Last week I began the discussion of keeping books and story lines fresh as we move through a series, by talking about character, and in particular shaking up familiar dynamics between (among) two (or more) characters. I focused my post on the core relationship found in the Thieftaker books: the rivalry between my hero, thieftaker and conjurer Ethan Kaille, and his nemesis, the brilliant, deadly, and beautiful Sephira Pryce. The basic dynamics of their relationship had long since been established in the first two books of the Thieftaker Chronicles, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry. Now, in the third book of the series, A Plunder of Souls, which was released a week ago today, I fundamentally altered those dynamics by introducing a new adversary for Ethan, Captain Nate Ramsey, who antagonized Sephira and forced her into an unlikely alliance with Ethan.
But there are other ways to keep a storyline fresh, even in a series that has a long line of previously written stories or novels. Let’s look at some of them.
1. Shift character dynamics: I’ve covered this one at some length. Last week’s post can be found here. I would add to this discussion that there are any number of ways to alter character relationships, some quite obvious, others far more subtle. We can add new characters, as I did with Ramsey. We can end or begin romances, or have a character lose his or her job. Best friends might have a falling out, or former enemies might find unexpected common ground. In A Plunder of Souls, Ethan’s political transformation from Tory (a supporter of the Crown) to Patriot accelerates and deepens. This change is of secondary importance compared with some of the other things I’ve done in this book, but it is significant nevertheless, and it adds to his inner turmoil. Sometimes a change as simple as this can have ramifications that spread throughout an entire novel, or even beyond.
2. Kill off a character, or have a character become pregnant: Talk about changing character dynamics. These are more drastic than break-ups or lost jobs, of course. But therein lies the power of such decisions. I did both of these things in the middle of the Winds of Forelands series. I had a very important character discover that she was pregnant. Actually, she TOLD me she was pregnant; I had no idea until I typed the words onto the screen. And I killed off a couple of characters along the way. The disruptions caused by these events were seismic, and they lent new drama and tension to my plotting. I should add here that these are not choices to be made lightly. That pregnancy in particular proved to be a huge complication. I had previous outlined the subsequent volumes and I was forced to go back and completely rethink the remainder of the series. But it was the right thing to do, and the series was far, far better for the inconvenience I caused myself.
3. Introduce an external element: The Thieftaker books are handy in this way, because with every new novel I have some new external factor with which to confound my characters. It’s built into the historical structure of the series. In book 1, it was the Stamp Act riots and the resulting disruption of normal life in 1760s Boston. The second book coincided with the beginning of the occupation of Boston by British troops. This was a turning point in the history of the city and the colonies in general, as it further radicalized the populace of the town that would become the epicenter of America’s political awakening. Now obviously I can’t telegraph all of that. In 1768, when the occupation began, no one knew exactly where it would lead. But Boston’s citizenry did understand that the arrival of British regulars marked a significant and grim milestone in the city’s history. A Plunder of Souls takes place in the summer of 1769, during an outbreak of smallpox. As you can imagine, the news that this highly contagious, disfiguring, at times lethal disease has been found in the city is enough to throw many into panic. That’ll freshen up a story for you. And for those who are interested, Thieftaker 4, Dead Man’s Reach, takes place at the time of the Boston Massacre. Stay tuned. You don’t need to write historical fiction to do this, of course. There are other ways to shake up the world a bit. Give it a try.
4. Bend (BUT DO NOT BREAK) a rule or two: What do I mean by this? Well, let’s consider magic systems. I am a big believer in the idea that a magic system has to remain as consistent as the laws of nature. If magic can only be done by gerbils, but not by hamsters, then that’s your rule and you have to live with it. You can’t have a hamster who casts spells, because that would be a violation. But what if in book three of your series, you introduce a half-breed: a Gerbster?! (A Hambil?) Well, maybe she’ll have magic. And maybe that magic will be incredibly potent. You haven’t broken a rule. You’ve bent it a bit; you’ve found a way to use your rules to your advantage, and there is nothing wrong with that. In A Plunder of Souls, Nate Ramsey has found a way to bend the rules of conjuring just enough to make himself ever more potent and to make Ethan’s spell casting erratic and unreliable. Hijinks ensue. Naturally, the rules you bend don’t have to pertain to magic. They can be religious or political, legal or physical. The point is to change things up a bit. Maybe you have a rule or two in your world that might be twisted to your narrative advantage. Think about it.
5: Make a new stylistic choice: Okay, I suppose technically this isn’t a plotting choice, though I would argue that plotting is more closely linked to voice, point of view, and style than might be immediately apparent. But maybe switching to a new point of view character might be just the sort of change you need to bring fresh blood to a storyline that’s growing a bit tired. Maybe telling a story in first person rather than third will lend immediacy to your narrative. Sometimes that shift in craft can be enough to make something old look like a new shiny. And we writers ALWAYS love the new shiny.
So there are five ways to breath new life into your current project that come to mind for me. I’m sure there are other ways, and I’d love to hear some of your ideas.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.