Monday, June 25, 2012

Plotting in the Context of a Series

By Stephen Zimmer

(Editor's Note: We're pleased to have author Stephen Zimmer here to discuss plotting with us as part of his Spirit of Fire blog tour. For more info about Stephen and his book series, visit his blog and website.)

The never-ending debate of plotters and pantsers is undoubtedly fueled by the fact that there are authors who have been very successful from both ends of the spectrum.  I am not here to try to state which camp has the “right approach” in regards to this debate, but merely how plotting does come in more than a little handy in the context of writing an epic-scale series. 

I have often described myself as a sort of hybrid of the two camps, in that I must have a solid degree of structure while simultaneously leaving myself very flexible and open to new characters, threads, and subplots.  Yet the plotting aspects of my work is indispensable for my own particular approach.

For those who have not read my work, I write the novels of my two main series, the Fires in Eden series (Epic Fantasy) and the Rising Dawn Saga (dystopian/apocalyptic, epic-scale urban fantasy) in a multi-threaded style, in third person from the POV’s of various characters.   If you have not read my work yet, this style is not too dissimilar from George R.R. Martin’s structure in his Song of Ice and Fire series, where each thread segment is titled by the character name.

My series must have a clear destination before I get underway writing them.   This entails what I call the “core story”, the part that eventually results in the culmination of all the threads at the end of the series when the grand finale arrives.   It is the storyline of the series as a whole, the undercurrent that flows underneath all the threads, in a sense, even when taking into account all the subplots and other facets of each novel. 

Every novel in the series must advance this central core.  In a basic sense, using the Fires in Eden series as an example, there is a major conflict taking place in a fantastical world called Ave as an enigmatic figure called the Unifier is in the process of bringing a comprehensive order about.  There is resistance to the Unifier’s aims, and an ensemble of modern day characters have been brought into Ave, with definite parts to play in regards to this greater conflict. 

 What part they will play, and whether it will help or harm the Unifier’s efforts, is not so clear.  The course of this struggle, including the paths of the otherworlders and others involved on both sides of the conflict, flow along this core storyline.    Every new installment of the series needs to advance this core farther, and move it towards the destination that I had envisioned before I wrote page one.  

This is the most important focal point of my plotting activity, and it heavily determines who will be the voices within a given novel.  Every time I write a new novel in the series, I must carefully decide what characters I will use to serve as the perspectives for the readers, as it is through the various characters, like using different camera angles in a movie, that the core storyline will be viewed.  In one novel, a particular thread may be emphasized heavily that does not necessarily have a big presence in the next book , and vice-versa.  In later novels of the series,  the emergence of entirely new threads is significantly affected by this area of plotting, as the needs for the next novel come to light.   

In Crown of Vengeance, the ensemble of modern day characters, introduced at the beginning in our world, are an obvious source for several of the primary story threads in that novel.  But once the story progresses into in Ave, and I can begin having threads for those native to Ave, the choices become a little tougher.   As new characters emerge, this can demand quite a bit of attention in the second and third books, as I experienced when writing Dream of Legends and Spirit of Fire. 

 Some examples of choices I made in Crown of Vengeance are as follows.  In the realm of Saxany I chose the leader of the King Alcuin’s army, Aelfric, a powerful thane named Aethelstan, and a young warrior named Wulfstan.  In the Five Realms the reader follows the perspectives of a war sachem named Ayenwatha and an older, much-revered tribal sachem named Deganawida.  

As a war is about to unfold, and as individuals from another planet and time are thrust into the center of the two lands that are about to be caught up within the maelstrom, figures like the aforementioned tribal leaders and Saxans are very effective perspectives for viewing the story.   They are the ones in the path of the coming struggle, and as such they can give a clear view of the unfolding conflict, even enabling a broader vantage.  In cases like Ayenwatha’s and Deganawida’s (as tribal leaders) they are brought into direct contact with the otherworlders without much delay and full plausibility (as unusual foreigners found in the woodlands with an invasion looming would be brought swiftly to the attention of the tribal leaders).

The choice of threads also gives me the ability to let the reader see the story from the other side as well.  In Crown of Vengeance a warrior from a brawny race with pitbull-like visages called Trogens is introduced named Dragol.  Through Dragol’s eyes the reader gets to learn a great deal about what is happening on the other side, right in the center of the forces that are moving on Saxany and the Five Realms.

In addition to what threads I decide to employ in a given novel, there is also the matter of the order of the thread segments in the novel.  Putting a certain order to the threads can have a profound effect on pacing and building anticipation.  I know that if I am reading a book and a section comes to an end without something important resolved, I am very tempted to keep reading, even if I’m tired and it is later at night.  I also want to have some balance as a reader, where faster-paced segments are interspersed with ones that are a little slower.   It is not desirable to have the overall pacing bog down for an extended period of time, nor do I want to see the story remain on a breakneck pace that sheds layers, foreshadowing, exposition, and some other things that can be very rich components of an epic-scale story.  

In light of these concerns, I pay very close attention to how I order the thread segments.  For one thing, I try not to put two thread segments back to back that are too similar in tone, unless I am shifting views in the heat of a fiercely-contested battle.  I always think it is good to mix things up a little, such as having a thread segment involving a Trogen warrior such as Dragol, with a scene in the aftermath of a skirmish in Saxany, followed by a scene with one of the modern day characters like Logan, acclimating to life within Ave inside a tribal village in the Five Realms.  The scenes are distinctly different, in terms of characters and pacing, and I feel the contrast makes it more interesting for the reader.  I apply this kind of approach as much as I can over the course of the full novel.     

I also strive to put a thread that resumes action (when its earlier segment ended on a cliffhanger) in the right spot, one where I’m not leaving the reader in the lurch for too long.  The order of the thread segments matters a great deal, and can make all the difference in the world in terms of the impact of the book upon the reader.
As you can see, for me plotting is very integral to writing novels in my style.  It gives me the structure to advance the main storyline, entails the selection of what characters will have threads in a particular installment, and even goes to far as to involve the final ordering of the threads.  The result is a book that accomplishes its aim within the series, and is one that, I hope, delivers a very pleasant reading experience, with good pacing and a flow that keeps the reader interested and anticipating what comes next!