Killer Serials

As y'all know, there's nothing I like more than a good process discussion. So for the past few days I've been reading with great interest the posts at the Fangs, Fur, & Fey livejournal community, where a bunch of authors have been posting their responses to the question of the month, "How did you plan the last novel you wrote (and successfully finished)? Outline? Synopsis? Summary? Divination Rod? Nuthin' at all?" (Here's links to a few, and you can seek them all out using the link above: Laura Anne Gilman's, Maggie Stiefvater's, Janni Simner's, and Megan Crewe's.)

This all falls under the category of when you're thinking about something, suddenly you see it everywhere. One thing I'm trying to do as I approach my next book (or what I'm fairly certain is my next book) is give it a little more cooking on the front end. My process seems to be shifting over time to allow more planning, with the caveat that the story still sometimes manages to jump tracks and end up somewhere completely different. I have no expectation that I'll ever completely eliminate that track-jumping, at least not in the smaller sense, and I don't really want to. What I do want to try to do is get more of a feel for the story, the world, and the characters before I start actually constructing them on the page.

So I've been thinking about that–stopping myself from actually starting the book, as is my usual modus operandi–and slowing down and letting the pieces come together a bit more first. I'm sure this won't actually turn out to be that slow a process, since I also believe that too much planning can be useless or, worse, detrimental. Witness all the research I did on Aztecs and the Romani in the earliest of early drafts of what was to eventually become a book that uses only Greek mythology (the book I just finished). Now, that stuff will come in handy–in fact, I expect some of it will come in handy on the project I'm doing all the thinking about. But I certainly didn't end up needing it for the last book, so I'll be doing my researching as I go this time. Because despite all this front-end work, I still thoroughly expect that I won't know exactly what I might need to research until I get into the placing of one word after another.

Which brings me to the second thing I've been thinking about–what are the elements that seem to be common to successful series? By series here I mean both open-ended series with lots of books and the more traditional trilogy; for my purposes, the key elements would likely be the same. I'm thinking the next thing I write might be such a trilogy, and that also necessitates more planning up front, at least in theory. Here's what I've come up with so far, and then you smartypants can (hopefully) add or comment on things I missed.

1. A big enough idea that you actually need multiple books to fully, satisfactorily, explore it. Particularly for trilogies, it seems to me that the concept has to have a certain degree of richness. It has to be an idea that throws off lots of little ideas, giving lots of potential roads to travel down. One of the satisfying things I get out of the series I read is the sense of surprise at where the story goes, because the central idea is big enough to have more than one possible narrative in it. If that makes any sense whatsoever. I think this may also be one quality of stories that lend themselves to fan fiction–there are plenty of stories left in the world for fans to add. (Actually, it strikes me that the whole list describes stories that lend themselves to fanfic–no surprise that a good series often inspires people to create more of it.) ETA: As I thought, I was a little wiggly in my description on this one, maybe to the point of confusion–I don't want to imply here that each individual book couldn't stand alone, just that usually it's more interesting for me as a reader if there's a reason the idea behind the story needs to be spread out–like Hunger Games. That's a perfect example. The first book is complete (more or less), but I'm guessing there's a larger narrative that will be even more satisfying, which flows out of the idea of this world and these characters. Er, I hope so, anyway.

2. An engaging world with depth and complexity. This ties into number one, but isn't the same thing. The old world-building, as they say. It seems indispensable to me in the series I like best, be they big fantasies like Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter books or Cassie's Mortal Instruments trilogy or realistic crime novels like Dennis Lehane's Kenzie-Gennaro books or excellent prep school novels like the Upper Class books. That said, I'd probably agree the world-building is even more important in fantasy and SF novels, and not just because it's one of the things that SFF readers dig most. It's also a big part of what gives books in a series a certain texture. Because the story–whatever that may be–is inextricably linked to the world it happens in, both causally and thematically speaking. Plus, this is where a lot of the cool stuff resides, and by cool stuff I mean cool stuff, but also story surprises and game-changers. I'm a geek first and foremost. Never forget it.

3. Characters, characters, characters. I'd probably weight this as the most important element (although you need all of these, ideally). It's a rare series that can get away with having a truly unsympathetic character–or, at least, a truly unappealing one. Highsmith's Ripley books leap to mind, but even Thomas Harris jumped the shark when the novels were suddenly about Hannibal Lecter (and Lecter's mainly played as a likable sociopath in those books, besides). I'm sure there are plenty more, but it seems to me that by and large the characters must be people that readers crave more time with. That they can care about deeply. Last fall, I read a bunch of urban fantasy/paranormal romances, because a) they're doing really well and I like to keep up with the field and b) I kept seeing them get dismissed all over the place and I didn't want to be someone doing it with no firsthand knowledge. Sure, some were crappy, but many of them were very good to excellent–and all of the ones I read, to a book, did an excellent job of portraying a main character the reader would want to spend time with, and the best ones invested the supporting cast with equally memorable characters. Leila posted about the latest Luxe novel earlier today (I know so many people addicted to those books; I'm going to have to give them a try), and said she thinks the reason why she keeps reading them is: "Maybe because I do have some amount of affection for some of the characters. And because even though they all started out like time-traveling clones of the Gossip Girl characters, they've become their own selves in my mind." The series that seem most successful generally don't have paint-by-numbers characters (or not for long, anyway). And, again, the thing that the best UF novels I read did so well was balance plot with the emotional life of the protags. Even with less than perfect writing, it's easy for me to understand why readers find such books so appealing. (Off the top of my head, I recommend for this Marjorie Liu, Ilona Andrews, Justine Musk, Patricia Briggs–oh, and Alisa Sheckley, Alisa Kwitney's first book under that name, The Better to Hold You, is just out, and a majorly fun read. All of these ladies are fine writers, too. Just ignore the covers.) It's the characters that keep people coming back, and often they are larger than life, and that's what makes them so appealing. A character's emotional life and reactions should feel true, sure, but I don't think that most overly "realistic" characters are well-suited to carrying a big idea sort of series. You need personalities that match the milieu. Anne of Green Gables instead of Anne of Boring Adultery Gables.

4. That knowing how to shape–and end–each book thing. Again, feeding into all the things that came before, a series or a trilogy has to make the reader want the next book enough that they still remember how much they want it a year or two years or three years later. Each book should also, ideally, stand on its own as a compelling read, but be an even more compelling read for people who read the other books. The story should build, but not in a way that makes it inaccessible. The His Dark Materials Series is a perfect example of this. You can read them out of order. I did. I read The Subtle Knife first, because I inadvertently bought it at the airport without time to go back, and hadn't read The Golden Compass yet. It caused not a problem for me, and, in fact, made going back enjoyable too, kind of like picking up a TV show in the second season. The best thing is, when the third/last book causes inevitable disappointment, then you don't have to worry about it anymore! (Kidding. Kidding.)

There are a few more things, but these are the biggies and this has gotten (more than) long enough. And I'm interested in what you guys think. What makes you love a certain trilogy or series? What makes you hate it? Etc. Etc.

p.s. My blog every day posts will not always be this long. Swearsies!

10 thoughts on “Killer Serials”

  1. The point you make about multiples and really needing a REASON for the…er…multiplicity, as it were, really resonates. I think with mass-market, character-driven series (ahem), you can get away with a higher degree of superficiality in the sense that soap and serial are both what is mainly intrinsic to the genre. Whereas in a certain sense fantasy is held to a higher standard because, as you say, you want sufficient reason for each installation in the story to be both epic and self-contained as well as being part of a larger scheme.
    Or so it seems to me. 🙂

  2. I definitely think you’re right — and that’s actually one of the differences I’d note between many open-ended series and the classic trilogy style. Often the open-ended series put more emphasis on milieu and character than on the big ideaness, which makes sense, really. But definitely in SFF trilogies, it often falls flat if there’s not a big idea that combines with everything else to make a compelling _overarching_ sort of story.

  3. Some of my favorite series involve self-contained stories in each book, but the emotional lives of the characters link the books together (or, this could also be a broader political story). So, that you read the second or third book in the series for the story in that book and for the story that arches over all the books.
    For one, I think I like the pacing in these better than when the whole story needs three (or more) books to contain it.

  4. I totally agree with this, for what it’s worth (and edited number one to be more clear). I do think the IDEA needs to be big enough to justify more than one book, but the story should be satisfying on a book to book level, even if there’s a larger, overarching one. In fact, even in the UFs I read, which are generally more like detective fiction than a traditional fantasy trilogy in a structural sense, it’s the overarching arcs that are usually the engine to drive the reader to the next book, be it with a development in the romantic situation or a new danger to the heroine.

  5. Hi Gwenda – What you said about seeing an issue everywhere? I’m totally there. At least with the approach at the front end. I’m struggling with my current project and finally decided that I need more structure up front and less organic seat-of-the-pants. And you are so so right about character – the most important thing to get truly right, right away.
    Thanks for this post!

  6. I’d like to add one more element which seems important to all series regardless of genre:
    Unresolved Mysteries.
    Just wanting to _find out something_ is a powerful motivator for readers, and a great many successful series have one or more enigmas for the characters and the readers to wonder about. When the creators are really clever, they can answer questions in such a way that just raises more.
    Example: In the Foglio’s beloved Webcomic _Girl Genius_ one initial mystery was Agatha’s parentage. Over however many years and issues we’ve learned who her real parents were — but in doing so we’ve been confronted with at least four _new_ mysteries about them.
    A more highfalutin’ example: in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy and its ancestor Cryptonomicon, there’s the puzzle about Enoch Root and the gold.
    Obviously there’s a balancing act: at some point the readers may get frustrated if you don’t finally tell them the truth, or may spot the fishing-line holding the dangling bait. Worse yet, if you do drop the shoe (mixed metaphors!) that may end their interest entirely.

  7. Hi Gwenda, I followed the link here from io9, where your post has been highlighted. I agree with what you’ve written; I think it’s very well thought out, and you’ve touched on great main points.
    Series can be very difficult to sustain. For instance, I’ve enjoyed Kim Harrison’s Hollows series up until the most recent book. I think she’s written some really good books that conform to what you’re saying, up until the most recent entry in the series. In book 6, she wrapped up many plotlines in a very satisfying read. The problem arose, though, that she didn’t have quite enough material to continue forward in book 7.
    Compared to earlier books in the series, I thought the newest book was pretty unfocused. It seemed to me like the author was just churning out exposition to figure out what happened next, and that wasn’t a very satisfying read. Even with the introduction of 2 new characters who should have been interesting, the book lacked energy. (I’ve been made aware the “new” characters were actually introduced in short stories published elsewhere. Perhaps that diffused their impact.)
    So in book 7, she basically does everything wrong after having done everything right in the previous 6: the big idea has mostly been dealt with, and there aren’t really any mysteries left unsolved; the world setting itself is still interesting but nothing new and interesting really happens with it; the biggest secret of the world setting has been discovered. The characters were a problem too, nothing new with the old characters and the new characters were boring on delivery. Worse, protagonist Rachel Morgan became conveniently stupid and literally would not shut up to let someone tell her something crucial at one point–if she had, it would have derailed the plot at that point, it was that weak. As far as shaping and finishing? Not good either. There was one lingering question answered but I felt like it was slapped on to make the book seem like it had a better structure than it really did. Hopefully she will “cook” the next book a bit more and make it a better read, but upon reflection, maybe book 7 should have been written more as a series epilogue and the whole thing stopped.
    Maybe that would be a good point 5: know when your story is done and stop there.

  8. That’s a great point — it’s always tricky, as you say, to figure out how much to withhold and when to divulge it, but that can be a very powerful strategy. Pullman does it beautifully in the His Dark Materials books, where he seeds in the idea of Lyra’s great betrayal early on, then misdirects us about its nature until the exact moment we need to really know the truth in book three.

  9. i think all your little rules and ideas here are totally true, and things i consider now that i’m going through with writing a serial novel.
    the planning stuff is the most interesting, because, i always worry and wonder how much is too much. and then with all the stuff you plan/plot out, where is the best spot to start! taking all these little ideas into account though, i think would help answer that question the most.
    with that said, i think it takes a lot for me to keep reading after 5 or 6 books, i’ve never read a saga that long that has kept my interest. i think nailing the proper ending/storyflow for the entire thing is the best thing anyone can do.

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