Fighting the Formula

Even as Surreality revisions are kicking into full gear for the final release draft I’ve been thinking about the next book in the series. Typically my books go through a long outlining process, just typically entirely inside my head. I start to string together a plot by asking myself a series of questions. Since this is a murder I’m thinking of murder weapons and methods, motivations of the killer, potential clues left behind, etc. I usually will start picturing some of the more pivotal scenes as well, playing them out like I was watching them, sometimes set to music on my commute.

But as I was putting this next story together I was starting to recognize some of the same beats and scene breaks, and general overall structure as the previous book. I’m picturing the same kind of book, just with a different crime.

Series mysteries often have a formula and it isn’t always a bad thing. My wife likes the Kathy Reichs books and many of them follow the same pacing, though after a few it can make you want to put down an author. This certainly happened for me with Elizabeth Peters. Though I love her historical archaeological mysteries, structurally books 7-11 are largely the same, particularly in the aspects of how they get to Egypt, sail on their Dahabeeyah, etc.

So I’be been trying to think of ways to break formula, to make my second book have a similar tone to the fist one, and obviously the same set of main characters, but to take us into a different kind of mystery than the first.

One idea I had last week was the timespan of the book. The core of the first Surreality takes place over the course of several weeks with the crime happening several weeks prior to the start of the book, and the denouement occurring a few weeks later. But some criminal cases can take months or even years to solve, so this next book might have a longer timespan, something like 4-6 months. The advantage to this is that you can introduce characters in the opening chapters who have an evolving and growing relationship with your main characters even over the course of a single book. You could introduce a new love interest, or a friendship, or even an adversary, beyond just the primary antagonist of the murderer.

I also thinking that series mysteries live and die in the B story more than particular crime. It’s the growth of the characters, their interpersonal relationships, that often keep people coming back for more. Sure sometimes it’s just good to read a good puzzle, but that’s a much more casual experience than I think most authors want you to have with their work. In my case the secondary plot is a tough one to figure out pacing, and it’s as much what drove the longer time-line as the crime, but it hopefully will give me the time to explore a thoughtful avenue that will tie in events from the first book and even prior to the first book, all while setting our character up for what I plan to throw at him in book three.

And that’s the third way to break formula, know where the series is going beyond the book you’re writing. Have an overall direction and trajectory for each character and make each story more than just a signpost. Make it a fork in the road, a path that will lead through many twists and turns but inevitably to your conclusion. In this way the books of a series can almost be like chapters, and chapters can have a lot of variety in structure and formula.

And not everything has to be thrown out. Sometimes a beat or type of scene works for you. Some of that stuff is your voice as an author, is part of the overall thing you’re trying to say with your whole body of work. Ultimately, as with pretty much every writing decision, you have to do what feels right to you, while maintaining the freedom to experiment.

Have any of you worked on a longer series? How have you kept each book fresh? Or, alternatively, if you are a reader of series mysteries, what keeps you coming back for more with each author, formula or no formula.

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