Allegedly, one of the great realisations of comic writers in the ’70s was that comics could have long story arcs, helping them escape an otherwise episodic formula, but the trick was to find a way to make the action appear to be important when no resolution or real forward momentum was actually possible. Villains and heroes would swap sides, love triangles would form and dissolve, stunning reveals would litter the pages and in the end, nothing would really ever happen. It was (and still is) a mass of spectacular action with no movement.
If this sounds familiar, it isn’t surprising. Popular book series and to an extent high production value TV drama in recent years, have been running aground on the same shoals that comics navigated decades ago. As publishers realise that readers like to follow a character (or set of characters) through a series of travails and ups and downs that interconnect rather than reading a set of relatively unrelated episodic stories, pressure is placed on authors to spin out a story a little bit longer and somehow join it all up. Some of the pressure may be unconscious – a publisher or editor probably isn’t fully cognisant of implying and hinting that a successful series should keep on keeping on, or that meta-plots and grand arcs are all the rage these days… or maybe some editors are fully aware of what they are hinting and they think the writer will be able to write themselves out of any dark hole on the fly… or maybe the author is pushing the idea herself, because she wants to spend more time with her beloved creations too… in any instance, there is a serious risk of a writer getting bogged down, stuck updating the reader on the endless pantheon of characters book-by-book, moving the story forward just an incremental amount, and then perhaps never quite wrapping up the story at all before the grim and grinning reaper doth collect its due.
What can be learned from those who have trod this path before?
- Finished stories are the best sort of stories. Whether it is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a comic that actually finishes is the best of all possible comics. Readers grow weary and lose interest eventually – and the only sure way to really keep a person interested until the end is to have an end.
- Soap opera works pretty well too. Having a series of mini-arcs and clear ‘periods’ or ‘segments’ of a story can help. This way a reader might read Books 3 through 7, to make up an example, and get a solid story out of this arc. If the series ends in a not quite finished way, it won’t seem to bad to those who pushed on.
- Tell your readers up front that there is no end. Frankly, I don’t know how well this will work with a book-reading public. Comic readers have accepted this truth about comics – but on the other hand, comic characters are a corporate property, and if the property is popular the reader knows that it really never will end and the journey becomes the thing that matters.
- Let the fans finish it when you’re dead. Another less orthodox approach, but maybe one that we’ll start to see more of is releasing a series of novels to the public domain in an author’s will. It certainly worked for H.P. Lovecraft who never tried to stop others from writing in his worlds and actively encouraged would-be Lovecraftians to take over when he died. Lovecraft’s Mythos is now widely recognisable and in its own strange way, still thrives. Compare this to a contemporary author, Robert E. Howard, who aggressively defended Conan as his property. Now it is true that Howard earned a lot more from his writing that Lovecraft ever did, at least in part because he seems to have used legal means to protect his work… but in the long run of things, if you want a legacy, Lovecraft is the winner. Robert E. Howard has 1.4 million hits on Google as of writing this, Lovecraft over twice as many at 3 million hits.