On Why Long Books Are Lame, Part One

24 Jan

It’s taken me quite a long time to understand the complaints against long books.  I’ve been hearing about “tomes” and “doorstoppers” ever since I started reading adult Spec Fic.  But for some reason, I could never figure out what these people were talking about.  Long books are great, right?  More story, more action, more characters.  I used to defend these to the death.  But not anymore.

When I first got into stories with longer books, it was the short books that started to lose their luster.  Why did those authors always have to skip things, pass huge amounts of time in a sentence, turn on the hyper-drive and skim to the end just when I was really starting to enjoy the story?  I was all for RJ putting out larger and larger books for the WoT when I was in high school.  If nothing else, it made me look a lot more intelligent to race through these monsters in two days.

But now, for one reason or the other, I’ve burned out on long books.  Maybe it’s lack of energy, maybe it’s an increase in discrimination, maybe it’s because long books now are longer than ever.  Right now, I’m 239 pages in Steven Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale.  Before this I was reading Charlie Stross’s Halting State.  If I was reading a similar book now (instead of this monster of Malazan) I’d be two thirds done.  But that’s just not enough for Erikson.  I’m only a sixth of the way in to Gale

It takes Erikson four times more pages to tell a (n incomplete) story than it takes Stross to tell a complete one.  “Oh, well, that’s not fair,” you might say.  Erikson is writing a multi-volume epic fantasy, and Stross wrote a single book of science fiction.  Erikson is dealing with thirty characters, and Stross might have five.  Erikson’s story has to cover so much more ground.

Well, yes.  That’s my point.  It’s been quite popular in fantasy lately to deal with bunches and bunches of perspective characters, continents and continents of people.  Thousands and thousands of years of history.  The broad scope.  That’s why it’s called “epic” fantasy, duh.

But that’s just excuses.  The truth is, these authors lack focus.  Large scope does not require a large cast.  You can treat all sides fairly without showing them all equally.  Not every bit of information has to be explicitly portrayed.  Sometimes, it’s okay to have a little mystery. 

In fact, one could argue that less is always more.  More tension, more conflict, more shades of grey.  More engagement with perspective characters.

Now, enough bashing Erikson.  Let’s move on to an author I enjoy even more:  George R.R. Martin.  I’ve heard many, many people complain that just as they really get into one character’s story, the author whisks their attention away to another.  Just at the moment of highest tension.  And it’s true.  Erikson also does this frequently.  It’s begun to really tick me off.  Really, really, really, tick– 

–Oh… err, back to Martin, yes.  Martin enjoys this trick as well.  And, to make matters worse, these high tension jumps often lead to scenes carrying almost no tension at all.  The returned exile has just taken back command of his people and they are on the brink of war.  But no, no more of that.  It’s time to move on to these five people travelling through a mountain pass.  And talking.  (Okay, that’s an example from Erikson, but whereas Gale is right next to me, ASOIAF is a four hour drive away.  Expediency.)

And that’s the problem right there.  Long books have no legs.  They almost always suffer from the most common issue of having to tell four or five—or ten—different stories in the same book: structural flaws.  Every new transition is a chance for a new fuck-up, and these authors seem to have the worst luck.

Here’s an easy rule-of-thumb, guys—story always flows towards the tension.  When you jump between two stories (and yes, these books are most often many small stories as opposed to one large one) you don’t move from high tension to low tension.  You can move from low tension to high tension.  A common saying is that you give the perspective to whoever has the most to lose.  Low tension means less to lose, so it’s a great place to shift gears. You can move from low tension to low tension, although you risk the reader getting bored.  You can even move from high tension to high tension, although you risk the reader getting burned out or still annoyed. 

But, for the love of whatever gods your characters believe in, do not jump from high tension to low tension.  It’s like jumping out of a drag racer going full speed off a cliff.  It hurts.  It’s bad for the readers’ health.  Just like runners have to cool down after a race, readers need to come back down gradually.  And you just can’t do that when they were watching their favorite hero lose to the Evil Overlord one second, and reading about Princess Violet-Eyes combing her long golden locks the next.

Well, that’s one issue.  It took up a little more space than I thought, so we’ll look at other problems with long books next time.


Posted by on January 24, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

18 responses to “On Why Long Books Are Lame, Part One

  1. Cassandra Jade

    January 24, 2010 at 8:12 PM

    I don’t think long books are lame but I have found myself more and more often choosing the single volume fantasy or sf over the epic series lately simply because I don’t have the time to commit to thirty or so characters and the many weeks it will take me to finally figure out how the situation will resolve. Yes, longer books include ‘unnecessary’ details and they jump around but that is just a different way of telling a story and some people really enjoy it or they wouldn’t keep writing them.

  2. Sevvy

    January 24, 2010 at 8:28 PM

    I agree. I also used to read the massive tomes, but now I hesitate to start anything that even hints at being an epic, twelve book series. I don’t have the desire or time, and I’ve been disappointed before. If you want me to spend more than a page with a character, let alone more than a novel, that had better be a very interesting character and a well structured story. There are plenty of other books out there, after all, that don’t require me to take a history lesson in your fantasy setting just to understand the first chapter.

  3. atsiko

    January 24, 2010 at 8:34 PM

    Don’t misunderstand. I like long series. I meant the word “lame” literally. The vast majority of long series in epic fantasy share certain issues of focus and structure. Like the high to low tension jumps. That’s not to say that long series cannot be engaging and well written. It just means many of them aren’t perfect. (lol)

    • Sevvy

      January 24, 2010 at 8:38 PM

      I don’t hate them either, that post sounded a bit angrier than I meant it too ^__^. Some of the long series I used to read still remain some of my favorite books. I agree with what you said though, and I’m constantly looking for a good fantasy series that doesn’t have those focus and structure issues.

  4. bigwords88

    January 24, 2010 at 10:05 PM

    A question, if you don’t mind: Do you consider multi-part epics to be inferior to single volumes?

    If I’m going to be honest, the reason for the question is due to having noticed a strange loosening in the style of writers who have shifted from short stories (or single novels) into much, much longer work. It’s almost as if, faced with an endless amount of space in which to expand upon a core idea, they forget to tell a story. Naming no names, naturally – because stirring up shit on someone else’s blog is unseemly. 🙂 It’s just an observation.

  5. atsiko

    January 24, 2010 at 10:24 PM

    Well, shoot. I’ve already named names. If you want to stir up shit in the form of a discussion, I’m all for it. It’s only if you’re stirring up shit for its own sake that I pull the troll-traps out of the cupboard.

    Now, in my experience, some of these longer epics try to tell _too many_ stories instead of none at all, but it’s the same effect in the end, I think.

    I do not personally consider series inherently inferior to single-volume stories. Sometimes you just need more space. But I think there’s a line that has to be drawn somewhere. That could be a line past which it’s too much, or a line in the story saying: new story. Erikson, for instance, has an overarching conflict _and_ booklength conflicts, which is a positive, but he also has a lack of focus in some stories.

    Let me try this:

    There’s a never-ending web of stories in any world. The job of the author is to disentangle a story enough so that it can hang together without overwhelming the reader. The longer the story, the more entangled it’s likely to be, and thus the more overwhelming for the reader. When writing a long series, an author has to tread the line very carefully, between giving enough scope and too much. The more viewpoints you have, the thinner this line becomes.

    Another facet of the issue (which I’ll get into more detail n next post) is more viewpoints mean a thinner line between the story th author is trying to tell, and getting lost in the web of the world where the story takes place. A great way to create a series that is made up of separate but related stories–as opposed to an ewtended story arc like Martin and Erikson and Jordan use–is to pick one or a few characters and tell their story. Then, for the nex book, you pick a different set. This is something that Erikson could do easily, wherease Jordan and Martin have more justification for their choice. Now, Jordan has even more excuse than Martin. Because his character diverge, whereas Martin’s _converge_ and Erikson’s sort of oscillate between the two.

  6. ralfast

    January 24, 2010 at 11:28 PM

    Wheel of Time, just Wheel of Time. Man what a disappointment. I think the real problem is focus or in this case, lack there off. You can have a boat load of characters and locations, but you also have to move the story forward and that’s the big problem I had with WoT. It felt like I was reading the same story over and over and over.

    On the other hand series like The Dresden Files, or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (to name two long series) are episodic. The main plot is self-contained within a given book and the lesser threads just run though it and the following books, even when Dresden is juggling three or four things at once, you never feel like the story is repeating itself or waiting around for something to happen. The story moves forward, sometimes brutally but effectively.

    As for going from tension to tension, sometimes you do need a low tension transition, to give your readers a chance to relax, absorb what is happening and getting the ready for the next hire wire act.

  7. bigwords88

    January 25, 2010 at 12:44 AM

    I was actually thinking of Stephen King there, and the interminably long and increasinly pointless journey he’s taking with The Dark Tower. I love his short stories (Dolan’s Cadillac stands as one of his most powerful works irrespective of length), but the longer he ploughs the particular path he seems intent on chronicling (inch by bloody inch) the less interested I’m becoming in what happens to the characters. I don’t know why I seem to be in the minority on that series, but there comes a time when enough is enough – and, y’know, those books ain’t light either… Merely carting them back from the bookstore is a work-out.

    I’m usually defending King from attacks, but on that one series I have to concede defeat.

  8. Lynx

    January 25, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    Just happened upon your blog from looking through nanowrimo for advice on magic in fantasy. I happened to read this article first even though it is not what I was looking for. I quite enjoyed your points and I’m glad that you clarified that you meant “lame” more literally than they typical connotation of it.

    Personally, I switch back and forth between long books and single books. Both have their pros and cons. I wouldn’t say that one is necessarily better or more superior to the other. But that each have their issues that need to be taken into account when the author is writing them.

    I have to agree with ralfast on the Dresden files. The episodic nature greatly helps. One of the things I’ve always liked about that series is that its apparent that things are happening between books. It probably also helps that it is one view point character as opposed to several.

  9. atsiko

    January 25, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    Yes. There are basically two different kinds of series. The Dresden files, being Urban Fantasy , is of the second, more episodic type. Epic fantasies tend to be of the first type. Episodic series have very few of the problems associated with the extended story arc series common to epic fantasy, although they have a few common problems of their own.

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

  10. Gabriele

    January 25, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    I admit to being a lover of big, epic series.

    Sure, some do lose focus (WoT is the most prominent example, though Jordan had lost me with his female characters before the bloat started), but I usually enjoy trilogies, and I’ve found some longer series I keep reading. Like Erikson’s Malazan and of course, A Song of Ice and Fire by GRR Martin.

  11. atsiko

    January 25, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    The only reason I’m still reading Erikson is because his world-building is so fantastic. Otherwise, I would have given up on him after the fifth book. If only there could be a clearer line between good and bad books, readers could avoid so much pain. But in spec fic, and fantasy especially, authors have a tendency tobe very good in a few areas, and middling to mediocre in others, meaning they can keep you reading for the parts they’re good at, but drive you crazy with the parts where they’re lacking.

  12. Gabriele

    January 25, 2010 at 7:36 PM

    Or they have one MC among several you want to strangle every time he/she appears, but the other characters are interesting, the worldbuilding is cool, the voice nice or whatever ….if the author only would kill X, like, Now. 😀

  13. atsiko

    January 25, 2010 at 8:49 PM

    Haha, Erikson is the master of killable character. Krupp and Bugg, for two.

  14. Gabriele

    January 25, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    Gods yes, Kruppe. *sigh* But Erikson has so many characters that I can live with him. I thought more along the lines of Liath in Elliott’s Crown of Stars who is one of basically two MCs plus a bunch of other characters that also play a pretty important role.

    Now let’s just hope I don’t create a character in my epic monster whom readers will hate that way. 😀

  15. atsiko

    January 25, 2010 at 10:37 PM

    That’s the problem with Erikson, he has so many flaws, but not quite enough to put me off the books. I have a decided “no-skim” policy for books, but he really loads on the pressure some times. Him and Jordan. martin manages o make each character interesting _enough_ even if a John, Bran, Daenaerys only trio would suit me just as well.

  16. Gabriele

    January 25, 2010 at 10:52 PM

    Lol, I could do without Bran (though his plotline is getting more interesting now he’s out of Winterfell), but I like the Jaime and Tyrion chapters. 🙂

  17. atsiko

    January 25, 2010 at 11:14 PM

    Well, I liked Tyrion and Jaime well enough.

    Naturally, in a perspective cast this large, it’s more that the separations ar so wide. And also, that Martin often jump in moments of high tension, so that I’m still all geared up for what’s happenin next, but I don’t actually get to find out.


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