Today’s post is intended as a sidebar of a sort to the Writing Your Book” series that I’ve been posting over the course of the past few months. It grows out of a question asked last week by NewGuyDave (Thanks, Dave!) in response to my post on writing the end game, the gradual set-up for a book’s climax and ending.
Specifically, Dave asked about working the end game in a multi-volume project, as opposed to in a single volume. But then he broadened his question to encompass the planning of a series and the structuring of a character arc over several books.
Let me begin by addressing the end game issue — and keep in mind that I’m assuming Dave’s question refers to an extended story arc, as opposed to a true serial. The short and annoyingly glib answer to Dave’s question is that the end game in a multi-book project it not that different from the end game in a stand alone novel. As I’ve said before here, writing an extended story arc does not excuse a reader from needing to write a complete story within each volume. Each book in an extended story arc should have a satisfying story arc of its own. It has to lead to its own climax and leave the reader feeling that she accomplished something by reading the book. The tricky part, of course, is that the story arc for each book is embedded in the story arc of the entire project. And so you’re building in clues and setting up the end game for the larger project at the same time. Okay, weird analogy time (with apologies to Atsiko): Have you ever sat in front of your computer and watched the progress bars for a download of multiple files, and noticed the way the top bar for the individual files catches up to and bypasses the bottom bar, which is tracking the entire download? That’s kind of like what you’re doing with the end game in a series. On the one hand, you have to give clues and set up the ending for the individual book, which progresses at one pace. On the other hand, you also have to further the set up at the series level, which happens more slowly. Ideally, the climax of each individual book contributes to the series setup.
The point, though, is that you’re essentially juggling two story telling agendas at once. You want to maintain the integrity of each book — give it a beginning, middle, and end; set up its climax just as you would that of a stand alone novel; maintain its pacing and narrative coherence; etc. But you also need to pay attention to the larger story you’re trying to tell. You have to further the overarching plot enough that it seems to your reader that she has made progress in the story, but not so much that you steal the thunder of your remaining volumes.
And this is essentially the answer I would give to Dave’s other questions, too. Character arc (a phrase I love, by the way, and one that I think is deserving of its own post) is a great example. In my Winds of the Forelands series, one of my lead characters starts off hateful. He’s selfish, egotistical, spoiled rotten, immature, and abrasive. He drinks too much, is inconsiderate of his friends and family, and is annoyingly unaware of his faults. He improves some by the end of book one, and a bit more in book two. He turns a corner at the end of book three, is darn near likable at the end of book four, and is a true hero by the end of the fifth and final book. He is the most difficult and most rewarding character I’ve ever written. What made him so hard to write was my own tendency to grow impatient with him. I wanted him to stop doing the stupid things he did throughout the first few books. But I didn’t want his growth — his character arc — to be rushed.
Patience. Pacing. Those, I believe, are the keys to planning an extended story arc, be it from the perspective of character, or end game, or plot development. Just as you don’t want to hurry the development of your plot in a stand alone novel, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself in a series. You need to give your readers enough to keep them reading, to keep them feeling satisfied with each volume, to make them feel that the tension and the payoffs are building. But you also want to hold back enough so that the next book will be even better. Until you reach the last one, at which point you make it so full that your readers are breathless at the end. When I talk about story arc and pacing at a conference, I like to represent the arc visually: picture something the shape of a rainbow, but with the right hand side cut off just after the apex of the arc. That’s what a story arc for a book should look like. For an extended story arc of, say, four books, it should like four of those truncated rainbows in a row, with each apex getting higher.
That’s how I plan a series from a plotting perspective. I then fit my lead character’s arc into that structure. Returning to the lead character from Winds of the Forelands, in each of the books (well, except number 4), this character’s growth manifested itself in a key event that served as the volume’s climax. Each book had its big finish, my character grew steadily throughout, and his growth provided the mechanism for following the narrative progress of the overall project. Put another way, the narrative arc for each individual novel became a microcosm of the narrative arc for the whole.
I guess you can say that writing an extended story arc is more complicated than writing a stand alone, since you do have to pay attention to the pacing, character development, and narrative growth of each book as well as to those of the larger project. But the skill sets are the same, the challenges very similar.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net