All good things… Part 1: The Iron Druid Chronicles – Scourged

Endings suck both because there’s no more and because they’re incredibly hard to write.

I recently managed to read the final books in two different series at basically the same time and I’ve got a TV series finale sitting on Hulu staring at me in reproach. I always get lots of feelings when a story concludes and the only way I know how to deal with them is to write. So I decided now is probably a good time to talk about all of them and offer some of my thoughts on the pitfalls and difficulties of ending long-running stories while I’m at it. We’re going to start with The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne because that’s the one I finished first.

Ending a long-running book series is hard. If you don’t believe me just look at the examples set for us by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. Neither of them was just lazing about as they continued to write and write and write – Jordan just kept adding to the middle of his series rather than finish it while Martin has chosen to work on other projects and to flesh out the history of his story. If ending these things were easy The Wheel of Time would almost certainly be significantly shorter and might have been finished by Jordan. Heck, even when Brandon Sanderson took over the project following Jordan’s passing he found he had to write three more books to wrap up all the plot threads Jordan had set in motion and there were still some things left to be desired.

Kevin Hearne did at least manage to end his series. But he didn’t do it perfectly. If, indeed, it is even possible to end a series like this perfectly. Let’s talk about some of the issues he ran into and the ways he tried to combat them and how well he did. SPOILERS for the entire Iron Druid Chronicles series ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The tone finishes shifting

One of the major issues with long-running stories for which there seems to be no real answer is shifting tones. You fall in love with the tone and characters of the first book in a series and by the end, it’s completely different. In SF/F novels that follow this trope, you’ll most often see a first book start out relatively fun. The threats might be real but the hero deals with them relatively easily and maintains their charm throughout. As the story continues the problems get more and more dangerous, the mood gets darker and darker, and by the end of the series, it’s almost impossible to recognize the originally friendly, happy character with whom you started the series in the grizzled, bitter one with whom you’re finishing.

The most famous example of this might be Harry Potter. Despite being raised by an emotionally abusive family he was a fairly well-adjusted kid who made friends relatively easily, treated most people with kindness, and found pleasure in small things. By the end of the series he was angry and bitter and we only got a glimpse of the return of the previously mellow kid in the epilogue of the final book once he was years removed from the events of the story that had been told.

The problem is that this isn’t bad writing; characters grow and change and stories often need to allow that. That a character might become less happy after experiencing multiples tragedies and life-or-death struggles is a more than reasonable writing choice. But it still means that by the end of the multi-book story you’re no longer reading the style of story you fell in love with. This is absolutely a thing that happens in The Iron Druid Chronicles.

The tale starts off with a happy bookshop owner who, yes, has lived for millennia on the run from a deity in the Irish pantheon but for whom life is a joy. His only companion is the Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, with whom Atticus has formed a bond that allows them to communicate using telepathic speech. Oberon as a dog finds pleasure in the simple things of life and often reminds Atticus to do so, as well. As the saga continues Atticus finds himself embroiled in deeper and darker trouble. By the end, he faces the literal Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event in the Norse mythological style led by Loki and Hel (though these interpretations of the characters are very different from those in the recent Marvel movie.) The story also does not end happily at all, but we’ll get to that in more detail in a minute.

The ending of the story is short on details

One of the issues with ending these long series, as I hinted at earlier, is attempting to wrap up the large number of plot threads. For many series, each book will only resolve some of the plot threads from previous books while it introduces several new ones and likely won’t even resolve all of those, either. This means that every book adds more characters and plot threads to be tracked in later books. It’s difficult to wrap them all up successfully in a single book, as Brandon Sanderson found out when he agreed to attempt to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed.

Before I had even started the final IDC book I was ready for the series to be over. I had stopped having fun with it several books previous but I kept reading because I have only once met a story that got so twisted from where it had started that I gave up caring about the characters and chose to move on with my life. And the book reads a bit like Kevin Hearne was tired of it as well. The book reads as if the outline for the novel were fleshed out the minimal degree necessary to tell the story and then went to print.

The point that stands out most to me in this regard was his treatment of the Yeti. Through the course of the saga, we were introduced to five Yeti who turned out to be the children of Irish ocean deity Manannan Mac Lir. They helped with a part of one of the quests taken on by Granuaile MacTiernan, a druid trained and bonded by Atticus as well as his love interest. The returned to this story long enough to defeat a fire giant summoned by Loki to burn the world. Their total appearance in the novel lasted approximately 10 pages and three of them unceremoniously died.

60% of the Yeti in the entire world were killed while they fought and killed a being who was apparently the only or last of his kind. And it received as much “screen time” as bath and breakfast for Atticus’ hound, Oberon, received in the first book. I hate when characters return after long periods of time away simply so they can be killed off at any point in a story but this seems particularly egregious. This is not even remotely the only time this happens in Scourged, either.

Several books prior we received a multi-chapter massive fight between the heroes and Loki’s monstrous wolf, Fenrir. In another section of the final book the battle between the world serpent, Jörmungandr, and Atticus’ occasional witch ally, Laksha Kulasekaran, lasted only a pair of pages as Laksha merely possesses the monster and commits suicide. So Laksha makes a return after being largely absent for a long period of time to die again and does so to quickly end what the story had built up to be the greatest threat Atticus would yet face, as well.

Other prominent characters received a token amount of page time or merely a reference. Flidais shows up long enough to get drunk and start a bar fight before vanishing for the rest of the book. Perun and Leif Helgarson are mentioned but never seen.

Hearne may not have actually been tired of the story. It’s possible that this was simply a choice the writer made in order to ensure the plot threads were dealt with in this single book. Which brings us back to the question of whether it’s even possible to provide fitting endings for these massive sagas. The scope just gets to be too large to actually do it justice; events and characters get left out or are under-represented.

The story ends. Then it gets an epilogue.

Things get even worse, personally, for Atticus by the end of the story as his erstwhile allies lop off his right arm – necessary for a very large amount of the Atticus’ druidic abilities – following the battle. The Norse feel his efforts in the war were not sufficient for the crimes he committed. And it’s hard to blame them. Atticus didn’t just attack their pantheon and kill a handful of their gods; that would have been bad enough. He also enlisted the aid of the frost giants by promising them that they would have an opportunity to capture and rape Freya if they came with him. In his defense, what little there is of it, he hoped for and expected them to fail. He mostly wanted them along as a distraction while he and his band of heroes attempted to kill Thor.

Hearne does the series credit by taking this decision of Atticus very seriously at the very end of the story, though. Atticus is further punished by being banned from ever returning to the stomping grounds of the Norse gods. When Granuaile finds out about what he did to deserve the punishment she is disgusted with him and ends their relationship, as well. The tone of the story has finished shifting from a light-hearted romp with a talking dog into a full-blown tragedy. And every result follows logically from the decisions Atticus made. In a lot of stories a decision that, as gross as it was, was such a minor plot point in a story would not have blown up in a character’s face like that. Again, credit to Hearne for either keeping it in mind when it happened or catching back up to it, later, and working it back into the story instead of just ignoring it.

The story doesn’t end happily, nor does it have the tone it did at the start, but it does end fittingly. Could Atticus have made other choices for a better result? Maybe, maybe not. But this result fits the choices he made even if they were the only reasonable choices available to him. This is something he laments at the end to drive the point home. It’s a bit fatalistic but, again, it suits the story where it has come to rest.

And then the epilogue comes. Oberon gives Atticus an idea to have his arm restored and while we aren’t shown the fruits borne of the idea, we’re left with the distinct impression that everything will work out for him. We’re also reminded multiple times that Atticus and Granuaile are functionally immortal and it’s entirely possible they might get back together some day. The epilogue basically reads as if the editor told Kevin, “Listen. This is great and all. But you gotta give people hope for the ending they would have rather had because that’s what you do.” So rather than stick to his guns with the ending that was there or add an epilogue that suggested Atticus might find peace some day even without a girlfriend or his arm – something that would have been a great moment of validation for people who are missing limbs or don’t feel the need for romantic relationships – we get an ending that promises those things are still possibilities for the “hero” who “cocked everything up.”

There are absolutely worse things than providing hope for the readers who wanted to see a completely happy ending for Atticus but it one thing it did not do was make the story stronger.

Scourged isn’t a perfect ending for The Iron Druid Chronicles but is an ending. It’s also a good sight better than other endings we have seen to other tales. Hearne provided us with several terrific books before we got here and it’s good to see that he managed to complete the tale before the story collapsed beneath its own weight.

 

Space Pirate: Harlock, Game of Thrones, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

For starters, we probably shouldn’t commonly leave the “willing” part out of the definition.

As an actor, a writer, and a nitpicker of stories in every imaginable medium it probably does not surprise you to learn that I have plentiful and strong thoughts on the willing suspension of disbelief. Before we continue, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page as to what that even is. Wikipedia puts it pretty succinctly:

The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

There’s a lot to unpack in even that simple sentence. For starters, as you can see,  the term has two forms. One of them includes the word “willing” while the other omits it. I and many others learned it that first way but I would argue now that the “willing” part is crucial to the definition. When Game of Thrones ran into some criticism for the way it handled its penultimate episode, last season, the director responded with his own criticism of the fans. This was a mistake on his part for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that insulting your fanbase rarely seems like a wise course of action. But beyond that, he was also wrong. It isn’t the audience’s job to suspend their disbelief for whatever you put on the screen. It is your job as the creative staff to make them want to suspend their disbelief. In other words, to make them willing.

This willingness usually exists on a spectrum depending upon content and vehicle.

There is actually an interesting spectrum upon which you have more or fewer restrictions on how far you must go to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief. Consider, for a moment, whether you would willingly suspend your disbelief if a movie you were watching used obvious drop curtains and plyboard sets with frequent pauses where crew members could be seen shifting things around in order to set up the next scene.  Probably not, right? But you do that for the majority of stage plays you see and don’t even think twice about it. Why is that?

The willing suspension of disbelief also takes into account venue and subject matter. This means that a stage play is held to entirely different set of standards than a TV show or a movie. Other examples are cartoons vs. live-action, kids movies vs. more adult-themed fare, and comedies vs. dramas. I was recently watching Space Pirate: Harlock and was particularly struck by a particular moment in that film – one of the twists in that movie, actually. *** SPOILERS FOR SPACE PIRATE: HARLOCK*** In the last part of the film it is finally revealed that the earth has been destroyed by liberal application of dark matter. In real life no one actually has a clue what dark matter is or whether it even exists, but because science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy the writers of this movie chose to re-define it as a destructive substance. We find out that sometime before the movie started the titular space pirate piloted his vessel into some dark matter, as well, when he felt regret over the part he had played in destroying the earth. However, he came out the other side with a ship that was now indestructible and had had its entire front-end replaced with a giant skull and crossbones rather than being destroyed. Imagine for a moment that that had happened in Star Trek. That franchise takes itself pretty seriously and it would be unreasonable to expect its audience to just go along for that ride as it seems patently obvious that whatever dark matter is it isn’t something that would simultaneously destroy a planet but render a spaceship indestructible and re-design the front half. *** END SPOILERS *** However, because Space Pirate: Harlock doesn’t really bill itself as a super realistic take on the genre even I, the super nitpicker extraordinaire, didn’t bat an eye when this reveal was made.

I have determined that if you disregard the complexities of sub-genre, vehicle of story, and setting there are two hard and fast rules when it comes to establishing a willing suspension of disbelief in your audience:

  1. Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.
  2. Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.

The Game of Thrones director from earlier also seemed to think that because the audience was willing to believe in dragons that they should be willing to ignore any plot holes or time inconsistencies that appear in their fantasy stories. As I argued at the time both here and on Twitter, story universes, even fantasies, must remain internally and logically consistent. Plot holes are still plot holes. Writers, depending on the universe they set themselves in, get to work with a certain set of pre-established rules, environments, and creatures. For example, if you set a story in medieval England and market it to a western audience you usually won’t have to completely re-establish castles, moats, forests, horses, rain, etc. Your audience will grasp these things using cultural consciousness. Cultural consciousness can be a bit of a complicated topic but for now, you just need to understand that, for example, almost everyone in America and England knows what a castle is even if they’ve never seen one in person and most of them can’t remember when or how they first gained that knowledge. That’s an aspect of cultural consciousness. Something we know about because of our culture.

Now one of the joys of being a writer, especially in the fantasy genres and sub-genres, is that you can add new definitions and re-define existing ideas that break away from the logical consistency defined by the cultural consciousness. For example, if your story is set in a fantasy variant of medieval England perhaps your moats are always populated by sarcastic mermaids. And if you establish it in your story before it becomes important to a climax in the plot, your audience will probably not bat an eye at this change. (This is also known as foreshadowing when a writer establishes something that is actually plausible both in the collective consciousness and in the story but might otherwise seem abrupt in an important reveal, later.) There are two important keys in that sentence that I don’t want you to miss, though. You must establish it. And you must establish it before it becomes important to a climax. Otherwise, you’re still dealing with a plot hole, even if it’s a fantasy story.

Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

So in Game of Thrones up until that fateful episode the creators were willing to let the cultural consciousness define their ravens for them. What that means is that everyone perceived the ravens in the show as being identical to the everyday birds we are all familiar with. If they had really meant to include supersonic ravens they needed to be established. But even if they had chosen to establish such creatures at that moment, it still would have been a writing faux pas. When you fail to establish something like that until it becomes critical to the plot, especially as it pertains to resolving climaxes or saving protagonists, you are performing what is known as a Deus Ex Machina which is Greek for “God from Machine”. It turns out the ancient Greeks weren’t, as a whole, necessarily any better writers than the ones we have now. Some were great but others had failings. Sometimes writers write themselves into a hole and have no idea what to do to resolve the plot. It was at this moment that some ancient Greek writers would write a scene in which a god or gods would be dropped into or above the set using a machine and they would simply assign the outcomes the playwright desired regardless of how much trouble the story or characters were in. For a modern example of what this might look like we need look no further than the Mass Effect 3 ending.

*** SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3 *** 

In that game, the crew of the Normandy is tasked with gathering allies and resources to build some sort of mystery machine with undefined capabilities in order to fend off the enemy Reaper fleet. By the end of the game the machine is built and still no one has a clue what it might actually do to help preserve the galaxy – this should be reminding you of the first rule of the willing suspension of disbelief in regards to fantasy elements. Shepard turns the mystery device on at the last moment and… a simulacrum of a child appears which offers Shepard three impossibly simple choices with which to conclude the story. This seems almost a direct ripoff of the original Deus Ex Machina where a god-like being appears for no discernible reason established within the story to neatly ties up all the loose ends. It is simply adapted to the medium of video games and Mass Effect’s primary conceit of player choice. At least the Greeks had preestablished tropes of such gods doing those kinds of things in the beginnings and middles of even better-written stories when they implemented such poorly-written endings.

*** END SPOILERS ***

 

No matter the story a creator must rely on some willing suspension of disbelief from their audience. Even in something as simple as a story about a love triangle between three high school students you must convince your audience that they want to believe these fictional characters actually exist. As long as people are creating stories that need the willing suspension of disbelief they must remember to establish or foreshadow and to do it before it becomes vital to the plot. Or else I’ll come for them with mouse and keyboard and crit them with my Wall of Text.