Quantity is its Own Quality: Fantasy Epics as a Distinct Medium
When I was growing up, Lord of the Rings was a massive set of books. I don’t just mean metaphorically in the sense that it mattered, but in the sense that it literally was very large. I’d been given The Fellowship of the Ring after loving The Hobbit, and right up until the last pages was completely baffled by how the story was going to be tied up. And I saw the little text underneath the final words on the final page of the same copy I still have all these years later: “continued in book two, The Two Towers”. My mind was broken quite in half by these words. It had simply never occurred to my nine year old brain that a story could last longer than a single book. This changed everything.
When you’re nine or when you’re ninety, 1200 pages is a good long book. I mean, the entire Bible only weighs in at around 1400 or so, depending on the edition. Tolkien split his up across three volumes, but it was one continuous story in every sense. And the various omnibuses have a logic to them: by today’s standards, those 1200 pages are not an insurmountable physical publication. Tolkien said that “the tale grew in the telling”, well as we’ve told more tales, they all seem to have grown in the telling. Drop by your local book store (or your own bookshelves, if you have filled them with taste), and gaze with wonder at the mighty fantasy doorstops. The multivolume epics of three, four, ten, or fifteen books, often with each entry the length of Tolkien’s entire trilogy.
Remember when trilogies were the thing? For many decades, that’s just how science fiction and fantasy existed. You wrote a single book or you wrote a trilogy. Two books was just an oddity, and four just silly. We’d arrived at the perfect number of books for a story, and that number was three. And then over the last twenty years, the art has grown even longer and that limited first snapped suddenly, and then just got shredded by a generation of fantasy novelists. Jordan and Martin both started on their epics in the early nineties, in a simpler time when trilogy was the default and “six book series” was sold by calling it “two trilogies”. And both grew their stories far past those skeletons. And we mock them a bit, lovingly. But it seems that almost by accident they helped invent a new medium of storytelling.
See, ten thousand page stories are simply not the same as a novel length story, anymore than a sonnet is the same medium as an epic poem. They’re not just the same thing but bigger. And they’re also not the same as a series that just happens to have many volumes to it. No, one continuous story that is as long as modern fantasy epics is its own distinct medium. Martin and Jordan were early innovators of the form, but as with all such innovators, they made the mistakes for others to learn from. A medium is distinct from others once it’s different enough that old assumptions no longer hold.
The first oddity of multivolume works, is that the they need to be less rather than more complicated. In absolute terms, they might have more characters, but in nowhere near a direct proportion to their longer length. There is a distinct pattern in which adding characters has diminishing returns, and at a certain tipping point, more characters actively hurts the overall story. Jordan and Martin in particular have learned this the hard way.
Those brave souls who soldiered through every single volume of the Wheel of Time? Remember the dozens of side characters introduced? Ha! I’m kidding, no one does. I mean, we remember the fact of them, but we don’t actually remember them. A novel can have random side characters show up for scenes, a different point of view now and then. But you just can’t do that in a ten thousand page book. Because three or four such characters cannot simply be multiplied out to thirty or forty. It doesn’t enrich the story, it just makes it a muddling mess. Focus is the key. Characters have to clearly either be significant enough to be remembered, or clear narrative throwaways.
On the other hand, individual volumes need to have the rhythm of independent novels, even as they dovetail in seamlessly with the series as a whole. It’s not that they should be readable out of order and on their own, but that they must have the same narrative progress of a stand-alone novel: the hook at the beginning, the ebb and flow of story, the slow mounting of momentum to the ultimate climax, and then the denouement as the built-up tension dissipates. The series as a whole needs this as well, but each book needs a microcosm of it. Ten percent of a novel yanked out separately doesn’t need to flow this way, but ten percent of an epic series can amount to an entire thousand page novel in which nothing seems to happen.
See, these epic stories are written not as individual books, but as a single immense book. This is a fantastic innovation, but they can’t be written just like a novel with the word count multiplied by ten or twenty. Stories don’t scale that way.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.