Of Series and Sequels

Christian Fantasy Writing

The Peoples of Middle Earth book coverAt one point, JRR Tolkien started a sequel to Lord of the Rings (which is available in The Peoples of Middle-Earth, if you’re interested in reading it). The story, entitled A New Shadow, was set about 100 years following the fall of Sauron, after Aragorn had died and his son had become king of Gondor. However, Tolkien abandoned this attempt after writing a handful of pages, because in his own words:

“…it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless—while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors—like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow—but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.”

In this passage taken from one of his letters, there’s a great deal of interesting theory on the nature of man, the workings of good and evil, and what makes a story worth telling, but I want to highlight his recognition that just because a sequel can be told doesn’t mean it should.  I love Tolkien’s books and have always wished he wrote more, but I’m glad that when he realized a sequel to Lord of the Rings would have detracted from the power of the mythic saga he built, he stopped writing it.

Often readers can more easily discern when it’s worth continuing with a story than writers of the work in question. And since fantasy frequently consists of (rather lengthy) series, there can be difficulty in telling when a story has run its course. Yes, readers want to become immersed in fascinating new worlds and spend plenty of time in the places they love. Yet stories can be robbed of their impact when a series runs too long or seems to endlessly spin off sequels or prequels. So it’s worth taking a step back, as Tolkien did, to objectively evaluate when a story should continue…or end.

Have you read series that seemed to drag on too long? Or seen a story-world explored so much that it lost its enchantment? If you write, how do you find the proper balance?

Comments

  • Kessie
    February 11, 2012 - 11:20 am · Reply

    I’ve seen this happen and experienced it firsthand. Ever read or see the Mandie series or hear what happened to Adventures in Odyssey after the original writers left? Either it just repeats itself endlessly forever, or it deteriorates into a pale shadow of its former self.

    The Dresden series, though, has gone 12 books and then redefined itself. The 12th book, called Changes, rearranged characters, relationships, and Harry, himself lost everything (including his life.) But I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, since the 13th book, called Ghost Story, features Harry running around the whole book as a ghost.

    Personally, I think it’s brilliant. As a writer, it does get boring writing about the same characters all the time. I wrote 30 fanfics in the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, each one averaging between 40,000 and 60,000 words (some went up to 100). Along about story 20, I was really, really sick of the characters and worlds. So I started redefining the characters and their relationships. It made the stories interesting again, but it takes devoted readers to stick with such drastic changes.

    But then, readers get tired of the same old thing, too. I think that’s why authors start hitting “sales decay” when their numbers start dropping. They get formulaic and each book is the same.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 15, 2012 - 12:12 pm · Reply

      Great thoughts, Kessie! I read the Mandie series (or I should say, part of the Mandie series) as a child, and that’s a perfect example of a writer not knowing when to stop. It does seem like a certain fatigue sets in when writers work with the same exact characters and types of situations all the time, which can lead to a staleness that disengages readers.

      I’m daunted considering the sheer amount of words you put into the Sonic fanfics–I can see why you felt the need to redefine things and add new dimensions to characters and worlds. I agree that is a necessary element to keep long-standing series fresh for the readers (and the writer), and it’s something valuable for us all to keep in mind.

  • Maria Tatham
    February 11, 2012 - 4:10 pm · Reply

    VERY interesting post, Sarah! VERY interesting comment, Kessie!

    Don’t have much to add, however. I’m in the midst of doing a prequel for my book. After that, there may be a sequel, so that the order would be 2, 1, 3. Lord willing! But if I get to the place where it is dead or destructive, I hope and pray for the wisdom to see that. I do see past this little world and its problems to another kind of book.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 15, 2012 - 12:13 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Maria! Three books doesn’t sound like you’re dragging things out, but I’m sure you will know when the time comes to stop, because if we ask the Lord, He is faithful to give wisdom (James 1:5), which includes the wisdom we need for our writing. That’s a reassuring promise.

      I think it helps also to obtain counsel from trusted people that God has put into our lives, particularly those with experience in the industry.

  • TheQuietPen
    February 11, 2012 - 10:32 pm · Reply

    That’s a very interesting piece of Tolkien trivia! Tolkien has such a brutal view of man’s capacity for evil as well as for good–brutal, but very true to the Biblical idea of a sin nature. I can understand why he wouldn’t want to go down that path.

    One series I think has endured too many spin-offs is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. While still a clever satire of modern day living, his latest couple really seem to reusing earlier plot hooks and character concepts.

    Kessie – very interesting thoughts on how readers will drop a series if it gets formulaic. However, other readers seem to like the formulaic-ness–otherwise, how would there be cozy mysteries? Tess Gerritsen has an interesting take on how authors can be squished into formulaic frames:

    http://www.novelrocket.com/2012/02/imprisoned-by-your-fans-tess-gerritson.html

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 15, 2012 - 12:15 pm · Reply

      I appreciate that Tolkien does have an understanding of the Biblical view of a sin nature, because I think that’s something often lacking, even among believers today. If we understand that man is not basically good, we have more of an appreciation for redemption and the “new man” that we’re transformed into through Christ.

      Great example of what makes a series seem stale–when it falls into a cycle of repeating itself, it’s time to stop. If a series continues beyond that point, I think it leads to the slow drop off of readers that Kessie mentioned.

      To me there’s a difference between the general formulas that make up genre conventions (which writers should be adding their unique touch to) and formulaic writing, which lacks anything fresh and interesting.

      That was an intriguing article by Gerritson, especially given the advise all writers receive to brand themselves. It’s important to be aware of the ramifications before you do so!

  • Emily Sawyer
    February 12, 2012 - 8:50 pm · Reply

    This is quite interesting… I like that Tolkien knew when it was time to stop. I’ve definitely encountered other series that dragged on too long and lost their potency. As Kessie mentioned, the Mandie books were like that; and the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery also come to mind (I never actually finished them), though it was quite a while ago that I read the series. Perhaps I’d find them better now. 😉

    Oddly enough, sometimes cartoonists are that way too–they lose their funny ideas after a few years, and just don’t realize it’s time to quit. I think that’s why I like Bill Watterson so much. He had some great ideas, wrote some great comic strips, and when he realized he’d run out of witty things to say, he stopped. I was always a little sad that there weren’t more Calvin and Hobbes books to enjoy, but it was better than having them all ruined by a man whose well of creativity has run dry trying to squeeze out a few more great hits.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 15, 2012 - 12:16 pm · Reply

      Emily, you’ve brought up an interesting point that often when a series has stretched on too long is partly subjective. I enjoyed all the Anne books (though the last few didn’t have quite the same potency as the early ones), but I think the later ones in the series are more interesting to an audience that can identify with early married life and children (as compared to the first books, which dealt with the adventures and trials of girlhood). You might enjoy them more if you tried them now. 🙂

      Yes, cartoonists definitely fall prey to this, perhaps even more than novelists. It takes discernment to determine when your well of creativity on a particular topic has run dry, and courage to move on to a new idea. It’s better to leave readers thinking fondly of a comic strip or story and anticipating the next project you will tackle than thinking “will this writer ever quit?”

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