You have a brilliant story idea, relatable characters, and an interesting plot. The only problem is, it’s too long for a single volume. But sequels and trilogies are all the rage and have been for years. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a publisher…right?
Theoretically, this is true, but it’s still best to write your first story as a single volume, because the publishing industry is no stranger to chopping up books. Single stories, like Pride and Prejudice, were once published in volumes to cut down on the cost per book and to make it easier to share a single story among many readers, back when books were scarce.
And sometimes, massive tomes were split up into trilogies just to make them economically attractive to publishers: if the first installment sold well, they could keep going and print the others. Other novels got their start in magazines or newspapers, where the story was told in installments that sprawled over months or even years. If the publishers found it wasn’t selling, they could always switch to a different story.
And even now, in the age of the ebook, the length of a volume still matters. It may not stare down from a shelf or weigh much in their hands, but when readers open a file, they can get intimidated if it looks too long, with tens of thousands of pages to be read.
So what can you do if your plot is bigger than most reader’s appetites?
The traditional answer is to chop it up, and, in fantasy especially, this translates to taking a larger plot–like eliminating a particularly nasty villain or source of evil–into smaller sections. The first victory goes to the heroes, the second to the villains, the third to the heroes à la Star Wars, or there is a mix of loss and victory to both parties along the way.
And this works just fine, provided authors remember that each of their volumes are a separate story and should be complete.
Sure, there will undoubtedly be unanswered questions, but I think major plot points ought to be resolved. (And most books I’ve read over the years follow this model, because publishers don’t usually want to sign on to publish an entire series without seeing quarterly and yearly earnings first.) The trouble is, sometimes, authors want to raise an intriguing line of thought in book one, even if it doesn’t get answered until book two…or three…or four.
But even in this day and age, readers (and publishers) may not stick around to the end of the series if they don’t get enough literary satisfaction (and monetary gain) from the volume they’re currently working on.
Here are some examples of books that followed (or failed to follow) this one-book concept.
Little Women: Part One was published well before Part Two, and aside from issues in character, the plot points were adequately developed. Of the four girls, only one was romantically attached by the end, which gave the author plenty of room for a sequel, but each girl had endured difficulties and had a satisfactory character arc. (I disagree with some of the authors choices, plot wise, but I do think she wrote a volume that could and does stand well on its own).
The Three Musketeers: Though long and highly episodic, this one wrapped up its plot so well that the sequel doesn’t occur for another twenty years. Part of its unity may be due to keeping the major characters (aside from the musketeers) contained to this one novel. Every conflict with Richelieu, Buckingham, and Milady takes place in The Three Musketeers, and the author has to resort to giving Milady a son to generate any kind of real story connection between book one and book two. (In some ways, it’s more like a Disney sequel than most books: the first series was so well received, he brought the characters back for round two without any plot points left to work with.)
Throne of Glass: This is a good example of writing one big book and calling it a series. By the end, the only resolution is that the competition is over. We still have no idea who Celaena truly is, what her future will look like, or who she will romantically end up with. We have more questions, not less, about the world of the story, and the magic involved, and how everything works. While some readers don’t seem to mind the suspense carrying over from book to book, it can cause others (myself included) to give up on the entire series. (There were other contributing factors, for me, but the answered questions clinched it for me.)
The Crown Conspiracy: I still haven’t done my Writerlea review on this book, but it also follows the pattern of writing a giant, sprawling plot instead of single novels. I think it did a better job than Throne of Glass, but there were still too many things going on. Characters who would normally have been minor were given extra time and attention because they come back later in the series, and there are major hints of plots and conflicts to come. While authors may think this will intrigue readers and make a complex world for the story, it can actually just bog the story down and distract the readers.
Child of a Hidden Sea: This is one of a handful of recently-written, self-contained fantasy novels that I’ve read lately. Even though there is a sequel (due out next month) the book stays focused. We start out with the problem of who Sophie’s birth parents are, and by the end, we have the answer. We have other, unanswered questions (particularly as pertains to a romance between Sophie and Parrish, one of the other main characters), but the primary questions of the story got answered. She met her birth parents and navigated their world, and there are hints that, someday, she (and we) might get to come back and learn more.
Seraphina: This is another novel that did a great job staying on-plot. The focus is on Seraphina and who she is: her heritage, her feelings, and her future. By the end, we’ve explored all three areas, and although the romance is a bit up-in-the-air, most of the story’s questions were answered. (The sequel goes on to explore more of how the world of the story works, what happens to the major characters, and how the romance unfolds.)
Magonia: This one resolved its plot neatly enough but couldn’t avoid raising a boat-load of questions about Aza’s identity and the world of flying ships (pun only moderately intentional). 🙂 Who was Aza’s father? How will Jason’s parents react to Aza’s transformation? How were there birth pictures of Aza’s birth, and how did the switch that brought her to earth actually happen? Did her adopted parents know about it all, from the beginning? And how will Magonia, her birth culture, respond to her trying to remain human (though this, properly, is a question for a sequel, if there is one).
When writing a series, some questions are inevitable, because you want readers to want more and you can’t (or a least shouldn’t) answer every last possible question about the characters and world you’ve created. But if you have too many, readers may decide it isn’t worth wading through more books in the hopes of a resolution they doubt will ever come.
So what about you? Do you like your stories self-contained, or do you enjoy having many unanswered questions and cliff-hangers to keep the suspense going on into the next volume?
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundren
Photo by sebastiansantanam8qnfs, Creative Commons