Today over at John Scalzi’s blog there was a reader post about diminishing returns in series. The part of Scalzi’s answer that I’m going to talk about is specifically the world-building.
I’ve always enjoyed series. I thought it was mainly due to the characters. Once you get to know someone, even in a book, you want more of them. You want to know what happens to them, you want to hear their jokes and fight through their issues with them. I think that familiarity and interest in a character or set of characters has something to do with why people love series and why authors like to write them.
It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel that I understood the point that Scalzi brings up about worldbuilding. Now, as an avid roleplayer and sometime GM, I understand the difficulties of building worlds. I’d never understood it from a writing perspective, however, because until a couple years ago, I only wrote short stories. Each story is a tiny world, and I didn’t have to worry too much about over-arching consistencies or taking things out of the small perspective.
Novels have no such protection. For my first book I built a city, then a world. I started small, thinking only about the characters and the immediate world around them. But in order to bring length, richness, and consistency into things, I had to form a history and from there a whole bunch of layers, rules, reasons, and description took shape by necessity . I’m still working on it. Every time I sit down to edit I find things I haven’t completely thought out that need tuning and details that I either need to explain further or change to something more in line with the world as a whole.
I wrote this first novel as a dare. It was sort of a joke novel. Now I’ve got about 15 pages of the sequel (the first chapter basically) also on my computer. I didn’t mean to do a sequel. I have other novel ideas, other worlds I want to build and explore. But since I’m spending so much time building the world of the first novel, it almost seems a waste not to explore the world further. There is much left unsaid, undone. The second book will have barely any of the main characters from the first, though as I outline and plan it they speak up more and more. I’ve spent so many hours inside their heads, so many hours imagining their planet, their cities. I want to do more in that universe. I feel like if I’m putting in all the effort, I want to reap a little of the fun too.
I think series jump the shark when the Author stops caring about the characters or starts just following a formula to churn things out. As with anything, there is a time to let a world go. To relate it back to gaming, would you run the same dungeon ten times in a row just with slightly different monsters? No, of course not (hopefully anyway, cause damn that is lazy!). Your players are going to get bored since they’ve already fought through the same corridors. Returning to the dungeon once or twice could be interesting to them. Familiarity can leave room for surprises if you change things a little and upset expectations in good, reasonable ways. Too much familiarity (haven’t we fought this dire rat before in this room? Or… yeah, we know the grick is about to pop out from behind that suspicious black shrubbery) just breeds contempt. The key is not to let things get stale. The key is to care. Care about your players (or readers), care about your world, your characters. If the Author has something invested in the work (besides the money…), it shows.
I don’t think there is a “law of diminishing returns” so to speak in writing. I believe it is fully possible to just get better and better as one goes. Keep caring, keep writing, keep exploring the crazy ideas or the areas of a world that are still shrouded in darkness. It’s a lot of work to build a world. Might as well enjoy the bounding about inside it finding problems to solve and dusty corners to explore. As for my writing personally, well, frankly this is the first novel I’ve ever written. Because I’m learning and growing my craft, if I’m doing it right any other books I write in the series will be better than the first. And that’s just as it should be. If everything went according to some law, thereby, I would say it would be a law of compounding returns. (Invest early and often kids). The more you write, the more you explore and grow and evolve as both a writer and a person, the better your writing should be. So it follows that the final book in any series should be worlds better than the first.
If it isn’t, maybe, in the words of the internets: Writing, UR Doin’ it Rong.