Wheel of Time: A Case Study in Series Pacing

A few weeks ago, I delved into the pacing of a rather interesting novel, A Deadly Education. But that is one novel (admittedly, the first of a series), and it led me to ponder: compared to individual novels, what does the pacing of an entire series look like? And, with those thrilling sneak-peek images for the Wheel of Time show, I thought, why not start with the longest, most complex series I’ve ever read? (And by complex, I mean that narrowing down the biggest, most pivotal moments in the series is going to be incredibly difficult.)

For those of you actively invested in the “typical” pacing of novels and series, don’t worry, A Deadly Education will not be the only “standalone” book I do, and Wheel of Time will not be the only series. I’m particularly intrigued by the potential differences in pacing between “fast-paced” novels and “slower-” ones. So keep an eye out for those.

Before we begin, I’d just like to throw out my usual warning: spoilers abound. We will be discussing key plot points of the whole series, so if you haven’t finished it yet, I would recommend bookmarking this for later.

The Theory

A narrative, no matter how lengthy, should have waves of conflict, allowing for “fast” and “slow” moments, with the slower moments generally for the benefit of character reflection and development. The conflict doesn’t always have to relate directly to the final conflict, especially not at face value, but the presence of action generally correlates to those moments when the plot speeds up.

I’ll refer back briefly to the A Deadly Education post regards to the action. It had its own flaws, which I broke down in the post, but the conflict itself was practically nonstop, with skirmishes present in practically every single chapter. But skirmishes–aka, conflict–do not make a plot by default. There are a handful of moments in which a character must make a decision or comes to a realization, pivotal moments which invariably shift the plot forward.

A series should theoretically hold the same narrative merit as a single novel, just on a grander scale. And, if that’s the case, then even with fifteen books full of conflict, various character perspectives and arcs, can we still pick out a handful of plot points at which time something monumental happens that invariably pushes the characters closer to victory or defeat?

I spent a good hour or two trying to list some of the biggest moments of the series and putting them into perspective of the overall plotline. What I found was that it was incredibly difficult to narrow down, that there were several points that felt like they should be on this list just for the impact they had or the power they showed. But, like how many of the skirmishes in A Deadly Education built towards the climax without being so influential as to shift character arcs, a lot of the aforementioned plot points, however important, did not directly influence the trajectory of the story.

General Plot

To put things into perspective, let’s consider the overall plot of the Wheel of Time narrative.

Rand and his friends are called to action when an Aes Sedai by the name of Moiraine arrives in their small town, claiming that they’re in danger of being hunted down and killed by agents of the Shadow. It becomes apparent that Rand is the one from the prophecies, but as the group fractures and regroups, fractures and regroups, every single one of them has a part to play, for although the final days are ahead, the nations are hesitant to put their forces behind a man destined to go mad.

But duty is heavier than a mountain, and Rand and his friends rise to the challenge, fighting Darkfriends and allies alike until it becomes clear that everyone must pick a side or else risk annihilation. And even then, the odds are stacked against them.

The Six Major Plot Points

I was able to break down A Deadly Education into six pivotal moments, and so, to test my above theory, I wanted to see if the same could be done for Wheel of Time. There are several instances where certain pivotal moments happen relatively close together, so I listed the earliest plot point and then discussed how the cluster is connected and how it likewise connects to the overall narrative.

One: After Moiraine saves the Two Rivers from Trollocs, Rand and his friends agree to go with her to Tar Valon. (1%)

This is quite obviously the inciting incident, the start of the adventure, a point of change. To stay would be to die eventually at the hands of Darkfriends or Trollocs. Not only does it begin the journeys of the main ta’veren, but it also pulls Nynaeve and Egwene along as well, without whom the story would have ended much differently. And, before we’ve made it halfway through the first book, (4% of the overall series), Mat has taken the dagger that will lead him to the Aelfinn and Eelfinn (ch. 19), Perrin learns what it means to be a Wolfbrother (ch. 23), and Rand unwittingly channels for the first time (ch. 32).

In terms of pacing, it looks like an excellent, fast-paced start. Considering how little of the overall series the reader has gotten into, it’s interesting to see how early the seeds for character growth were planted. The significance of these actions can’t be appreciated until later, but for the time being, there is still an active goal the characters are racing towards, one the reader can get behind. The fact that it is technically a false start–that the goal, unfulfilled, is for Moiraine to get the kids to Tar Valon–doesn’t matter, because for the time being, there is still that Established Plot Path (which, again, is not necessarily the same as a predictable plot path)

Two: Rand, determined to prove once and for all that he is the Dragon Reborn, departs on his own to claim Callandor. (17%)

Taking the sword is one of the biggest, most well-known indicators that Rand is, indeed, the Dragon Reborn. It proves it both to himself and to the world (to those, at least, who are willing to believe it). (Dragon Reborn, Ch. 55) More so, for reasons I cannot remember, the Aiel are present in the Stone of Tear. They announce that they are the People of the Dragon, and when Rand goes with them into the Waste, he and Mat take their next big steps in their arcs. Rhuidean proves Rand to also be the Aiel’s car’a’carn, essentially giving him an army with which he can use to encourage nations to take him seriously, and Mat steps through the doorway that gives him the memories needed to become an exceptional battle commander. (Shadow Rising, Ch’s. 24-26, hitting the 20% mark.)

For the reader, I think these events do two things that sort of contradict each other. Rand’s taking the sword confirms Moiraine’s theory that he is the Dragon Reborn, and his trip into Rhuidean removes any doubt of his importance. But, as he takes leadership of the Aiel, it does also indicate just how big of a scope the narrative is. It makes sense, yes, that in the fight against evil incarnate, every single nation should be involved, but Rand’s command of the Aiel suggests to the reader that rallying the nations is going to be a big part of the plot, and that they should expect a relatively slow, methodical pace.

Three: Mat inadvertently forms the Band of the Red Hand in the Battle for Caemlyn. (30%)

Both in terms of character development and plot development, the battle for Caemlyn proves to be pivotal in Mat’s arc. It both shows that, however selfish he may seem, he’s not one to leave people stranded, and also shows him that his trip through that doorway gave more than it originally seemed. But, like with the first plot point, the significance of this moment won’t really be obvious until later. It does give Mat the influence to enter a political marriage with Tuon (which does, in some way, shape, or form, influence her decision to help Rand in the Last Battle), as well as give him a lot of practice for later taking control of the field during the Last Battle itself.

In a way, it’s a small moment with a big effect. The battle itself holds little sway over future events beyond incapacitating a major faction of rebel Aiel. From the reader’s perspective, though, the battle does signal an end to a “major” conflict. (Perrin’s fight with them in Knife of Dreams proves useless; it’s honestly a way to give him something to do, as nothing really comes out of it besides political alliances that could have theoretically been made under other circumstances.) It hints at Rand’s subsequent attempt to conquer and rule the entire continent, although I think at this point, readers are still clueless as to the overall significance of relative reunification of the Aiel.

Four: Rand cleanses saidin, putting a halt on male channelers’ descent into madness. (59%)

Ever since he started channeling in the first book, Rand has had to grapple with the possibility of his own madness. The taint was put on saidin by the Dark One himself. So although removing the taint didn’t suddenly heal the male channelers’ madness, it did stop it from getting worse. It also forced several characters to work together, and for Rand to relinquish some of his control over to Cadsuane and Nynaeve.

Symbolically speaking, the cleansing of the taint serves as an effective precursor to the Last Battle. Rand is literally facing off against the might of the Dark One, with some help, while the rest of his allies keep Darkfriends and the Forsaken away. Not that I really thought about that on the first read-through, and I doubt most readers would, either. While it will help Rand’s Asha’man fight against the Dark One’s forces, in that particular moment, it’s worth recognizing that, from the reader’s point of view, the plot is really starting to meander. We still have that ultimate goal of defeating the Dark One; we still know where the characters are ultimately heading. But without a hint as to how much further we have to go or what else needs to be accomplished before Tarmon Gaidon, the plot begins to feel like it’s listing off the path. It is no wonder, I suppose, that it is around this time, with Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, and Knife of Dreams, that the plot enters the “Slog.” (Perrin’s endless chasing of the remaining Shaido Aiel probably doesn’t help.)

Five: Through cleverness and sheer force of will, Egwene heals the rift in the White Tower after the Battle of Tar Valon. (79%)

Ever since Siuan’s deposition back in The Shadow Rising, the White Tower has been divided between Siuan’s sympathizers and Elaida’s lackeys. Of course, Egwene was raised to Amyrlin Seat in the rebel faction in Salidar until she was captured by Sisters of the Tower. The height of her character arc (excepting only her last sacrifice) is here, during the fight. Her intelligence and calm, collected manner and her very authoritative presence lends credence to her credentials as future Amyrlin Seat.

From the perspective of the reader, any subplot that gets completed is a promise that they truly do get nearer to the end. And, with several subplots getting wrapped up at this point, it’s no wonder that the pace starts to feel like it’s picking up again. On a grander scale, of course, this is a particularly monumental victory for Rand’s allies. The Tower serves as a pinnacle of power, and had it been divided at the time of Tarmon Gaidon, we can only assume Rand’s allies would have fared far worse.

Six: Tarmon Gaidon begins. (97%)

The pieces have all fallen into place. Lan rode to Tarwin’s Gap, and thanks to Nynaeve al’Meara, he did not ride alone. The White Tower stands whole, and the loyal members of the Black Tower are free to stand behind Rand. Mat has rescued Moiraine, and although he doesn’t need her like he used to, she will help him in his final stand-off. What alliances can be made have been made, and even Seanchan will join the fight, and Mat is put into a position to lead them into victory. If they lose, they can die knowing that they did everything they could.

First of all, I have to say that a 300-page chapter is not good for pace, that shorter chapters generally result in a faster pace. That said, the Last Battle is the culmination of everyone’s character arcs, all those pages spent following dozens of people around as they tried to prepare for this fight, and it makes sense that the battle itself takes a proportionally long time. Whether or not it was too long will probably depend on the reader, and whether the resolution is satisfactory will likewise probably also depend on the reader. As I mentioned in my spoiler-free wrap-up of the series, I was personally mildly dissatisfied with the ending, but not so much that I was angry to have spent all that time reading it.

Conclusion

Trying to untangle the complex, multi-faceted plot of a fourteen-book series (this is the one time I’m excluding the prequel) was not easy, and I’m not sure that the above bullet points really do the series justice. Most of the notable plot points in A Deadly Education were also very powerful scenes, whereas some of the most poignant and moving scenes of Wheel of Time were important only on a character level rather than for an overall plot arc. (By which I mean things like Nynaeve’s speech in chapter 20 of Knife of Dreams, or most of Mat’s character arc.)

Perhaps a smaller series will prove easier to draw proper conclusions from in this regard.

What I can say with certainty is that the infamous slog is surely a result of unresolved plot points. The proclaimed urgency of Tarmon Gaidon feels cheaper and cheaper the longer it takes to get there, and as the series continues to go in circles, focusing on conquering nations and chasing down Aiel, it makes sense that readers will start to grow frustrated and bored. It wasn’t that these later subplots weren’t important (I’m still annoyed about the Perrin arc, but that’s irrelevant); it was just that, especially in the moment, their importance seemed negated by the time and energy the reader expended to get through them. Most readers will probably feel committed to the series once they’re ten books in, but making the pay-off worth the wait will be even more difficult on the author’s part, so be aware.


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