I want to make it clear what, approximately, I’m dealing with here. I keep reading that 90,000 to 120,000 words is the prime salable length for a fantasy novel (marketed for adults, at least). There are certainly books published that are longer, but a lot of novels do fall in that arena. Past 150,000 words or so, though, I think quality can and will fall off significantly unless the author is committed to keeping the novel alive in ways that differ from the writing techniques of a shorter story. (And I say this both as a writer who’s written several of them, and a reader who likes really long books).
1) Have the subplots act upon each other.
Just as the secondary and tertiary characters often seem to orbit the hero and never cross each others’ paths in terms of motivation, emotional attachment, or reaction, so the subplots of a novel may revolve around the main one and never touch each other. In a shorter novel, this really isn’t a problem. So long as the author doesn’t leave dangling loose ends, at least, and doesn’t seem to have added one or another subplot to the book as filler, and doesn’t forget about one entirely.
In long novels, it’s different.
In a long novel, you’re asking for things of your readers that you don’t otherwise. Patience, understanding, a passionate commitment to the story’s world, and a really good memory are among them. In return, you really should give them something grand, something powerful, something strong—something deserving of the space that you’re using to tell it.
So show the subplots interacting. Does an army go marching south and wreak damage and havoc on the way? I really hope that the minor viewpoint character who’s directly in that army’s path notices something about the danger and has to run away from it, even as she continues to worry about the amulet she wears that will eventually find its way to the heroine’s hand. (This is where the intricately detailed map that the authors often provide trips some of them up, as the readers start wondering why they hear nothing about the army, when it’s certainly swallowed up the little freehold that the minor viewpoint character lives in).
Does someone, in a mystery subplot, assassinate the guy who was the last heir of a minor family? That might suck for your hero, who was the dead man’s close personal friend, but it should also suck for his sister, assuming she hears about it any time soon, since a) her brother’s dead and b) suddenly she’s stuck as the only heir. Unless she was the one who sent the assassin, of course…
Expand the scope of the novel, and you lessen the heroes’ gravity, as it were. Suddenly people can have separate lives from them much more easily, as enormous amounts of space and time get involved. Play with whole solar systems, and you can’t concentrate on just one planet. Enter the galaxies that could represent giant fantasy trilogies or longer series, and I sure hope you’re not bending everything towards one sun.
Keep track of everything and everyone important to the subplots as well as the major plot. You have to.
2) Don’t be afraid not to give some of the heroes equal time.
Perversely, even as the ensemble cast that usually manages longer fantasy novels means that the heroes’ stories become several among many, that cast gives you the ability to pick and choose whose stories you want to tell. Don’t concern yourself with giving equal time to everyone. I’ve seen that ruin stories, when the author absolutely feels he must pop off and spend ten pages with Boring, Uninteresting Character 3636363 who’s simply feeling his way along a city street and staring right now, because he previously spent ten pages with the character who was battling the firelions.
This is the best way to start adding filler. And we want to avoid filler, don’t we?
*Limyaael smacks some people who said “No”*
Yes, we do. We want to have lots of subplots, and we want to show them interacting with each other and with the main plot, but we also want to know which is the main plot, and when to give it the attention and space it deserves. There is no “fair” here. There is no “rule” that you must spend an equal amount of time with every character. If nothing else, authors are going to have their particular favorites among an ensemble cast, and it will show when you write chapters that you don’t really want to write. Yet those characters are presumably in the story for a reason. So give them the time that’s necessary, and when you have the heroine you like best moving through a vast labyrinth and battling monsters, give her fifty pages if that’s what you need and want to write. (Of course, there’s also no rule that says you won’t have to go through that fifty-page section cutting down and taking out).
If you want a metaphor again, choose which of your plots are gas giants and which are smaller planets. It won’t take us as much time to explore some of the plots, and it can turn on the author’s own like or dislike, as I said above. Show the reader what’s interesting.
3) When you see an opportunity to intriguingly hint at a vaster pattern, do so.
This does not mean “foreshadow every chance you get” or “have people recite sad proverbs while looking at characters who will die in a while, hammering the reader over the head with a mallet about it.” (I’ve had some bitter experiences with foreshadowing, can you tell?) The hints in a longer novel should:
- Really need to be there.
- Should be genuinely intriguing, not so “mysterious” that the reader can’t tell what the hell is going on. That just gets tiresome.
- Should serve subplots as well as the larger plot. This is a great way to remind the reader of a subplot that she may have thought had vanished from the book.
- Should really hint at a vaster pattern, and not some minor mystery that anyone could clear up with a bit of thinking. That has the same effect as the coy cliffhanger, getting the reader all wound up and then revealing that it was the author’s idea of a joke.
- Should be incidents, and not just hints. Having a “mysterious” conversation is not the equal of the character finding a map written in the hand of a friend he knows and trusts, detailing the best way to attack their village, and said character then getting into a screaming fight with his friend about it. If nothing else, mysterious conversations are the way authors almost always do it, and it—you guessed it!—gets tiresome.
4) Choose several writing passions and bring them to the forefront of the story.
This echoes point 2, but there, you might spend less time on a plot just because it’s clear and non-mysterious, not because you like it any less. With this point, you’re specifically spending more time on things that really appeal to you.
What about writing gets you going? Well-done dialogue? Description written thin and fine and lance-like? Exposition that pours through a character’s words as naturally as water? Action that sweeps you up and carries you right along with it? Moments of pure and deep characterization, where the character suddenly comes to an epiphany that he never had before? Confrontations that are not big battles, but still have all that passion and intensity? Twisty plotty moments where three subplots suddenly collide? It might not be on this list. It might be a variation on the themes I mention here. But I bet you can think of your favorites in no more than a few moments.
Now string several of them together, and use that as the base web for the novel.
I would advise you not to always do this with actual scenes. Readers are going to notice if you write several apocalyptic battles into a book, and many of them will go away if they think an author’s repeating herself before the book is even done. (Repetition leads to filler, and filler leads to badness. Remember that). Likewise, they will notice if you describe the clothing of every character in detail, but never actually do any characterization.
Instead, use writing techniques first. Think of the themes and scenes you want to write about, by all means, but think most of all of what parts of writing express them. Language, style, strength, format—these are the things that you don’t have to shove yourself into liking, because they’ve already got you, heart and soul. Knowing the kind of writing you’ll be doing appeals to you will and can guide you successfully through doing an awful lot of it.
This is part of Steven Brust’s Cool Stuff Theory of Literature, which I mentioned in a comment to the last post: “All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ‘cause that’s cool. The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”
With a long novel, you have the opportunity to accommodate a huge amount of cool stuff. So accommodate cool stuff. Don’t trap yourself into writing a story full of scenes and writing techniques that you hate. Why in the world would you do that?
5) Be wary of Byzantium.
I like long novels. However, I like long novels because I feel that the author has the ability, in such a structure, to create something grand and unified, under his or her control. I view long novels as very much more a work of weaving and craft than just haphazard, slapdash, whatever-looks-good-there-is-fine abstract art.
Long novels have all the problems of grandeur in other things. They give you infinitely more room to play around with things, if you like, but they also offer a bigger amount of room for those things to run away from you. That’s always the temptation: “Well, I’ll just add one more plot over here. And there can be another cabal of scheming nobles, why not? And I surely have time to explain this side character’s irrational fear of roses…”
I’ve read more overplotted, Byzantine fantasy novels than ones where the plotting was sketchy. (Both have problems with filler, though—just in different ways). Here’s where you go back and look at points 1 and 3 again. Have you made some attempt to attach these disparate elements together? Is there even a sense that they need to be there, or that they’re taking place in the same world? Can you (pick whatever metaphor you like) plot out their orbits/weave their threads together/build them into a cathedral without cheating?
That’s right. In a proper long novel, there will not be a deus ex machina ending, a sudden vanishing of subplots, or an out of the blue revelation that says this character is really the long-lost descendant of the Marchioness of Oreth and so she went home to live in happiness for the rest of her life, thus sparing you the need to explain what happened to her. You wouldn’t like those things in a short novel, would you? So why put them here?
Long novels don’t need to be Byzantine. You don’t need to have dozens of people deliberately causing problems. Set up characters with a small set of problems. Then have their attempts to resolve them cause two more problems. Each. And then those problems spiral out and start affecting other people. You’ll have all the plotting you can handle.
This is one of those rants where I break my own rules quite a lot of the time, ‘cause I don’t outline; I just fling a bunch of plot elements into the air and let them take me where they will. But then, I’m always twisting in the wind about halfway through, and relying on some sudden clicking epiphany from the story to bring everything together. This is probably Bad, and has resulted in whole novels not turning out the way I want them to. Then I go off and do it again.
So, no. Probably not the way to go. Unless you want to, of course.