Serialization: Pros and Pitfalls

As I work on the sequel to Unwilling Souls, I find myself having to confront the question of serialization versus episodic storytelling. My admission up front: I love serialized stories. Aside from sitcoms, I don’t really watch any television that doesn’t feature at least some element of serialization. While I realize there’s a certain comfort to be had in procedurals or episodic series, they will never be my first choice, precisely for that reason. Very little ever changes.

The idea that each installment of a story builds into something greater has always appealed to me. And in today’s age of serialized TV and prestige series, it’s hard to remember there was ever anything else. But networks used to look down on serialized storytelling. And if you do a little digging, it’s not hard to see why. In this post, I’ll take you through three series’ attempts at serialization across a couple of different timeframes, what worked about it and what didn’t.

The X-Files: You might call this a proto-serialized drama, or at least a drama with a central mystery at its core. For cave-dwellers or young people, the X-Files featured FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully assigned to solve the paranormal cases the FBI normally tried to downplay or ignore. Most episodes fell into a sort of “monster of the week” episodic pattern. But several times each season, including the beginning and the end, the series’ overarching story would come to the forefront: that of Mulder’s obsessive quest to uncover the truth behind alien abductions and the government’s cover-up, including the abduction of his sister when they were both children. Early on the series’ run, I (and most) enjoyed the “monster of the week” episodes but really looked forward to the alien storyline, eagerly awaiting each new installment’s advancement of the central mystery.

As the series aged, however, it became more and more apparent that the showrunners didn’t have an overall plan for the mystery, and were just dragging it out as long as possible, allowing it to grow more and more elaborate and nonsensical. By the time the lead actors were bowing out of the show save for guest appearances, it was the monster of the week episodes that still maintained a semblance of quality, while the serialized overarching story had become a mess that would obviously never reach a satisfactory conclusion. That’s the major advantage episodic TV will always have over serial TV. Each installment has a beginning a middle and an end, all neatly contained in an hour of the viewer’s time. Serialized stories have to work extra hard to give installments the feel of a miniature story arc while simultaneously advancing the overarching plot. It adds a dimension of complexity to the writing.

The X-Files finale was all but incomprehensible, and while the recent short 10th season proved the actors still bring chemistry to their characters, the alien storyline remains as opaque as ever. Ultimately, the X-Files serves as a cautionary tale to future shows about being careful with open-ended mysteries. The lesson of the X-Files: A mysterious series mythos requires, if not exact planning to the last detail, at least some forethought unless you are a virtuoso of retconning.

Lost: Though this isn’t in chronological order, The X-FIles leads us naturally into Lost, the show that learned the most from the X-Files. Lost begins with a plane crash which a seemingly miraculous number of people survive. The tropical island onto which they’ve crashed is filled with all kinds of strange, wondrous and terrifying things, like polar bears, mysterious hatches buried in the jungle, and the eerie people already living on the island, creepily known only as the Others. Like its spiritual predecessor, Lost builds its show around a central mystery: What is the Island? Unlike the X-Files, while there are episodes that don’t advance the main plot, quite a few of them in the first three seasons, nearly every episode takes place on the island itself, so there’s no forgetting the main, serialized plot.

Lost’s first season was utterly captivating, introducing us to the characters by giving each one or more episodes focused on them and their backstory while simultaneously advancing the plot. The problems didn’t really arise until Season 2 and then, even more, Season 3. It turns out that the show-runners (the show was conceived by All-SFF Team Producer J.J. Abrams but he was not involved beyond the pilot episode) did not have any more idea where the story was going than the creator of the X-Files did or, perhaps more importantly, how long they would have to stall giving out answers to their mysteries. But they learned from history.

By the time the third season was floundering in stall-tactics designed to drag out the mysteries toward an unknown series end date, the producers made the bold decision of approaching the network with a proposal to last three more 16 episode seasons and then end. Given the fact that the show was a ratings juggernaut, give props to ABC for agreeing to the schedule. From that moment on Lost became much more focused and fast-paced. Gone were the stalling episodes of Jack getting a tattoo. Each episode now drove the plot inexorably forward, and though the ending of the series was controversial to many, no one can deny that it was an ending. The lesson? If you’re telling a serialized story, plan for it to have a beginning, middle and end so that you pace correctly.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Reboot): Speaking of controversial endings, BSG was heavily serialized from beginning to end, almost without exception. Rare was an episode that could be called truly standalone. Like Lost before it, the show was built around a relatively simple premise. The Cylons (human-hating robots, some of which are indistinguishable from humans) have destroyed human civilization in retaliation for decades-old mistreatment, and the entire remains of the human race comprise rag-tag fleet of spacecraft looking for the last habitable world in their records: the mythical colony of Earth.

From the beginning of the show, things like resource conservation, the problem of governance when your entire governmental apparatus is destroyed, and “the enemy within” became staple elements of the show’s plot. Every episode relentlessly drove the main story forward … with one exception. During Season 3, Syfy (then mercifully known as the SciFi Network) tried to make the show more viewer friendly, which translates to more episodic. See, the reason networks used to hate serialized stories is that while they tend to keep early fans watching, they make it difficult for new fans to get into shows because of all the backstory they’ve missed. SciFi wanted Season 3 to be easier to get involved which, resulting in a season which, while it has some major highs (New Caprica and the Adama Maneuver, anyone?) it also resulted in some disjointed episodes that feel unfocused and unconnected to the larger story.

If this had been the series modus operandi from the start, nothing would have seemed amiss. As it was, the change was jarring. Fortunately, the fourth and final season was allowed to close out the show (once, again that this was the final season was planned in advance) on the show-runners terms. For the record, I enjoyed both BSG’s and Lost’s controversial endings. The lesson we can take from this is that whatever precedent you set between installments, it is best to keep to it throughout the run of your series.

 

A serialized approach to storytelling is a great way to grab viewers (or readers) early and make sure they stay invested. That said, there are pitfalls to the approach as well as benefits to working in some episodic elements as well.

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and the upcoming Dragon Writers Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

 

Worldbuilding in the Final Frontier

A guest blog by David Heyman.

DS9stationAs a reader and writer of fantasy, I am strongly drawn to stories that emphasize worldbuilding. I think it’s a fascinating process: creating a living breathing world, real and vibrant enough that the reader will believe that world exists even after closing the book. When done well, worldbuilding allows the story to come alive, creating emotional resonance and allowing a rich backdrop onto which the writer can place their characters and dilemmas.

On television, one of my favorite examples comes from a somewhat unlikely place. Traditionally worldbuilding is the domain of new science fiction and fantasy properties, but in this case I am going to explore a show that was set in an already well-established universe: Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

In the writer’s room of the television Deep Space Nine, they had a common response to a writing problem or challenge: “make it a virtue!” Take your problem and find the strength in it, use that problem’s challenges make your story stronger. This particular show’s primary problem was one of motion, or the lack thereof. The USS Enterprise (both original and D) of the first two Star Trek shows was always travelling, always moving. Each week there were new worlds, new civilizations… new wonders to entice your audience.

Deep Space Nine was a space station- -it wasn’t going anywhere. Sure, the writers could have the ‘wonders’ come to the station (and they occasionally would) but they also took this problem and made it a virtue by embracing the world building opportunity it represented. Instead of seeing the amazing worlds and galactic wonders of the external galaxies, DS9 would draw you in by exploring the details of its characters and setting.

Exploring the emotional depths of the leads was not uncharted territory for Star Trek, but never before had the series spent so much time expanding on the backstories of not just the main characters, but a parade of recurring side characters as well. No more was the cast trying to solve the dilemmas of the ‘guest star’ of the week, forcing the viewer at home to try to care about the problems of someone they just met. Now we were visiting the lives of old friends (and enemies), learning more about them as they worked through complex emotional and morality puzzles.

By staying with the same set of primary locations (the station as well as key planets in the lore) the show again was able to add interest by going deeper rather than farther. Depth over distance, allowing the worlds of Bajor, Cardassia, the Dominion and Deep Space Nine itself to be expanded and explored in detail never before tried on a Star Trek show. Each of these repeating locations thus gained a life of their own, becoming characters in their own right with diverse and recognizable geography, politics and cultural motivations.

In later seasons, the series then took these twin strengths of worldbuilding and character depth and upped the ante by embracing serialized storylines. Common place now, these were still quite uncommon in the speculative fiction side of television back in the early 90s, and unheard of in Star Trek. Starting with three or four episode arcs, the series got bolder as time went on, with the final two seasons all being primarily driven by one story line.

This is not to say that Deep Space Nine never told a story in the more traditional Trek format, nor that the other Trek shows never focused on developing their characters or expanding the worldbuilding beyond introducing new races. (Next Generation, for example, did wonders for the Klingons). In the large sense though, the original series and Next Generation were primary shows about the adventure the characters were on, whereas Deep Space Nine though staked out a claim as a show that was essentially about itself- -its characters and the world they lived in day to day.

I feel it was the foundation the writers had laid with their characters and their worldbuilding that allowed this experiment to live long and prosper, if you will. By bringing viewers deeper into their characters and their environment, they had the luxury of taking them on longer journeys, with bigger emotional payoffs.

As a writer, I often think back to Deep Space Nine and the lessons I learned by watching it. Like most authors, I write the stories I want to read- -for me those are stories that travel deep inside their character and their world, building in the reader a bottomless well of emotional resonance.


Dave writes both novels and short stories in the various genres of speculative fiction. His other passions include his family, gaming and reading about mountaineering. Sleep is added to the mix when needed. You can visit him at daveheyman.com

Stories through Movies

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There are movies that are exciting to watch like Star Wars and the Avengers. Some classics that we like to watch over and over again like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off or the Princess Bride. Others that we can quote word for word like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Dumb and Dumber.

And there are some movies that move us, even change us and stay with us forever.

I’ve only seen Swing Kids once, about twenty years ago. But the movie had a profound effect on me. I replayed the ending over and over again in my mind for weeks. I wanted it to be different. I wanted a happy ending. But that wasn’t the message. My thoughts turned to anger for the tyrants that have caused so much pain to the children of this world.

And I realized.

There will always be tyrants. But we can overcome the pain and misery they cause by banding together and fighting back and never giving up. Swing Heil.

This message was embedded in the story written by Jonathan Marc Feldman, someone I don’t recognize by name and yet he has influenced my life tremendously. He has taken my mind hostage at times, challenging my perceptions. I think I’m a better man because of that movie.

As writers we have the awesome opportunity to influence the world through story.

This month we are discussing exceptional stories told through movies. So stay tuned, we have a full month.

– Jace

jace 1I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve got an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can visit my author website at www.jacekillan.com, and you can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page.

Meet the Fictorians: Emily Godhand

“Come in, — come in! and know me better, man!” -Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We’d love for you, our wonderful readers, to get to know us better. That’s why, each month, Kristin Luna will interview a member of The Fictorians. We’ll learn more about each member, such as their writing processes, their work, where they live, and what they prefer to drink on a warm summer’s day. We hope you enjoy this monthly installment of Meet the Fictorians.

Meet the Fictorians:

Emily Godhand

Kristin Luna (KL): Hi Emily! How are you and what are you drinking right now?

Emily Godhand (EG): I’m well, doing the same thing I do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.
…while sipping a hard drink, of course.

KL: You’re one of our newest Fictorians, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for our readers to get to know you. Can you tell us a little about you?

EG: Dark thriller author, former psych nurse, and rat enthusiast. I am an Ambassador for Wattpad.com, where I am the administrator for a profile of international paranormal authors called the “Ouija Board of Directors.”

KL: What inspires you the most when it comes to writing?

EG: I’d have to say music and the nightmares I’ve had for over 16 years now. Lyrics are poetry and music is poetry without words. I’m not sure I’m actually capable of expressing myself without music playing, but fortunately I always have a radio playing in my head. If you see me dancing with my eyes closed, you’re welcome to join in. As far as the nightmares, they were of course surreal, but I couldn’t die in them (because I’m me.) I started to write them down, and then re-write them, and through that I was able to become lucid and redirect the story from inside the dream.

My friends discovered my journal and kept asking, “…and then what happened?”, so I turned them into stories.

KL: You have a great presence on Wattpad. What’s your username/website? Can you tell us a little about that process?

EG: Absolutely. You can find me at https://www.wattpad.com/user/Godhand, as well as the ParanormalCommunity profile at https://www.wattpad.com/user/ParanormalCommunity.

Signing up for Wattpad is easy! All you need is a username and password of course, and then an email, Facebook, or G+ account. As far as Wattpad particulars, I’ve started a book to help new users adjust to the particulars of how to do well on Wattpad. The biggest thing to remember is that Wattpad is mostly a community of mobile readers, so, activity within the comments section will be your biggest way to interact with the community and to draw attention to your story. Wattpad’s biggest demographic is young women, and there is a robust LGBT+ and fanfiction community.

KL: Do you have any books out right now?

EG: I currently have a work in progress on Wattpad called “Fear of the Dark”, about two women who seek freedom, then revenge, on the cult that killed them. I’m also working on two projects for the ParanormalCommunity to teach the community within a frame story so that writers and readers alike can enjoy. Paranormal Academy teaches users about historical/cultural lore and common tropes and Paranormal Powers teaches about such things as ESP, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, and other such abilities found in paranormal stories. That one I write with my friend and fellow author J.S Bennett, who also wrote a story with me that was published in “A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology” that raised scholarship funds for aspiring writers to attend the Superstars Writing Seminar here in Colorado.

KL: Where can we read more of your writing?

EG: At this time I’m currently working on launching my website, www.emilygodhand.com, where I’ll post updates on my works in progress and links to published books. Probably some rat pictures, too.
…Yeah, that’s about guaranteed. My rats are adorable.

KL: I’m friends with you on Facebook, and I love your posts. Specifically, I love your posts about rats. Where did your love of rats come from?

EG: When I was still a psychology major, we studied rats at the lab at the main campus and I became fascinated with how much about them I had learned wrong. They were clean, intelligent, friendly creatures who just wanted to snuggle and eat snacks with their friends. They’re also incredible survivalists, who will not only persevere and thrive in the worst conditions, but care for their colony. They bring food to the infirm, they share treats, they will free a trapped buddy and defend each other.

I guess I really identified with a small, cute, cuddly creature who will sink their teeth into your flesh if you threaten them or their friends.

KL: You have a unique job, and I was wondering if you could tell us more about that and how it’s factored into your writing?

EG: I am still a nurse, and though I’ve since moved out of psychiatric work due to frustrations with the system, I use my writing to help educate and advocate about mental illness, particularly depression and PTSD, or Post-Trauma Stress Disorder. A lot of my characters will often have anxiety, depression, or PTSD due to the things they’ve experienced in the past or things experience during the course of the novel. I was frustrated with reading about heroes who were unaffected by what happened to them, because I feel that reading is a way to learn how to process, adapt, and overcome similar situations in our lives. Reading about the character’s mental process of dealing with these issues and coming out on top can be cathartic and validating to a reader (and to the writer crafting the story). It shows heroes who are afraid, and then act anyway. People who are tired and exhausted but carry on. It also humanizes people with these conditions and I hope will reduce harmful stigma and stereotypes, because it is written in their, or rather my, voice.

I currently work with individuals with physical disabilities, who, like individuals with psychiatric disabilities, I feel are another underrepresented group within literature. While my patients’ stories aren’t mine to tell, I do like to include characters with a variety of disabilities in my stories because they are people who exist in our world, and deserve to exist in worlds we craft.

KL: If you could give any writerly advice, what would you say to new writers?

EG: Writing, or any form of communication really, whether music or art or dance, is a practiced skill that is developed. If your words aren’t perfect at first, keep writing. If you hate everything that comes out, get something down anyway, because you cannot edit nothing. Write sentences where you accidentally leave out the verb because you’re so excited to get the idea out. If you get stuck on a scene or what a character says, write “TK” and come back to it. Don’t lose the momentum. Maybe you won’t feel it’s ‘good enough’ because your first draft is not the same as the edited, polished work of individuals who have worked for years on improving their skill, and that’s okay. Keep working on it.

KL: What has been your favorite Fictorians post that you’ve written so far?

EG: My favorite would have to be my two part piece on conflict. Part One, Perceiving A Threat covered the ways that different people from different backgrounds might perceive, or not perceive, a threat. Part 2, Reacting to the Threat, described the different ways someone of different upbringings and experiences might react differently.

Within our culture and within writing, I feel there is not enough understanding of what constitutes violence and the various and valid ways that people perceive and react to it. The social, cultural, and situational things that influence how we might act or react should be reflected in the stories we tell, because they are our stories, and how we communicate with each other. What we learn from stories influences how we perceive ourselves and contributes to the lens through which we read our experiences, past and future.

***

If you have any questions for Emily, please leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!