Wayward Pines, Star Wars and the Structure of a Series

 

I’ve just finished reading the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (okay, so it sometimes takes me a long time to get round to books), and I really enjoyed it. I loved the way Crouch evoked the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and when the truth behind the town of Wayward Pines was revealed, it was not at all what I was expecting. The trilogy was well-paced, and although I read them fast, they didn’t feel rushed. But there was one thing in particular that I kept on thinking about, and that was how well the series was structured.

In fact, the series structure reminded me a lot of the original Star Wars films. I’ll explain this in more detail as I go on.

The first book, Pines, starts off like an amnesia thriller (with a main character coming to after an accident and not understanding exactly what’s going on around him), and for the first half things get stranger and stranger. When the ending does come, it works well, bringing the book to a satisfying close while still leaving enough open for a sequel.

This is one thing that struck me — although the book is part of a series, it is also complete in itself. If I had not gone on to read others, or if Crouch had not written them, this book would still work. It’s like that first Star Wars film (IV, not I) — the story ends, yet there is so much more that could be explored in the story universe.

Wayward, the second book, picks things up a short while after the first finishes, and it has a different feel. Where the first book is more of a mystery, as the main character uncovers the truth of the town, the second looks at what he will do now that he knows this truth. And it’s good that it feels different — it’s not like a big-budget film sequel, where the story is basically the same, but the explosions are bigger and the body count is higher. Instead, it takes the original idea and expands on it.

Where the first book comes to a definite close, things are different at the close of the second book. Although the main story arc is brought to a conclusion, there is a huge cliffhanger. The hero manages to win, but the final chapter stars to show the dire consequences of this, and it’s clear that he’s not out of danger yet — in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Back to the Star Wars trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back. In that film, Luke has survived his duel with Darth Vader, but he’s lost a hand, and Han Solo’s frozen in carbonite. We know, as viewers, that the story is not yet over.

With Wayward Pines, if this had been the ending of the first book, I would have felt annoyed. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. Unless a book makes it pretty clear that there will be a cliffhanger ending (for instance, if it is clearly part of a serial), I expect some sort of complete story, and if the story is left hanging I feel tricked. Even if the story is good enough that I want to find out what happens next, a big part of me resents paying out for this. I’ve read too many continuing stories where, a few books in, it feels like the author has run out of steam, and I’m left reading something that fizzles out to nothing.

Yet I didn’t have a problem with this ending in Wayward. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there was a full story, despite the cliffhanger. Second, it was the second book in the series, not the first. I’d read enough to know I was enjoying the ride, and I was invested in the series. I went on to get the third because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I needed to know what happened next.

So on to the third book, The Last Town. It starts off exactly where the second ends, and the initial third is pretty much non-stop action. Initially this concerned me — I wondered if the action was being used to disguise a weak plot — but the story is solid when it kicks in. And, again, it was not simply a rehash of what had gone before.

The ending of the book works well, and also brings the complete trilogy to a solid conclusion. There is a single-line epilogue that leaves scope for more books, and there are plenty of aspects of the story-world that could be developed, but the trilogy feels like a whole. Although I’d happily buy more Wayward Pines books, I don’t need them in order to feel that I’ve had a great reading experience.

Again, this is like that original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are all the other stories, either films or books, and more are planned. But the original three films work on their own. I can explore more of this universe, but I don’t have to in order to understand the originals.

The way the Wayward Pines trilogy is structured gives me something else — confidence that Crouch won’t write a follow-on simply because ‘it will sell’. If there are more books, I would imagine they will be thought-out, and will expand on rather than retread ideas.

So as a summary, what have I learnt about the structure of a series from these books? This is personal, and you might not agree with this, but for me, there are three main things:

  • I don’t like to feel tricked into buying more books, so for me a complete story, with sequel potential, works well (especially as the first book in a series).
  • If there is a cliffhanger ending, the book still needs an overall story arc that is satisfying.
  • Second and third books should not simply be ‘more of the same’, but should push into other areas.

I’ll probably write more at some point on what I think makes a good or bad series (or serial), but I’ll leave it for now.

(See what I’ve done there? I’ve come to the conclusion of this post, but I’ve left it open for a sequel. Maybe the next time I write about this topic, I’ll have to make it a two-parter.)

Coming Soon!

It is still early days for this website, but I want to lay out what will be happening over the next few months. In part, this is to let you know what I’m up to, but it also helps with accountability. I’ve been writing seriously for about eighteen months now, and I know that this is only the start. I’m learning so much. There’s always more than I can do to improve my writing, and feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of the whole publishing and marketing stuff. I want to get better, and there’s the urge to wait until I’ve improved just that bit more, or until the time feels right to upload an e-book file. But I’m procrastination, and if I keep waiting, these stories will languish on my hard drive and never have the chance to be found by anyone.

I don’t want that. As scary as it is, I want others to read what I’ve written. So I need to stop waiting. I need an incentive to get these stories out there, and making a public declaration of this intention will give me the kick up the backside I need.

So, here goes. This is the plan:agenda-1458537_1280

  • By the end of August, I will release the first two novels in the Dominions series — Dark Glass and Dead Flesh. I’ll get these up on Amazon, Kobo, and wherever else I can. I will bring out the third novel, Deep Water, some time in October or November. I already have covers, and you can see the first one here.
  • To coincide with the release of the first two books, I will have a free short story available on this website (Gatekeeper — A Dominions Prologue), either to read on-line or to download.
  • I will also start a mailing list. I realise I’m an unknown, and so I will offer a free, exclusive novella (Control), again set in the Dominions universe, for anyone signing up.
  • I need to keep this website live, so I’ll aim to post something every week, although I might fall back to every couple of weeks (I’d like to do more, but I’m working on another book, and there’s the day job, and the family, and all the other life stuff that gets in the way). Sometimes this will be thoughts on what I’ve been reading, or how the writing’s going, or something else connected with books and stories. But I will also write more short stories, between 500 and 1000 words, specifically for this website.

And that’s it. Four steps to start my publishing adventure.

When I put it down like that, it doesn’t look too bad. I can do this. I just need to get the novels formatted, sort out the back and front matter, write some of the web content and make sure it’s edited, sort out the mailing list, upload the novels, make sure all the links work, carry on with the next novel, figure out where I’m going to get money for more editing and covers, try to sleep, tear my hair out (oops, too late for that), make time for the family, and keep smiling.

Where does this writing all start?

So this is it. I’ve got not one book but two almost ready to go (not counting a short story and a novella). It’s official — I’ve started writing.

But this isn’t the start. Of course it’s not. A book doesn’t simply appear (oh, if only it were that simple).

So where did this all start for me?

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Maybe it was January 2015. The start of a new year, and the point at which I decided to get serious about writing. I started getting up earlier. I took an idea for a story and planned it out. Then I sat down (I hadn’t sorted out a standing desk at this point) and wrote the thing that was to become Dark Glass, the first Dominions novel. And once I had the first draft of this one completed, I started work on the novella that would eventually be called Control.

But the ideas for Dark Glass had been knocking around before this time. And I’d already been writing. Every so often, in the evening, I would sit down with my laptop and type away. I had a few ideas. I had a start, and I knew the ending, but the middle was still a mystery. Without that route map, and without the dedication to make writing something I did every day, the story went nowhere.

So it that point, the summer of 2014, the start? No, because I already had one story completed by this point. I still have it saved somewhere. It’s about 50,000 words, and it’s pretty rough, but I think some of the ideas aren’t too bad. I might even do more work on it at some point.

But go back further, into the early nineties. At this point, I’m working seasonal jobs, spending most of the year in different places, then returning home in the winter, working shifts in a flour mill. There aren’t many of my old friends around back home now. So I’m filling in my spare time with a couple of exercise books and a pencil. This is in the last millennium. I don’t have a computer, so I write long-hand, starting at the first word and ploughing on until I reach the end.

Is it any good? No. I did edit it a few years later, but it’s a first novel, and like many such writings it deserves to rest in the back of a drawer. But it was a start.

Apart from the stuff that came before even this.

In my late teens, I’d occasionally knock out a short story. As a child I read constantly, and that went hand-in-hand with writing. I remember we had homework to write a story. I think our teacher wanted a minimum of five pages. I filled up two exercise books. And in junior school, a few of us decided to write different stories and put them together into a book. I had even seen somewhere in the town where we could get that done (oh, naive child that I was, not knowing what a Bookmakers really was!).

Probably, if I could go back far enough in my memories, there would be scraps of paper with single-sentence stories scrawled in crayon, with the rest of the page filled with a drawing. Maybe I was always coming up with stories.

So I have a couple of books out now. I’ve worked hard at them, from planning to writing, then on to editing. I’ve hired others to help with their birth. I’ve learnt about creating e-book files, and how to market. I’m treating this seriously, because I want to make something of this. I want to continue writing, putting out more books, coming up with more stories.

It’s something I’ve been doing for ages.

It started before I can even remember.