“He wondered if this was something new…”
When you’re taking apart a story to see how it works—whether as a fan, a critic, or an aspiring artist yourself—it’s often necessary to distinguish between two different kinds of narrative elements. One consists of the standard components that appear in the story to satisfy our expectations about the genre: a whodunit, for example, usually has a detective, a killer, a cast of suspects, and a series of clues, and most mystery writers assume that these pieces will be present before they’ve even come up with a premise. The second kind of element is designed to address the unique problems that this story alone presents: the details of character, setting, and incident required to enable the specific plot developments or twists that the author has in mind. And you can’t tell the difference until you’ve read two or more stories in the same genre, just as a scientist might need to examine multiple specimens to distinguish between the traits common to an entire species and individual variation. If you’ve only read one gothic romance, for instance, you have no way of knowing how many of those stock building blocks, from the orphaned heroine to the lonely house on the moor, are there primarily because that’s how the genre has defined itself. And it takes yet another level of sophistication to recognize that most of these elements exist because Charlotte Brontë needed them to tell a particular story in Jane Eyre. You can’t see the pattern until you have at least two examples to compare.
The same principle holds true for criticism—the best way to think about a work of art, after all, is to compare it to something else—and for the creative process itself, particularly when the artist is consciously drawing on more than one previous model. A sequel, even one that departs from the first story in surprising ways, always involves some degree of reverse engineering: the artist looks back at the original and tries to pick out the most important features, which create a sense of continuity between the old and new stories. (This usually, but not necessarily, means keeping some of the same characters, but it can also mean reproducing entire plot points or intangible qualities of tone.) And a third installment can draw upon two different models, which can both confuse and clarify the issue. When you mentally superimpose two stories, it naturally emphasizes the places where they overlap, and for the first time, it becomes possible to figure out which plot elements are essential to the series, rather than incidental solutions to specific problems. This is why an ambitious third installment can serve as a direct continuation of the second while simultaneously circling back to the first. Films like The Dark Knight Rises or The Bourne Ultimatum can struggle to manage those competing chains of meaning, which is why the fourth installment in a series often strikes off in a totally new direction: it becomes mathematically impossible, in the narrative equivalent of Metcalfe’s Law, to keep those connections straight when four or more stories are involved.
But it’s often not until the third installment that we know what the series is really about, since it takes two stories to establish the pattern. When I was trying to figure out the plot of Eternal Empire, I was very mindful of the problem of honoring the precedent set by the first two novels while departing when necessary from the template they had established—if only because it gave me a way to structure a novel that I knew was going to be very complicated. As I wrote in a blog post back when the novel first came out: “In a sense, [Eternal Empire] ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end.” These days, I’m less confident that I pulled this off successfully than I was when the book was released, but I know that I gave it my best shot. And even at the time, I realized, consciously or otherwise, that the best way to keep the plot from spiraling out of control was to copy the structural bones of the previous books wherever I could. As a result, each novel has three acts, cuts between three main characters, covers roughly the same amount of time, and uses a narrative funnel that accelerates the action until the last section encompasses the events of less than a day. These are all solid, reliable thriller techniques, but it wasn’t until I had two prior novels to analyze that I began to understand exactly what kind of story I was writing.
You can see this clearly in the sequence of events that culminates in Chapter 49 of Eternal Empire. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles contain a plot twist that occurs at approximately the same point in each novel, involving the sudden death of a supporting character at the hands of an unexpected killer. This isn’t exactly unprecedented in this kind of thriller, and if it works, it’s all in the execution—and I think it works pretty well in both cases. (In fact, the two twists are similar enough that I went to considerable lengths to disguise it. This why the scene in the latter novel takes place in a car, rather than indoors, and it’s told from the point of view of the killer, rather than the victim.) I wanted a big twist in the third novel at more or less the same spot, both because I thought a reader would want it and because it served a useful narrative purpose: it occurs at a point where the story needs a jolt of energy to carry it through the last hundred pages. Because I couldn’t pull the same exact trick yet again, I ended up inverting it: instead of an unexpected death, it would be an expected death that turned out to be something else, with the reveal that Tarkovsky had conspired with Ilya to fake his assassination. It was like taking a piece out of the template, turning it around, and inserting it into the same place again to see if it fit. And it did. But if I hadn’t had two previous novels to study, I might not have known that anything had to be there at all. And I’m a little relieved that this series is over, because I’m not sure I’d be able to do it again…