Can’t Write Just One

28 May

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.


Posted by on May 28, 2011 in Of Writing


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5 responses to “Can’t Write Just One

  1. George

    May 28, 2011 at 14:55

    I don’t know about you, Ben, but I’ve heard an “escalating series” referred to as a Horatio Hornblower series, after the epynomous star of the Horatio Hornblower novels of C.S.Forester. The book literally span his career, all the way from seasick midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet. A space-opera example of this is the Honor Harrington series, by David Weber.

    Should all series be Hornblowers? Not necessarily. Murder-mystery series are good examples of no or incremental change from book to book–the template most TV series are based on. I think one of the dangers of escalating series is the writer runs the risk of “breaking” his characters or taking them out of the environment the readers most enjoyed.

    I think you’re right; it’s all about character, and there’s a balance. We just can’t let them grow so big or get so competent that there are no more interesting stories to tell with them. I don’t want Astra to wind up throwing universes.

    • Ben White

      May 28, 2011 at 21:52

      The great thing is, if your characters ever become too competent but you’ve still got stories to tell in that world, you can just switch to another viewpoint character.

  2. Mark Williams

    May 28, 2011 at 20:56

    I’ve yet to catch up on all your books, Ben, but seeing George mention Astra makes me wonder, have any of your back-up characters shouted out for a book / series of their own?

    In George’s Wearing the Cape there is one character that simply steals the show and is crying out for her own book / series / movie / place in literary history.

    • Ben White

      May 28, 2011 at 22:01

      Not so often, except with the Miya Black series. I’m already working on the first in a series about her grandmother’s younger days, as well as a prequel about her parents and her grandfather. She’s just got an interesting family, I guess 🙂 While I enjoy my secondary characters, it’s always my MCs who are my favourites.

      • Mark Williams

        May 29, 2011 at 01:37

        At the moment I’m busy writing fiction for adults (commercial decision – tragic, I know) but I could never write a book without strong child characters.

        While the MCs are of necessity adults it is always the child characters that I enjoy writing best and that determine the direction of the story.


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