Writing Is A Bad Habit: One of Many! a.k.a. Writing Story Arcs In A Series

Book series are the norm for today’s writing culture as opposed to the exception, much like it is in the gaming and film world.  The reading public overall seems to crave long-term stories as opposed to single flashes these days, so we as authors are often eager to feed that craving.  It helps, as well, that writing in a favorite series can be like snuggling down in a warm, cozy bed, bringing with it a sense of familiarity and ease that makes our work that much easier.  Of course, like any other writing methodology, series writing has its own needs and its own pitfalls.  Today, I want to talk about a particular pitfall that I have run into both as a writer and as a reader: balancing the story arc of a single volume versus the story arc of the whole series.

As with most literary problems, this one seems a simple thing on the surface.  Obviously, it is important for each volume of a series to have a complete story arc that is properly explored while also advancing the overall arc of the series.  The problem comes most often in the implementation of those ideas.  From my reading experience, the most common issue is when the author leaves the story of any one volume rather anemic, instead focusing on the overall story of the series.  In essence, the author turns the series of novels into one giant serial novel.

What’s the difference, you might be asking?  Serials are one continual story, broken into chapters; series are a series of individual stories all with a common theme.  To be honest, most modern book series include dashes of both, leaning towards traditional series, but often with an underlying serial plotline as well.  That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a ‘series’ as a serial, as long as you are clear about that upfront.

However, one vital thing to consider in this ‘serial vs. series’ debate is the length not only of each book but the overall series.  Think of it like this: the longer each book, the greater the need for self-contained story arcs, thus the greater likelihood you need to balance more towards series writing.  Not many readers want to read three hundred pages and have no dramatic pay-off and no real resolutions!  However, if each installment is, let’s say, only a hundred pages, you could easily string together a six-installment serial or more.  A reader will understandably expect more of a pay-off as your works grow longer.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have long-term series storylines!  Naturally, the core concepts of character arcs and continuity call for it.  There are quite a few huge, famous book series with only the loosest of continuities and overall story arcs (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Mack Bolan, The Destroyer, among others), but many modern readers have come to expect continuity in modern books.  Again, this goes along with trends in both film, comics, gaming, and other related creative arts.

What I suppose this comes down to is this: for each volume in your book series, ensure there are some dramatic pay-offs and resolved story arcs, even if you do go full serial or full series.  The more you trend towards series, the more self-contained each book should be, the more serial, the more chapterish each book should feel.  Whichever you decide to do, be clear about it in describing and marketing your book and then stick to it!

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Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

9 comments

  1. I’m wrestling with this right now. I have a kind of loose idea of an over-arcing plot for my series; which will either end up tying me in logic and continuity loops or preserving the spontaneity. Having enough space to play around with sub-plots and the like feels as promising as it does dangerous, but I’m pretty sure a detailed outline would make me feel as though I’d already completed the series!

    One bit of advice I do hate regarding a series is that any book should be a valid first read. That usually leads to an awkward summation by the narrator at best, and not being able to use many, if any, subtleties that long-term readers would understand. There’ll need to be some element of that in my first novella as I can’t rely on people reading the prequel short story (though I’ll recommend they do. Here’s the link, folks! Check it out etc), but I’m trying to work it naturally into dialogue.

    1. Considering what I’ve read of your work, a loose plot arc sounds good, while making most of the stories self-contained, similar to some of the long running series I’ve mentioned. That way, you don’t have to be strangled by your own continuity. It helps that, with how you’re doing your storytelling, you can always claim there’s an unreliable narrator. 🙂

      That bit of advice is frustrating to me as well. If a series has tight continuity, you cannot expect it to be a stand-alone thing. Yes, I do try to give a bit of a ‘catch-up’ throughout the first couple of chapters in later books in my own series, but I certainly can’t explain EVERYTHING to get a reader who skipped a book up to speed!

      1. Good point regarding the unreliable narrator. My stuff does tend to be a blend of historical fact and outright lunacy. I think it ended up that way as an unconscious effort to tease my father, as he’s very much a ‘books must teach me something’ kind of guy. I imagine him reading it, nodding along with the researched stuff – ‘Yes. Yes, very good. Ye-…what? No! Ridiculous!’

        I think I’ll probably go for a facetious ‘The Story So Far…’ section in later books, which could fit the tone.

  2. There has been much debate about this among comic book readers as well. Should a series focus on big storylines that pay off better in trade format, or in one or two issue episodes that are easier for newer readers to follow. I couldn’t tell you as my pull list contains titles with both styles.

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