No, the other sort of serial.

No, the other sort of serial.

Today sees the release of Avast, Ye Airships!, featuring the latest adventure from my recurring Victorian heroes Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms. So what better way to celebrate than a nice cup of tea? No, wait, I mean a blog post on writing serial fiction.

Origins of a List

A fellow writer and I recently discussed what makes good serial fiction. Not a slowly unfolding plot like Game of Thrones, but something like The Dresden Files, where readers can dip into and enjoy any episode that comes to hand, but fans who follow the series can get a little more out of it. From this discussion I’ve assembled a list below of key points that I think make this fiction work well. It’s not meant as a definitive list, more a work in progress. Like any template, its usefulness would come as much in carefully ignoring points sometimes as in following them all. Still, I think that following these points could help to structure an accessible series that keeps people coming back.

The trick with this sort of series is working out how to make it exciting without anything much changing, and the list is built around that. Have a read, see what you think.

Protagonist

Unchanging character.

Fully formed at start – probably save origin story for later, as it’s the sort of story you’re never likely to top.

If start with origin story, make sure to wrap it in one go.

A decent person just trying to make their way in the world.

Honourable.

Sidekick

Friendly sidekick.

More likeable than the character.

More moral.

Less competent.

Can be the point of view character, especially if the protagonist has skills or thought patterns that are hard for the writer to portray in detail, eg. genius or expert in an obscure field of study. Think Holmes and Watson.

Setting

Unchanging environment.

Rich and varied – plenty of variety to explore.

Romance

String of short romantic entanglements

and/or

Ongoing sexual tension with secondary character (a book and a half into The Dresden Files, I’m thinking of Murphy, though James Bond’s Moneypenny also deserves a mention).

Arch-rival

A nasty but charming antagonist.

Sympathy for the antagonist.

Individual antagonists can be defeated, but the arch-rival remains present in the background throughout, often setting up other problems.

Individual Story Structure

(A lot of this came from the other writer, and is apparently taken from James Scott Bell, whose Write Your Novel from the Middle is now waiting for me on my Kindle)

98% closure on each story.

Invite readers to continue, don’t make them obliged by cliffhangers.

Trouble starts on page one.

Unpredictability.

A spiral of trouble.

A love triangle.

A fluid, no-speedbumps writing style.

A ticking clock.

A resonant ending.

Overall Structure

Subtle hooks – set up characters and details in background of earlier stories to use in later stories – adds interest and substance.

Potential Uber-Structure

(This is where I got over-excited and went off on one…)

Say you’re writing a sci-fi crime drama, and the main villain is Mr Z. You don’t want him in every time, but you want him to be behind everything. You can’t have the hero permanently beat him, but if he only ever beats a villain of the week type it’s less satisfying.

So structure the series in groups of three or four books. You have one or two in which the hero faces and defeats villains just for that book, while a henchman of Mr Z is built up because of his connections to them.

Then you have a book in which, after building this henchman up, you let the protagonist beat him, permanently getting rid of that henchman. By then it’s become clear that these two or three stories have led up to a bigger plan by Mr Z.

In the last book of that particular cycle the hero thwarts said plan, significantly setting back Mr Z, but still leaving him around. Maybe Mr Z gets sent to prison and is busted out during the next cycle. Maybe he just loses out in some big way. The important thing is, the villain’s still in play.

What’s Missing

So, fellow readers and writers, what do you make of that? What have your experiences with serial fiction been – what works for you and what doesn’t? What have I missed or miss-judged?

And if you ever feel like using this list, please let me know how you get on.

Picture by frankieleon via Flickr Creative Commons.

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Comments
  1. everwalker says:

    The challenge to keep an eye on with the protagonist is the risk of power creep throughout the series, particularly in genre fiction. I’m thinking mainly of Harry Dresden, here, but it’s a common theme in fantasy series. It’s not so much on the checklist of things to include as on the watchlist of dangers particular to serial fiction. How do you manage that?

    • Ah, the old Jack Ryan effect, where an author loves his character so much he makes him president. I suppose the starting point is to consider why power creep happens.

      Part of it probably is authors becoming fond of their characters and losing track of the fact that what’s good for the character as a person and good for the character as a story element aren’t the same thing.

      But I think it might also come from the need to maintain a sense of threat. The threat level of enemies keeps escalating because we know what the character can deal with, so each time the opponent needs to be harder to offer a challenge. This means the character has to up their game to succeed. And that means they creepingly become near-omnipotent.

      So how do you avoid that? You could vary the challenges and solutions in a qualitative rather than quantitative way, so that it’s variety of challenges they might meet rather than harder ones. You could have the character make no progress like Sherlock Holmes – arguably he falls into that qualitative variation category. Maybe you could have the character lose occasionally – that would certainly up the tension without them needing to meet harder and harder opponents, though it risks leaving readers of those books unsatisfied.

      That’s really just the first thoughts off the top of my head. Have you had any ideas about this?

      • As a disenchanted ex-fan of Clancy, I concur strongly with the “Jack Ryan effect”, although I’ve never heard it called that before 🙂

        I think my issue with Jack Ryan was that he was just too good, in pretty much every way. He didn’t just get more and more omnipotent, he also seemed to have few flaws. From my memory of the books that I read, the only real flaw I can remember was a drinking problem that he developed, though I seem to recall that he’d sobered up by the end of the book.

        In regards to the quality/quantity thing, I’ve read most of the Nick Stone series by Andy McNab. Over the course of something like 15 books, Stone evolves, but is far from omnipotent or infallible. I’ve not thought about it before, but I’d say that McNab does it by varying the location and nature of the threat, rather than the level.

        • Jack Ryan was the first character I noticed it happening with, hence he’s the one I label it with. Any time it happens I think of that moment when Ryan became president and I grown inwardly. And though I didn’t notice it at the time, your comment about the lack of flaws sounds familiar. I think we’ll forgive a character more if they have good flaws. Like you, I got turned off Clancy’s books, largely as a result of that. It’s a shame, Red Storm Rising showed he could do more interesting things.

          Nice to hear about the McNab example, and reassuring to hear that my top-of-the-head solution has actually worked for someone in practice. I’ll be standing by that one now!

  2. “readers can dip into and enjoy any episode that comes to hand, but fans who follow the series can get a little more out of it…The trick with this sort of series is working out how to make it exciting without anything much changing…” – or at least without a definitive conclusion, til the end of course (maybe?) 🙂

    I’m still struggling with how to make my novella size novels serials.

    Reading reviews of series and cliffhanger books by other folk, it seems that an upfront declaration on the description page that the book is a serial, and the promise (and follow through) of an omnibus edition for those liking a serial episode but preferring to wait for the full book before reading more – both went a long way to mollifying readers’ objections. Not all, but a lot of them.

    So do you have a serial going, or is this the beginning of one?

    Thanks Andrew, glad you wrote about this.

    • I’m launching a serial in the very near future, and though it won’t entirely follow the model I set out here, it got me thinking about this.

      You’ve pinned down a really important point about reader expectations. If you’re going to leave large chunks of plot incomplete then you need to be clear about that up front. My plan is to do this by labelling books as ‘Part 1’ or ‘Episode 1’ or something along those lines, we’ll see how that works out.

      I think the big difference in how you approach this is resolution. There’s a spectrum from what I’ve written about above, where each book resolves almost everything, to a Game of Thrones style epic where each book resolves almost nothing. They’re very different reading experiences, and may appeal to different sorts of readers. Setting the right expectation is vital.

  3. Joanna says:

    I tend to be a mild shipper type, which means that I find ongoing sexual tension that doesn’t lead to an evolution of the relationship (either to a romantic partnership or a mutual decision never to date) to be very frustrating. Having just read this blog about the representation of asexuals, I think this could possibly work also.

    http://www.jimchines.com/2015/02/niche-lauren-jankowski/

    I sort of alternate between being like “there doesn’t always have to be a love story” and “the main character doesn’t have to just be alone for ever and ever with every relationship not working out”. If I had had my way, House MD would have found some snarky lady to smooth the edges off him and they would have lived happily, if sarcastically, ever after.

    One thing that’s common in historical romance + (genre something) series is the couple getting together in book one, and then their relationship mostly going strong with no big dramatic changes after that. Like the Lady Julia series, or the Glamourist Histories. I suspect that the Parasol Protectorate does that, although I haven’t read past book 1.

    • Romance is certainly one of the first things here I’d consider breaking, because it so easily gets bogged down in expectations. I found Bernard Cornwell’s approach to this in the Sharpe books interesting – he gives the character several relationships that last a few books, to give readers some satisfaction, but then breaks those relationships so he can start again.

  4. It struck me in reading this how many of your points apply to the Sherlock Holmes stories

    • You won’t be surprised to hear that Holmes came up more than once in the conversation leading to this. Holmes is particularly interesting for villains, as people associate him so strongly with Moriarty, a character who appears in only one of the original stories. The power of the villain is so strong we’ve imagined him as recurring.

  5. […] wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, […]

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