Monday, 30 January 2012

Writing Diary #59 - Book Series vs Book Serial

I think I'm a fairly patient person in most aspects of my life, but one thing I really can't stand is cliffhangers. I hate watching/reading works in progress and I dislike being left in the lurch by any plot. I'm the kind of person that, if a TV show has a two-parter, I'll save up both parts to watch at the same time. That doesn't mean I don't like continuing plot arcs that go through a series of books or episodes on a TV show, even through a series of movies, but when those arcs are stronger than the plot of a book/episode, such that I feel like I've been dragged along for the pure purpose of extending an arc, not getting any payoff in that book/episode, then I get pissy and stop watching/reading.

I did this with Babylon 5, which became a slave to its overarching arcs to the point where if you missed one episode you hadn't a hope of understanding the next. I've also been bitten by book series as well, professionally published, not self-published I hasten to add, which just didn't finish, the final books in the series were never published, namely, The Power of Five Series by Anthony Horowitz. And I know he's starting releasing them again, but he's changed them so dramatically that I hated the last one I read and have no plans to carry on reading the rest, ironically, it's the one I finished on the first time I read them and then I was desperate to find the next one.

The reason this all came to mind again is that I read a book this weekend that read on the blurb like a start of a standard series of YA paranormal books about a girl discovering the demon world. Nice premise, I thought, and duly started reading. Well, after a couple of hours, I wanted to keep on reading to the end of the plot, only problem was, the book had finished, minor subplot addressed, major plot (a murder), left hanging. As a reader, I was left dissatisfied and not in the, I want to read more now way.

Now, I know I'm a bit more sensitive to being left hanging than some readers, who would probably like this book, but I was left ticked off and just peeved enough not to look for the second book, the story just wasn't good enough for me to get over my own hump. So, I then slept on it and started thinking about the structure of stories and the duty a writer has to their reader.

Tash and I both have series of books just beginning and plans for other series and I began to think on these and what we have planned for them. My main one at the moment is The Haward Mysteries, a contemporary fantasy set of books and short stories. Ignoring the short stories, which are meant to be interludes, windows on to the world of the Haward Twins, each novel is a police investigation murder mystery and has a beginning, middle and end, but there is a strong subplot arc relating to the protagonists' back story that will develop through seven books and this subplot will have a strong influence on the final book. There are also other minor arcs that pop in and out. No surprises here then, the reader can expect a complete story from each book with some, hopefully, tantalising tendrils of subplot thrown in to encourage them to read the next book. I see the delivery of a complete story, with investment, development and paypoff to be part of my contract with any person reading my book; I won't waste their time and mine with prose that just pads out an arc that gives them no resolution at all in that piece.

The planning for The Haward Mysteries is complete, Tash and I (we are writing these books as a team), have the premises and arc points worked out for each book. However, for a few months, I and my muse have been pondering over another, very different set of stories, in fact, on the surface, it could break my own rules, because I am looking at it as one long story, but to be released as a serial in a set of short stories, a la the old fashioned Penny Dreadfuls. However, unlike classic Penny Dreadfuls, which relied on cliffhangers (you only have to read Dickens to spot the cliffhangers) I want each part to have a strong story of its own as well. Unlike Haward, they would not be standalone stories that can be read ostensibly in any order (ignoring subplot), they would have to be read one after the other, but I want to make certain there is a payoff for the reader in each part, I want to obey my rule, no arc builders. Since plots don't and shouldn't develop in completely equal length chunks, that means some of my short stories will be longer than others, no 1000 word limit like Dickens had for his serial parts, and I hope my readers will forgive me for that in favour of getting a good, substantial read.

Oh and, one important thing to me, because I've just been caught out like this: when I'm publishing this serial, I'm going to make it clear what it is, the short stories will be listed as Part 1, Part 2, not Book 1, Book 2, and the description will tell them it's a serial section; I don't intend to surprise my readers, they will know exactly what they are getting.

I'm looking forward to trying out this format, I am in the planning stages at the moment, splitting up the plot I have into cohesive sections. It has a totally different feel to developing a novel-format story, where I don't worry too much about chunking my plot up, I tend to find it just sort of flows when I'm developing a novel. This time, I'm finding that I am having to examine my plot hard to find the draw in each chunk, the thing that will keep a person reading, while still keeping the chunks to a reasonable length for a good, quick read. That's the opposite to a novel, in a novel, I find myself ripping out bits of the story that maybe interrupt the pace, sacrificing pieces to make the whole reading experience work. With short story chunks, within reason there is a bit more space for those extras, because, in some cases, they are what makes the short story a story in its own right.

I am finding that plot and subplot are much more equal in this type of format, little things are more important, because the horizon at the end of the over-all plot is further away, thus the characters, and therefore the reader are more focused on the next step, not the complete journey. Each subplot needs a beginning, a middle and an end as well as the overall plot, but neither can supersede the other. I think it is maintaining this balance between plot and subplot that will make this format succeed or fail for me: languish too long in a subplot and the reader may get bored and not care about moving on, but make it too light and the short story will break the no arc builders rule and, if the reader is like me, leave them dissatisfied.

One final point about this type of serial: I know the end before I start publishing the beginning. This is no work in progress, the subplots have to be carefully strung together to build towards the climax of the overall plot. That leaves the other type of serial, the one that has no obvious end, akin to a Soap Opera style of overlapping mini-plots. It sounds kind of fun :) and it has its own unique challenges (I personally think writers of Soap Operas are damn clever, being able to present and represent multiple plots in every episode so that any viewer, new or old, can pick up and enjoy in that episode without 20 years of back story). Maybe one day I might try it, but one challenge at a time. :)

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