Story-Arcs and Series, Revisited


As I indicated in my reply to Catie’s wonderful post from Thanksgiving Day, Series Vs. Stand-Alones, I believe that part of the answer to the question “What are editors and publishers looking for?” depends on what sort of book you’re writing. Actually, more to the point, it depends on what kind of series you’re writing.

I know that at some point I wrote a post that dealt with the differences between a true series and an extended story-arc. To be honest, I don’t remember when I wrote that post and in my lingering post-Thanksgiving-dinner torpor, I don’t have the energy or the inclination to go back through the MW archives and find the link. So, instead, let me offer a brief recap: A true series is a sequence of connected books with recurring characters, in which each narrative pretty much stands on its own but has ramifications for the next book (or for previous ones if the author goes back and writes a prequel or two). A perfect example of this would be the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. Each book has its own mystery, its own plot, its own set of unique characters. But there are also recurring characters, chief among them Harry himself, Karrin Murphy, Bob the Skull. And the subplots that revolve around these recurring characters run like threads through all the books. There are other examples, for those of you who haven’t read Butcher’s books. I believe that Catie’s Joanne Walker books fit the definition, as do Faith’s Skinwalker novels.

An extended story arc, which is what many big-name fantasists write — George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan — is quite different. The phrase “extended story-arc” basically means that you’re telling one epic-length tale (usually with several related sub-plots) over the course of several books. Not only do characters recur in these volumes, but they are working toward the same basic goal throughout the sequence. Ironically, the extended story-arc became popular in fantasy writing after the publication of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. I say ironically, because LOTR is not a true story arc. It was originally written and intended as a single work, but was split into three volumes for marketing reasons. For this reason, the three books don’t hold together well as single volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring has no satisfying ending; the Return of the King has no effective opening; and The Two Towers has neither. But while the severity of these problems is somewhat unique to LOTR, nearly all extended story-arcs suffer from similar issues to some small degree. Since the overarching conflict is not resolved until the final volume, making each book truly stand alone is difficult, although not impossible. On the other hand, because each volume is actually part of a single larger story, the books are far more interdependent, and many readers love this aspect of the form. Extended story-arcs are what I wrote with my first three series, and they have been a staple of fantasy for several decades.

Returning to the key point of Catie’s Thursday post, my take on the market right now is that extended story arcs are less viable than they used to be. Publishers are wary of them when they’re proposed by young authors, and they’re only slightly more receptive to them when they’re proposed by established writers. Why? Because they demand a contractual commitment of several books. If I go to a publisher with an idea for a four-book extended story-arc, that publisher knows that they have to buy all four books or none of them. There’s no middle ground. They can’t publish two of them and then stop if the books don’t sell well, at least not without really ticking off those readers who did buy the first two books. A true series, on the other hand, gives publishers far more leeway. I can still go to them with a proposal for four books, but this time the books each stand alone. The publisher can buy two books and see how they do before they commit to two more.

We often say here at MW that you need to write the book you’ve imagined, that you shouldn’t write solely to the market. If you have a three or four or five book extended story-arc burning a hole in your chest, by all means, write it. But if you can write a true series instead, that is going to be the more viable project from a commercial standpoint. Publishers are far less willing to contract four books at a time than they were a decade ago. That means less security for writers generally speaking. Yet it can also present opportunities. Conceiving a project that can be marketed one or two or three books at a time might well make you a safer bet for a publisher. And in these difficult times, that might be exactly the advantage you need to break through.

David B. Coe


15 comments to Story-Arcs and Series, Revisited

  • This is a great and useful distinction, David. Thanks. I wonder if one solution might be to disguise an extended story arc as a series by giving each episode (book) an independent structure. The first Star Wars film, for instance, worked as a separate story even though it was actually conceived as being the 4th chapter of a larger sequence. If you could find ways to make your book feel self-contained even though it was actually a step in a larger extended arc story, does that give you teh best of both worlds? Are there reasons you shouldn’t try that?

  • Of all things to refer to, I’m going to point to television as an example of what A.J. is talking about. Take a show like Supernatural or Buffy. Each season had an overall story-arc that built over time; however, each episode was (usually) a complete tale in itself with only passing references to the overall story-arc. Personally, I think this is the best way to go because you end up with books that actually have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Plus you don’t miss out on the readers who are waiting years for you to finish a series before buying book one.

  • AJ, the short answer is absolutely. Even if marketing one’s book in the current climate wasn’t an issue, I would still say that every volume of an extended story-arc should read as a “whole book”. It should have a beginning, a lead-up to the narrative climax, and a satisfying denouement. As my editor likes to say, even in an ESA, at the end of each volume the reader should feel that she has accomplished something and that the book has told her a satisfying story. And the first (ie. 4th) Star Wars installment, the one that introduces us to Luke Skywalker, is a perfect example. But there is just so much that one can do, even keeping these guidelines in mind. With that first movie, for instance, we know that more is coming when, at the end, we see Vader’s ship being hit by fire from the Falcon. It spins out of control, rights itself, and soars off into space. He’ll be back. Brilliant ending that hints at more to come. But the second movie can’t sustain that type of narrative cohesion, and for most of us who write ESAs, this is where things break down. Making the first book feel complete is relatively easy. Making the middle book or books feel that way is far, far more difficult. Publishers know this, and they know as well that even the most cohesive first book can’t be totally satisfying. Back to Star Wars. It works so well within the context of the larger project. But even that last brilliant bit with Vader doesn’t work if there’s no future movie. Then it becomes, “Hey! That was the villain and you let him get away! WTF?!” Don’t get me wrong. I love ESAs. They have been the staple of my career thus far. But as much as we want each book to stand alone, they really never do. If they did, there’d be no need for the subsequent volumes. Yes, an aspiring writer should do everything in her power to make each book of her project stand alone, be it a true serial or an ESA. But from a sales perspective these days, that will only help so much.

    Stuart, I agree with your point as well, but will go back to what I say to AJ above. The approach you advocate works, but only to a point. I’ve never watched Supernatural, but I’m a huge Buffy fan, and I would argue that the episodes that worked best as “stand-alones” were the ones that had the least to do with the overall narrative structure of the season in which they aired. The episode called “Hush” was brilliant — some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. But it’s relevance to that season’s overall story line was minimal at best. And each season, as the finale approached and the episodes became more and more focused on the final conflict with that year’s Big Bad, they also became less and less satisfying as stand-alone segments. This isn’t a criticism. They were SUPPOSED to do that; I loved that they did that. Joss wanted people to keep watching, he wanted to build that tension, he wanted each ending to be a cliffhanger. It worked. But it also, I would argue, backs up my basic point.

  • Good point, David. And I totally agree about how stand alone TV episodes often make for best parts of the season, though I think that Buffy was often good at integrating good stand alones like Hush or the Musical episode into the larger issues of the season. Hush, for instance, was the episode when Buffy and Riley discovered each other’s secret identities 🙂

  • Was it really? Well then, I stand corrected. That certainly is a significant event in the overall season story-arc. Perhaps you and Stuart have a better handle on this than I do. Again, I would say that anything writers can do to make their books stand alone as whole stories, even if they hint at more to come, they should do. I just think it’s easier with serials than with ESAs, and I believe that’s the publisher’s perspective as well.

  • I thought I’d jump into the all male chorus (which brings to mind too many 1940s film images to deal with on a Monday morning and which makes me Carmen Miranda. Yes, it was that kind of holiday weekend.) with a comment. That very first book in the series or ESA is the the one that must truly stand alone, especially if a writer is unpublished. Even if a writer is breaking into a new genre with a new pen name, or breaking back into the market after a hiatus, that first book is the one that must (at least appear to) be a solo.

    With every name change, every genre change I’ve made, it is that first book that launches a new career and makes or breaks the next books. Used to be (once upon a time) that a writer would publish 4 or 5 books and then write a breakout book and the fans and book stores would lap it up with a spoon. Not so much so nowadays, what with bookstores often ordering a writer’s new titles based on the lowest selling number of previous titles. But it is the world we live in, and so that first solo book is the clincher these days, no matter if we write an ESA or a series.

  • That’s a great point, Faith. And it speaks to AJ and Stuart’s point, because the first book is also the easiest in any project to write as a stand alone. As a project goes on, it becomes more complex, secondary narrative threads creep in, and the likelihood of subsequent books reading as stand-alones becomes ever more remote. But that first book can be written the way you suggest.

    Of course, in talking about the market we also have to say that even if the first book in a project does great, if the next one falls off, a writer is in trouble. Sad but true.

  • Yeah, I tend to add jump points into even a stand-alone, so that I can go back and make a sequel or prequel if I (or the editor) wanted. It keeps that possibility on the table even while wrapping up the story arc. I learned that from film scripts. Always add the possibility for a sequel. You never know. I’ve even got a couple in my SF Romance.

    My thought is that I’d probably be able to do an ESA that seems like a series in either three or four books, but the last book would have to focus on the plot completely and the book before it would have to have some major foreshadowing, so that upon reading the last book the reader will have that head slapping moment where they go, “OHH, so that’s why!” It would definitely be a huge juggling act, however. Joss Whedon seems very good at weaving a lot of seemingly unrelated events together (at least on the surface), so that by mid story he can wheel out the overall plot and give people that, “OH YEAH!” moment.

    I had actually had plans once to write a series that slowly morphed into an ESA by the end of the story as all the characters were drawn together for one final scene culminating in some major battle to decide the fate of the world, but it never really went anywhere. Still be fun to do though. Maybe for the future. I also have one I’m in the process of writing (slowly however) that’s a series that has an eventual conclusion and then starts another series (so I better make them shine so someone will buy them all…), though that’s for the future, once I’m established.

  • Daniel, that is the flip side and you’re right to raise the point. It’s important to make our books whole, so they’re not dependent on other volumes. But it’s also a good idea to sprinkle in them the seeds of future books, so that if a publisher or editor asks for more, you can provide it quickly and seamlessly.

    In writing an ESA, it’s important to remember that you want the plot moving forward all the time. You don’t want the plot to meander through books I and II and then run at breakneck speed in book III (or whatever the final volume is). Yes, the final book should be the one with the biggest bang, but the narrative needs to make steady progress throughout.

  • I prefer each book to have finality to them even if they are part of a series, wrapping up the story arcs of that book, even if only minor plot points. I don’t mind larger stakes looming in the background, or even the introduction of minor plot points that I suspect will come into play in future books.

    Novels that don’t have finality hope to hook me to read on at the cost of annoying me into thinking twice about the next book. I don’t want to feel railroaded into reading the next book because the first book didn’t finish. I want the ability to choose to read the series because I enjoyed the story.

  • Dave, as a reader, I tend to agree with you. As a writer I can tell you that one of the worst reviews I ever received on Amazon was from a reader who felt that my very first book left too much unresolved and who thought I was just trying to get people to buy the rest of the series. And I can tell you that of all my published books, that first one is probably the most complete, start to finish. Yes, each book should have a full story-arc of its own.

  • I sort of happened upon the series thing by accident with my book deal. When I wrote my story, it was self-contained. It came to a definite conclusion. The heroine is an FBI agent however, which leaves it open to future cases. What I did leave open-ended was a larger emotional arc. The relationship with the hero only really just begins by the end of the story and the heroine is left at the very beginning of recovering from a rather traumatic series of events. I wrote it with the possibility of there being more story, but the novel itself was complete and brought things to a reasonably tidy conclusion. Fortunately for me, Kensington saw the potential for series and has bought three books, and I’m of course very excited to continue the bigger emotional arcs and put my characters through the ringer a few more times.

  • Sounds like you handled it just right, Jim — and not only because of the sale! It sounds as though you’re writing a serial rather than a ESA, and as I said in the post, I think that’s the way to go these days. Well done! And congratulations.

  • I think you are right David about the serial versus the ESA. I think genre also can influence this. The ESA seems to be much more common in fantasy, whereas space adventure/military SF appears to only have serials. Writers like Drake, Weber, White, and Ringo all have multiple books which are linked in some way but have a self-contained plot, usually a battle to win or a mystery to solve. If you look at the same writers in a fantasy setting though, this point is not quite as clear.

    Our own space adventure series is plotted out (we plot out while driving in the car, then Gerald writes the first draft with me editing him for scientific content and clarity) through about 4 novels with the same lead character, but each novel has a defined plot with its own mysteries and bad guys. However, there are small points which are still a bit of a mystery at the end of each volume and in the last book, it will be clear how all the bad guys are connected.

    We have also plotted some stories in the same universe but with characters who appear only briefly in the first novels, as well as some short stories which give back story and history to the universe. We have sent one short story off for consideration for an anthology. Our long commutes before we moved to NC in 2007 and drives to cons have resulted in the plotting going along much faster than Gerald is writing, but I guess that is much better than the other way.

  • Sounds like you and Gerald have an interesting process, Angela. I’ve never collaborated, and I admire those who can do it successfully. As for your point about genre and subgenre, you’re right: ESA’s are most common in high fantasy (again, thanks to the splitting of the Tolkien work. But the rise of urban fantasy is changing this, and bringing the serial into the mainstream of fantasy. It will probably do good things for the genre from a marketing standpoint. Thanks for the comment!