Category Archives: Conflict

The Series Arc – A Story Within a Story

Writing a series is the process of telling multiple complete stories within the context of a greater story arc. Each book must be a complete tale in and of itself—with a standalone beginning, middle, and end all sparkling with vivid settings, rich characters, and intricate conflict. Each book sheds only enough light to reveal its portion of the grand design while steadily building tension, book to book, until all is revealed in the final installment.I speak to beginning writers all the time about crafting series. And, after leading off with the whole complete story deal above, I break out the Inception-esque logic of a book-within a book-within a book. Because, really, that’s what we’re writing. The story arc is our overall plot and each book can be seen as an act within the epic structure.

 

As a hardcore story plotter, or outliner, I need to flesh out the high-level arc enough to figure out where each book begins and ends along with the major concepts or plot points that need to be introduced or even resolved. But nothing is set in stone. The outline is more of a guideline as opposed to an absolute. During the writing process, the story and characters evolve. As they do, they affect the overall series arc, kinda like what Doc Brown harangued Marty McFly about—Be careful, Marty, changes in book one could alter the planned events in book four. Yes, they surely will. And that’s all cool and groovy with me because it means the story is deepening, the events stretching between books tightening, interweaving, becoming more connected to the main line.

Let’s see…talked about writing a complete story, shedding light, book within a book, each book like an act…what else? Ah, the hooks. Gotta keep the readers reading.

Just like when ending a chapter on a key revelation or decision point to keep the reader turning the pages, in the case of a series, we do the same. Only, it’s done on a grander scale. In the first book of a series, the writer introduces the conflicts that must be resolved in that book and sets the stage for the main series conflict. Of course, that can’t be resolved within the pages of a single book. If it could, we’d call that a stand-alone novel. The writer builds up the action and leaves the right open conflict threads to ensure the reader comes back for the next book. After the denouement, some riveting scene should occur that grabs the reader by the eyes and says, “OMG!”, whetting the reader’s appetite and leaving them wanting more.

Hooks in books in arcs.

Later,

Scott

Ending a Series

Years ago, I started Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. The first book, Mister Monday, was so great. Intriguing, strange, fun and imaginative. It set up so many mysteries that I could hardly wait for book two to come out. Then book three…

But after that my attention waned. The plot become convoluted. I struggled with the fact that each book posed more questions, but did not answer them. By book five, I didn’t bother to read it until a friend had reminded me that it was out. In the end I finished the series. Monday through Sunday. Seven books. The first two or three had captured my imagination. The rest tried to soar, but didn’t get far.

By the time I got to the last book, I remember distinctly giving the great big reveal—the thing we’d been waiting for since Arthur had been dragged into this whole mess by Mister Monday—a slow blink.

Really? That’s it? All this trouble, and ruining this kid’s life, for…that?

Now I’m not here to diss on Garth Nix, because he’s pretty much brilliant. What I’m here to address, is the difficulty in keeping a series going. A multi-book character journey is not as easy to write as one might think. Because your characters need to grow and learn each book, but they still can’t be perfect. They still can’t quite get over it, because if they do, then there’s nowhere for them to go at the end.

How many of us were slightly disappointed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Either because the Hallows seemingly came out of nowhere, or because the big reveal didn’t shock us? Again, I’m not putting J.K. Rowling down. She’s amazing, and somehow kept her sanity while writing seven books of one of the most successful series of all times.

Think about it. How many times have you been let down by a series finale? Either on Netflix, in a book series or a last movie?

I used to wonder why that was, but now I have a few ides.

I started my Jagged Scars series four years ago. I was vaguely familiar with this problem, so I combed through the internet to find answers. One woman had a brief synopsis of each Harry Potter book and Harry’s character arc in it. This was most helpful, and I used it as a guide to outline Wendy’s journey through Jagged Scars.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Fractured Memories: After a bitter betrayal, Wendy learns to trust others again.
  • Severed Ties: Wendy learns to trust herself.
  • Shattered Dreams: Wendy finds love, and feels worthy of it.
  • Crippled Hope: Wendy has to face the fact that not everyone wants to fight their way through life, and that that’s okay.
  • Broken Worlds…

Well, I had a plan for book 5, the final book in the series. I thought it was brilliant, but as I started writing the book, it felt forced. The journey I thought I wanted to take Wendy on turned out to be someone else’s journey, and I literally spent nine months writing the book four times—each time finding at the end that it lacked.

People around me accused me of needing the perfect story, and that it was probably fine. After round four, I sent it to my beta readers…and as I had suspected, they hated it. Every conflict I had tried to shove in felt forced, even to them.

So I started again. Only this time I decided that the book was a finale, and I didn’t need a big character arc for Wendy. I’d write the dang book and then see where it took me. Which I did. And as I did, I realized that I’d let Wendy grow too much in the other books. She’s gotten over her fear of the Skinnies, and of the monster inside her head telling her to be horrible. She can think about her dad again and she loves people—something she couldn’t do at the beginning. She’s even started to understand others when they’re not like her.

I’m still not quite finished with the book, but I think I understand how to fix it. However, the next time I start a series, the first thing I’m going to decide is what the main character’s overall arc is going to be. Once I figure that out, I’m going to make sure I have a really good, but hard, place for the character to go in the last book.

Because the reason we read books or watch TV is to see people overcome, and the stories that stick with me are those in which the character overcomes themselves, in addition to the big bad. The moment when the character chooses teamwork over winning the big game. The moment when he/she chooses family instead of fame, or the moment when they let go of their hate, and learn to love.

 

 

 

 

The Series Trap

So you want to write an epic sci-fi or fantasy series…

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Been there, done that.

I know authors who have written double-digit books in their series. I suppose that’s a great thing if it’s making money. But to me there’s a sort of hidden trap in creating a series that becomes self-perpetuating and endless. Part of that may just be my own proclivities as a reader. In general I find three or four books to be about as long as even the best writers can keep my interest in one story, one protagonist, and/or one set of supporting characters.

I just have too much interest in other stories to keep going back to that same water hole.

So when I started my War Chronicles epic fantasy series, I very deliberately set a story line that would be finished after three, maybe four books. I had no intention or desire to be writing War Chronicles books for years. I wanted to write other stories.

Now, had that series taken off like Harry Potter, and publishers were flying to my home to shove money in my mailbox, maybe I’d have a different perspective. But that didn’t happen, so I’m happy with what I did earn on my first series, and am glad that I have since written a sci-fi novel, and am now working on a contemporary murder mystery novel. From the first time I decided to pursue writing as a hobby and (hopefully) a career, I wanted to keep my options open and write widely in different genres.

I think that will make me a better writer in all genres.

Now, from a career perspective, maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe sticking with one sub-genre for my entire career might be a better way to establish a loyal fan base and churn out stories that are eagerly anticipated by those fans.

But even if it is, I’m enjoying my foray into contemporary murder mystery. Who knows, my next book might be a romance novel.

When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense

Writing a Series: When You Realize That Your Sequence of Novels Doesn’t Make Sense.

A guest post by Nathan Dodge

Those that know me from the Superstars seminars know that I signed a contract for Shadow Warriors, the first novel of a YA SF series at this year’s SSWS. In brief, the series is a sequence of five novels about teenagers that are kidnapped and forced to train as the crew of a starfighter to fight in a galactic war.

I wrote all five novels in an 18-month period. That might not sound very smart, having sold none of them, but I went into a writing frenzy and they all rolled out—about 450,000 words in all. And now, finally, one is sold, with the prospect of perhaps selling more.

Like everyone else writing a novel series, I ran into “series problems,” the blips that come up for any writer of a series as the writing progresses. Example: continuity. It’s darned hard to remember all the stuff you’ve put down over time, especially about the time you get into the middle of novel 4. How many times have you started to edit something in the new book of your series and thought: Wait a minute—I said something about this situation (or character, or background element) in Book 2. Is it consistent? And sometimes it isn’t, and you have to sharpen the old red pencil, metaphorically speaking, and reconcile the two passages. And yes, I kept a “facts” diary, but you still forget.

However, that isn’t the problem that had me buffaloed as I finished Book 2 of the Shadow Warriors series. It had very nice starring roles for several of my main characters, a couple of independent parallel plots, and the usual 1/3-point and 2/3-point crises. However, as I began to reread and seriously edit, a problem slapped me in the face: The book didn’t read like Book 2. It read more like Book 3!

What was wrong? Mainly, I decided after some analysis, the characters had matured too quickly. They were already advancing in command positions, and they were becoming too important in the overall command scheme of their navy.

I had let a little of that happen at the end of Book 1. The top male character had become a unit commander after only one major battle (sort of a “battlefield promotion”), essentially in charge of not only his crew but nine more fighter crews. In addition, the two main female characters had demonstrated excellent planning and strategic abilities, so that they were assigned part-time to their Carrier commander to assist in battle planning.

Which was okay—my crew was still a group of base-level fighters, with some modest responsibilities above and beyond that of a fighting crew. That led to my realizing the problem: they had to prove they had earned the new positions by performing in them before they were again promoted in Book 3. That is, they had to gain more experience (and also more success), demonstrating that they had earned the right to advance further in their military careers.

But that hadn’t happened. What was needed was a Book 2, in which my daring young warriors proceed to act in their new roles and prove to their commanders and the Alliance at large that they deserved more command responsibility.

So editing Book 3 (formerly Book 2) was put on hold while I returned to the end of my first epic and designed another plot to allow my young charges to earn their stripes. Or, since they were all young officers (as in the US Air Force), to earn their officer ratings. Of course, that meant a new plot that would mesh with the already-established Book 3 events, but that would also stand on its own as an interesting story line.

In addition to a main, galactic-war-related plot, all the Shadow Warrior books have a secondary, more personal plot. That presented a challenge in Book 2 until I considered: in Book 1, a relatively small Shadow Warrior force had defeated an enemy of fifty times as many warships. What if the upper hierarchy of naval command, far from the battle on their home planet, didn’t understand the unique strategy that had allowed victory, even at the cost of half its ships? What if they recalled the carrier commander in charge—the one whose faith in my crew had led to the victory—and court marshalled this commander before a military tribunal for her “excessive losses?” Not only would the crew be facing a new enemy threat, but they would also have to testify in an alien court to save their commander.

All this required not only lots of new plotting, but a great deal of rereading of the former Book 2 (now Book 3) and its “facts” log to be sure that details in my new story didn’t contradict the events of the following story. At the start, I mentally groaned and moaned a lot, trying to find excuses to ditch the new volume. But I stuck to it—and about three months later, I had finished the new Book 2. Further, my revisions to Book 3 were minimized, with careful, regular back-and-forth comparisons and reading, so that in fact I did not have to rewrite the third book to any great extent. In only about a month or so more than it took to complete Book 3, the new Book 2 was done and Book 3 altered as required. Problem solved.

In retrospect, I can identify three “take aways” from my experience. First, in a series about the same character or group of characters, they need to constantly mature and evolve—but that maturation/evolution must seem reasonable and natural. Second, careful plotting and story line management can assure that if you do have to change or rearrange your sequence of novels, the transition can be as painless as possible while bringing the maturation of your characters back into balance.

Finally, this exercise brought home to me rather graphically that when you deal with a set of characters over an extended series of volumes, since these characters constantly evolve, you must deal in each new volume with what is essentially a new set of characters.

Because the “old characters” are growing, maturing, and acquiring new abilities and capacities, you must constantly expand the texture and nature of their personalities and individualities. In my case, for example, the battle-hardened seventeen-year-old veterans of Book 3 were absolutely nothing like the timid, just-kidnapped sixteen-year olds of Book 1.

If your characters aren’t constantly becoming new versions of themselves, your reader will more than likely lose interest, as the characters can quickly become flat, featureless, and boring. It can be a hassle to pay attention to the maturity level and complexity of your characters, to help them grow, and to make them continually more well-rounded and interesting, but in my opinion, the result is worth the trouble!

 

 

With BSEE (SMU) and MSEE and PHDEE degrees (The University of Texas at Austin), Nathan Dodge was an engineer and engineering manager before joining the University of Texas at Dallas. After 16 years, he retired in 2014, although he still teaches half-time. He won several teaching awards at UTD.

Nathan began writing seriously in 2012 and has attended seven Superstars Writing Seminars. He has a story in the Purple Unicorn Anthology with daughter Sharon, a short story sale to Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, and recently sold the first book of a young adult science fiction series to WordFire Press. He and Sharon will soon release an anthology of SF stories, To the Stars.

In his spare time, of which there is surprisingly little, he loves weight lifting, hiking in Colorado, and solving crossword puzzles with wife Faye Lynn.