Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Thoughts on Media Universes, Pt. 2

The other day I wrote a little bit about media universes, what they are, why people like them, what they bring to entertainment, and so on.  My conclusion on the matter was a bit cynical and pessimistic.  While I'm not sorry about it, because I don't apologize for honesty, I went home that night feeling as though I hadn't addressed everything, and the biggest issue was the fate of single novels.  Is it possible to still write, read, and enjoy a single novel, feel as though you have come to a satisfying conclusion without lingering questions or other things that must be explored in order to wrap things up?

The simple answer is yes, though it takes a special author and a special story to really bring out that story.  I'm not saying that every book must be a series, but for a single novel to have the same impact as an extended series (understanding that this is basically all subjective opinion) it must take all the elements of a series and smoosh it down into one book.  Maybe it's three hundred pages, maybe six hundred.

These elements are universal with any fictional story: character development, setting and environments, and plotlines.

Character development tends to be more direct or obvious in a single novel, because there isn't always time to show scene after scene to demonstrate a particular trait.  This may be modified for mystery characters who can't be revealed right away (such as a whodunit mystery).  But character development that takes too long and waits until the very end of a novel can feel rushed and even out of character.

Setting, as you might remember from grade school, is time and place.  1830's Europe.  Civil War era America.  Ancient Egypt.  The environment is the feeling of the immediate setting, a dark hallway, a wide-open atrium, and so on.  In a novel or a series, there may be a bit of an info dump into order to describe the environment.  The advantage of a novel over a series here, is that it's easier for a reader to hold that mental image throughout the story, whereas a series may require a little refresher here and there (or a remodel, like the Wheel).  The problem, though, is that some novels seem to think that because it's a novel, an environment is less important.  While we probably don't need to know the history of a little convenience store briefly mentioned on page 128 and nowhere else, not crafting a well-defined environment can have a detrimental impact on the plot and even the characters.  If a reader can't understand the spatial relation between characters, especially in an action scene, the whole scene becomes meaningless.  People are going here and running there, but it's just a blank slate if time isn't taken to bring the reader into the environment.

Plot has pros and cons for both a novel and a series.  For the novel, events can happen at any proper speed and wrap up nicely at the end, tied off with a bow.  The series author must decide where the plot breaks.  Where does the novel and the series plot break?  For example, Time to Kill and Tick Tock have very distinct plots.  Windup and Stopwatch do kind of run into each other, but the break comes at the coup.

The biggest stumbling block for novels concerning plot is two-fold, a bit of a fine line.  On the one hand, some novels have so many plots and sub-plots, and they're so scattered, that there is no possible way that they can all come together at the end.  Some novels need to be series, or just serials, in order to contain it all.  Or some plots need to be removed. On the flipside, just sticking with a single, rigid plot can leave the rest of the story feeling dry, maybe make a mystery novel sound more like a nonfiction police textbook.

When you pick up a single novel, you want to find an intriguing plot, whatever your genre, lovable characters (whether it's a crush love or a love-to-hate), and you really want to be brought into the story and stand there in the environment.  A series takes these elements and draws them out over several books.  A universe develops these elements over multiple series.

So it's not a bad thing to write or read a single novel.  Like anything, it's about taste.  A series is not inherently better than a novel, nor is a novel inherently inferior because the whole story is contained within a single cover.  Personally, I greatly prefer series.  You may not care, or you may like novels.  But I don't think single novels will be going out of style any time soon.

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