In Ed Greenwood’s The Sword Never Sleeps, the final novel of the Knights of Myth Drannor trilogy, characters rush through a series of confrontations, resolving chases and conflicts established earlier in the trilogy. Increasingly, the central figure, the wizard Vangerdahast, seems to be revealed as a ruthless, endlessly-ambitious, and manipulative villain.
Yet his creator, while agreeing with that view, also insists that Vangerdahast is an example of where the “road paved with good intentions” leads. According to Greenwood, Vangerdahast acts for the good of the kingdom. He keeps Cormyr strong, and that end outweighs all the villainous means necessary to accomplish it.
On the other hand, Ed Greenwood admitted, some—maybe even many—readers will disagree with his assessment of Vangerdahast.
But that’s the point.
“I’m finally learning that my yearning to nail down truths and certainties for the reader must give way to leaving room for readers to ponder and debate and see characters differently, not always knowing the truth,” Greenwood said. “In other words, as in real life, everyone is gray rather than shining white or evil black—and everyone is changing under stress. Just as in real life, we all write our own stories.”
We begin with the second half of his answer to the following question:
Jones: Was there a moment or particular story or some other thing that helped you stop “running out of words” and “rushing the ending”? A shift in the way you worked or conceived of stories? [More…]
Greenwood: For the more general, implied, “When did I learn to control word count in my writing at all, and tell a full, rounded tale in the space and time available?” question, the answer was early on, purely because I started by trying to write pastiche sequels to favorite short stories and novellas by dead writers.
To some extent — within my limited abilities — I tried to tell stories the way those writers did. Many of them were writing in a more leisurely, wordy age than nowadays, but they were in general good storytellers, and knew how to keep the reader engaged with pacing and dramatic moments.
Before I was 10, I worked on two never-finished, unpublished novels, abandoned because part way along I found them too “empty” (probably because I hadn’t lived enough then to bring richness and experience to my writing). While writing them, I learned one of the beginners’ lessons: leave stuff out.
It isn’t necessary to include every last detail (then Character X brushed their teeth, right to left rather than up and down, and with a favorite purple brush, then spat into the sink in the same place they always spat, then went to the closet to choose clothes…followed by 16 pages of that selection process), in sequence, and as much as a writer may fall in love with their own rounded prose, the reader will snore because it isn’t their beloved rounded prose.
In short, aiming for the rock video method of telling a story in swift, spare glimpses and having stuff happen offstage yields better results than plodding through every step of a long overland journey. “Just the highlights, ma’am; that’s all we have time for,” as I once overheard a policeman tell a complaining-about-everything witness.
I don’t agree with the bare bones school that says: if this scene or detail doesn’t advance the plot, leave it out. If I open a book, I expect to be offered some interesting meals or a banquet or two, not a steady stream of the same tinned combat rations. That’s an outline, not a story.
However, if the scene or detail isn’t engaging in and of itself, and it doesn’t advance the story, yes, leave it out. An adventure fiction writer can establish that a protagonist and her sister argue all the time without treating the reader to chapter after chapter of said arguments. After that brief “establishing” is done, bits of those arguments should appear only if they’re entertaining or vital to the story.
Fiction and Games
Now, what I’ve just said is from a fiction writer’s point of view. There are times when the needs of writing in a setting that is also used for gaming will want more little details. The trick is to give them without obviously slowing and marring the narrative to impart that information. Don’t just say “the seneschal of the castle” if someone else needs to know what he looks like and how he’s armored for use in a computer game, or in crafting a miniature figure (and hey, what’s his name?).
The writer doesn’t always have to tell the reader everything, but the reader needs to feel as if the writer knows it. It’s like looking at an old photograph, where a road bends around a tree, out of view. Usually we can never go to that place, follow the road, and finally see around that corner—but the reader of a fantasy novel will believe in the setting much more richly and easily if the writer gives the impression that they know what’s around every corner, even if the novel in the reader’s hands doesn’t ever follow that road.
Jones: What goes into the development of a multiple book story arc?
Greenwood: For me, “multiple book story arcs” have always been publishers’ plans. I always want every book to stand alone as a self-contained and satisfying story, with the book serving as an episode in my ongoing coverage of a star character’s life or a major event (a war, or the rise or fall of a country) as secondary to its main purpose of entertaining a reader who never finds and reads another book by me.
However, not all of my series books have turned out that way.
First, the overall story arc is either planned by the publisher (and modified by me and others, sometimes through vigorous argument), or (very rarely) suggested by me and heavily modified by the publisher before they’ll accept it.
Either way, any sort of series—from the “classic post-Tolkien fantasy trilogy” to multi-book sagas like the Double Diamond Triangle saga or the War of the Spider-Queen series—must have the publisher’s approval before they can happen. Often, that means they were the publisher’s idea—which means they often come with a “shopping list” of “musts” or “wants”. Shakespeare wrote the play The Merry Wives of Windsor because Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Falstaff in love.
I work what the publisher wants to see in the story into an outline—sneakily putting what I want to see in the story in too, as part of that outlining process. Then the publisher may suggest modifications, and I’ll revamp the outline until I have approval and start writing just as I do a standalone book. The publisher decides on release dates, titles and how they’re going to present the book (the next part of the life of Character X, or a bold new direction, or “revealed at last, the truth behind Y!”) and commissions art accordingly.
That’s the “how.” The “what” of content, as suggested by the outline, involves deciding what will happen in the story arc, and when. That is, what big events will serve as the climaxes of the various books? Some publishers and writers love to have surprise (shock, really) endings for every book of a trilogy or series. Others dislike this practice.
Some publishers and writers just try to avoid the clichés of the modern fantasy trilogy: Book One crawls along as the entire large cast of characters is introduced, plus the setting and all of its conflicts; Book Two — let’s call it, say, The Two Towers — involves a lot of characters running around all over the world, with fighting and snatchings of princesses and vital magic items, with perhaps characters vanishing or being captured, and other characters changing sides (but precious few resolutions of anything).
And Book Three — which could very well be called The Return of the King— involves huge armies rushing together to fight the Battle of All Battles with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance, whilst main characters struggle to complete a quest somewhere aside from the battlefield —usually to reach an improbable but happy ending.
Other publishers actually insist on the above structure, in the same way that certain romance publishers will flat-out reject or refuse to publish a romance novel that doesn’t have the happy ending they believe readers insist on. I’m not disagreeing with them here; pleasing the reader’s expectations must be the paramount consideration of any writer and any publisher who wants to be successful.
For me, here’s what goes into the plotting of a multi-book story arc:
First, we need a plot weighty enough to be worthy of a trilogy or longer sequence of books. This doesn’t have to be a “world faces doom” scenario, but it must be interesting and “large” enough to serve as a driving force and backbone for the series. That means, for me, considering the implications of the plot I work out on the world. If I destroy a kingdom, what follows from that? Elminster being wiped out would mean . . . what? How many hundreds of wizards is he stopping from rushing ahead with their pet plans? It means getting the publisher to see my conclusions, and getting full approval and agreement.
Then I have to plot the series so that every book tells a satisfying story by itself, and I put in enough dramatics and detail to make readers feel their reading time has been worth it, without bogging them down or bewildering them with too many events and characters, all hurled at them without the right pacing and clear establishment of what’s important. Then I have to start writing, and pay close attention when the story takes surprising turns because surprising changes have a snowballing effect down the length of the series.
I also have to make darned sure that this plot outline doesn’t nudge me into writing mechanical-sounding scenes where characters just speak their lines and advance the plot, and then fall lifeless and let the story move to the next scene (a “series of stiff, badly-acted vignettes,” as I once sadly described the initial draft of a novel attempted by a first-time writer). I’m not saying that the scenes in a novel aren’t doing exactly that; I’m saying they must be written so the reader never gets the feeling that they’re doing exactly that!
Jones: The mass market edition of The Sword Never Sleeps, the conclusion of the Myth Drannor trilogy, came out earlier this month. What were some of the surprise turns for you in writing that trilogy?
Greenwood: How little space I ended up having to revel in all the lich-battles, how much the character Targrael wanted to push to the forefront, and how much, while I was writing, I desperately wanted to break my own planned plot, and let the Knights reach Shadowdale instead of almost reaching it. I was rooting for them fiercely, by the end, and telling myself that readers would be so disappointed if I didn’t that I must, and so on. I had no wordcount left, but it hurt to end it where I did. Not how I did, but where I did.
Many writers will tell you that finishing a book is a great relief and joy—but also hurts, because it’s done, and you’re letting it go. The old “how is a novel like your child?” view. I usually answer by saying, “Both of them have minds of their own, and a fierce desire to use them and darned well be independent.”
Join us tomorrow for the startling conclusion of Greenweek!