Another Kindleboards discussion prompted another bjournal-length reply. This time it’s about ‘series’. Even when I set out to write a standalone book (as with Imogen Shroud), it always seems to sprout into something that could be part of a longer story. Rather than fight this I just go with it, but lately I’ve been thinking about where this comes from. One possibility is influence from Japanese media, specifically the way story arcs are handled in manga and anime–there’s often an overreaching story, but within that larger story there are smaller story arcs. If I think of my Miya Black series, I can see it clearly in terms of story arcs–the first book is an introduction, almost like a prologue, then books two through five comprise the first smaller story arc, and the second story arc is introduced in book five and runs through to book seven, then books eight and nine will detail the third and final arc, and finish the overall story I want to tell.
I think one mistake some authors make with series is starting things off too epic–they don’t give themselves anywhere to go. If your main character gains godlike powers and saves the world in the first book, where do you go from there? You can just keep escalating things but to me that’s not so interesting, unless you take it BEYOND THE IMPOSSIBLE ala Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, where by the end of it you’ve got the opposing sides throwing universes at each other. Even then, I have to admit I was a little weary of things by the end of the series.
I like to begin things small and personal, and then build from there. Just as an example, if I was writing a series about a soldier I might make the first book about them surviving through a small conflict, perhaps growing from someone who just wants to get through it to someone who’ll risk their life to save someone they care about, then in the second book they might make a decision to take on greater responsibility, perhaps their unit is separated, they’re alone, the capable, competent person in charge is killed or injured so the MC has to step up and take command to lead the others back through enemy territory, and because of their actions they’re given even more responsibility, so the third book might be about them trying to deal with that, maybe trying to escape it, except they realise that they can’t escape it because their actions and their choices matter and dozens of people are relying on them, so they take the reins of command except make a terrible mistake that gets people killed and maybe they get captured, so then they’re down to nothing again, taken to some terrible enemy prison camp, maybe hard labour, but then in the fourth book they use the command and leadership skills they’ve gained to lead a mass escape and then the MC ends up with a ragtag army of prisoners which might turn the tide of some major battle–and so on, that’s just me typing out loud, but this is pretty much how my series develop. Start at a very high level, figure out what I want to write about in terms of themes and then gradually work out the details and amp things up from book to book–I think this is a good idea for world-building too, start small, maybe restrict things to a single region or city in the first book, then show more and more of the world as the story grows. Another thing that I think is important is to make each book different–for that soldier example, the first one would be more intimate and personal, showing the relationships between characters and the hard life of a soldier at the front line. Second book, smaller, tighter group of characters slowly working their way through enemy territory. Lots of tension and with a clear goal; get back to friendly territory. Third book, higher level stuff, decisions, hard choices, the chains of command, ‘cleaner’ and maybe a little more political. Fourth book, gritty and hard, darker, more brutal, and with a prison setting.
I think the most important thing, though, is your characters. At the end of a series, I think you should be able to look back and see how far they’ve come, how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve suffered to get where they are. In fact, that’s a big part of my motivation in writing a series–I see these characters and the potential within them, and I want to guide them into becoming the person I know that they could be.