn’t add to the drama, it merely stretches it out for as long as commercially possible. Plot arcs are great, but if you don’t have something whole within each episode, you’re cheating your audience.

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  3. 3

    There is, and has for sometime been the same phenomenon is the short story market (market?). it has viewed (not read) as being out of date to have a begging, middle and end. Stories with structure, even unique or non-traditional structure are categorized as not being post-mondern enough for publication.

    Personally, I still enjoy “Flannery O’Conner”, John Cheever, TC Boyle and Sherwood Anderson.

    Convoluted story structure that “writes OVER the ready” and ignores some reasonable expectations (like an ending-even and especially one that leads to other possibilities) have been thrust aside by the literati and editors who can’t read, or have no true talent at crafting words that carry theme, emotion, struggle, personal doubt, courage and resolution. These common elements are not formulaic, they are foundational.


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