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Writing the World of the Series:
An Interview with Lynn Flewelling

by Moira Allen

It hardly seems possible these days to pick up a single fantasy novel. Even the trilogy has become old-fashioned; today's multi-part epics come like beads on a very long string. Some are "X-ologies"— stories that are continued from one volume to the next, leaving major plot issues unresolved until the final book. Others are standalone series, in which the major conflicts are resolved in each book (so that the book can be read independently of the others)—but in which other threads, such as character issues and subplots, carry the reader from one novel to the next.

Some readers (and writers) complain that publishing conglomerates are the cause of this "to be continued" approach to fantasy writing. Lynn Flewelling, author of the "Nightrunner" series (Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, and Traitor's Moon) disagrees. "In fantasy, I'd say series are an accepted convention for several reasons. First, early writers like Tolkien, LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, and Peake wrote series and so set the pattern. Second, fantasy, especially high fantasy, tells Big Stories, and these stories can take several books to tell."

Flewelling herself declares that she was not trying to write a series when she began her first "Nightrunner" book. "Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness started out as one huge manuscript, far too long to get published, especially as a first novel. This was quickly brought home to me when I started marketing it, so I regrouped and made it into two books. I couldn't simply chop it in two, though. The first book needed a subplot that could be resolved to give that book a sense of ending. The second had to provide a bit of backstory and some new subplots, all the while carrying on the original major plot arc to its completion. Traitor's Moon is meant to be a standalone, but I think a knowledge of the other two makes it a richer reading experience. Then you get the 'in jokes'."

To Be Continued? Plan Ahead!

If you're thinking of expanding a story beyond a single novel, Flewelling believes that "you need to establish a number of things: characters that can change and grow; a situation that needs dealing with; and subplots that provide short-term satisfaction while the greater arc plays out over the several books. Make all of these elements matter."

First, Flewelling notes that you must determine what type of series you're writing. "There are two types of series: The sort that is one long story strung out over several books, like The Lord of the Rings; and the sort that is a series of several freestanding books featuring a consistent cast of characters and a shared reality. Asimov's Elija Bailey/R.Daneel robot books are a fine example of this, or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. That's the path I'm trying to tread, although the first two in the Nightrunner series actually ended up being a duology."

Writers of either type of series face a similar problem: The fact that they are likely to have two sets of readers. One set will have started the series at the beginning, and be intimately familiar with the "history" of your world and characters. The other set may pick up a later book—perhaps the most recently published volume in your series—and thus lack the background information that you've established in earlier volumes. Yet you'll want to "hook" this reader too, making her want to read not only subsequent volumes, but to go back and find the earlier books as well. So how can you build in sufficient "background" to help the second type of reader figure out what's going on, without overwhelming the first type of reader with information he already knows?

Flewelling agrees that this can be a challenge. "If you are doing a true -ology, then technically you shouldn't have to do too much retrofitting of later books. Books two, three, etc., are simply more of an ongoing story, so the reader should pick things up where they left off. An opening chapter that uses detail, conversation, and a little backtracking should be enough to pull the reader back in. In this case, a reader picking up book three will not be able to just jump in, but that's OK, since it wasn't the author's intention that they do so.

"If the books are more freestanding, then you do need to sprinkle in more backstory. I faced this challenge in Traitor's Moon. Stalking Darkness had had a solid ending; since then, two years have passed in story time. I had to reintroduce principle characters, show how they'd changed in two years, let new readers know (and remind old ones) of some of the formative events in past books, and set up the current situation. To accomplish this, I used multiple view point to introduce the various characters, letting their introspection, memory, and discussion with others to flesh out the situation. All this was important largely because the events of the new book were an outgrowth of what had come before."

Continuity is important, says Flewelling. "Readers resent mistakes, and will write you letters and ask you embarrassing questions at conventions and signings. Continuity errors are sloppy. Do whatever works best for you to avoid making them." To avoid such errors in her own work, Flewelling keeps a "bible" of her world's history, characteristics, and events. "I'm constantly referring back to old notes, and searching the books to see what final form an idea actually took after editing. The latter is very important, since things get changed and cut during the editorial phase, but after a few weeks or months, the author cannot recall every change made. You'd be surprised how much you forget, even though it's your own creation."

Finally, Flewelling warns against attempting to introduce new readers to your world through "huge blocks of exposition. These really bog a book down. Work it in as needed, but avoid the 'as you may remember' lectures. You can work a lot of detail into an overheard conversation, or the memories sparked by a sight, smell—or scar!"

Of Characters -- and Scars

Many readers enjoy series because it gives them a chance to revisit beloved characters. If a character becomes "real" to the reader, the reader will want to know what happens to that person on an ongoing basis. How did his/her life turn out? What other interesting experiences will the character have?

To create a character that will hold a reader's attention through more than one book (or even for one book, for that matter), Flewelling points out that "The writer needs to really know that character, as if they were close family. We all have traits that define us in the minds of our relatives, things that tend to remain constant as strengths or things to be teased about. Temperament, interests, mannerisms can all be carried through multiple books, even if they are tempered by experience. But characters must also grow and learn. I like books in which the characters age and change through experience. Then you can harken back to what they used to be like, and underline how they've changed. After all, if characters don't change over the course of your story, nothing's really happening to them.

"You can show this a number of ways. Here are some examples:

  • "Through the eyes of others. Have your hero run into an old friend or relative who hasn't seen her since she was a nipper.

  • "Introspection on the part of the character—often an 'older but wiser' or 'what doesn't kill me makes me stronger' scenario.

  • "Throw the character in with someone he knew years ago, and have him jarred by the fact that he has changed more than he thought he had.

  • "Scars—adventure heroes should always have scars. Most of them spend most of their waking hours getting into trouble of one sort or another. I just loved the way the Indiana Jones story worked in how he got that scar on his chin! What a great detail. My boys have been in countless sword fights, had avalanches fall on them, been branded by evil magical disks, bitten by dragons&151;these things leave marks! Keep a running tally and have another character remark on them now and then. You can always use the resulting 'This? Well now, I guess that was from the time we—' tale to deliver a bit of necessary backstory or character development."

Characters who don't change within a series, says Flewelling, are likely to become caricatures over time. "Series in which the hero overcomes challenge after challenge and is unmarked by the effort are pretty flat. They become comic strips -- how much has Spiderman or the Phantom really changed over the years? Or Garfield?"

Flewelling uses several techniques to acquaint (or reacquaint) readers with her characters. One is to allow minor characters in one novel to become major characters in the next. "At times, a minor character, or some tale or detail touched on in passing, will take root and grow into something important. My young wizard, Thero, was originally meant as nothing more than a foil for the hero, Seregil. But Thero took on a life of his own and became a major player by Traitor's Moon." Another is what she calls "dropping crumbs": "I insert what appear to be minor details in one book, knowing that they will blossom later into an important future plot element. You want your readers rereading the books and going 'Ah ha! So that's what that was all about!' Still others include inner monologue, conversation, and exposition. "Variety of delivery is essential, or it gets very monotonous."

Pitfalls to Avoid

Every fantasy enthusiast has pet peeves about trends in fantasy series, and Flewelling is no exception. "A lot of it is personal taste," she acknowledges, but notes that she is particularly put off by:

  • "Tolkien retreads. If I see more than two of the following words in the first few pages, I put the book aside: elf, dwarf, halfling, fairy, gnome, goblin, Ranger. Frankly, that's been done to death.

  • "Five book quests. Quests are done to death.

  • "Filler. Don't stretch out a one book story into three books and expect me to pay for the endless descriptions of scenery or pointless subplots that result. Every element of a story should matter. 'Just because' and 'color' are not justifications for pointless meandering. Use no more space than is absolutely necessary."

To avoid these problems, she advises writers not to repeat themselves. "Every new book should have something fresh and wondrous in it to delight both you and your reader. Avoid formulaic story lines. Take a common trope and make it your own by giving it a new twist. Let your characters change and grow. Know them well and decide what a logical pattern of change is for them. But don't change them too much; we are who we are, and sometimes the best we can do, especially with bad habits, is try to be better. Even good progress should be charted out on a saw blade, lots of ups and down, backsliding and leaps."

Come to think of it, that sounds a great deal like the process of writing itself!

For more information about Lynn Flewelling, visit her web page at http://www.sff.net/people/Lynn.Flewelling.

Related Articles:

An Interview with Lynn Flewelling, by Lynne Jamneck
http://www.writing-world.com/sf/flewelling2.shtml

Copyright © 2000 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared on Phantastes.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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