The Neverending Story: The Highs and Woes of Writing a Series

This piece, by Stephen Woodworth, originally appeared on The Apex Blog on 3/27/09.  

Just think of it! A unified, ongoing marketing campaign! Cross-promoting bestsellers! A rabid fan base! A backlist that remains in print forever as hungry readers snap up the volumes they’ve missed! And, best of all, you can have a lifelong career without the tedious work of having to invent an entirely new world or cast of characters for each book.

The temptations of series fiction for both authors and publishers are well-nigh irresistible, and in an age when commercial branding has become mandatory, aspiring writers in every genre have felt increasing pressure to think in terms of establishing a franchise when planning their upcoming books. However, the same characteristics that make series so appealing can also make them difficult to sustain, as I learned when writing my paranormal thriller Through Violet Eyes and its three sequels.

Psst! Let’s Be Discrete. Or Should that Be Continuous?

In terms of structure, any given series tends toward one of two forms, what I would call “discrete” versus “continuous” storylines. In a discrete series, each installment (whether novel, television episode, or comic-book issue) is utterly self-contained. They require no knowledge of other events in the series and they have little or no set chronology. The characters—including the series protagonist—are introduced as if the reader has never encountered them before, and each story in the series concludes with a satisfying resolution of the conflicts presented at the beginning. Classic detective stories of the past century often employed the discrete format. With few exceptions, Agatha Christie wrote her Poirot mysteries so that one need not read them in any particular order, thus allowing new readers to dive into the series at any point without feeling like they’ve missed something.

Because of the importance of drawing new audience members, most dramatic series in episodic television once had strict rules that forbade stories that required more than one program to tell or plotlines that would cause major changes in the series’ principal characters. Writers could not have characters marry, bear children, or die off—at least until an actor’s contract ran out. (Soap operas were always an exception to this rule, of course.) No matter what cataclysmic ordeal the Enterprise crew confronted on the original Star Trek, you could be sure that Kirk and Co. would be over the post-traumatic stress and ready for more adventure in time for next week’s show.

The static nature of discrete series creates formidable problems, however. First and foremost of these is an obvious lessening of suspense. The audience catches on very quickly that Kirk, Spock, and Bones are in no real danger because they have to survive for the next episode. (Try to keep a straight face as you read these words: “He’s dead, Jim.”) In order to have victims for the bad guys to kill, the series has to trot out some expendable guest stars, leading to the notorious “Red Shirt Syndrome” that has claimed the lives of many a walk-on Enterprise security officer.

Furthermore, static characters seem two-dimensional, unrealistic, and, in the worst cases, boring. We all know that real people change throughout their lives—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse—as a result of their experiences, and we want fictional characters to do the same. The drawbacks inherent in discrete series have caused them to fall out of fashion in both fiction and television in favor of continuous storylines that span whole seasons (à la 24) or even entire series (as in the revamped Battlestar Galactica). Writers of continuous series now enjoy the freedom to have their characters evolve in response to events and can ramp up the tension of their drama by introducing actual uncertainty about which of the principals will live or die.

Such freedom has its price, for, in a continuous structure, chronology and context become of paramount importance. When characters change as a result of their experiences, we must see those experiences in sequence in order to understand their cause-and-effect relationship upon the personages of the tale. Such a requirement can be good for retaining fans that are already hooked on the story since they’ll have to stick with it to find out what happens, but it can prove baffling and alienating to prospective audience members who joined the tale too late to receive crucial information. Consider the current example of Lost, whose title pretty much describes how you’ll feel if you miss even a single plot point of this labyrinthine drama.

Continuous series can be even more daunting for would-be fiction readers, since novels require a far greater commitment of time and mental energy to sample than merely flicking the remote of one’s flat-screen. Longtime devotees of Frank Herbert may be delighted that the universe he imagined has been perpetuated in books like Dune: House Harkonnen, yet such a volume is clearly aimed only at the Dune cognoscenti. It rewards the faithful for their loyalty, but offers little to recruit the uninitiated, who know nothing of Dune, the Harkonnen, or their House.

The Best of Both Worlds?

In order to expand their readership, many series writers (myself among them) attempt to exploit the dynamism of a continuous series while granting it the accessibility of a discrete series. In this paradigm, each novel in the series is a self-contained adventure that does not rely upon backstory from prior books, nor does it oblige the audience to read future sequels to reach a dramatically satisfying, cathartic conclusion. However, ongoing character arcs and conflicts can build bridges between volumes, creating a timeline in which readers who choose to continue with the series will see how the unfolding events of each book have shaped the characters’ lives.

Read the rest of the article on The Apex Blog.