Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Plot

In addition to being a writer, I'm also a reader.  (Yes, I know you are all deeply shocked, what with the book reviews and all.)  However, I'm also a reader of book reviews.  I hang out on discussion boards where people talk about books. Over the years I feel like I've sucked up some points about what readers, fantasy readers especially, like, what makes them keep coming back, and what annoys them. Which, since I'm nowhere near finishing the next book for review, I, the newly christened Fantasy Sage, shall share with you.

So, here it is, in all it's glory, the first tip:  If you want the sort of fans that are begging for your next book to come out, make sure you've got a set plot arc. 

What do I mean by this?  Fans like knowing there is a set beginning, middle, and end to the story.  Harry Potter and the..., Twilight, Harry Dresden, and Game of Thrones: the thing these books all have in common, besides legions of adoring fans, is the author set up an overarching plot, then wrote each installment in a way that furthered that plot, but also opened up more questions about what would come next.  None of these stories are/were written with the I'll-just-wing-it-and-see-where-the-characters-take-me method.

I know a lot of authors like to sort of just go with it, write whatever comes to mind, and keep the story going forever. But, if you read reviews of The Wheel of Time, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, or The Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll notice that many of the bad ones center on a theme of the author has lost the plot, that the later books don't have the same heart, magic, feel, ect... of the first few.

If you'll allow me a bit of comparison... Fans were lining up in droves, spending hours debating what would happen and how for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By the time we got to that last book all the main players were in place, the epic battle ready to start, and a new quest set to begin. Many of the old threads had been wrapped up or almost wrapped up. The high quest for the Horcruxes and the final Harry V. Voldie fight was the promised end of the series. No matter what you thought of how J.K. Rowling handled Deathly Hallows, the set up for it had fans salivating over copies of the last book.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the highest selling opening of a book, ever.

Now, we're two books away from the end of the Sookie Sackhouse (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood) books.  If I understand how the series worked, originally it was a three book deal, then a ten book deal, and now a twelve book deal.  And it shows.  The first three were very solid. They were mysteries, with a decent twist on a pretty basic arc. Then it was a ten book deal, and Harris got lost. 'Round about book seven it became pretty clear that Harris didn't have a larger story she was trying to tell, and worse, she had forgotten she was a mystery writer using fantasy tropes, not a fantasy writer using mysteries to build tension. She lost control of her plot.  By book ten, where everything should have come to a fairly natural end, she was resurrecting dead plot points in an effort to keep it going for two more books.  Unless she's a vastly better writer than we've seen in the last few books, the likelihood is the only question left by the time we get to book twelve is who Sookie ends up with.  I know, having read the first ten, I've got no real interest in what happens in eleven, and I'm fairly sure I can skip it without too much damage in my ability to understand twelve.  And if you read the negative reviews of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll see I'm not the only one who feels this way.

So, how can we as fantasy writers take advantage of this? Plan your story arc!  Or more precisely, know when and where your story ends, and then end it!  We aren't serial mystery writers. (They play by a different set of rules.) Our readers want complete, or at least completable, story lines.  They want to anticipate what comes next.  They want clues, foreshadowing, the ability to look back and feel clever because they caught the clues and had figured out what was coming next.

If you know where your story is going, you can use foreshadowing, parallels, and symbolism to the fullest.  You can build the necessary foundation so you're not whipping out McGuffins or Balognium (Thanks, Red Hen) when you've written yourself into a corner. (If you've got your plot properly wrangled, you aren't writing yourself into corners in the first place.) You can write each novel so that you reveal necessary information and leave some questions dangling to get your reader to come back for the next story.  And that's what readers want.  That's how writing careers are made.   It is vastly easier to get someone to read your next book than it is to get someone to find you in the first place, so make sure that first book hooks them on your story.

Now, this isn't to say you can't use the I'll-wing-it-and-let-the-characters-lead-wherever technique while you are writing, but, if that's what you're going to do, don't publish until you've finished the whole tale. The thing to bear in mind is there's a huge difference between writing a story and publishing a story. When you are writing, you're doing it just for you. When you publish, you are making a promise to tell your reader a certain sort of story (more on this in the next post: The Contract). So, write however you like, but don't publish until you can give your readers the set story arc they desire.

So sayeth the Fantasy Sage.  Now, go write! ;)

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Power Balance

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