Stories are interesting creations. Often times, they cannot truly be constrained by the pages we attempt to place them on. Every detail cannot be known. That is an unfortunate fact. Except, there is a distinct difference between telling a complete story that stands alone and arbitrarily dividing a story over multiple publications.
I should clarify a couple of points:
- A complete story is the tale that takes the readers on a COMPLETE journey, where the main conflict or problem is resolved at the RESOLUTION. I’m not referring to the fact that characters exist after the last page (even if dead). Of course, they continue to exist. That’s the nature of any universe. However, the main arc needs resolution (I really want to keep repeating that, and I will).
- I’m ignoring TV, which has a different set of rules, from episode counts and limits on air time. Budgets, contracts, etc… Though, I will use TV to try and prove a point later.
These are complete stories:
- The Time Traveler’s Wife
- The Night Country
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakabam
- Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Narnia: Prince Caspian
These are not:
- The Wheel of Time: 6-9. 12-14
- Star Trek: the Starfleet Corps of Engineers: Wounds [1 and 2]
- Star Trek: A Time To… [miniseries]
- Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel 1-6
- X-Men: Second Coming
Why? Good question. To me, a complete story should be told in a single book (or arc, in comics). None of this cliffhanger crap, where a complete story is cleaved in two or more pieces for some horrible reason. See, that’s why TV isn’t paper fiction. Books and comics have the ability to tell the entirety of their tale at whatever reasonable pace they set. There, I’m finished with the TV references.
I do want to focus on why some are complete stories and others aren’t. I’m not an English major, so I can’t tell you the specifics of why or what. As far as my expertise goes, I know it when I see it.
- WoT: 6-9, 12-14. Books 6-9 are almost indistinguishable. They are 4 novels that tell a single story. Looking back, it’s easy to see that. Book 9 finishes the primary plot started in six. This problem probably originated in the conceit that WoT was originally planned at a 6 book series, not 14. And, since books 12-14 were originally one book, before being needlessly expanded, it’s easy to see where that particular experiment went wrong. (In fairness, the original author died and Brandon Sanderson took over. But, Jordan was still responsible for 6-9)
- Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, [1-6] one story, despite six books. No book is complete unto itself. If this were a single novel, the six separate books would not be apparent. No story has a main arc. Each is a minor plot, not even often resolved.
- X-Men: Second Coming. A Marvel Comics event, this story was transitory. It’s entire purpose, was to move the X-Men from point C-D. There is no resolution. Even the last few chapters are merely set up for the next year or so of the X-Men franchise. And considering this entire posturing maneuver took 14 issues, that’s saying something.
Comics and poor novels often derail themselves by letting a core concept that should be confined to a single book or comic arc not, spilling over into needless exposition and, well, an incomplete story. Too many ideas clutter the pages until nothing is accomplished but set up for another story. There is no climax, no resolution. Each story listed above exhibits that core flaw. The page count says the book has ended but no main conflict has been resolved, only postponed. This is a failure on the authors part, a failure on their editors part.
I have no problem with any author or company setting up another story or future events within that story. Only this, mistaking loose ends for sequel material. Sequels should be stories that need to be told about that world, on their own merit. Not left over baggage from your first story’s main conflict.
Examples of complete stories:
- In Harry Potter, each story (except 6&7) are individual stories, with threads of friendship and Voldemort left off, but the point of that story is resolved. No, justice isn’t found in Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone for Voldemort and Harry, but we do solve the riddle of the Philosopher’s stone. Thus the main thread of the book is solved, even with important events still to come. The PoA exists in the same universe and time line but can be read, self contained.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire each book builds to a climatic event. Even though the readers know the story and over all plot is unfinished, the beheading of Stark, the attack on the Wall, each is a resolution to that particular story. Not the same level of self-contained but complete. (Please not: ASoTaF: 4-5 fall into the issues of an incomplete, plot shuffling story)
- Narnia is perhaps the best example of continued universe stories that are complete unto themselves. The characters in the LWW and PC are the same, and the books reference past events but do not expect or require the reader to read those books for understanding. In the LWW, the four siblings bring balance to Narnia and leave. Then, in PC, they return to help restore balance. Interconnected events are not the same as unresolved plot points.
Now that’s not to say everything needs to always be wrapped up. Things, even major plot points can be unresolved, because that’s what has to happen, even in the real world. It should just be done better than your typical comic event. That problem is most likely linked to money and poor editing and fame getting in the way of much needed harsh cuts. Other times, like the Lord of the Rings, the book was never intended to be multiple parts but publishers forced the change.
There is a difference between hinting at a larger universe and not telling a complete story because of it. In my own work, I struggle with telling a complete novel vs telling a complete story.
Having a cliff hanger because it seems cool and you’re trying to bring readers back for the next installment is a poor creative choice. A little bit like selling out, actually. As a reader, I eventually get worn out. The act of useless holding off a story’s end cheapens the experience I have and lessens my enjoyment. When I read, I want to read a complete story, not just loose ends that are being promised to me for later.
Okay, quick TV analogy. Complete stories are stand alone episodes or movies. Their arcs are self-contained but if you know what happened to Worf in “Sins of the Father” it informs “Family” and “Redemption“. Those incomplete stories are cliffhangers, stories that are just broken off cause of whatever. Never mind, I said TV wasn’t a great corollary.
The point is to tell a complete story, not bits and pieces of one. That goal can’t always be accomplished in a single book or arc, I get that. But things like the SotINF are just complete stories separated by artificial barriers called page counts and book bindings. Books and comics should never feel so constrained. Stories need to stand on their own, not propped up by promises of something more.