Monday, August 24, 2009

Series on Series: Part 1

Part 1: What kind of series do you have?

So, you’ve got this character, see? He’s Jorge, the psychotic zombie marmoset, and he’s the coolest freakin’ thing that has ever crawled out of your head. (except that thing from summer camp, but the anti-parasitic cleared that right up) You have his personality down, his strengths and weaknesses, his love interests, and the fact that secretly, he just wants to be pretty. You have a world for him, peopled with vampires that only wear purple faux fur, a sexually transmitted computer virus, and a cross-dressing werewolf named Frank.

Now, what do you do with him? He has a story to tell. No, two stories. No, half a dozen! Well hold onto your mukluks, folks, I think you have a series. “A series?” you say. “Is it contagious?” No no no, little one. Read on and learn.

For our purposes, a series is most loosely defined as more than one book following the same characters in the same world. There are of course, notable exceptions to everything I just said. Unlike basic math, writing is not an exact science. You can take 2 + 3 and you will always get 5. But if you take romance + robots, sometimes you get sci-fi, and sometimes you get chick lit, and sometimes you don’t know what you have, but someone, somewhere must surely want to read it.

The First Thing You Need To Know Before You Get Started is: What kind of series do you have? What kind of series you are writing will govern the flow and pace of not only each individual book, but also of any over-arcing metaplot action you may have going on.

There are three things to consider when contemplating a series: length, style and genre. You would think that the three things could be considered separately, but in some cases, they are intrinsically intertwined. So, we’ll start with length.

Length:

Series can be anything from two books, to these never-ending sagas that only cease when the author goes to that big library in the sky. (and sometimes, not even then) I have seen a duology done successfully (Anne Bishop’s Sebastian and Belladonna, most notably). Trilogies are very common. Other authors have done four, five or six-book sets (Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series will cap at six). Jim Butcher’s other series, The Dresden Files, has long been planned for 20-ish novels, to eventually end in a big apocalyptic trilogy. Still other authors just. Keep. Writing!

Really, a series only needs to be as long as it takes to tell the stories you want to tell. Cutting it short is better (in my humble opinion) than stretching it so thin that you can see your neighbor’s big screen TV through the holes.

The length you choose will, in some way, affect the style. And the style will affect the length.

Style:

I’m probably over-simplifying this, but let’s break series down into two types: episodic, and what I’m going to call “meta-plot”.

Episodic is just what it sounds like. Each book stands alone as its own self-contained episode. You have a beginning, a middle and an end, with few (if any) loose ends. I have often seen mystery series done this way. Ian Fleming’s James Bond series comes to mind, as does Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

The two great things about episodic series are 1) that they can, conceivably, go on forever so long as the author’s estate can still find someone they like to keep the characters going, and 2) they can be read in any order with little to no confusion.

Meta-plot series, on the other hand, have a large looming story arc hanging over the entire run of the series. So not only does the author have to juggle the plot of each individual book, but they have to plan out many, many books into the future, exactly where to lay the clues and reveals for a much larger plot. A good example of this is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The Harry Potter series also does a good job of dropping clues in early books that are important in later books.

It’s very hard to run a meta-plot series indefinitely, because at some point, the big meta-plot HAS to end (like any good plot) or the readers are going to get pissy. It is also one that almost has to be planned out before hand, because once books 1, 2 and 3 are on shelves, you can’t hit book 4 and say “Oh crap, I needed to mention Jorge’s magical sword back in book 1 for this to make any sense!”. Sure, you can try fly by the seat of your pants, but you risk landing on your ass.

There is also the very real danger (as illustrated by the late Robert Jordan) that the author will not live to see his work done. And that opens up a whole new can of worms.

Trilogies work very well for meta-plot series, simply because they’re short (comparatively) and easy to plan out far in advance.

And then, of course, just to make your head spin and add a third thing to a two-item list, we also have the episodic meta-plot. These are very common in the urban fantasy world, and I’m going to cite The Dresden Files a lot, simply because I love the books, and I’m most familiar with them.

Each book of The Dresden Files is its own story. Often, these type of stories are referred to as “monster-of-the-week stories”. Each one presents a new bad guy, a new mystery to solve, a new challenge to overcome. However, behind all of this, we also have the workings of a much larger plot. We have a conspiracy, or a looming cataclysm, or an ominous prophecy. Whatever it is, it shapes our hero’s thoughts and actions, even as he’s trying to go about his daily not-dying.

It IS something that is going to require a resolution, eventually. The fun is in getting there.

Genre:

You’re saying “I already know I’m writing a sci-fi/rom-com/post-apocalyptic/self-help book! What does that have to do with my series?”

Well, in writing a genre, no matter what it is, you should also know your genre. Each genre has conventions. (No, not the kind of convention where you all go to a strange hotel and wear fezzes) Conventions are things that are considered “normal” in any given genre. You don’t necessarily have to follow said conventions, but knowing them helps you shed them with style and grace.

There are some genres that have, traditionally, fallen easily into several series styles. Mystery, for example, lends itself well to the never-ending episodic adventures of your intrepid detective marmoset Jorge. Adventure novels (think Clive Cussler) and spy novels also seem to do well in this format.

Epic fantasy goes well in meta-plot trilogies. It allows for more exploration of a brave new world, strange and fantastic creatures, and the defeat of the Big Bad, wherever it may lurk. It is, essentially, one VERY large book divided into three parts.

Urban fantasy is prone to mixing the pot. There are series that are more episodic, some that are more meta-plot, and quite a few that are definitely offspring of both. Cute little buggers, aren’t they? Don’t stick your fingers in the cage, they bite.

No one says you can’t step outside the box in your particular genre, but it helps to at least know where the box is before you start trying.

And all you other people out there, not sitting on cushions:

What about those series that don’t fit neatly into any of these categories? Well, they’re everywhere. A rampant infestation that must be squashed at all costs- Er, hmm? What was I saying? Oh yes.

What about a series set in the same world but following different (but connected) characters throughout? (look into Christine Feehan’s Carpathian series for a good example) Is that still a series?

Honestly, that’s between you and your publisher. More precisely, that’s between you and the marketing department. Most precisely, that’s totally at the discretion of the marketing department.

Books marketed as a “series” are done so because it allows the reader to know what to expect when they pick it up. Anyone who has read one Dresden Files novel can pick up the next one and have a good idea of what kind of read they’re going to find. However, if you read one mystery, and the next one you picked up in the series was more along the lines of erotica, you would be very confused. No one expecting Jorge and the Mystery of the Golden Whiffle Bat is going to be happy to find Jorge Does Dallas. (this phenomenon will be addressed further in Part 5: How to destroy a series. Coming soon!)

So, once you know the size and scope of your series, you can get a better handle on what tools you will need to build it into the opus of your dreams.

Coming soon: Part 2: Heroes, Sidekicks & Villains: Who cares what these guys do anyway?

9 comments:

sue laybourn said...

Interesting stuff, missus.

Series can be frustrating for a reader, if there's a meta-plot involved. I remember, years ago, becoming completely hooked by a sci-fi/fantasy book which ended up being the first book of a TEN BOOK series. I read the first two and then, lost track. I sometimes wonder whether I should try hard and remember the books and try and find them again.
Sorry, not making much sense...early Monday brain-sludge.
I also wonder if authors get so attached to their characters that they can't let them go and cook up a series to keep 'em going. Because I have come across books where the first in the series has been very strong (e.g. Interview with a Vampire) and the remainder have seemed like a desparate attempt to keep certain characters going..e,g, Lestat.

Kari Stewart said...

I think that prolonging a series past its "expiration date" is one good way to kill it. Attachment to the characters, both for the author and the reader is a very real issue, but I think in the end, no one winds up very happy.

Probably need to touch on this in my "how to destroy a series" post at the very end of this debacle.

inkwench said...

Cool stuff! The thought of possibly writing a series gives me the hives, although I realize it's the expectation in the genres I'm writing. I get bored very easily reading about the same characters, and I know I'd get bored writing about them. I bet the boredom would show through, too (possibly that's one of the reasons a series goes downhill).

BeshterBooks said...

You run around in fezzes at your conventions?

I suppose its better than a furry costume.

Brilliant, hon, and the type of stuff i wish writers put out there on the web more often. Saves us sending you annoying emails and picking your brain.

Robert W. Leonard said...

Good job, and I like the idea of this series. Will be checking out more of your posts. I think a lot of people don't really think about how much you have to plan when looking at writing a long series.

ralfast said...

A most excellent of posts. Planning a series is tricky,especially when the middle books have to carry the weight of the original. Sometimes it feels like, contrary to the writer's claims, the book was never meant to be a series but he/she could not pass up the chance to keep on writing (Wheel of Time felt that way to me, I stop reading after the fourth).

Then you have the books that combine in-book story arcs with a meta-plot/arc. Problem with those is that you have to keep topping the last one and it can get ridiculous (or in franchised series like SW,ST or D&D) repetitive.

And last but not least a successful series can lead to a disappointing finale where it simply fails to meet the expectations of the readers.

I like to think of every book as a sort of franchise seed. You don't have to always go relentlessly forward with one book after another. You can branch out to comics, prequels and stories based on secondary characters. Because if you want to write a good series you need a good foundation based on solid and expansive world building.

Kari Stewart said...

Welcome to the new folks!

And I agree, the one-upmanship can get a bit much, each book having to be bigger and badder than the last. So, how do you avoid that?

ralfast said...

Avoid it from the get go. Don't build your entire premise on that. Also write a shorter story arc where you plan the ending. I think that is the key. We all want our stories to go on and on, but the best writers plan the endings first. Once you have a solid endgame the rest should fall into place.

More thoughts on related subjects here:

http://ralfast.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/based-on-books-blasting-the-transmedia-frontier/

Anonymous said...

Great words of wisdom.

Oh, and nice way to add a tidbit from a great movie.