Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Long Row To Hoe a.k.a. Plotting and Pacing A Series

The book series is a popular thing these days.  For good reason, really, as many readers love to get invested into a fictional world and its inhabitants, so invested that they don’t want the stories to end at just one book.  You can see this same investment in other forms of media and it’s something television especially has made use of for decades now.  While we’ve talked about series writing in the past to some degree, today I’d like to talk specifically about the plot and pacing of a series as a whole.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the first hurdle is to decide just how serialized your series is.  If the project is lightly serialized or not serialized at all, there’s little need for long-term planning.  With each series book being so compartmentalized with no over-arching goal, you only need to worry about the plot of each book as you begin to write them, simply incorporating what changes in canon and characterization are needed from the previous volume.  In essence, each book is plotted and paced as their own entity with no need to worry about the overall ‘series’.

The more serialized your series is, the more you need to focus on the planning of the overall plot.  As our previous article talked about the story arc plotting of the individual ‘chapters’ of the serial, we are going to focus today on the health of the overall story of the serial.  Just as you can’t forsake individual books in the serial, you can also not let the plot or pace of any one book ruin the overall storyline.  It’s a symbiotic relationship, really, and you have to balance the needs of the book versus the needs of the serial.

The hardest part of the balance might be in the pacing of events.  Just as every book should follow a dramatic curve of events, the serial overall should follow that same curve, which can lead to interesting balancing acts.  How do you balance, for instance, a book’s rising action when that book lies squarely in the series as an area of falling action after the initial hook?  What about the ending of the first book of a serial where the denouement of it might fall into a section of the overall plot that should still be part of the rising action?

I’ve found the best way to resolve these inconsistencies is to think of the dramatic curve in terms of relative action.  If the dramatic arc of the entire serial is a much larger, grander curve than those of the books, any out-of-place dips or rises of individual volumes have proportionally less impact.  Think of them as small deviances on the larger plot curve instead of the more dramatic dips they would be on the curve of an individual book.  So, yes, a book set in the falling action region after the initial dramatic hook can still have its own rising action, just so long as it is relatively at a lower level of dramatic tension then what came before.

The real thing to watch for is to ensure that the overall dramatic tension, the ‘stakes’ if you will, never falls too far.  Remember, on your standard dramatic curve, you never dip below your starting point, even in a state of falling action.  The plot must continue to build, it just slows down and relaxes some from time to time to allow the reader to process and recover, as well as allow you, the author, to properly pace things.  What you want your plot dramatic curve to be, with that in mind, is the arcs of each of each book as one continual line, each with their own builds and drops and denouement, using the falling action and denouement of some volumes to bring the curve down enough to let the series overall have its ‘breathing space’, but never bringing the entire curve down lower than the last dip.

Now I wish I had any skill at art or the like, because I could really use a visual aid here!  I hope, though, that my overall point is clear.  The plotting and pacing of a serialized series is just the same as for a book, but on a much larger scale.  There is a strong relationship between the plotting of your books and your series, and you must work to balance both.  One cannot survive without the other!

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

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!