Surprise #4: Of Deliberately Limiting Story Potential Development
This is the sixth of fifteen posts dealing with surprising things I learned in the course of writing a science fiction series.
The fourth thing that most astonished me about writing in the science fiction genre is that writing a series with this enormous scope forbade me from getting to know my characters, settings, and relationships in the depth I usually do in each book. Almost exclusively, my books have no more than two to five point-of-view (POV) characters so I can really get to know each main character down to intimate-diary-details in the process of writing them. Settings and relationships are directly related to those main POV characters so expanding those was never a hardship that felt like it was getting out of control. Even in my mystery series stories, where I do have a larger cast of characters than most of the other genres I write in, I've never felt inhibited about development the way I was with my sci-fi series.
There are two major reasons for this need I felt to deliberately limit the story potential development in this particular series:
1) Information Overload: When Too Much is Too Much
Arrow of Time Chronicles had more or less 30 POV characters throughout the four installments, with about seven different characters "telling" their specific portion of the story in each installment. Additionally, I also had to create numerous homeworlds and cultural lore for all the alien races (which I called "cultures") in the galaxy featured in the series. If you missed it, check out my previous blog posts about the overwhelming research required for this series and how I went about building all those necessary aspects.
Now, don't get me wrong here, my research and developmental methods created fully fleshed characters, settings, and relationships. The construction of all three of these in this series was a lot of fun to imagine and expand upon. There was simply no way to use everything I came up with without overloading the books to the point of spawning side stories left and right (kind of like the A Song of Fire and Ice Series does--albeit pretty effectively in that case).
2) Overarching Series Focus: Serving the Needs of the Series Arc
Early in this article series, I talked in-depth about what an Overarching Series is. In this type of series, none of the books can truly be standalones because the series arc that's introduced in the first book in the series will run through every installment in that series, expanding and intensifying as it goes, only concluding in the final volume of the series. Another defining characteristic of the Overarching Series is that the primary focus has to be serving the needs of the series arc, though the individual stories are each allowed a certain amount of flourish when it came to character, world, and relationship development. It's best to use the individual story arcs so the amount of development isn't overwhelming in each volume.
With Arrow of Time Chronicles, I had to focus on the series arc first and foremost, narrowing character, setting, and relationship development for specific story arcs in each installment because I knew so much of the "extras" I came up with weren't critical in this particular series. Doing anything else would have ruined the series arc I was building over the course of four novels.
Not all authors follow this advice, and I bet you can name quite a few of those authors off the top of your head. Most books these days include many POV characters…many, many. The trend of including so many characters in a single book isn't one I can get on board with. The biggest reason for that is because every main character, every plot, every setting, and every relationship has to be three-dimensional and fully-fleshed out in that story. How can any of these things achieve that requirement when the only way to effectively cover the three dimensions (past, present, and future) of character, setting, and relationship development--and that for each main POV character--is to write a 200,000-word novel or a series of 200,000-word novels? If you want to know more about 3D writing, the reissue of my writing guide, Three-Dimensional Fiction Writing, will be available soon.
I was about halfway through outlining Book 3 of Arrow of Time Chronicles when I realized there was no way I could resolve everything the way it needed to be if I used that particular book to try to tie everything up. Ultimately, there was no stopping myself from adding a fourth book to the series, not without feeling like I was truncating the series for the sole reason of keeping the word count manageable. While I think there are reasons why an author might decide not to develop a potential subplot in a series, if it's organic and the series is less complete and satisfying without it, there's no way to turn away from getting down to business.
As authors, deliberately limiting the potential for a story to expand so far beyond what a series arc can handle might just be our obligation as the overseers. In most stories written these days, the main characters and their settings, conflicts, and relationships aren't three-dimensional because there simply isn't room to make them so, unless you're George R.R. Martin, for instance, who does a thorough job of this. The question is, will we ever see the epic conclusion? I, for one, continue to hope so.
As an author, though, ask yourself when approaching an Overarching Series: If you don't limit your development or rein yourself in at all, will you be able to complete what you started? Might it be better to focus on the series arc as much as possible to allow manageable installments? Additionally, instead of putting everything in one series, why not leave yourself the possibility of writing smaller miniseries within the overall series to focus on other aspects of the characters, settings, and relationships?
I do realize that some authors don't feel like they have a lot of choice about all this, just like I didn't when deciding whether to add a fourth book to my series. Mainly, authors just go where the story seems to be leading them. In my case, I felt like there was a chance I couldn't make all the series characters, plots, settings, and relationships fully fleshed out if I let myself run wild on tangents but also knew when I had to make an exception and let development expand organically. Only marginally was I concerned that I wanted each book in the series to be around 100,000 words (no more than that, if I could help it), but I really was interested in finishing the series in a doable amount of time. In fact, I did it in about 2 years for all four books. They were published in 2020, one after the after in a fairly short span of time, which I think an Overarching Series with cliffhanger installments absolutely requires to keep fans invested.
Next week, we'll begin a multi-part sequence that goes more in-depth about series and story arcs, how to develop them early in the process, and why standalone stories are all but impossible to achieve in an Overarching Series.
Based on Writing the Overarching Series (or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl into Outer Space): 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection by Karen S. Wiesner (release date TBA)
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series, including the romantic science fiction series, ARROW OF TIME CHRONICLES