Writing Excuses 12.45: Structuring a Series
Key Points: There are various kinds of series: one long continuous story, broken into parts (aka serialized); episodic, or continuing adventures of…; Ensemble series, with a cast and each book tells one person’s story; etc. Can you read it out of order or is there a required reading sequence? Consider the types of protagonists, varying from the hero who grows to the iconic hero who never changes. In many cases, the iconic hero acts as a catalyst for change in those around him/her, but does not change in the process. To structure a serial story, know the ending, and construct a large plot arc, then cut it into pieces. For an episodic story, do world and character building, then pick out some stories to tell. Another strategy is to start by writing a standalone book, to get the characters and world worked out, then build an outline for the rest of the series. Think about the way we describe history, with a narrative thread tying together a large chunk of events, a framework for many stories. In structuring a series for readers who want the same but different, consider the same/different balance, and what will be the same, and what will be the different, that you are offering. To take a successful standalone and turn it into a series, make sure to identify what people liked that keeps them coming back, and what new thing you can add that they don’t know they want but they will love.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 45.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring a Series.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] And, to be continued… No. Sorry.
[Brandon] I apparently am not Brandon. I am to be continued.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I thought I was Dan.
[Howard] Next week, on Writing Excuses, I’ll be Howard.
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s talk about types of series. Because series means a lot of different things. One of them is the Wheel of Time style series, which is kind of the Game of Thrones style series, which is the this is one long continuous story, same as Lord of the Rings. We are going to break at certain parts, which might have climactic moments, but really, the next part is going to generally take place very soon after and is going to be a direct continuation of the story.
[Dan] I think those are in part come from Lord of the Rings which was originally written as just one giant book. The publisher split into three. Now we split books into separate pieces.
[Brandon] David Eddings, who was also very popular in the post-Tolkien wave. He wrote a trilogy, and then they split him into five. Because they’re like, “We want five of these.” So in epic fantasy, I feel like we have a long history of just we’ll just cut it here.
[Dan] Now, the… One of the other kinds of series is what I call the episodic one, or what Brandon referred to earlier as the continuing adventures of… This is something like Jack Ryan books, Repairman Jack. That, yes, there’s kind of a meta-thread going on, there is progression overall, but really you’re just… Oh, here’s another great Repairman Jack story, and I can read them in whatever order and it’s awesome.
[Howard] One of the differences between the two kinds of series is the kind of protagonist you have. In the epic fantasy, you have characters who are going to change over time, and in these almost pulp serial series, you have heroes that my friend Jim Zub calls the iconic hero. Conan the Barbarian has lots of adventures. Dirk Pitt.
[Mary] I’m going to disagree with you. Because my series, Glamorous Histories, is episodic. You can read each book individually, you can read them out of sequence, but there is a long character arc. Jane changes over time. So it’s not…
[Howard] It’s not hard and fast.
[Mary] But I think… I see that in a lot of them. I mean, the October Daye books are the same thing, that each one is self-contained. You’re right, that there are absolutely ones where we… The hero resets at the beginning… At the end of the book for the next book.
[Brandon] Or, if they’ve had a little bit of character development, that just gets worked into the next book very easily. They say, “Dirk Pitt was once married, but is no longer blah blah blah.” Like you can read them in any order.
[Howard] It’s fairer to say, then, that what we had defined then as a dichotomy is not a dichotomy.
[Howard] There’s a large range of these spaces.
[Dan] There is a range.
[Howard] I just like to make note of the fact that these iconic heroes, their stories when you’re building these kind of series, often you’re not telling a story about Conan. You’re telling a story in which Conan takes heroic actions, and other people have misery and joy and triumph and whatever else.
[Brandon] I really like that you bring this up, because when you’ve talked about it before, either on the podcast or with me, it’s really… I like the term iconic hero, and it’s made me understand things better. I think we may have at one point talked about Mad Max as iconic hero, with… Movies are not about him as much as he rides into town, people are having these problems, he’s along for the ride, they change and grow, and then he rides off at the end.
[Mary] Just to be clear, this iconic hero type doesn’t have to be this guy with all of the muscles. Because Jessica Fletcher is an iconic hero in this mold. She’s…
[Dan] A lot of the cozy mystery genre has this style of thing.
[Brandon] Now, we’re missing one type of series I want to get in there and mention, because this is very common in romance stories, which is the… You introduce a cast and each book is one of their stories, sequeling after each other. You also see it in epic fantasy.
[Howard] Ensemble series type thing.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is a very interesting way to have every character have on arc, but to also give you more of the milieu that you wanted with a new arc in it each time.
[Mary] Cherie Priest did this with her Boneshaker series, where the books are all in the same universe, but they are not connected.
[Howard] That is… That is the lean I am taking with the Schlock Mercenary stories. Where, yes, I’m following the same company, but I have a different protagonist in each book. If I… A different relationship character, a different statement character.
[Mary] I think, just as a media example, The Wire. For those of you who watch that. Each season, if you think of them in novel terms, each season was self-contained. While there are recurring characters, it’s a different story the next season.
[Brandon] So I want to turn this toward… Away from the definitions and toward the actual structuring. If you were going to sit down, and when you have, to structure an entire series, how do you approach that? We’ll talk later about what to do if you already have a book and you want to add to it. Let’s just say you want to structure one. Dan?
[Dan] Okay. So, I’m going to use two examples here, my Partials sequence and the Mirador series. Because the one is heavily serialized, and the other one is episodic. With Partials, I knew where I wanted it to end. I knew what I was building toward. It was this grand epic thing where the human race was at stake and they needed to be saved and I had all these nations and kingdoms and things and I knew where I wanted it to end. So I plotted out this massive arc, and then basically cut it into three pieces. Whereas with the Mirador books, the cyberpunk, I knew the world I wanted the books to take place in, and I knew that many stories could be told about those characters. So basically, rather than working out this giant story, I just went world building and character building. I had this huge bible worked out. Then said, “Okay, within that framework, here’s three stories I can tell.” So the focusing one was on plot, and the focus and the other one was on character.
[Howard] One of my favorite pieces of writing in my own work is Brandon’s introduction to the Teraport Wars. Where he says the Teraport Wars, this second collection of Schlock Mercenary, is where Schlock Mercenary finally decides what it wants to be when it grows up.
[Howard] Because that really was the point… When I first started the strip, I was thinking I was doing Bloom County meets Buck Rogers in the 24… Or 25th century. Sorry, too much [Looney Tunes?]. Where it was going to be episodic with iconic heroes. Then I realized that that’s boring. I want these people to change. As I started changing them, I realized, “Oh, my goodness. This… Why haven’t I seen more of this in the things that I love to consume? That’s what I want to make.” It took me about a year and a half to get to that point.
[Brandon] And then you fell down the epic rabbit hole, like I have.
[Howard] I fell down the epic rabbit hole, but I knew as I was falling that I needed to be shaping these things with satisfactory beginnings, middles, and ends. So that I could wrap covers around them and make money. So the structure… This really is a place where form follows function. The function was create a salable product. The form that followed was a storyline that is between six months and 18 months long.
[Mary] So I’m curious about how you do this, Brandon, because I have… I’m doing a duology now, which is the first time I’ve done two books that are paired. That are… Where you cannot read the second one without reading the first one. Or stepping in would be awkward. How do you handle it when you’ve got like 10 books that you’re planning?
[Brandon] So, here’s my general process that… I’ve kind of stumbled into, as we all stumble into our processes over years. I sit down and I build an outline for a standalone book. Then I start… I add a little bit for what I would do with the rest of the series. But really, I write that first book. This happened with Mistborn, this happened with Steelheart, this happened with Stormlight. Write that first book. Get it down. Then, when I know… Because I do discovery write a lot of characterization issues. Once I have a book, I know solidly who these characters are, and things like this. Then, I build an outline for the rest of the series that is much more in-depth. By in-depth, I’m saying a page or two about each book. So it’s not like I have 50 pages for each book. But having that in place gives me that structure, and then I can go back and revise the first book to match all the planning I’ve done for the rest of the series. Then, I release the first book. This has worked very well for me to kind of hybridize this I want to have a plan for the series, but I want to be free in this first book. It also naturally gives me this standalone with series potential feel that we really like having, or at least I do. I like when you pick up the first book of a series, whatever it is. You read it, and it alone tells you a story, and gives you a sense, in small, of what the entire story might be. Then you… If you like that, you can go on into the series. If you don’t, you at least have gotten an ending. But I do call this kind of the original Star Wars sort of philosophy, where movie one is a complete story on its own, movie two really needs a third story to add to it to be a satisfying ending. That’s how you’ll read this. You could read Mistborn on its own. Satisfying ending. But book two and book three bleed together a lot more.
[Mary] Yeah, I remember finishing Mistborn and thinking, “How is he going to do a sequel to this?” Reading the second one, I’m like, “How is he going to do a sequel to this, because it… It has a satisfying ending.”
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, and then we’ll talk a little bit about that idea. The book of the week is Dr. McNinja. Dr. McNinja is one of my favorite web comics ever. It is… Started as a gag about… By a guy who just drew a doctor who was also a ninja, and wrote a little gag strip about him. Like many comic… Web comic artists in the early days, it spiraled out of control and became something awesome, that the artist/writer was not intending.
[Howard] What are you defining as the early days? Just out of curiosity.
[Brandon] Like late 80… Or late 90s. Early 2000s.
[Mary] I hate to tell you, but that is, for many people, a lifetime ago.
[Howard] I know this.
[Brandon] I think Dr. McNinja just started a little bit after that. But it is… What I love about Dr. McNinja is that it is absurdist with a solid character that treats its absurdism realistically. When people show up riding raptors and shooting guns and chasing things, everyone in world says, “Well, this is the sort of thing that happens. We treat this seriously.” But the pictures are drawn just to make you laugh. The whole world plays it straight. And it is hilarious.
[Dan] One of the great things about it is, like you say, a lot of those early web comics spiraled out of control and fell down the epic rabbit hole. That broke most of them. McNinja hung on and actually made it work.
[Brandon] He did make it work. Christopher Hastings is the author of it, and he has colorists and people working with him. It’s a team, but it just finished earlier this year. I’d say just finished…
[Howard] Beautiful thing.
[Brandon] It finished eight months ago at this point.
[Brandon] First time I’ve had a chance to promo it. It is done, you can read it. It… Is… Wonderful! So I highly recommend going in reading Dr. McNinja, beginning to end.
[Howard] Very cool. I had a thought, with regard to structuring series, that when you are building something big, it is super helpful to know the end that you are headed for. Sometimes, it is tempting for us to say, “Well, there’s no way I can describe the story of this series quickly enough to be in an outline and still have it be a series? How do I do this?” I was reminded of the narratives that Dan Carlin has built into his discussions of the Punic Wars and World War I. I realized, “Oh, you can look at World War I as the epic story of Europe going to war and discovering that technology has changed everything, and the war completely changes the political face of that continent forever.” In two sentences. You could have an epic fantasy the size of World War I that ran for 20 books and didn’t even scratch the surface of the number of things that went on there. By the same token, the Punic Wars, Rome going to war with Carthage, and at the end of it, Carthage is wiped completely off the map. That’s a very epic fantasy sort of thing, and it took 50 years in terms of how long the Punic Wars were. During that, we had Hannibal marching elephants across the Alps. These are epic fantasy sorts of things. So for me, studying history and how a thin narrative thread will often get used to describe something huge is a great way to wrap my brain around putting a narrative thread on the series I want to build as a framework to hang everybody else’s stories.
[Brandon] If you didn’t remember, Dan Carlin is the host of Hard-Core History.
[Howard] Hard-Core History.
[Brandon] Promo’ed on the podcast.
[Mary] I was… You’ve just pointed at… Sorry, for those not watching the live feed, Brandon just pointed at me because I scribbled in my notebook, which is usually a sign that I have an idea. I did, but it was idea about the novel that I’m working on.
[Brandon] Oh, wow!
[Brandon] How cool.
[Mary] [I’m lost]
[Howard] So what you’ve…
[Howard] What you want to do now is not make Mary reveal the thing that she’s writing.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, that’s good. I have a question. Usually, when we are talking about sequels, we have this weird line to walk, where readers are going to want more of the same, but different. My question to you is when you’re structuring your series, how do you give them the same but different, how much different do you go? Because I know, Mary has gone very different with her series, for instance.
[Mary] Yeah, so, um… So what I’ve done, for those of you who haven’t read them, is with the Glamorous History series, the first book is a straight up Jane Austen pastiche, and classically, with a romance, what I would have done for book two is that I would have focused it on Melody, which is Jane’s sister, and I would have married her off. In book three, I would have focused on Miss Dunkirk. I was not interested in doing that. What I wanted to do, I liked Jane I wanted to keep her as my main character, so I kept her as my same and my different was that I used a different plot structure for them, for each book. What I’ve been doing with Calculating Stars and The Faded Sky is, even though it’s a duology, I have a different… The first book is structured with an event driver. So it’s very much the adventure elemental genre, and the second book is very much milieu driven. Even though there’s a character thing going on in both of them, I am focusing on a different aspect, a different type of driving incident.
[Brandon] Now, I do this a lot, too. I look at my sequel and say, “Okay. Same characters. Their problems and conflicts are escalating for their character arcs, but I want the things they’re facing to hit a slightly different note.” So that you get the people you loved in a setting you loved with a story that feels enough different that you’re engaged by it. What have you done for John Cleaver? Because John is a really interesting one for this regard.
[Dan] John is… His series is one that is very heavily serialized. There is a strong continuity. Because the entire point of the series is how is he going to change from book to book, and how is he going to grow? So the points that are the same are basically him, and then the points that are different are the monster. There’s a different monster every time. So that’s how I built those first three books is here’s John and we know that he is slowly changing and slowly turning into this different person, but we have a different monster every time. The focus is on a different kind of serial killer behavior. The tricky part for me was coming back to it three or four years after that and writing the second trilogy. Because in that one, John was different. In a lot of ways, what that first trilogy was about is John learns how to feel again. So if I jumped right back in to a second trilogy in which John could feel emotions now and react to them, he wouldn’t be the same John that you read about in the first trilogy, would not have that sense of familiarity, and people wouldn’t like it at all. Which is why I was never intending to write a second trilogy. What eventually made that work for me was the idea that, “Oh, just because you can feel emotions now doesn’t mean that your life is good. Emotions suck.” Yes, he can love now, but that just means we can break his heart over and over again. So…
[Mary] Which you do.
[Mary] You’re very good at it.
[Dan] So, finding that… In that sense, what’s similar again, that point of… That anchor point between first and second trilogy is awful things happen to John and you feel bad for him. So he is still struggling with all of the same questions he struggled with in the first one. He still has those sociopathic tendencies, he still has this very dark outlook on life. But he is wrestling with a different question, and has a different arc in the second one.
[Brandon] So, building on this… We don’t have a lot of time left, but I want to touch on this idea of you have a story. It was successful. You liked it. Now people want to read more. You need to come up with more. How do you do that, Howard?
[Howard] There is a marketing principle here. The experience that I want people to have the next installment in the series is I came because I wanted more of these things I love and I came away having… With you having given me something that I didn’t even know I wanted, but now I’m in love with. It’s magic when you can make it work. What you have to ask yourself… And it’s a marketing thing. It happens across lots of industries… Is, what is it about the first book that made people want to pick up the second book? What’s the driver, what are the things that they love? How much of that do I have to give them in order for them to be satisfied? What’s the new thing that I can add that is going to hook them that still works with that? And that second question is… That’s where all the invention and all the creativity and all the sleepless nights…
[Howard] For me, that’s where they all come from.
[Dan] Now, a brilliant example of creators who have asked themselves that question and gotten the wrong answer is in Indiana Jones. Because going from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Temple of Doom, what you can see there is Lucas and Spielberg saying, “What did we love about the first one?” For them, it was all the tropes of the old pulpy serial movies, let’s play with those. That’s not what audiences love about the first one. That’s why Temple of Doom is, at least until Crystal Skull, that was the one that audiences didn’t like. So they went back and they reevaluated and said, “Well, what do audiences actually like? They liked this particular character, they liked these kinds of interactions, they liked this kind of very specific Judeo-Christian focus on the mythology.” Then, Last Crusade was this megahit because they correctly identified what the audience loved.
[Mary] So this is one of those things that becomes easy, albeit a little painful, if the book has already come out. Because you can learn this by reading your Goodreads reviews. I recommend reading your five-star and your four-star ones. The four-star ones are going to be the ones that tell you what to keep. Because these are people that loved the book, but not…
[Brandon] Right. They have an issue with it or something.
[Mary] They have an issue. Those are the ones where you’re like, “Okay, I can get rid of those issues.” Don’t read your three-star reviews or your two-star reviews, because those are not your audience, and those are not going to help. Your one-star reviews, when you’re in the right mood, are…
[Mary] Hilarious, but again, not helpful.
[Brandon] I think one stars are among the least helpful…
[Mary] They’re hilarious.
[Brandon] I can sometimes… What I will do is have an assistant go through and read threes and twos to see if there are near misses for a potential audience in there. I stay away from reading them myself. They’ll report back to me, if there are things that I need to change.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Mary, you were going to give us some homework?
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is I want you to go to a book that does not have a sequel. This can be one of yours or a published one. Then, I want you to write down five sequel possibilities. These can be a series, or they can be individual standalone. Your choice.
[Brandon] You can try out several of the different ideas that we talked about today. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.