Writing longer fiction: Timescales

Q: What length of time should a fantasy novel cover?

A: As long as is needed to tell the story.

OK, I’ll take off my crown and relinquish my role as Queen of the Blinkin’ Obvious. The question you need to answer is, where is the line between backstory and story? What parts can you scatter through your novel as carefully crafted tidbits of information that enlighten the reader as to the deeper meaning and history of the narrative, and which need their own narrative thread?

Publishers and agents seem really down on flashbacks. That isn’t to say that books with flashbacks aren’t getting published – they are – but if you are trying to struggle out of the slush pile, it seems to be an easy excuse for instant rejection. I have form in this area; my first novel had at its beginning a single sentence that indicated that the narrator was telling his story in old age. The letter and synopsis made it absolutely clear that this was a linear narrative, however three agents and two publishers rejected it because there was ‘no market for novels with flashbacks’. Clearly if slushpile readers aren’t even going to take the extra ten seconds to confirm that their impression is correct, you really don’t want to give them the slightest opportunity to get that impression in the first place.

Once you’re out of the slushpile, the rules are different, of course.

SFF does have one major difference from all other writing as far as timescales are concerned; the sweep can be aeons if you’re that way inclined. However, to keep things manageable, I’ll move back to the standard trilogy format, with a more-or less linear narrative. I’m slightly embarrassed to fall back on Tolkein, but LOTR does provide a good example. The timeframe of the first book is decades, and as the story moves to its climax, the narrative becomes more detailed. Less time, more pages.

On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive. Things are supposed to speed up at the end, and finish with a bang, aren’t they? Well, in visual media, probably. But the glory of a book is that the more you know about the characters, the greater your perspective on the final events. Books that resolve everything too quickly are unsatisfying, and often feel contrived as they attempt to tidy up all the loose ends in a handful of pages.

For the love of little apples – if you’ve spent 1000+ pages getting me to the final battle, don’t wrap it up in a single chapter! Don’t expect me to believe that all the angst, all the character conflicts, all the hopes and anxieties of these people that I’ve spent the last several days with, can just be sorted out by a big fight and a dead bad guy!

Readers want closure, yes. But most of them want consequences, too. Especially in fantasy, where it’s pretty much a given that the good guys will win. Winning usually comes with a cost, and that cost is usually proportional to the size of the win. So slow down, give me time to become deeply involved with what’s going on, let me feel the grass under my feet and the wind in my face as I approach the Ultimate End.

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