Changing my approach to writing a series

I’ve recently finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and one of the things that impressed me was how, over three separate books, the story changes. The second and third books don’t only move the story on, but also peel back multiple layers from what is already known, leading the reader to continually reassess what they already know. On finishing Acceptance (book 2), I had a strong urge to start the series again, to see how much of the ‘truth’ was already there.

The writer part of me can’t help wondering how VanderMeer wrote these books. Did he have the whole trilogy mapped out, or did the layers of the story reveal themselves as he worked on each book? Did he start Annihilation (book 1) with the idea of writing a single book and maybe seeing how things went after that, or was it a complete trilogy in his mind from the outset?

I’m thinking a lot about series at the moment as I’m currently working on the final three books in a nine-book series.

Normally, I work on books sequentially, only starting a book when the previous one is (almost) complete. I’ll have ideas for the whole series, and as I write one book I’ll be noting more detailed ideas for subsequent ones, but plans don’t always pan out‌—‌problems will become apparent as I write, or characters will do and say things that take the story in unexpected ways. While it’s possible to change a book in the process of writing it, changing previous books to fit in with these new developments is far more awkward.

I’m trying something different with this trilogy. The books need to work as stories on their own, but also be a satisfying close to the whole series story. I need to close all (or most) of the loops already opened, answering hanging question. But I also need to ensure that everything that happens in the concluding scenes has been adequately set up.

So I’m working on these new books simultaneously. I planned then all, and I’ve just had a very intense few months writing the first drafts for all three (385k words, well over 1000 pages). And already, I’ve stumbled on issues that I can now correct.

An example‌—‌I found a solution to a particular problem in the final act of the last book, but it relied on a character using a specific skill. This was something that fitted the character, but not something I’d mentioned in other books. If I used this skill with no set-up, it would feel like a deus-ex-machina, a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But now, I can seed this skill earlier, so its use at the end doesn’t come out of the blue.

Another example‌—‌there was a whole sequence of scenes I wrote in the third book that, on reflection, added too much confusion in that book, and were far more suited to being included in the book before. Not a problem‌—‌drag those scenes into the second book’s file, and insert them wherever appropriate.

Of course, there are problems with this way of working. If I’d concentrated on the first book, it would probably be getting close to completion by now, ready for release by the end of the year. But I won’t be able to release any of these books until well into 2021.

There’s compromise in everything, though, and on balance this new method seems to be working better for me‌—‌I’m crafting better stories, both individually and as a series, which is my primary concern here. It’s allowing me to more fully immerse myself in the overall story too. In fact, I fully intend to work in this way with the next series I start.

Writing’s never static‌—‌there’s always more to learn, different strategies and tactics to explore‌—‌so I’m sure my process will change again.

Story lessons from The Rise Of Skywalker

The art of telling stories is complex, and there is always more to learn. As I read books or watch films, I’m always on the lookout for tips and ideas, seeking to learn how good stories work and why other stories leave me unimpressed.

star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-logo

I went to see the latest Star Wars film recently, and while it was enjoyable enough as an escape for a couple of hours, the overall story didn’t excite me too much. I also didn’t feel it totally succeeded in closing the whole Star Wars nine-film epic story in a satisfying way.

When I analysed why this might be, I came up with a number of lessons for my own writing.

Lesson One: Actions should have consequences

There was one moment in The Rise Of Skywalker where I was genuinely excited for the direction the story was taking. Rey attempts to rescue a friend, but while using the Force she ends up destroying the craft she believes him to be on.

Kylo Ren has been trying to get Rey to join the dark side, and so far she’s resisted. But with a moment when her own mastery of the Force comes into question, and when ‘good’ use of the Force has such a negative outcome, surely Rey will start to doubt. This, I felt, was going to be the start of her descent toward possibly turning to the dark side.

But this wasn’t to be. In the very next scene, we (and Rey) learn that her friend was on a different craft. Her failure to use the Force ‘correctly’ has no consequence (at least, for her), and she carries on as if nothing has happened.

The problem goes deeper, though. If the choices a character makes has no bearing on their success or failure, then they’re just along for the ride. And if nothing they do really matters, why should I care about them?

Second lesson: Story events must come from somewhere

There’s a well-known saying‌—‌plot twists should be surprising yet inevitable. They should shock us in the moment, but in hindsight it should be clear that this was the only way events could be played out. Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense, and how it seems obvious on second viewing.

The Rise Of Skywalker fails in this right from the start, by suddenly mentioning that Palantine is not only alive and well, but also behind everything that happened over the two previous films. This reveal hasn’t been foreshadowed in these films, and his death seemed pretty definitive at the end of Return Of The Jedi.

It feels like a cheap move, or an attempt to pander to fans by bringing back an old character. Through the lens of story, it doesn’t work.

Just as actions must have consequences, events too must have origins. Otherwise, the story becomes nothing more than a bunch of stuff that happens.

Third lesson: The ending of a story is for tying everything together, not for introducing new characters and ideas.

There are some interesting ideas in The Rise Of Skywalker. We get insights into Poe’s back-story, and are introduced to a new (to us) character from his past. Also, we learn that Finn is not the only stormtrooper to have defected.

But this is the final chapter in a longer story. There isn’t the time orspace to develop these ideas, and ultimately they mean nothing. They feel tacked-on.

Maybe they serves some minor plot-point, or were an easy way to move the story on‌—‌but a well-told story would have found some other way of doing this. The ending should build on what has come before, not introduce new ideas and characters in order to work.

Lesson Four (the big one!): Have a vision for the whole story

The original Star Wars trilogy had a clear over-riding story (and I’ve written about this before, in this post), as did the prequel trilogy. But these latest three films, the sequel trilogy?

As one story, they’re a mess‌—‌and the reason for this seems to come down to a lack of clear direction. When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens, it seems like he had some idea of where things were going, introducing plenty of open loops. But in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson took things in his own direction (and, by all accounts, actively reversed many events set up in the previous film.) So in The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams had to weave together a whole array of disparate plots.

Whatever he did, he was always going to disappoint people‌—‌fans of Johnson’s direction would accuse him of trying to undo, rewrite or ignore the previous film, while fans of his first film of the trilogy would moan about how Johnson derailed the whole thing, forcing Abrams’ hand too much.

A story should build. Yes, it will probably go through twists and turns‌—‌but eventually, these will be resolved in a way that (in hindsight at least) makes sense. Again, a story is not just a bunch of stuff that happens, but a coherent whole.

This is true of individual stories (books, films etc), but also true of a series. The seeds of the eventual ending should be sown early on, and the final chapter (episode) should build on everything that has come before.


So, four reasons why The Rise Of Skywalker left me underwhelmed, as both its own story and the final chapter in a series. And (more importantly) four lessons that I can take into my own writing.

Can’t stand cliffhangers, but love open loops

Cliffhangers annoy me. When I read a book, I expect a full story. If I reach the end, and it stops with the hero in mortal danger, I feel cheated. I feel that either the writer hasn’t figured out the ending yet, or they’re using a very cynical marketing ploy to encourage me to buy more books.

This makes me less likely to continue. Unless the story really grabbed me, I won’t get any more in the series.

But open loops are different. If I reach the end of a complete story, but there’s an odd niggling question that hasn’t been answered, I’m intrigued. I’m satisfied that the story is finished, but I still want to know more. And with books like this, I’m far more likely to continue with the rest of the series.

Star Wars did this. The Death Star was destroyed, but Darth Vader still lived‌—‌the villain had been defeated, but not vanquished. The Empire Strikes Back had a more sombre ending, with more loops left open, but (apart from Han Solo, encased in carbonite), the characters all survived, ready for the next part of their fight against the Empire.

JumperSeries_SeanPlattDavidWrightSean Platt and David Wright’s Jumper series (at least, over the first few books) is another great example of open loops to drive a series. It begins with Jumper, the story of someone who wakes up each day in someone else’s body. They do what they can to minimise harming the people whose bodies they inhabit. But these hosts are all connected, and the main character is forced to make difficult choices to protect his hosts.

It’s an intriguing premise, reminiscent of Quantum Leap without feeling derivative. The book’s an enjoyable read, and tells a complete story‌—‌and then, we get the epilogue.

It feels like it’s going to tie up a few loose ends. But instead, the writers drop their bombshell. [Spoiler alert] There is more than one jumper.

This great little twist immediately builds interest in the second book, Karma Police.

The second book follows a similar pattern‌—‌the main character waking in different host bodies, being forced to solve a particular problem. But again, the writers open another loop. The main character talks to another jumper, and learns things that give rise to more questions than they answer.

It’s only once we’re through the first half of the series that the pattern breaks, and the final three books are more of a continuation of the same story rather than individual stories with hints of a larger overall arc. But by this time, the reader is hooked (at least, I was), invested enough in the overarching story that the individual tales don’t matter as much.

This is a hard trick to pull off, and I’m not convinced that Platt and Wright fully succeed‌—‌the last book felt too rushed, and I would’ve liked them to explore some of the ideas a little more. It was still good, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of earlier books. But, in the authors’ defence, they do push themselves with their writing, and even if the story isn’t totally successful there’s still a great deal to be enjoyed in these books.

And at least this series feels like it was planned out fully, something that unfortunately can’t be said all series.

I used to love watching The X-Files. The stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes were fun, but the development of the larger story (the ‘mythology’) was what kept me watching‌—‌at least, over the first few series. But by about series four, this larger story became more ridiculous. Rules that had been set up in earlier episodes were ignored, and it felt like the story was being changed as it went along. No, it was worse than that‌—‌it felt like the larger story hadn’t been thought through properly. It felt as if the writers were making it up as they went along.

You might argue that this is what writers do anyway. Fiction is make-believe, so all stories are made up. There are many popular authors, including Stephen King, who start writing with only a vague idea where the story will end up, discovering the details as they write.

But however a story is first written, it is always edited. Things are changed so that the story has a more satisfying arc.

And this is where I feel some series, such as The X-Files, fall down.

Planning a story take time and effort, a good story even more so. To develop a satisfying series, each book has to be planned, but so too does the overall story.

Of course, most series aren’t written in one go (although it is becoming more common, in independent publishing, to hold off releasing books until at least the first three in a series are completed). George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is still unfinished, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, initially only conceived as a six-book series, eventually stretched to fourteen, with the final few being written by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death. It’s hard to see how these series could have been planned out in their entirety in any detail.

This can make writing later books in a series harder‌—‌all those open loops have to be closed, and done so in a way that feels natural. Also, stuff in later books shouldn’t contradict what happened earlier. Yes, it is possible to change earlier books and produce new editions (which Tolkien did with The Hobbit, once he understood how it complemented the larger story of The Lord Of The Rings), but this is time-consuming, and disappoints readers of the original versions.

YesterdaysGone_SeanPlattDavidWrightWriting a series is hard‌—‌which makes ones that work even more impressive. So maybe I should be a bit more forgiving about cliff-hangers. After all, I enjoyed Platt & Wright’s first foray into fiction, the serialised Tomorrow’s Gone, where every ‘episode’ ended on a cliffhanger.

But Tomorrow’s Gone was structurally based on old TV shows, with episodes that formed seasons, and the complete story told over six seasons. They started with a very ‘throw everything out there’ idea, trusting themselves to bring the story together later. But (I believe) the final three seasons were planned in advance, so even though each episode ended on a cliffhanger, the writers knew exactly where the story was going.

I didn’t read Tomorrow’s Gone until it was finished, until I could devour the whole thing. I think reading it episode by episode, having to wait to find out what happened next, would’ve frustrated me. And maybe that’s why binge-watching is becoming so popular, and why some people hold off watching a series until at least a couple of seasons are available.

Cliffhangers can work, but the resolution can’t be held off too long. The excitement wears thin, and then we forget what happened, and instead remain with the dissatisfaction of having an unfinished story. I’m wary of reading a first book in any series now, and I’ll often check reviews to discover if it’s a complete story.

So don’t give me cliffhangers. Give me a story that keeps me reading. Show me that you can tell a satisfying tale. But sprinkle in a few open loops. Make me question some of the stuff happening just off the page. That way, you’ll keep me reading and buying more books.

What is a series?

There’s a common piece of writing advice that encourages new writers who want to make a success of their careers to write in a series. This does make a lot of sense, and there are many successful series writers (JK Rowling, James Patterson, Anne McCaffry, Jim Butcher)‌—‌but there are also those who tend to produce stand-alone books (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson).

But what is a series, and what is a stand-alone? King’s The Shining was a stand-alone, but a few years ago he produced a sequel in Doctor Sleep‌—‌so is this now a series?

This is worth looking into in a bit more detail, and although I’ll provide many examples, I’ll focus on two in particular‌—‌the books of Mark Dawson and the Star Wars franchise.
Let’s start at the beginning:

The pure stand-alone

This can be thought of as a story that is it’s own thing, unconnected to anything else. Generally, a stand-alone will have no loose ends, reaching a satisfying conclusion without the need to continue the story.

StarWarsThere are many examples of stand-alones‌—‌Andy Weir’s The Martian, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Tolstoy’s War And Peace. In some ways, before the sequels were released, the original Star Wars film (A New Hope) was a stand-alone‌—‌the Death Star had been destroyed, and the heroes won the day. However, Darth Vader survived, and already the seeds were sewn for a continuation of the story.

The series of stand-alones

JohnMilton_seriesMark Dawson’s John Milton books all feature the same fugitive main character, but each story involves a new adventure, and by the end of the book Milton has won through. Each book, therefore, is a stand-alone tale, but they are all connected by this same character. It isn’t necessary to read the series in order to enjoy the stories, because there is no (or very little) continuing story threads.

Milton is just one of a long line of characters to feature in series like this. Think of Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, or James Bond. Sometimes these stand-alone series use groups of characters‌—‌NCIS, CIS, and so on.

This kind of series works well where the central character (or group of characters) is involved in mysteries or crimes‌—‌each story involves a new puzzle to solve. It’s worth noting that the central character(s) remains fairly consistent‌—‌there isn’t a great deal of character growth.

This type of series can work for other genres, though, and one example is Iain M Banks’ Culture books. Here, rather than a central character, the books are all connected through a shared world.

The self-contained series

BeatrixRose_seriesIn one of the John Milton books, Mark Dawson introduced the character of Beatrix Rose. She was interesting enough to spawn her own spin-off series, and this is a self-contained trilogy telling the story of her tracking down those who have betrayed her. Each book is an episode of this quest, but by the end of the trilogy it is all over, and Beatrix’ story is told.

There are many more examples of this ‘story told over a number of books/films’ type of series. For many years, the original Star Wars trilogy was a complete story, but other examples include The Hunger Games, Twilight, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.

It’s interesting that many long-story series are trilogies. The first part gives a fairly rounded story, but leaves enough open loops for a sequel (Darth Vader survives, Katniss wins the game, but the tyranny is still the same, and so on). The second part forces the main characters to face many problems, and often ‘sets up’ the ending by leaving the story off with more questions than answers (Han Solo captured, Luke with his hand chopped off). In the third and final part, the characters fight back, overcoming increasing odds to save the day.

A diversion into spin-offs and side-stories

ROgueOneI mentioned a spin-off series above, but another term often heard is side-story, and this is perhaps the start of a spin-off. Basically, a side-story isn’t part of the main series, but is connected to it in some way. It might give more insight into events only hinted at in the main series (like Rogue One in the Star Wars universe), or explore the back-story of a particular character (like Solo).

Dawson’s Beatrix Rose started as a few side-story novellas, but there was a longer tale worth telling, and so he wrote her trilogy. So sometimes a side-story grows and becomes it’s own spin-off series‌—‌Buffy The Vampire Slayer spawned Angel, both Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood came from Doctor Who, Better Call Saul came from Breaking Bad, CSI and NCIS both have a whole host of spin-offs, as does Star Trek, and there’s now talk of a Game Of Thrones spin-off‌—‌and that’s just a small handful of examples.

The evolving series

StarWarsSeriesThe stories in a series often hint at deeper stories, and series can evolve over time. So we have the growing story of Star Wars, with the prequel trilogy and the films set after the events in Return Of The Jedi (as well as all the spin-offs in books and animation).

The Dune books are another example‌—‌the first one can be read as a stand-alone, Frank Herbert originally conceived it as a trilogy but wrote more sequels, and now other authors are expanding the story with prequels and other tales.

I should mention Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books here. A series of stand-alone tales based in the same world, recurring characters have grown and developed as they’ve featured in different books. Think of Vimes, who starts off as a down-on-his-luck guard trying to cope with the likes of Corporal Nobbs, and ends up as an ambassador with links to the nobility. ‘His’ books can be read in any order, but there is pleasure in reading them chronologically to appreciate his growth. But there are also so many characters, and such a rich world, that there always felt like more stories were yet to be told. As with the expanding world of Star Wars (or, as another example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films), each adventure gives rise to the potential for even more.

The continuing series / the serial

IsabellaRose_seriesSometimes, a series evolves with an on-going arc, and Dawson’s Isabella Rose books are like this. They follow Beatrix Rose’s daughter (who originally appeared in those Beatrix Rose books I mentioned above, making this a spin-off of a spin-off), but although certain loops are closed in each book, there is a large overall story growing, and none of the books really end with Isabella in perfect safety‌—‌as readers, we know there is more to come.

These are often called serials, and they are very likely to employ cliff-hanger endings‌—‌think of the old black-and-white TV shows like Flash Gordon. Although there are many who dislike them in books (especially when unexpected), they are undoubtedly one way to garner interest in the next instalment. They’re not as common in films (where viewers still expect a ‘complete’ experience), but are still used in many TV shows.

These types of series can come to an end (as Game Of Thrones is), with the final season tying up enough of the story threads to satisfy fans. But there are some shows that keep on going‌—‌soap operas. These involve many characters with intertwining story-lines, and viewers are often following many threads at once. As one story-line comes to a conclusion, others are already rushing along, so the viewer is continually drawn back to find out ‘what happens next’.


As I’ve hopefully shown, there is no simple stand-alone/series dichotomy, but rather many ways of telling stories, and of having those stories grow over time. Stand-alones can become series, and series can spawn stand-alone tales. Stories intertwine all the time‌—‌and even in a stand-alone, there are hints of more stories.

It does appear that writing in a series can maximise success‌—‌if that series proves popular. But this doesn’t mean a series has to start as something huge. Most of the examples mentioned above started small (a single Star Wars film, the first John Milton adventure), and grew over time. And this makes a lot of sense‌—‌stories are living things, and the telling of one opens up the possibilities of more. Even if a particular story doesn’t focus on them, there are always questions. If a writer/producer can create stories to answer the questions readers/viewers are asking, then the series will grow.

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.)