So I made it through Relentless. It wasn’t easy turning an online serial into a printed novel, but I did it. Now I had to figure out the sequel. Fearless was an odd beast. It was the toughest nut to crack of the three, the hardest one to write, and it’s my least favorite of the trilogy.
But I’ve heard from a number of people over the years who say it’s their favorite. Go figure!
Spoilers ahead for Fearless (and Merciless, too).
In the Middle
Where Relentless was fully plotted with great detail before I wrote a single word, the entire Trilogy I had nailed down a little less so. I knew Grant’s body would eventually be overtaken by the entity I called Oblivion. I knew almost everything that would happen after Grant died. (Like Relentless, most of Merciless existed in my head before it was committed to paper. But that’s a story for another day.)
Fearless was a different animal. The challenge it presented was telling a satisfying “middle” of the trilogy — lovingly known as having “no beginning and no ending,” a la The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers — without it merely being filler. Every word needed to feel as crucial as the opening entry and the conclusion. If it’s just filler, if I’m biding time until I get to the big reveal at the end, then the reader’s going to know it. Readers are smart cookies. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing, they’re not going to enjoy what they’re reading.
Middle chapters in trilogies are the trickiest of the bunch. I studied trilogies like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and more, to try and discover what makes a successful middle story. On the plus side, they don’t have the heavy lifting to do like the first volume; no introducing a multitude of characters and setting up their situations. You can dive right into the story and be all caught up (assuming you read the first book — and I assumed). On the downside, they don’t have the promise of a climax or hope of a satisfying resolution that the final entry offers. Successful middle chapters in epic, world-in-danger stories like the Dominion Trilogy will:
- Raise the stakes. Not just in a grand, “we have to save the world” way, but the emotional stakes for the main characters, too.
- Deepen the reader’s understanding and investment with the main characters. One reason a new TV show struggles to get viewers invested in its cast of new characters is the very fact that they’re new. There are tricks you can employ, like creating sympathy for your protagonist, or having them do something or suffer something that viewers will instantly identify with. But true investment and love of great characters takes time. Viewers and/or readers have to spend time with a character, live with them for a while, go on adventures with them, and experience their highs and lows. That’s how you invest a reader in your character. So second and third chapters have an advantage in this respect — but the writer still has to do their job of providing compelling drama. Drama that will…
- Grow and evolve the characters, emotionally and relationally. Provide compelling drama that pushes and changes the main characters, advancing their stories in ways both unexpected and satisfying.
- Outdo the first chapter in scope and scale. This is the Lord of the Rings rule: Everything has to be bigger in Part 2. (And Part 3 has to have the biggest scope of all.) One way I elected to do this was to take the reader beyond the familiar territory of the first volume (Los Angeles) and see how the events the main characters have experienced are affecting the wider world (London, Jerusalem, etc.).
- Set the stage for the grand finale, while also providing some semblance of closure or satisfaction with this one volume. The middle chapter has to not only keep the momentum going from the first book, but amplify it so the story becomes a runaway train barrelling toward the big finale that’s still to come by the end of the second book. Losing that momentum, stopping it in any way, is narrative death.
Like most things in the Dominion Trilogy, I took these rules to heart and employed them quite literally. I raised the stakes by having the world fall apart, with one disaster or cataclysm after another. I sent my characters in new directions (more on that later), pushing them to their limits. I drew on a much bigger canvas, having my team of superheroes travel the world and visit real-life locations. And I set the stage for the finale with one whopper of a cliffhanger — which amazingly, my publisher let me do.
I had only the loosest of ideas of what Fearless would be about, so nailing down the details took a lot of trial and error. Long ago, I wrote a short story called “The Library” that was about a hidden floor in a public library, which an average Joe found himself drawn to. He would later wake up having had his memories of the Library erased, and “held for ransom” until he completed a morally difficult task. The librarian there eventually informed him that this “true” Library was a collection of files about the “most important people in the world.” The big twist was that my main character was told, as the Library was burning down around him, that one of those files had his name on it.
I’d never found a good use for that story, though I really loved it. Literary magazines aren’t in the habit of buying short stories that conclude with an open-ended twist that requires a sequel. So one of my first ideas for Fearless was to take pieces of this unused story and incorporate it. That’s how the London Library entered the story.
From there, I had sketches of other ideas… I knew I wanted more Ringwearers, so I introduced plenty of those, including a team of four Brits. (I always wanted more from those four, but their potential never quite materialized, in my opinion.) I loved playing with the question of whether Grant might be subconsciously causing the disasters happening around the world.
And I knew that I had to go all in on the superheroics in this one. Relentless was a crazy mashup of superheroes, conspiracies, prophecies, and more. Merciless was set to be a major departure from everything that came before, so traditional superheroics were going to be out of the picture by then. So it was an easy decision to come to that Fearless would be The Superhero Book. The glory days for Grant Borrows, aka “Guardian,” and his superfriends.
I dove as deep as I could into pure superhero tropes, but it could only start in that kind of place. As the book unfolds, the heroics are increasingly countered with the inevitable threat and confrontation between Grant and Devlin at the Secretum’s hidden city.
If you find that the tone goes from light and fun (more or less) to grim and foreboding, then I did an adequate job.
Before, I mentioned that my editor and publisher let me get away with a crazy cliffhanger ending, but that wasn’t all I got away with. I pushed the envelope of what a Christian publisher would be willing to publish with Fearless. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling full of myself because Relentless had been somewhat successful. But I strongly felt that I couldn’t do justice to the dire nature of the story — the world was literally falling apart from endless disasters, people were losing hope on a global scale, etc. — without going a little grittier and getting my hands dirtier.
So I put in some things that I thought were fairly gritty, and then waited for my editor to tell me that those bits would have to be cut. With only one or two exceptions, that never happened. A few I can think of off the top of my head… In his first scene, Payton tells an opponent that it “sucks to be you, mate.” I don’t think it was common at the time for “suck” to appear in a Christian publication (it’s probably still not). At the book’s outset, we see Alex doing the superhero thing, rescuing a girl who’s about to be raped. Alex actually alludes to the attacker’s sexual arousal with a double entendre. I thought for sure that would be a no-no, but either it wasn’t noticed or was deemed tame enough to let through. Late in the novel, when Payton takes on a small Secretum army with his sword and his bursts-of-speed powers — one of the best Payton sequences in the trilogy, in my biased opinion — he dispatches them with brutal efficiency. At one point, he actually cleaves an opponent in half vertically. I was flat-out shocked that I got away with that one. It could only have been because I didn’t describe it in detail.
On the other hand, the climactic moment when Julie is shot in the head was one I was asked to pull back. My original description of her death was more graphic. I wasn’t all that upset at losing that part of it, and in retrospect, it was the right move. The moment was appropriately jarring without having to take it that far.
Who and Why
I always knew I wanted the Dominion Trilogy to feature a huge cast of characters, so I used Fearless to fill out the roster and make it much bigger. It occurred to me that the U.S. government wouldn’t be too keen on this incredibly powerful man operating as a superhero without oversight, so I created FBI Agent Ethan Cooke. I added a ton of new super-powered people like Nora and Wilhelm who all joined up with Grant’s group in the time jump between the first book and this one. I considered having some of them turn on Grant and function as minor villains, but with so many characters from Relentless still around to do justice to, there wasn’t room for that kind of subplot.
The biggest death — up until the book’s final moments, anyway — was Morgan. Losing her stung, no denying it. Anytime you’ve got a character who’s as strong in their convictions as Morgan is, it’s hard to let them go because they’re so appealing. But it’s the old Hero’s Journey adage: the mentor always dies. The elder guide steps aside so the hero can rise to the occasion and fulfill their full potential, their destiny. I had two mentors as I mentioned last time, and I still needed Daniel for the part he was to play in Merciless. Had Morgan outlived her usefulness? Not necessarily. I can see a scenario where she would have had plenty to do in Merciless. But losing her gave me more to work with — particularly for Payton’s emotional arc.
This was the book of consequences, where my characters had to deal with the fallout of their decisions from Relentless. No one felt the weight of those decisions more than Daniel, whose conscience was torturing him for murdering the wicked Detective Matthew Drexel. Alex finally had to face up to her hidden feelings for Grant. Julie’s medical condition worsened, while she struggled to keep functioning as Grant’s conscience. Payton, having been manipulated for the umpteenth time in his life, grew angrier and deadlier than ever, barely containing his rage. And Grant…
Grant was trying his best to do the right thing. To be the hero that the world needed, despite his power being rooted in darkness. Which brings me to a central theme of the trilogy. It’s a question that’s a crucial piece of the puzzle, but somehow no one has ever asked me about it: Is it possible to do good using powers born out of evil? Some people took me to task for not mentioning “God” or “Jesus” in the trilogy, but I said from the start that this was a kind of allegory. If you don’t see in that same central question an allusion to man’s sinful nature and his inability to be good on his own… I don’t know how to help you.
I’m not sure what it is about massive underground spaces that fascinate me, but they keep turning up in my books. Maybe it’s the thought of something unfathomably huge remaining hidden from the world. Or maybe it’s just the size of it that I find visually stimulating. Whatever it is, they inspire awe in me, which is always a great foundation for drama. In Relentless, there was the lair of Maximillion Borrows hidden deep below Grant’s home. Offworld‘s Quantum Machine was another one of these underground spaces. Even Nolan Gray’s subway hideout in Vigilante followed this pattern, albeit at a much smaller scale.
Fearless introduced what was and still is my biggest underground space ever: the massive cave dwelling inside a mountain that the Secretum called home. I couldn’t get out of my head the image of a ginormous stalactite with a city carved out of it and built up around it. Man, I’d love to see that visual realized somehow.
So About That Cliffhanger…
The cliffhanger, for me, was the secret sauce in Fearless. It was the one thing I had planned out in detail from the start, and it was the linchpin that the whole book was built on. As far as I was concerned, Fearless could not exist without that cliffhanger. It was non-negotiable.
I always knew precisely what the cliffhanger was going to be — time stopping and Devlin shoving Grant down the hole were my favorite parts — before I began writing Fearless. To their credit, my publisher Bethany House never balked at ending on what’s basically a crushing defeat, one that threw the fate of my protagonist, his supporting cast, and the entire world into major peril. It literally left readers wondering how I was going to pull off a third book if my hero was dead.
Well, I knew how, and I was determined to get there.
Some writers will tell you that in a trilogy or a series, each entry must tell a complete sub-story with a beginning, middle, and end of its own. As such, they believe that a cliffhanger betrays that structure because it provides zero closure. Even writers who are willing to employ cliffhangers typically go about it with subtlety.
I tossed subtlety out the window and pulled out all the stops! I wanted a giant, honking cliffhanger, but it wasn’t for nothing. I needed it for a number of reasons.
- It worked with the story. The cardinal rule of cliffhangers (or even just big mysteries) is that your resolution has to be every bit as jaw-dropping, if not more so, than the cliffhanger itself. If you don’t have a great resolution that tickles the imagination, if you have to resort to cheating — “You know that thing I made a really big deal about happening in the last book? It didn’t actually happen! Gotcha!” — you’re going to lose your reader’s trust, and rightly so. I felt pretty confident that in the rise of Oblivion and what he does to the world and to my main characters, I had a resolution that was both satisfying, and that opened up the story to bigger possibilities than the cliffhanger alone provided. I’m still kinda proud of that.
- As a subscriber to JJ Abrams’ Mystery Box theorem, I loved the idea of igniting readers’ imaginations with this huge, shattering ending that couldn’t help but fundamentally change everything about the entire trilogy. The intent was never to torture the reader; I wasn’t blind to the fact that readers would have to wait a year between books to find out what happens next. The idea was to stimulate the possibilities within their minds about what could possibly come next. (These kinds of stories are always a cat-and-mouse game between writer and reader, with the former doing everything they can to prevent the latter from figuring out their secrets before they happen.) If the greatest gift a writer can give his or her reader’s imagination is to “leave them wanting more,” Fearless‘ ending gave my readers a huge, house-sized mystery box wrapped up with a bow.
- In my mind, the cliffhanger ramped up the anticipation for Merciless. Not only did it kinda/sorta guarantee that readers who’d followed along this far would be desperate to get their hands on the finale, to me it made Merciless‘ eventual arrival feel more momentous.
Was its arrival as momentous as I hoped?