How to Avoid the River Plot

Infinite River

Best selling author Jonathan Moeller offers his expert advice on how to write a long-running fantasy series without falling into any of the genre's common pitfalls.
First, I figure out the overall arc for the entire series. What is the central conflict and the main antagonist? Then I decided on the main characters and their specific character arcs.
By that point, this is usually enough to work out a synopsis of the entire series. Then it’s time to divide the synopsis into individual books. It’s important to have an antagonist and a fully formed plot for each individual book. Otherwise you fall prey to one of the weaknesses of long-running fantasy series, where there’s an entire 800 page book where the characters do nothing but walk around the woods or spend like a million chapters sailing down a river or something.
We all know who he's talking about. Learn from those bad examples. Don't be the Book-length River Voyage guy.

By the way, the reason having a clear antagonist helps authors avoid writing aimless novels is that having a solid antagonist to place obstacles between the protagonist and his goal generates conflict, which is the engine stories run on. Characters end up riding the lazy river when they're insufficiently motivated and/or face insufficient opposition.

Jonathan continues:
When I write a synopsis of an individual book, I start by writing a list of the really significant or spectacular scenes I want in it, and then I sketch out the rest of the scenes to connect the big scenes. Then I chop the synopsis up into individual chapters and start writing.
It’s good to have both external and internal conflicts for your characters. In FROSTBORN, Ridmark’s external conflict is stopping the return of the Frostborn, but his internal conflict is the fact that he never dealt with his wife’s death and is very bad at processing grief in general.
More conflict -> more dramatic tension -> a book that's unputdownable.
You can also get a lot of plot mileage when the internal conflict bubbles over into the external one.
Having multiple conflicts intersect at the same time is a central feature of the seven-point plot structure popularized by author Dan Wells. Having your characters beset by multiple sources of opposition at once is a good way to maximize emotional impact--especially when your characters overcome them.

Souldancer provides a good example of the interplay between external and internal conflict with Astlin's struggle to escape Shaiel while wrestling with the madness that makes her a danger to herself and others.

Jonathan dispenses plenty more sage advice in his original post. Read the whole thing here.

And if you're looking for a not-so-long adventure series that employs Jonathan's advice, check out my award-winning, and complete, Soul Cycle.

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. Brian and Johnathon,

    Many thanks for the post. I'll read the link to Johnathon's elaboratoon later. Now to logical follow up:how to avoid non stop conflict?i have on mind mishandling Lester Dent's formula by inexperienced. authours. Bad novels mix the river boat ride and perpetual conflict up through unbalanced plots.

    So how to find the correct balance?


    1. One every few chapters, you should give your characters a brief pause to catch their breath, examine the consequences of recent events, and plan their next move. It also gives the reader a nice recap.

  2. This is why I've always been wary about prequel series or sequels that dredge up new antagonists.

    As an audience member, I get attached to the journey of the antagonists as well as the protagonists. When that arc ends, I lose a lot of interest in the story. So setting up a new antagonist makes me very wary and requires a lot of justification for me to want to stick around. It can be done, but it usually involves relating the new villain to the old, which says a lot about how I view these sorts of stories.

    On the other hand, I've found a good trick for prequels is to not have either protagonists or antagonists from the "future" stories be central characters. That allows the writer to build the world without having me put aside the future knowledge I already have about these characters. It is more or less a brand new story without choking ties to the older stories.

    Of course, series that focus on one-shot adventures don't really have this problem, but they also aren't made that much these days.

    My two cents.

    1. A valuable two cents, indeed. I was discussing prequelitis with a friend yesterday. Specifically, we were talking about Enterprise and how they messed up a sound formula by frequently second-guessing themselves.

      Here's what I mean: Enterprise held out the promise of Star Trek without many of the super advanced gimmicks that later shows used to get their crews out of hot water. No tractor beam, no shields, no teleporting living matter, etc. Instead of cruising around in a state-of-the-art luxury liner with the power to sterilize a planet, Archer and his crew were essentially cavemen next to a lot of the alien races they ran afoul of.

      Throwing your characters up against typical Star Trek problems and taking away their typical Star Trek doodads makes for some fresh, high-tension conflict. Unfortunately, the writers must've caved to the producers' suggestions that they solve each problem by reintroducing familiar Federation tech. As a result, we get the absurdity of all the trademark tech we associate with Star Trek being invented on the NX-01. It strained credibility pretty fast.

      The right way to do a prequel is to look at your series bible, figure out what to remove, pick a new antagonist not directly related to later Big Bads--like you said--let the story tell itself.

  3. Perhaps this explains why I found Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness to both be boring.

  4. Brian.
    Thanks so you'd have sone issues with series like James Bond or Jack Ryan?
    I totally understand that. I like ongoing series because it allows me to see the character grow and reflect on the human condition. Namely how evil is banal and thete's a realky good reason why the good guys win.
    The prequels advice is good. Have brand new characters that set the stoey for the main characters to refer to


  5. One issue I have is with the scenes that connect to the bigger scenes. I have literally created 5 side characters that I never planned to have in the story to "guide" the main characters to the next scene. Grant it, I did merge them with prototypes of side characters I did intend to get around to creating. Not sure if that is the right way to go about things. Does seem to be solving some future problems, though.