So I was reading a review of Brandon Sanderson's newest project The Way of Kings over at Tor.com, http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/08/in-a-kingly-way-brandon-sandersons-the-way-of-kings , and I found the author making a relevant point about the book not standing on its own. Now, when I read this I thought, "So? It's going to be a ten-book epic. Who cares as long as it makes sense in the end?"
Then I thought about it a bit more.
It makes sense. Even when a story obviously stretches beyond the tome you hold in your hands, when you've reached the back cover after consuming the contents of each and every page, you should feel some form of ending. You should be able to go, "Ah, yes. We can take a break now. Things have reached a point of tenuous stasis."
Yeah, I know, I know. What about cliffhanger endings? What about foreshadowing into the next story? What about... etc.
That's all fine. However, we should be able to identify a concrete story and arc within the contents of each installment. As readers, we need something to track and follow so that we can identify the disparate elements of your story, whether it's a single novel or an ongoing series of tales. We have to see what happens when in order to identify the change (or lack thereof) within your characters and within your world.
This works at all levels of storytelling.
-Series: Giving us distinct elements (individual books) lets us identify a period of time or a collection of events or a specific emotional state and then compare that to how the overarching story is behaving. Not to mention it helps us remember where "That one part" is.
-Novel: Separating a particularly large book into parts (like Brandon Sanderson or J.R.R. Tolkien do) isn't as necessary for me. However, I would be very much a hypocrite if I didn't recognize that doing so can be an effective tool for shaping your emotional narrative and constructing a specific experience for your reader. Fellowship of the Ring would have been a vastly different experience for its readers if it hadn't had that one page or so identifying a break in sections to make you think, if only for a moment, that Frodo was dead.
-Part: Again, breaking up a particular portion (or the entirety) of a novel into individuated chapters isn't as great of a necessity. Terry Pratchett gets along just fine without, after all. And when it comes down to it, you don't need to break up your story at all. Just tell it in one continuous stream of text stretching on through 800,000 pages. (Your publisher will love that.) In fact, don't even use paragraphs, or punctuation, or even spaces -- all the more to lessen the separation between your thoughts and the reader's mind. (Joyce, ancient Greek, Latin... I'm lookin' at you three sittin' over there.)
Fact is, folks, we need organization to improve comprehension. If you aren't being intentional with it, then it probably doesn't need to be there. Every punctuation mark needs to have a purpose. Every sentence needs to have a purpose. Every paragraph needs to have a purpose. Every chapter needs to have a purpose. Every book needs to have a purpose.
Right, tangent done with. Where was I?
In a similar way to your series, the individual novels that make up that series, and the various parts that make up each novel, each chapter should have present a complete thought, idea, or emotional experience. Each chapter should -- with some minimal explanation of context -- stand on its own as accomplishing something within the greater body of text. It should organize for us, the readers, some subset of your ideas. Whether that subset is clarifying your greater point or going off into a tangent to introduce a new, hopefully contrasting, idea is of lesser consequence than the fact that it is working within the idea framework of your novel (and possibly your greater work as well, which should in turn be fitting into the larger body of literature).
I could go on by further discussing chapter, paragraph, sentence, and further. But I won't.
I could also probably go on further with the topic of how your ideas, as represented in your writing, fit in with those of other knowledge-workers both before and after. But I won't
I could certainly go into further detail about how your ideas should permeate the entirety of your written work. But, again, I won't.
I think I will take some time to talk about dependency in a novel series, specifically the different kinds of dependency, next time.