Delay!

Bad news! Life is remarkably hectic for me right now, so the next review (Clayton Emery’s Sword Play, the first of a new trilogy) is probably not going to be out for another few weeks. But I love my regular readers, so I figure you deserve an update of sorts to tide you over until then.

One of several reasons why the next post is going to be late is that I’ve volunteered to be an alpha reader for a forthcoming fantasy novel, and that means I’ll have to critically read over a 400-odd-page book a couple of times and make scores of suggestions and corrections. It’ll take a fair amount of time and brainpower, but obviously it’s the sort of work that I enjoy doing, and it’s giving me some thoughts about the construction of fantasy novels that seem relevant to this blog.

But first, settle in for a tale…

Twenty years ago, a user by the name of “Sagiro” started posting summaries of his long-running D&D campaign on ENWorld, a busy D&D fansite. Over the course of the next ten years, they gradually evolved from simple play-by-plays of a complex campaign (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”) to novel-quality prose that captured the exciting battles, the dialogue between characters, and the convolutions of the increasingly metastasizing plot. By the time the campaign ended in 2011 it had been running for sixteen years, and yet somehow managed to tie up almost every loose end in a satisfying, dramatic manner by the finale. Reading Sagiro’s Story Hour taught me more about running a tabletop game than I thought possible, giving excellent examples of how to pace, plot, and plan efficiently. (Fellow ENWorld user StevenAC collected the hundreds of forum posts that comprised the story into a set of very nice PDFs, if you want to get stuck in.)

For years people asked him “So when are you going to make novels out of this story?” And indeed, after several years of downtime, Sagiro (real name Dorian Hart) finally sat down and started doing just that. The first book, The Ventifact Colossus, came out in 2016, and three more followed. Now he’s nearly done with the fifth and final book in the series, and I’m looking forward to reading the manuscript and seeing how he sticks the landing. It’s a good tale, well told — especially given that these books are his first published works as an author.

So why am I going on about some small-press fantasy series? Well, because over the past four years or so of reading and reviewing Forgotten Realms novels, I keep noticing that I have a number of recurring complaints. So many authors seem to make the same mistakes, over and over, until I get tired of pointing them out. But this series manages to avoid all of the common pitfalls I’ve noticed in the Realms novels, and I quite enjoy seeing how Sagiro pulls it off. Some examples:

It’s hard to write a five-book series without digressions and pointless flab. The fewer constraints you have on page count and the more time you have to wrap things up, the stronger the temptation to add useless characters and side plots that are just fun clutter. And the more subplots and arcs you’re juggling, the more likely you are to drop some on the floor when you get to the end. I think every one of my reviews of the Cleric Quintet pointed this out; the plot meandered all over the place, and it felt like Salvatore was writing without a solid plan. But Sagiro is adapting an existing story, not writing a whole new plot from scratch, so his Story Hour effectively serves as an outline for the overarching plot that he can divide into five discrete chunks. With all the major story beats planned out in advance, it’s easy to set up hooks early on that will pay off in later books.

I don’t think that you need to plot out an entire series scene-by-scene ahead of time, mind you. I believe that there’s a happy medium between obsessive outlining and stream-of-consciousness writing, and each author needs to figure out where on that continuum they feel most comfortable. But for a long multi-part work, I think that at the very least you should know the theme of the series, the important details of the overarching plot, and a few story beats that you want to work into the narrative for each book. Without that bare minimum, it’ll be obvious to the reader that you’re improvising because finding a consistent tone, setting up foreshadowing and callbacks for future payoffs, and keeping the plot coherent and compelling are all much harder.

Having lots of viewpoint characters means we don’t get to know any of them very well. Books like Song of the Saurials and Pools of Darkness suffered badly from this: characterization takes time, and if your point of view flits around between a large number of characters broken into separate groups, you don’t have much time to spend with each one. The inevitable result is a large stable of characters defined by a couple of obvious character traits apiece instead of the rich texture you get from spending a lot of time with a small number of characters. But although Sagiro’s story focuses on a party of six to seven characters, all of whom get point-of-view scenes, he still manages to fit in the characterization. Two reasons:

First of all, each chapter is told solely from the point of view of a single character, cycling through the entire party as the book goes on. In each chapter, the narration takes on some of the qualities of the character whose eyes we’re seeing through: one character is snarky and irreverent, one is educated and logical, one is naïve and earnest, and so on, and everything we see gets filtered through their perceptions. The diction subtly changes and they pay attention to different things. The upshot is that the characterization for each protagonist comes not just from the dialogue but from the narration as well, and it has the nice side effect of varying the tone of the story to avoid monotony.

Second, Sagiro’s party almost always sticks together, so you don’t have long stretches where each character is only present in half of the scenes. Every scene gives every character a chance to demonstrate who they are and react to anyone else, which gives the author a lot of flexibility in choosing where and how to spread the characterization around. Plus, it keeps the plot moving along at a rapid clip and avoids the jerky, start-and-stop feeling you get when you’re reading a narrative that constantly jumps between too many people and places. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the weakest book of this series is the one that splits the party up the most.)

Fantasy villains are often ineffectual. Books like Viperwall and Tantras give us antagonists who accomplish basically nothing, sitting around waiting for the heroes to show up and then going down like chumps at the end. But the villains here are better-organized and better-informed than the heroes, they have sensible plans that they pursue in a reasonably intelligent manner, and they’re more than a match for the protagonists when encountered on their own terms. Later books do a good job of keeping that “scrappy underdog” feeling even after the party has become more capable and dangerous, since they’re still way behind on figuring out what’s going on and how to stop it.

Magic solves every problem without effort. In books like Elminster: The Making of a Mage or Tangled Webs, the heroes resolve almost all their problems by suddenly doing some magic thing that we didn’t know they could do, murdering all potential drama by making problems disappear with a wave of their hands. Here there’s not a lot of magic — magical items are usually unique, named things, and magic-using characters have a small enough toolbox of skills that you’re not surprised by what they can do. It often has significant consequences for the user, too, so they can’t throw magic around willy-nilly.

Stories based on D&D campaigns are boring and don’t have a good narrative structure. This isn’t a topic I’ve brought up yet, but you’d better believe I’m going to have some things to say about it when we get to the Dragonlance Chronicles. D&D campaigns don’t have the same narrative flow as books, movies, or any other story that’s told by a single person — there are lots of digressions, side quests, random encounters, and abandoned plot hooks, since the story is being made up on the fly over a long period of time by a group of people. Fights in D&D are fun, so campaigns are also generally more combat-oriented and less plot-heavy than traditional stories.

The solution is obvious: use the D&D campaign as inspiration rather than as the text itself. Build a new plot loosely based on the campaign’s plot, with all diversions ruthlessly lopped off and all dangling threads pulled out. Merge multiple characters into composites. Condense any sections that run too long. Remove or pare down combat scenes in favour of plot-relevant scenes and character interactions. Alter anything that feels overtly game-mechanical — if your readers can fill out your protagonists’ D&D character sheets after reading the novel, you’ve probably done something wrong. When I first read Sagiro’s books I feared that they’d be just a straightforward rehash of the Story Hour material, but he’s gone to great lengths to make them feel like two different but related stories.

I’m not saying these books are perfect. The third book in particular has some sloggy bits in the middle, and there’s no way to avoid having the sometimes clichéd Dungeons & Dragons roots poke through in some places without significantly changing the story. But it’s quite refreshing to see a new author take the same material that the Realms authors were working with — a fairly standard D&D campaign setting, with all the good and bad that that entails — and do a better job at writing a long-running series than any of the TSR authors we’ve seen thus far. (Amazon link)

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on turning this blog into a review site for whatever fantasy novels I happen to read. I like my theme, and I feel that I need the tight focus afforded by the “classic TSR” scope to keep this project structured and on track. But the construction of stories has been on my mind lately — not just the micro level of “how to write compelling prose,” but also the macro level of “how do creators successfully manage the evolving complexity of long, multi-part stories?” It’s a rare talent that few people seem to be good at and that’s not easy to practice, given the vast amount of work involved and the scarce opportunities to try it.

Anyhow, I may be temporarily busy but I haven’t forgotten about this project. I’ve gotten a little way into Sword Play already and have been enjoying the abrupt shift in genre from the usual Western European high fantasy setting to classic sword-and-sorcery. It’ll be fun to pick it back up and find things to say about it once my life stops being so crazy. Until then, stay safe and be good to each other!

10 Replies to “Delay!

  1. I’ve heard of this series a number of times now and I’ve enjoyed your reviews, so maybe this post is what makes me finally pick them up!

  2. Congratulations on the reviewing job! I was wondering when the next review would come, but I’m quite happy to wait until you’re ready to come back.

    -When it comes to a long series, it might be better to have multiple overarching plots that occur sequentially. The next overarching plot doesn’t start until the previous one is largely wrapped up. That’s the approach that some of the Story Hours and campaign streams I’ve read take. That’s probably easier than stretching one overarching plot over five books, particularly when it comes out as disjointed as The Cleric Quintet did. I just finished a series that could fit together as a trilogy, with each part representing a key part of the plot. I plan to write more novels featuring the same protagonists, though, it’s just that the spotlight will shift from some members of the party to others.

    -One influence that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman probably had on me was my liking large parties of 6+ protagonists. That’s one of the reasons I love Critical Role. It’s also why my own party consists of seven characters, although I like to think I’ve done a good job of depicting all their personalities. The old mantra of “don’t split the party!” applies as much to my own writing as it does to any actual D&D table. So I probably have the same advantages as Sagiro.

    -A few years ago, Tor Books had a Dragonlance Chronicles reread that read between the lines to explain just why the Dragonarmies hadn’t completely conquered Ansalon yet. The evil forces do accomplish a lot, but they’re also hampered by infighting between their leaders. The evil forces do this because they believe it makes for strong leadership, but in practice it becomes easier for the forces of good to rally when their backs are against the wall. This is a problem in real life, too-Hitler encouraged infighting between his lieutenants because he thought it would breed strong leadership and to keep any of them from threatening his power, but in practice it seriously hampered the Nazi war effort.

    Oh, and the draconians are not barbecued en masse by meteor swarms and silver fire.

    -As I’ve said elsewhere, the game mechanics and their limitations on what magic can do can serve as a useful guide to an author. I lift almost all the magic spells and items my characters use straight out of the rulebooks, and they’re probably recognizable to perceptive readers who’ve got experience with the game.

    -I imagine Matt Mercer faced the troubles you’re describing when he converted the pre-stream Critical Role campaign stories to comic book stories. Aside from condensing the fight scenes to a couple of pages, Mercer probably also had to cut out a lot of side stories that would have only been one episode if they were streamed. I don’t have that problem, since I’m essentially both the DM and the players and no one will complain when I railroad the party…

    1. Thanks! I appreciate your patience.

      I think that “multiple concurrent plots” vs. “sequential plots” is actually rather less important for a long-running series than keeping a consistent tone and theme throughout. Readers are willing to suffer through the scenes of a subplot that doesn’t work as long as they’re enjoying the rest of the story, but a sudden change in tone or theme will often evoke actual anger. If Tolkien had done two books of LOTR and then made the third book a vampire hunter story, it wouldn’t matter if it was the best vampire hunter story ever written. People still wouldn’t want it because he’d set up expectations, then dropped them on the floor. (A more dramatic example would be the Mass Effect video game series, which spent 100+ hours unable to settle on what kind of story it wanted to tell, then shrugged and offered up a new, unconvincing theme at the end.)

      Translating game mechanics directly into fiction is a double-edged sword. For an audience that’s familiar with the game, it’s great — you get lots of world-building for free, and you don’t have to do much to establish the rules of the world. But for people who didn’t spend their teenage years reading rulebooks, it’s mystifying and off-putting. The trick for stories based on D&D is to find a comfortable middle ground where the rules inform and inspire the fiction without constraining it too much.

  3. I tend to have large parties because I tend to attract a lot of players, so I end up splitting the party just because when there’s eight of them it’s covers more ground faster haha!

    Ed Greenwood adapted his major D&D campaign as the Knights of Myth Drannor trilogy, which I’m currently reading. It’s got all the Greenwood novel hallmarks but honestly it’s been a lot of fun. Strong characters and it’s like… reading an Actual Play show? Which is fun in its own way.

    I do kinda want you to get into the WotC era if only because I love Erin M. Evans’ novels so much and I am so curious what you’d think of them.

    1. Some years ago I tried to read the Knights of Myth Drannor series, but gave up partway through the second book. It was, much like Shadows of Doom, a very simple plot padded out to novel length by making most of the book one long, complicated, seemingly never-ending action scene. I see what you mean about being like an Actual Play, but I feel that it demonstrates the worst of the genre: too much table banter, fights that seem to go on forever, scenes that go on and on without saying anything interesting.

      I promise I’ll tackle the Evans novels at some point! Might just be for my own entertainment, not for reviewing, but I’ve heard from more than one person that they’re worth a read.

  4. I’ve been coming back each week to see if you’ve managed to review this project, but alas not yet! So I thought I’d post a comment.

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