(Clearly Not) Master of Time: How To Write Serial Fiction, pt 2

Okay, so the plot to book one of Passage to Bujah, DEPARTURE, is hammered out pretty thoroughly. I have two or three plot points per chapter, which means lots of stuff happens in it. I fully intend for the second and third books to have similarly dense but breezy plots as well, but I haven’t quite finished filling in all of the blanks. To do that for the first novel, I kind of cheated and riffed off a short list of possible social ills that might occur in that area, but that I wasn’t committed to writing about yet, and then I worked them into proper plot points with characters and such. I still have to do that for the other two parts. That’s today’s job.

Here’s what it looks like:

VFMD 2013 01 19b

Meanwhile, all this trilogy planning has me thinking about my serial fiction article, and how I never really followed up on that. So here are a few thoughts; please forgive me if I repeat myself; I haven’t read through the previous article in months, which I really ought to do, but I’m pressed for time, as you can imagine.

Now, the thing about serial fiction is, each part has to stand up on its own, even though the big ending is still waiting at the end of the final installment. That sounds obvious, but it’s trickier than it sounds. Not just any ending will do. You can’t just tack on an artificial stop point in the middle of strong fiction. You have to imagine a story with enough twists and turns that it’s plausible to have more than one ending, and enough interesting points in between to make each ending its own volume.

I don’t mean like in Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you navigate the book by making choices from a select number of options, and arrive at one of multiple endings. I loved those books, and I’m pretty sure I read every one of them that was published back in the 80s. Cool concept, if somewhat unworkable and impossible to govern. But when you write one of those, it’s not practical to have sequels unless there’s a little bit of ‘paper & dice’ play involved, as in the Steve Jackson books. If you can’t carry over anything from the previous book, it’s not really a fully realised serial fiction.*

But when you plan a trilogy, what you’re basically imagining is a multistage plot. You have to try to figure each volume as part of the grander shape, like the outer rings of Plato’s Republic; as you pass each successive gate, you get closer to the heart of the city, or story, in our case. Each successive title has to be part of the greater whole, and each ending has to contribute significantly to the process of reaching the end goal, while leaving enough things undone for each successive volume to be as interesting and attractive as the first or last.

A bit of advice I might be able to offer: if you’re trying to write a series within a larger story arc, you need to know your world and your characters reasonably well. Figure out the format and word count you need, do some rough division to sort out how many chapters you ‘might’ have, and then write out a list of all of the plot points for each volume that you can imagine, making sure you haven’t left any gaping holes before you start. Often, the act of filling in those spaces with just single word thoughts will give you all of the material you need to write whatever size epic serial you have in mind. The trick is to ask a question that you haven’t answered yet, and then answer it.

IIRC, The Lord of the Rings was originally conceived as a six-part tale (plus the appendix), before it was collected into the trilogy we know today. Each section flows fairly seamlessly into the next, but each ending is palpable, leaving you feeling you read a self-contained novel that just happens to feature familiar characters.**

Another bit of advice I can offer: plan all of your major plot points ahead of time, but don’t hem yourself in completely before you start writing. Even if you aren’t afraid of smothering the piece before it’s done, you still have to give yourself room to change the plan as you go along. Remember, the characters will start making up their parts as you write them, answering questions you hadn’t thought of in the initial planning stages. If you don’t have any new questions as you’re writing, you’re not looking hard enough. There are ALWAYS new questions. Ask your editor.

Final bit of advice: Don’t be afraid to change things as you go… so long as you haven’t published anything yet. Remember, once even part of the series is out the door, the fans decide what is and is not canon, based on how faithfully you and anyone else writing in your sandbox (relevant for serial fiction) stick with what you’ve already established… or how well you explain away the changes in perception inherent in your later revelations. So try to plan ahead, but leave room for change, in case you later realize you were completely wrong about something. This will save a lot of heartache later on.

Oh yeah, and in case I didn’t say it last time, HAVE FUN! If you aren’t enjoying the plotting stage, you’re probably not going to enjoy the writing stage, or the editing stage, or the publishing stage, and it will show. You need to make each stage as much fun for yourself as you can, or your boredom will transmit, and no one will stick around for your big finale.

Time to go practice what I preach.


* I’ve actually been planning to write something akin to this for The Shadow Sygne trilogy; an interactive trilogy, if I can’t figure out a way to make it into a game or interactive graphic novel.
** I suppose the same could be said for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and to a lesser extent, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, except that the former series tends to repeat plot shapes from volume to volume, and the latter series spans a pretty healthy chunk of time, and so isn’t quite as chronologically seamless as LoTR, for the purposes of our argument.

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