On Similarities Between Thieves’ World and Soap Operas

Here’s the problem I see with long-running series: unless you’re careful and ambitious, they cease to grow.  Instead of the plot driving the production of the novels, the need to continue the novels drives the plot.

What does this mean exactly?  Stagnation.

Why wreck a good thing?  If people like reading about certain characters, then those characters can’t ever die, and therefore are never exposed to any sort of real risk or significant change.  The plot becomes a balancing act where the main objective is to shuffle the pieces of the world around – characters, relationships, conflicts – to make it seem like there is growth, but without really providing any.

This is an illusionist’s art.

Having just finished reading through the eleventh Thieves’ World book, Uneasy Alliances, I find that I am, for the most part, dissatisfied.  The town of Sanctuary has become the setting for a soap opera rather than EITHER an attempted recording of the life of a real fictional town OR a place to set intricate, complete, and related stories.

Have I mentioned here that I’ve long wanted to write a soap opera?

To be more specific, I would love to write a soap opera if the producers gave me leave write whatever I wanted, beholden to nothing but my own complete creative freedom.

But still, you might ask, why? Aren’t soap operas noted mostly for their utter lack of creativity and reliance on formula bolstered by long-honed stalling techniques (long silent looks, pauses, and oh the wasted words)?  And, yes, I grant you these things.

The reason that I’d like to have the reins to a soap opera is, partly, to do away with such things.  I like the challenge of having to come up with an hour’s worth of new material each day, and to make sure that all that new writing is pushing the plot forward.  And, yes, that plot would undoubtedly swiftly spiral out of control Dark Shadows’ style.  And, yes, even before that happened I might burn out at that level of production.  But it would be a glorious crash and burn, my friends, glorious.

My real problem with the Thieves’ World series is that it refuses, for the most part, to move forward.  About a half of the authors in each volume (after the first three or so) are simply treading water.  Instead of writing complete stories, they lay out fragments for other writers to pick up that, for the most part, are never seen again.  If they end up writing a complete story, what it entails is a dance where the end of the story leaves the main characters at the same point they were at in the beginning.  And, yes, this is a perfectly reasonable way to construct a narrative, but when nearly every story by certain authors end this way, the narrative of Sanctuary as a whole fails to progress, and the novels-in-stories that the anthologies pretend to be end up failing as well.

This is one reason that, though I’d love to try my hand at a soap opera (as per the restrictions above) I am not very tempted to write a series.  Yes, series are popular because readers get attached to certain characters and want to keep reading adventures about those characters that they love.

But it seems that often those continuations are simply more of the same.  And why I like that in television (my love for Law and Order and Criminal Intent know no bounds), in writing I get bored.  I get bored reading series when authors aren’t pushing their art, when they are simply dressing up their old plot in new clothes.  I get bored writing when I’m not doing something different than what I’ve already done.

Does it make me a less marketable writer in that I’m more interested in writing single novels than I am in establishing a series?

Probably.  But at least I won’t be bored while I’m poor.

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One Response to On Similarities Between Thieves’ World and Soap Operas

  1. Jason Myers says:

    At some point, what you’re talking about here is the acrobatic act that the writers of all fiction have to go through to make art seem realistic, but without actually being realistic, because reality is dull. How often do people actual change, and when they do, how often does it come as some epiphanic or dramatic event rather than as a slow erosion of old things or slow deposit of new minerals? In TV, at least, even the deaths of characters has become a short-cut to actual story-telling, creating a false sense of drama, when it feels like the writers just didn’t know what else to with the character, so they eliminated them for convenience *and* dramatic effect. Even my favorites (like Joss Whedon) have done what I’d consider to be unneccessary deaths, and (non-lethal) changes in character’s paths that seemed forced just to shake things up. At this point, if a well-written drama series had its series finale episodes without killing off a major character, it would feel like a breath of fresh air. I’m not sure if I have an over-riding point to this. Just musing. I tend to be really hesitant to start books that I know ahead of time are a long series of books, because I tend to be a completist (so it’s a big time commitment). But I just started The Dresden Files (mostly because I’m playing The Dresden Files role-playing game). And I realize that one of the things that I like about authors who “keep going back to the well” is the universe-building aspect of it. There may be individual books I’ve read that are better books (singular, impressive, monumental works), but most of those won’t have as much impact on my mental furniture as, say, X-men, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Of course, I also prefer a singular author to many, because the vision tends to be more cohesive and consistent. What bothers me about things like soap operas and tie-in novels isn’t that the characters don’t change and grow; it’s the artificiality of creating so many dramatic events in one character’s life. At some point, the drama ceases to have meaning (or even credibility). Of course, I’m reading all X-men comics continuity from the beginning onward, so I clearly make exceptions.

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