Too much of a good thing can often be a bad thing. It’s a matter of excess and unnecessary material that bogs down an otherwise great thing. In the case of stories, this can be moments that feel more like filler rather than adding to the overall story. It’s something I often think about with my own work as I’ve always said my series is going to be eight books long. The main problem with a story that is very long, be it a book, a show, a series of movies, video games, whatever medium of storytelling you can think of, is stagnation. Each additional segment to an ongoing story needs to change the characters, the world, or create a massive shift in the story that feels significant to the audience. This can be a bit tricky depending on what the writer chooses to focus on. But looking at what makes a very long story successful is likely the key to avoiding any of the inherent problems with a longer than average story.
Slight Spoilers: Harley Merlin Series & Voltron: Legendary Defender
Usually the safest method is to further development of either the main character or significant side characters. Modern storytelling is very character focused and if the characters aren’t growing or changing in a significant way for the audience to feel like the addition was significant. One can look at the Harley Merlin series as both a good example and a bad example of using character development to keep a series running. For the first five, there is a constant sense of character development of the main cast of characters as Forrest develops Harley and her friends throughout the books. Each addition serves to further the cast, worldbuilding and plot harmoniously. However, starting from book six, it starts to feel like the overall story is becoming more plot driven rather than character driven and really feels like it’s overstaying it’s welcome. Character development feels stagnant and the worldbuilding becomes more minimal as there’s less to explore and the audience is just waiting for an ending.
A reason why many writers stick to a finite story length that’s often around three or four books, seasons, movies, etc, is often because it’s easier to create a plot line for the overall story that’s very focused. A short but clear and concise story will always be preferred to something that’s long, drawn out and messy. The animated series Voltron: Legendary Defender is an unfortunate example of what happens when a story has no clear and concise plot line. The initial three seasons of Voltron feel focused on developing both the characters and the universe where the story takes place with the overall plot in mind. In season 4 the story starts to feel a bit off but still relatively focused on an overarching plot but season 5 has the story just starting to feel unfocused as the main antagonists start to rotate. Some characters get a bit more development but some start to feel neglected as there’s nothing for them anymore. There’s plenty of YouTube videos that go over how the show was in a development nightmare and it really shows in the second half of the show that an overall plan just wasn’t quite there.
But despite all this, long running stories do have the potential to be gripping and exciting for their entire duration. The key is an overarching story with the protagonist(s) constantly making some kind of progress towards their goal and developing the characters and the world along with the story. Harley Merlin suffers with this as, after the suppressor is removed, it all feels more reactive than proactive in order to stop Katherine. The characters stop feeling like their growing and simply going through the motions of the story. Voltron also suffers in this regard as their overarching goal is seemingly removed (stop Zarkon) and replaced with an ever-shifting and unsatisfying goal post. The characters continue to sort of develop and the worldbuilding gets a bit nonsensical as their overarching plotline feels completely derailed in the later seasons. There’s a lack of clear direction in these stories that makes them feel lesser than they could be. I could be wrong about Harley Merlin as I still have two more books to go through, but books 6, 7 and 8 feel a bit messy and lack as much tension compared to the first five.
Now my favorite example of a long running story with a clear and concise overall narrative that still allows for constant character development and worldbuilding is Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Whether it’s the manga or the anime, it’s an incredibly well written and well-developed story. A major key to its success is that the characters are constantly growing and changing as the story progresses. Not just Ed and Al but the supporting cast as well as the enemies constantly grow and change as the story progresses. Each arc adds more meaningful elements of worldbuilding and exploration of ideas and themes previously explored while also allowing moments of great heroism or tragedy. Despite how long it is, it’s always exciting and rarely has anything that feels unnecessary to the main story or any of the characters.
A long story can allow for further character development, worldbuilding, and an exciting and tense story but isn’t always the best option for every story. Often times a shorter and more concise story can be easier to make more engaging. More often than not, more is not always better as the additional material needs to feel meaningful rather than just to extend the story.