Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.43: Serialized Storytelling

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

We’re talking about the extreme long-form serial story here, and how to keep things interesting without forcing the main characters into an absurdly high number of character-developing moments. Brandon leads by aiming the question at Howard, since Schlock Mercenary has been running now for seventeen years (it was only 16 at the time we recorded.) We also talk about how long romance serials avoid “sequelitis” by swapping out the love interests, and how the tools used here apply across multiple styles and genres.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Create a “Beat Chart” identifying iconic moments, questions and answers, and new promises to readers, and then break these out into book-sized groups.

Thing of the week: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Character progression in the long run, or don’t bore the reader with arcs? First, beware of breaking relationships or character to make an arc. Try changing character focus to get an interesting character arc in each story. Separate your iconic heroes, who don’t have character development, from your epic heroes, who do. Romance often has one character who is the star of the first book, then later books take characters from the side cast of the first book and give them a romance. To keep it fresh, give them different issues, different love triangles and problems, and often, an overarching background struggle. Use the set of characters as a framework or structure for the series. Another approach is to keep the same character or characters, but have different challenges for them to react to in each book. Different sets of characters, who is working together on what, also can keep it fresh. Avoiding power creep? Different problems. Also, consider a design space that provides consistent problems, character growth, powers, etc. across the series. Not “save it for the sequel” but “here is the set of cool things for the series, which ones am I going to do in detail in this book?” Beware the perfect romance. Yes, characters can resolve issues and be strong, but they should still need the relationship and each other.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Serialized Storytelling.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper again.
[Dan] I’m not Dan anymore.
[Dan] I died in the last episode.
[Brandon] We’re talking about sequels.
[Howard] Last week, on Writing Excuses…
[Piper] I’m also PJ. What?

[Brandon] So I really wanted to do an episode this season focused on the way that Howard tells stories. Because a lot of the way that we talk about novels and things…
[Dan] You mean poorly?
[Howard] Whoo! Oh, snap!
[Piper] The pain.
[Dan] Sorry.
[Brandon] Oh… [Garbled]
[Dan] It’s late and I turn…
[Howard] No, I earned that with a slam on Dan back in season 11.
[Brandon] Okay.

[Brandon] I want to talk about writing a long epic that is serialized. Not just… You’ve been writing Schlock Mercenary for 12 years?
[Howard] 16.
[Brandon] 16 years. And it’s primarily the same characters. So, let me ask the first question. How do you increment character progression in like little packages over a long time so that the reader doesn’t get tired of the character always having arc or things like this?
[Howard] For starters, let me say that I don’t like when a television program, and its typically television programs, will break a relationship or break a character in order for that person to again have an arc. The reason they do it on TV is that you paid for an actor. You have a lead, that person is making more money than the other people on the screen. They are the tentpole, if you will. When you are writing a novel, when you are writing a series of novels, when you are writing a series of graphic novels or audio plays or whatever, you aren’t hiring actors. You can have characters who were the tentpole in book 1, but who are stepping into the background a little bit in the next story. By far the easiest way to have an interesting character arc in each story is for it to not always happen to the same people. I do that with Schlock Mercenary pretty regularly. I’ll ask myself, “All right. Whose story do I want to focus on? Now who are the people who are key players in the Schlock Mercenary universe and how will they impact that story arc?” That’s actually how… I mean, people love Sgt. Schlock, but he… One, he rarely gets an actual arc. But he’s always there to cause problems with other people’s story arcs.
[Brandon] Yes. I really love how you do this. I think particularly the later five seasons of Schlock Mercenary can be a guidebook on how to keep a story feeling fresh.
[Howard] Oh, you’re very kind. Thank you.
[Brandon] And the ways you constantly reinvent the cast is exceptional.

[Howard] One of my neighbors… One of my son’s friends is a Schlock Mercenary fan, which always makes him a little uncomfortable when he wants to come over and lan game and I’m drawing stuff that he doesn’t get to read yet. But he asked me, this was back in October 2016, he said, “How come Sgt. Schlock has to have an identity crisis?” Because I had never done that to that character before. I said, “Well, because it’s about time that I explored his identity a little bit. It’s his turn.” When I finished it…
[Brandon] Right. I mean, the strip’s only named after him. You think eventually there might be a story.
[Howard] When I finished it, and this was actually the hard part, is that he’s what we call an iconic hero as opposed to an epic hero. I got this terminology from Jim Zub. Epic heroes, your epic fantasy heroes, Kvothe is probably one of the biggest examples that you can come up with lately. Conan the Barbarian is an iconic hero. He doesn’t get character development, you can tell a zillion stories about him, but he hasn’t changed. Schlock is an iconic hero, not an epic hero. But I gave him a little bit of character arc. So the difficult thing for me was in this next installment, how have I changed him so that he still feels iconic, but I didn’t invalidate that stuff that happened before. For me, that’s the biggest challenge. I could just talk and talk and talk and talk about this…

[Brandon] Well, let’s pitch this at Piper, because, in romance, we’ve talked about this idea, that in romance, often your sequels are something where you have one character in the first book of the series, and introduce a side cast. Then, later books will take one of them and make them a main protagonist and give them a romance. You just kind of go through the cast.
[Piper] Yes. Actually, that’s an interesting topic amongst romance writers, because that first paradigm, where every book in a series is a different set of love interests, so there are different people who are falling in love and you get to read their love story. A person who does that really, really well is Nalini Singh, who is a New Zealand author. Her Psy-Changeling series was my drug of choice for a very, very long time, and it still is every time she has a new release. She’s on like 12 books now.
[Brandon] How does she keep it fresh, from just feeling like…
[Piper] That’s the thing, right? So it starts out with a leopard changeling pack. So these are shape shifters. You have your main alpha of the pack she starts with, and then each of the following stories either touches on one of the sentinels that supports the main alpha, and who he falls in love with. But across the entire series, there’s this political paradigm or struggle between changelings. The Psy who are predominantly psychic-powered emotionless people and humans who feel, but are not as strong as either of the other two races, and there are different combinations of love triangles from that. Then, she re-engineers it. Every couple of stories, you get someone that you absolutely didn’t expect. Not in the supporting pack, maybe not any of the supporting characters, but who comes in and falls in love with maybe somebody that’s related to the previous other characters. So it stays fresh, because you have this ongoing struggle between the races and how are they all going to survive and things are going to… Could destroy the world, or you’ve also got these relationships with different people coming in. Every single one of them has their own issue that they have to resolve as a person, of their own individuality. Then, there also trying to resolve this relationship that is seemingly impossible.
[Brandon] So it lets you build like themes through the whole series, but attack the same idea from different personalities and different combinations of romantic heroes. I really… That’s very interesting, how it keeps it fresh.
[Piper] Exactly.

[Howard] Yeah. If you pull back a little bit… I think it was Steven Barnes, and I’m going to paraphrase this badly… When we had him on the show in 16 who said, “Really, all fiction is just saying what is it to be human?” And… I can’t remember the other part of the question. But that central question of the human condition, if you are asking, what does it mean to be in love? That is the question you are asking, and you answer it differently through a set of characters who we have met all of them or most of them in the first book, but each of them answers the question separately throughout the series, that’s going to be really satisfying. That can be… I mean, just what I’ve described right there, that might be enough framework for a good romance author to write a dozen books. I can’t write a dozen books out of it, because I’m not a romance author, but…
[Piper] Now…
[Dan] So… No, go ahead.
[Piper] Lisa Kleypas is another romance author who I love, who kept her Wallflower series fresh. It was a series of four books across the season, and the story was… She introduced the concept as it being four women who were wallflowers being introduced for their season. Basically, it’s historical romance, and you get to see the adventures and shenanigans of each of these young ladies. They made a pact with each other that they would help each other find husbands. Shenanigans ensue within the historical romance. But that is a set number of books that you expect in the series, because there’s a set number of young ladies in the wallflowers.
[Howard] You’ve got your promised… And this is something that’s critical, I think, to a series. But you are promised at the beginning of the first book, just through the title of things and the introduction of the cast, we are going to get to follow each of these people.
[Piper] Exactly.
[Howard] During the first book, you’ve made each of them interesting enough that I want to pick up the second book.
[Piper, Brandon, garbled]
[Piper] To get the answer to what’s special about each of these.
[Brandon] What I love about this, again, is we’re talking about structure this year. This is structure that… A very simple structure. We have eight people, eight books. But it allows… Structure allows the reader to anticipate some things, and you build upon what the reader’s anticipating. It allows… It gives you more of a framework for telling your story, and it allows you to manage expectations in really interesting ways. This is why I love structure. Even though [when] you talk about structure, writers are like, “Oh, I just want to be free and creative.” Yes, we all want to be free and creative, but the structure can work really well for helping you tell the story you want to tell.

[Dan] Now, I want to look at something else, because a lot of what we’ve talked about so far is keeping the serialized story fresh by changing the character focus. Which you don’t have to do. I want to be clear on that. Look at the way most television series works. Look at how hour-long TV drama… Yes, the cast of ER changed occasionally. But some of those characters hung around for 10 or 12 years. One of… I recently started working as a staff writer on a TV show, and that was one of the first things they explained to us. I thought this was really pithy. That in a novel, or in a movie, you are looking at how characters change. In a TV episode, you are looking at how characters react to things. That allows you to have the same character over and over for 10 years, every week, but still keep it fresh because they’re reacting to something specific. One of the things I love is to look at an ensemble show. The one that comes to mind is actually Community. Where they got endless amounts of variation just by combining characters in different sets. This week, this character and a different character are going to work together on some kind of shenanigan, and they have a different dynamic than the person he worked with last week.
[Brandon] That’s really good advice.
[Howard] I didn’t mean to sound like I was dissing TV writing…
[Howard] I was dissing a style.
[Dan] Oh, I wasn’t…
[Howard] I know, I know, I know. A good example of TV writing where… And it’s an iconic character… Elementary. The American Sherlock Holmes. There is a very slow character progression for Sherlock Holmes in which, by season for, he is engaging with people in different ways than he did early on. These are still police procedurals, in the classic sense. But now, Sherlock Holmes is slightly different. Sitting down…
[Brandon] So you’re just saying increment that really slowly and let…
[Howard] Because it incremented… Yes. It’s… We see how he reacts, and every so often, his reaction changes. Just a little. I’ve recently been watching them in a hurry.
[Piper] Now, one more…

[Brandon] Wait. I’m going to cut for the book of the week.
[Howard] Cut for the book of the week.
[Brandon] Dan, you have the book of the week this week.
[Dan] Yes. The book of the week is actually not serialized. Sorry about that. But it is a really great one that I recently read, called Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This is a book that takes place in what is essentially a boarding school for children who have been through a portal fantasy.
[Dan] Like, they’ve just gone off and they spent an artificial lifetime in Narnia. Then they come back, and their parents don’t believe them, and everybody thinks they’re crazy. Except for this nice lady who runs the boarding school and says to the parents, “Yes, they’re crazy, but I can help them.” Then, as soon as the kid shows up at school, she says, “I know you’re not crazy. It happened to me, too. We’re all the same here. I can help you deal with it.”
[Brandon] That is such a brilliant concept.
[Howard] Brilliant [garbled]
[Piper] Great concept.
[Dan] It is such a beautiful book as well, because she expands that then into a metaphor of what is it like to live something that is true for you and the people around you don’t believe it. Which applies to so much.
[Brandon] Seanan is just amazing. She really is, and you guys haven’t read her books, you are missing out.
[Dan] This one is fantastic. And very short, so you can read it quick.

[Howard] In terms of serialization, [inaudible garbled]
[Brandon] Wait. I cut off Piper. I’m going to let her…
[Piper] I’m sorry. [My turn, my turn.] No, I wanted to spin off of what Dan had mentioned, when it’s… You don’t always have to keep it fresh by switching the characters. Patricia Briggs does an excellent job of this with the Mercy Thompson series, and also the Anna and Charles series, or Alpha and Omega series, because they’re the same characters, and the same main cast, throughout each and every book. What keeps it fresh is the different kinds of challenges. They don’t necessarily ramp-up. They’re not necessarily more and more dangerous. But there different flavors of challenges. So the first book, Moon Called, there are challenges within the pack, werewolves. But you know, and you’ve learned from the first book that there are vampires in the world, there are fae in this world. The second book, you have more of them dealing with the vampires. The third book, you have Mercy dealing with the Fae. It breaks your heart, that book. Then, the fourth book, you get into some of the more Native American mythology and folklore. So every book becomes a different level of challenge, not only for Mercy herself as the central character, but the other characters around her and how they view the world and how they also have decided to interact with the world. That kind of evolves through the series. So [that character has garbled]
[Howard] Another flavor of that is Mary Robinette Kowal’s…
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Glamorous Histories?
[Howard] Glamorous Histories. I couldn’t think of the name of the series. She also doesn’t like programs in which you break the relationship in order to have a story about building a relationship. So each book has a different type of relationship challenge for this couple, who remains happily together. As somebody who’s been happily married for 20+ years myself, that really resonates with me. A love story where you are more in love and more deeply in love at the end of the story without having had your love actually broken is kind of wonderful.
[Piper] Yeah.
[Brandon] I hear she’s really sharp. We should get her on the podcast sometime.

[Brandon] All right, all right. Last question on this topic. Power creep. I wanted to pitch one that at least I had something I could talk about…
[Brandon] Because one worry that I have for big series and series I’ve read is that the characters overcome so much, gain so much knowledge, new abilities, conquests, whatever, that by the end of the series, they are just not interesting because they’re too powerful. That’s one worry I have. I think authors handle it very well, some of them, but what advice do you have on that? Like, how do you keep for instance, John Cleaver… He’s not powerful in the same way, but he’s increasingly…
[Dan] He is increasingly… Emotionally stable. That’s the power creep that I have to deal with. Because over the course of six books, he becomes much better at not being the character he was in the beginning, which is the book most people have read and love. It was very hard to continue to find ways to hurt him…
[Dan] And ways that he could be emotionally stunted despite all the growth that he’s been through. The way to do that was to keep finding different problems for him to deal with. In a lot of ways, the first trilogy is John learns how to love. That feels like a great victory at the end. Yay. But loving things is hard. Having a heart sucks, when it breaks. So just giving him a different flavor of emotional problems to run up against that all his newfound powers actually may have caused helps keep that power creep down.
[Howard] Now, in 2009, Brandon and I were on elliptical machines at Gold’s Gym, where Brandon said… He was talking about titling episodes in Writing Excuses, and the model that he was using was the design space model used by Magic: The Gathering. Where they were trying to not overpower the cards, and they were trying to make sure that the names of the cards made sense for what they did. That concept of design space, that concept of… For instance, we have a tree with leaf nodes at the end of the tree, and you don’t want the tree to be lopsided. You don’t want a leaf… Any particular leaf to be too big. As you are building your series, the sorts of problems that are overcome, the sorts of character growth that happens, the sort of powers that are developed need to fit within a design space that is consistent for your series.
[Brandon] No, that’s a great way to apply that. I hadn’t even thought of it. But really, what you want to do… There is a difference between saying, “I am going to save this for the sequel.” Which is always a dangerous phrase to say. Because the danger of that is you leave the first book bland.
[Howard] You leave all the good stuff…
[Brandon] But, there’s a line there where you say, “Our design space… Our space for this book to cover cool things is limited. If I can pick one or two things and cover them really well, I will have a better first book, a better second book, and a better third book, by dividing and then conquering.”
[Dan] Well, a big part of that design space concept, especially as it relates to Magic: The Gathering was “Hey, we’ve got this new idea. Let’s not blow it all on one set of cards. Let’s take this new mechanic that we thought of and examine little pieces of it, as detailed as we can, rather than just okay, we’re done.” You can do that with characterization, as well.
[Howard] If you take the specific… The heroic monomyth. The moment of apotheosis really kind of ends. That’s the top of the power curve story. If your design space includes apotheosis and stuff that happens after it, what you are saying is apotheosis has to happen more than once, which probably means it has to happen to more than one person, which probably means I’m writing an epic about the creation of multiple gods. That’s the way you asked the question and come up with an answer that allows you to do that cool thing in book 1 and still have book 2.

[Piper] Now, power creep does translate to romances in the fact that you could end up with the perfect romance. That’s not actually emotionally satisfying at the end. You kind of want… And I’ve seen that happen, where either one or the other character is completely and totally resolved and has Zen in and of themselves and therefore, why do they need that romance? Like, why do they need that love? So the ending doesn’t feel like it quite fits. Like, I’m not buying it, why does that person need them?
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Piper] Why did the big confession happen? So you don’t actually want your individuals, while they do resolve their issues and they are strong in and of themselves, they still need that relationship to be whole and more than they would have been by themselves.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s some really good advice.
[Piper] So that’s like…
[Dan] [Go, Piper!]
[Piper] You gotta [garbled] in a relationship.
[Dan] We’re so glad you’re here for this show.
[Dan] Except that you keep making us look dumb in comparison.
[Piper] No! What?
[Howard] Scene 12, in which Piper teaches us how to love.
[Piper] Step one, embrace the warm and fuzzy.

[Howard] You need me to do homework, Brandon?
[Brandon] I need you to do homework.
[Howard] okay. I’ve talked about beat charts before. Where you write down the iconic moments, the character arcs, whatever for your story. Build a beat charts for a series. Identify iconic heroic moments in which the hero does something awesome. Put each one down on an index card. Identify character arcs. Learns to love. Has a descent into madness. Put those down on cards. Identify what the reveals are. Then take this stack of cards, and spread them out into multiple stories. Order yourself a series in which everything gets to happen, but it doesn’t all happen at once.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.