The other rant was more about stand-alone novels and ending books that were the final ones of a series. This is more about ending books in the middle of a series. And maybe beginning them.
Well, I think I’ve lost the ability to plan the course of these rants anyway, so it might as well be both.
1) If you end on a cliffhanger, don’t make the cliffhanger too severe.
I think the worst example of severity is not knowing whether a character is alive or dead. Cliffhangers can get away with just about anything short of that, and have. I can think of books that ended with characters locked in battle, captured and seemingly defeated, separated from each other, just after some great loss or sacrifice, or facing a future that’s taken a sharp turn for the worse. But leaving a character hanging between life and death will irritate your readers. This is because:
- The other things have imaginable outcomes. Death is harder to predict, and harder to live with during the typically long delays between fantasy books.
- It is much more likely to be a false cliffhanger if the character is a star of the story; the author probably won’t kill them in the middle of the series (unless the author is George. R. R. Martin). Most readers dislike this kind of emotional manipulation.
- It makes for a very difficult start for the next book. Beginning seems to be much harder for many fantasy authors than ending, and by leaving someone stranded between life and death, you create another obstacle for yourself that doesn’t need to be there
I’m trying to remember any authors I think have done this with success, and I can only think of one: Tolkien’s leaving Boromir in between life and death at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Even there, though, it was less obvious that that was what would happen. The Fellowship was running madly everywhere. It wasn’t as though Tolkien ended the book with Boromir beneath an Orc’s sword. And at the end of The Two Towers, he was careful to note that Frodo was alive, to give Sam and the readers some hope.
2) Each ending should represent something gained or lost.
This is a problem I’ve noted with middle books, especially the second books of trilogies. Authors have the excitement of creation pushing them in the first book, and many of them know something about the wonderful ending of the third. In the second book, stuff happens. That seems to be the motto.
It’s the motto of far too many fantasy authors. The second book shouldn’t end on a note that does nothing to advance the story, or is far more quiet than the endings of the first or third books. It doesn’t have to be a triumph; it can, in fact, have overtones of loss that are harder to justify in the first one (which might discourage the audience from reading further) or the last (triumphant, except in the case of tragic or dark fantasy). The audience, content that there will be at least one more book, may be more willing to wait.
A triumphant ending for a middle book is certainly possible, as well. The point is that it should seem as though something ended, as though the author had a reason for dividing the story here, rather than that she made a decision to stop because she ran out of things to say.
3) Look to the future with series-middle books.
It drives me batty when the first two (or three, or whatever) books of a series set up a dominant tone, a certain narrative drive, a certain set of expectations, and then smash everything to rubble in the last book. I don’t mean surprising but acceptable reversals, or a great loss before the final happy ending. I mean that sudden superpowered weapon that wasn’t mentioned at all in the first or middle books, or that prophecy that’s suddenly the key to everything, or the villain developing a new magical ability because the author decided the story wasn’t long enough.
Don’t do this.
I don’t think that you should have to do an outline of every single thing in the series, because I don’t plan that way myself, and it would sound hypocritical to recommend it too much. But the last book should not be allowed to destroy everything that came before it unless it’s not published yet and you’re willing to do some heavy revising. The middle books are the time for looking to the future, planting interesting hooks, mentioning a riddle that will be important later. The last book is the time to turn back and pick up those hooks and hints and riddles.
If you’re really desperate for something to give the last book excitement or flavor, do what I did and dump things in the middle books that make absolutely no sense at the time. Those can either hatch into wonderful discoveries in the last book, or give you a place to go if you’d rather plan.
4) Match the middle book’s ending in pace and tone to both the dominant tone and pace of the series and that of the middle book.
This is a hard balancing act, but one that must be mastered, either on the first time through or by revision. It doesn’t make sense for the middle book to be the only fast-paced one in the series, if the others are slow-moving. On the other hand, many fantasy authors go too far in the opposite direction and use the middle book to spread out and note the details of everything (yet another pointed glance Robert Jordan’s way) and expand the world. If anything, that detail-working and world-building is done most plausibly in the first book, when your audience is often willing to look around a little, see the new place, and wait for the action to start picking up. Don’t slump into a mire in the middle books just because they’re middle books.
I find it helps to see a fantasy series as a grand whole. The metaphor I use is weaving, beginning a story by stringing the first threads and using the last book to complete the pattern. In the middle, though, you don’t abandon warp and weft; nor do you concentrate on weaving a dragon’s claw in minute detail when so far you’ve worked more on the broad outlines. The middle book should match the whole series, and that includes its ending.
It should also match the middle book itself. Yet another problem with Jordan’s Wheel of Time is that he spends most of the story exploring the countryside, then slaps an ending on in fifty pages. It provides a jolt of excitement, yes, but it feels like it should come from a different series (a better one), and it doesn’t belong with that book.
5) Give all your plotlines a rest at the end of a middle book.
The heroes often come to a good stopping point (unless the author does that “Will they LIVE?” nonsense), but subplots get left to twist in the wind, often a hundred pages or more before the end of the book itself. Do avoid this. Just because characters are minor doesn’t mean they’re necessarily less important in the eyes of your readers. I’m one of those people who bonds with a secondary character if I don’t like the heroes, which is unfortunately getting more and more common in the fantasies I read, and while I understand the author devoting less time to them, I don’t approve of abandonment.
Even if you feel relatively secure that your readers won’t mind your just stopping the tale of Lanire while she stares at her devastated village because she’s a bitch anyway, consider what effect that kind of storytelling for any plotline has. It gives the feeling, again, of a thread cast and then not pulled back. Secure all the threads before you move on. Show how they can reach into the future, but don’t just leave them drifting in midair, neither torn free nor quite anchored.
6) Don’t do the “mysterious knowledge flies across the world” thing.
This is a very personal pet peeve. However, at the moment I don’t care. I’ve seen too many fantasy authors use it.
If something important happens to your main character, and most or none of the others would have any reasonable way of knowing it—don’t know where she is, can’t receive messages, are in prison or some other place where communication with the outside world is restricted—do not adopt an omniscient voice and fly through their heads making them “somehow” know it. It’s annoying. It makes it seem as if the other characters are less people on their own than extensions or shadows of the heroine. It crushes other developing storylines in favor of the one the author happens to think most significant. And if the book has so far not been written in an omniscient voice, it’s really, really bloody annoying and stupid.
I sometimes feel as though I should be going to an Omniscient Voice Haters Anonymous meeting.
7) Don’t make the endings of the middle books too similar to the endings of the first or last ones.
If your first one ended in a battle and it’s likely your final one will too, find something else to do with the middle one. Decision by the characters, confrontation with a family member, rescue of somebody held in prison, the outcome of a bet, the characters making an alliance with another kingdom, finding out a secret—all of them infinitely preferable to giving your audience the impression that your series is nothing but three, or four, or however many, rounds of the same exact thing.
Middle books are the great victims of samey-ness and author non-caring. The “good stuff” is at the end and beginning, supposedly, the introduction of characters and their triumph. I suspect most fantasy authors either don’t believe in or have never heard of the journey counting more than the destination, at least as regards their series. So they dump insignificant events, far too much description, and a slowing of pace in the middle books. Then, on top of that, they give them endings which make them look more like bastard children. Won’t someone please think of the middle books?
No, didn’t get to beginnings after all. I suspect that will be next.