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.