Category Archives: Mary Pletsch

Seeding the Future

Some series are structured from the beginning; others are open-ended.  If you don’t know how long your series will go on–if you want the possibility to add more books if it does well–then you’ll do yourself a favour by seeding ideas for the future.

This technique might not be useful for you if your series is highly structured and working towards a certain predetermined end.  For example, the Harry Potter series was planned from the beginning to be seven books long–one for each of Harry’s years at Hogwarts.

But suppose your series is about the crew of a starship.  You’re sure you could write a lot of books about their adventures.  Or suppose your series is about a detective.  You’d like to be able to write a number of stories about her cases.   How long these two series will be is going to depend in large part on how well the early books sell.  Based on sales, you’ll choose whether to extend the series, or whether to write something else.

If you’re extending your series, you don’t want each book to become Episode of the Week.  A new crime to solve, a new planet to explore–but so what?  One way to make each book “count” is to reveal more about your characters.  Maybe one of them changes in a meaningful way.  Or maybe we find out about someone’s past.  Or maybe two characters start (or end) a relationship.

And then there’s your seeds.

The navigator of your starship crew always wears a helmet.  Nobody’s ever seen his face.  In the first few books, this fact is just a matter of mild curiosity.  But if you need a story idea for a later book—take off that helmet.  Has he assumed someone else’s identity?  Is he an alien?  Is he hiding an injury or a secret?

Your detective believes that her son died after meeting with foul play.  His body was never recovered.  In the first few books, this tragic past is why she became a detective.  But if you need a story idea for a later book–one of the criminals she arrests has a tip that her son may be alive.

If you choose not to extend the series, these “hooks” become background information, matters of curiosity, things mentioned in passing, general “flavor.”  But if you do choose to write more books later, you’ll have ideas to explore that have been “written into” the series from the beginning.

It is possible to go overboard on the story seeds.  If your starship crew spend the earlier books constantly wonder what’s under the navigator’s helmet, then your audience will feel dissatisfied if they don’t ever find out.  You also don’t want to overly restrict future stories by laying too many hints that you can’t contradict later on.  You’ll have trouble making your detective the youngest of six daughtersif you mentioned in book one that she’s an only child!

But if you seed ideas into your earlier books, then if you extend your series, your later books won’t feel like “add-ons made up off the top of your head”.  They’ll tie into previous books, expanding on ideas that you suggested from the very beginning.  And if your characters grow and change, or if your audience learns more about them, then your series will maintain a sense of continuity–and possibly take both you and your readers to some surprising new places.

Episodic Vs Sequential: TV Shows and Novel Series

TV storytelling has changed with the advent of VCRs, DVDs and streaming services.  In the golden age of TV, it was much more common for each episode of a TV show to be a self-contained story.

The reason is simple:  showrunners couldn’t presume that viewers had been able to watch the previous episodes.  If you were busy during the show’s airing time, then you missed the show.  So, it made sense for each episode to stand alone.  Title sequences introduced new viewers to the show’s characters, theme and mood.  Even if you’d never seen a show before, you could get a pretty good idea what it was about before the day’s episode started.  (And title sequences are getting shorter these days, or being left out entirely, now that most viewers no longer need them to learn about the show they’re about to see.)

The problem with episodic storytelling is that it’s more difficult to show long-term character development, or to give events permanent consequences.  In its purest form, the end of the episode presses the reset button, returning the characters to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode.  Still, some shows developed a certain sense of continuity:  origin episodes, introduction of new characters or departure of old ones, key events in season finales.

With the advent of the VCR, people could record shows and watch them later at their convenience.  And now, with streaming services, it’s become common for viewers to “binge” on a show and watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

(This is not to say that the golden age of TV didn’t have serials–soap operas, anyone?–or that there isn’t great episodic TV being made right now. )

But general trends changed when it became easier for people to keep up with their favourite shows.  When data suggested that people enjoyed viewing shows in a single sitting (or two or three), showrunners naturally made shows catering to those kind of viewing habits.  There’s now a strong trend towards “bingeable” shows – long running serials that tell a multi-thread story over the course of a season, and an even bigger story over the course of a series.  Actions have consequences, and characters grow and change – but it’s rare for a viewer to pick a random episode in the middle of a series just to “check it out,” now that it’s easier to start at the beginning.

When you’re writing a novel series, which model do you want to follow?

In part, it depends on genre.  For example, if you’re writing a category romance novel series, it’s often expected that a new reader should be able to pick up a book at any point in the series and enjoy the story.  Additionally, romance stories derive their tension from showing how the hero and heroine get together–tension that’s hard to show once they’re an established couple.   As a result, category romance series have developed a certain pattern.  Each book in the series takes place in the same world, but each book (usually) focuses on a new hero and heroine.  The supporting characters are often either the heroes/heroines of previous books, or future hero/heroines of upcoming stories.  As a result, fans are able to return to a world they love, while new readers won’t be lost if they aren’t familiar with the supporting characters from previous books, and the primary tension is still focused on watching a couple overcome their obstacles to be together.  However, this formula makes it difficult to show character relationships growing and changing beyond the book that the characters “star” in.

On the other hand, some series all but require you read them in order, or you’ll be lost continuity-wise.  For myself, I love a big, ongoing, developing story where characters’ actions have consequences, and the plot unfolds based on the choices the characters made previously.  But this technique makes it harder for new readers to “jump in” in the middle.

And some series walk a middle line.  Each book is a self-contained arc, but if you put them together, you’ll also see a series-long story arc developing.  For example, in some mystery series, a new mystery gets solved in each book, but as the series progresses, the main characters  change, develop, and grow, giving the series a sense of continuity and ongoing development.

In large part, it depends on what you as a writer want to do.  Do you want to write a series where each book focuses on a different character in the same universe?  Do you want the flexibility to add “new adventures” if the series takes off?

Or do you have a long-term vision for a story that’s too long for just one (or three, or more) books to hold?  Do you want to show a character growing and changing over the long term, and do you believe that you can convince audiences to care about this character, to choose to spend time in their company over and over again?

If the first book in a series hooks a reader, they’re likely to come back for more—particularly when they feel that the story is “going somewhere” and that each book “matters” because events have consequences.  But there’s also something to be said for a format that’s welcoming to new readers, and doesn’t require them to put Book 4 back on the shelf and go looking for Book 1 in order to understand what’s going on.  There’s audiences for both types of series (as well as the middle gorund) so choose what method best suits your genre and the story you want to tell.


About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.


How Not To Torture Your Artist

Yesterday I wrote about my first opportunity to write a comic script.  I talked about the differences between writing a short story and writing a script for a comic book.

There are some very talented folks (i.e. Nick Roche – Sins of the Wreckers; Hiromu Arakawa – Fullmetal Alchemist; Naoko Takeuchi – Sailor Moon) who can write plot/dialogue and also draw the art to go with it.  I know my art skills aren’t equal to my writing skills.  So I was paired up with a talented artist who would draw the fan comic I wrote.

There are different ways to write comic scripts.  Sometimes the writer describes the entire story in a few paragraphs, leaving it to the artist to break it up into panels, and then going back later to fill in dialogue on the relevant panels.  On the other extreme, the writer can describe each panel in minute detail, but that gives the artist far less room to contribute creatively.

I wanted to make sure the finished product would tell the story I had in mind, but I also didn’t want to reduce the artist to a servant who could only draw what I described.  In writing my script , I tried to find a middle ground.

I described an idea (or a few possible ideas) for each panel, and I mentioned if there was some crucial item or action that had to be drawn in order for the story to make sense.  Beyond that, I gave my artist freedom to choose what they wanted to draw and how they wanted to draw it.  As a fan project, it was intended to be fun for both of us.  To me that meant giving the artist some room to interpret the scenes and contribute to the storytelling by imagining the characters’ expressions, gestures and locations.

Writing a comic script challenged me as a writer.  I couldn’t rely on the luxury of multiple paragraphs of internal dialogue to explain how my characters came to their decisions and what they truly felt.  I had to communicate their thoughts and feelings through gesture, expression and (limited) spoken dialogue.  I had to up my game of description and dialogue.  And I had to do it with a very, very limited number of words.

And I had to do it in collaboration with someone else–an artist with their own interpretation of the characters, the dialogue and the story.

The actual script wasn’t that long, yet the time it took me to write was easily the time I devote to a short story five times the length.

I’d love to get the opportunity to write more comics scripts in the future.  I learned a lot from my first.  I want to improve my balance between action and dialogue.  I would love to see if I could tell a story with no narration boxes whatsoever.

Comics scripts aren’t just short stories with pictures.  They’re a whole new means of storytelling.

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.


Writing Comics Scripts

I had the opportunity to take part in an unofficial fandom magazine where I was able to write a comic script for the very first time. Another fan, an artist, volunteered to draw the story, if I provided the script.

It was going to be just like a short story, right?

…not so much.  Writing comics scripts is an art of its own.

I like to write a lot of internal dialogue.  How two characters can interpret the same event differently.  How people decide how much of their true selves to show.  How characters talk themselves out of–or into–giving in to their impulses.   I find it interesting to explore how characters think.

Internal dialogue is a lot harder in comics.  I was still able to do some of it, using small narration boxes, but I had to make an effort to put as much as possible into dialogue and visuals so that the artist could show the characters actively doing things.

Speaking of dialogue.  Nobody likes word balloons that cover half the panel.  To give my artist room to showcase their art (and show what the characters were doing) I had to prune out every non-essential sentence.  Then prune again.  Is there a phrase that would convey the same meaning as a sentence?  A word that would convey the same meaning as a phrase?

“Talking heads” are boring.  For every panel, I didn’t just write the dialogue.  I also had to describe what the characters would be doing in the panel.  Comics rely on the art and the dialogue complimenting one another and telling the story together.

And on the topic of collaboration…someone else was doing the art, and I had to take that person into account, as well.

Come back tomorrow for How Not To Torture Your Artist.

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.