When authors create an original world, especially one with a great deal of depth, it becomes tempting if not necessary to tell multiple stories in the same world with an overlapping timeline. Once a main storyline is done, maybe there are minor characters you want to explore in more depth, maybe you want to show us the main events from the other side, maybe there were just other interesting things going on that you knew about and we didn’t. Whatever the reason, there are a few common pratfalls and a few excellent tools in the writer’s toolbox to handle the overlapping events of your story. Having just reviewed Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence, the first book in a series that appears to directly overlap the events of his previous Broken Empire Trilogy, I thought I would share my views on shared-time novels, and maybe give some insights as a reader on how it might be more effectively done.
So you’ve published some books about a place and some folks. Now that it’s over and done with (or even before it’s over and done with) you have some other stories to tell. Awesome! More stories are always great, and the fact that you’re going to make use of your established setting and maybe even some established characters will certainly make it a little easier to tell the story you want to share. Just be careful. We’re all aware of the stereotypical ‘nerd’ at conventions who wants to point out every possible continuity error and demand some explanation for how somebody was in the same place as somebody else only days ago, and now they’re in a place we know from three books ago is a week away, and so on. Nobody likes that guy, but that guy has a point.
Keep track of where everything is
Seriously. Get a world map, get pushpins, get some string. While it might only be a few very fast readers or persnickety people who catch when somebody is in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can easily find yourself with your characters out of sync. The last thing you need is to get two books into your new trilogy when you realise that your protagonist can’t possibly make it to the vital events you already published in the previous novels. A sense of your internal timeline and where everybody is in relation to everybody else is really important, especially if you’re going to have your new characters ever interact with the old ones. And really, there’s no reason why you can’t have them interacting if you pay attention to the how and where. It can help establish the new characters to bring in the old ones here and there. If you’re really clever about it, you might even have left some hooks in your original books to tie these ones into. Show us somebody or something in passing that later we can realise were -these- people.
Don’t get too cute though
Unless you are very clear about what order readers are to find your books, you want to be cautious about what you include in one series which touches upon the other. You want to avoid spoiling either story. You want to avoid too many in-jokes or references, or bits that only people who’ve already read the other story will understand. One or two of them are fine, even encouraged because it ties your readers to the new series very quickly and easily. But if you do it too much, a reader who came first to the second storyline is going to feel excluded or confused and probably give up on you. Any referential scene should be able to stand alone without the referent and still make sense and be interesting. But of course, that should be true throughout any novel.
Keep it interesting. Keep it pointful.
The best example of how NOT to do this that I’m aware of has got to be Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan, the tenth book in The Wheel of Time. Some very significant and important events took up the last portion of the ninth book Winter’s Heart, and I suppose Jordan felt that the readers would like to know what everybody else had been doing during that time. The majority of the tenth book is just the week leading up to the events of the ending of Winter’s Heart from about six different sets of characters, and good lord was it just not at all interesting. The reason their goings on weren’t in the ninth book, one presumes, is that they weren’t nearly as important or relevant as what we -did- see, so why would you spend all this time showing us a bunch of people doing whatever and then being surprised? Almost all of it could have just been cut and nobody would have noticed or cared. Most of those storylines could have been caught up to the present in one paragraph each. Don’t let your eagerness to expose the complete history of your world and all the goings-on of each character trick you into thinking that the week one of your other characters spent chilling in the woods is going to be worth a full chapter while more important things are going on.
Don’t be afraid to compete with your main characters
This is the last major piece of advice I’d give as a reader to authors looking to expand a pre-existing world. Don’t be afraid to have what these characters are doing look, feel, and be as important as the big epic story you already told. It might be a safe assumption that of all the stories you could have told in your world, you picked the most interesting one to show us first, and now we’re working down the list. But remember that half the reason the events feel so important is that the person who we are looking at is the one they are happening to. Of course they feel important. But everybody is the protagonist of their own story. Don’t feel like you aren’t allowed to have them feel every bit as important and special with what’s going on with them as your main protagonist did in the main body of work. In the same way that a character who doesn’t know what the “main” story was all about could easily think they were the most important thing going on at the time, your “main” protagonist could just as easily have missed something major happening elsewhere that we now get to see. Make them protagonists in their own right.
So really, that’s all there is to it. Just be careful, make sure you don’t accidentally paint yourself into a corner, but likewise, don’t be afraid to let your previously secondary characters really come to life and own their stories. I’ve already referenced Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence as an example of how to do this well. There are some small interactions between the two plotlines, just enough connected references to give a sense of place to people who’ve read the previous body of work, without risking screwups or leaving the uninitiated in the dark. Another excellent example of this is the Malazan Empire novels by Ian C. Esslemont which parallel the events of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen. There are a few small overlaps between events, but each character or group that is the focus of one of these novels feels like they are the main characters in the world, even though they may have had barely anything to do with the story told in Erikson’s 10-book epic.
What do you think? Do you have any favourite stories that have timelines or settings parallel to a more established series? What do you think about shared-world fiction like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance with regards to what I’ve discussed above? Any more tips for ways authors can dip back into a previously published world to tell more stories? Please sound off in the comments! I’d love to hear from you!