Tag Archives: Series

Structure not formula

It may sound a little silly to you that I’m already worrying about the next couple of Surreality books before the first one is even released. Then again, if you’re one of the writers in my audience you may know this affliction all too well.

Continuing mystery series, or long ongoing series of any genre, can suffer from repetitiveness. We see this in the police procedurals on TV, or in the long running series of J. D. Robb, Janet Evanovich or Kathy Reichs. This is not to say that any one book isn’t good, and they’re all enjoyable, but I think a lot of writers don’t want to think they keep repeating themselves in everything they do. (Though admittedly if we all had the kind of success as those three writers maybe we wouldn’t care so much).

Case in point in my own work. In the first book about two-thirds of the way through I have a chase scene. People from multiple angles and elevations going after one man trying to evade them. This is one of my favorite scenes in the book (and it didn’t even exist until this draft). The scene grew from a decision I made to not kill a character off earlier in the book (as I had in the previous two drafts), giving him the space to wreak more mayhem later on.

Now, as I start to plot in my head the action for the second book I have another chase scene in mind. Completely different setting of course, and with a different outcome, one that I hope has lasting consequences for the remainder of that book, but still hits some of the same notes.

Now you might think that I’m doing this because I’m particularly good at writing chase scenes, or because it just naturally works for the stories I construct. Truth is action of any kind is difficult. I have a very clear picture in my head of which punches are thrown, which guns are fired, and have even moved physically through some of the places where I set scenes. But action is deeply challenging and takes a lot of work to get right. Hopefully by the time either of these books is released what I see in my head will be conveyed on the page, but I’m certainly not doing this because it’s my strongest suit.

To a certain degree all detective fiction has the same structure, a crime occurs, the detectives look for clues and grill suspects, sometimes go down blind alleys before arriving at the truth (or at least some explanation). The fun is in the variation, in the character interaction, and the particulars of the crime and suspects.

And structure can actually be extremely helpful to the writer. For the serial novella I’m presenting on this blog I’m keep a pretty fixed structure. Each scene is a multiple of about 600 words with chapters being 2500 words total. For the first, last and possibly some interim chapters all four characters will appear in short scenes, but for the rest it’ll probably be two long (1250 word) scenes per chapter focusing on two characters. I might throw in a full length chapter tied into one character as the story progresses, but mostly the structure will be two or four scenes in manageable lengths.

This structure is helpful for a couple of reasons. Since I’m writing on a deadline, it helps to have specific parameters for what I’m going to deliver every two weeks. And the 600 word scene fits in nicely for what I’m used to doing with the blog every day. Changing characters allows me to keep my brain fresher and sustain longer writing sessions, and it also gives me a chance to play with the interleaving narrative, something I’ve never really tried. Except for my very first book, I’ve tended to stay with one character and follow them in linear fashion to the end, but the demands of this novella are different. Structure helps to define story and keep it moving along, and story defines structure.

With Surreality and its potential sequels I am a little more free-form, though for the most part chapters are the same length, end on a sentence that tries to get you to turn the next page, and are made up of two to three scenes. It follows the traditional rising/falling action structure of most fiction and I drop the appropriate bodies (figuratively or literally) as needed. If this were a formula situation I would have X blind alleys, Y character moments, Z action moments and Theta moral outcomes.

To combat this I have changed the nature of the murder, it’s impact on the characters, their relationships to each other and added a through line from events in the first book. So they may both have chase scenes at 67%, but the characters running in them are in a different place.

So to me the best answer to formula, and it’s taken me a while to get round to this, is characters. If each book is essentially a reset of the first, then you’re in a formula situation. If however, if each book has a similar structure, but assumes the impact of events that have come before, then we break with formula. Structure can help get a book finished, organize scenes, and keep the reader interested. Formula just gives them more of the same.

And by the way this doesn’t always have to be true in series fiction. It is quite possible for a writer to follow the same basic formula even if all of the set pieces are different.

How do you avoid formula? What structures do you employ to write (or is this just an engineer thing)?

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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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Stand Alone Complex

Why are so many books turned into series or as Julia Eccleshare asks it, why are there so few standalone books?

I’ve talked previously about series in which the first book is the best the series has to offer. Some first books standalone because they were written without a series in mind. Other first books set up the premise for the books that follow and do not necessarily have a satisfactory ending. This is not bad in and of itself, especially if you come to the series long after it is published and are able to plow through the successive cliff-hangers without interruption.

What interested me about Eccleshare’s piece was that the main disadvantage of series is the difficulty in picking up a random book in the sequence and reading without going back to the beginning. How can the middle titles of a story work better for those who haven’t been on the journey from the beginning, and yet still provide depth to those who have?

To answer this question we should consider two kinds of series, episodic and epic.

Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum books are a good example of an episodic series. While reading the previous books sometimes enriches the experience, it is by no means required that you read book 1 before reading book 13. Each story or mystery is fairly self contained, and the romantic triangle in each story progresses at such a slow pace that it never actually resolves. It’s unlikely Stephanie will ever choose which of the men in her life to be with, and if she does it will be the last book, so it doesn’t really matter from book to book who she’s with. An older example is Agatha Christie’s Poirot which, while it does have a timeline and final book, does not build much on events that have happened before. Neither of these series are hard to drop in on, but the drawback is that while the individual “case” can be interesting, the main characters don’t change a whole lot.

Epic series can be any length, but their primary feature is that events in later books build or depend on events in the previous books. Characters can change drastically over the course of the series, or even spawn new generations. Often there is a final confrontation the series is moving toward and the middle books are the bumps in the road on the way to that final destination. Depending on the author’s intention the books can all be considered part of one epic storyline, or self contained episodes taking place in the same universe (i.e. a series is 7 books long but the story is really in 3 chunks, Books 1-3, 4-5 and 6-7). It is these “chunked” epic series that I think are the ones with the best possibilities for dropping in mid-stream.

This blurs the lines a little between series and universe. The chunking example from above is the rough structure of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. All take place in the same universe over a roughly 500 year span of time. Additionally, however, there are connections to other Asimov series (his Empire and Robot novels), that form a larger timeline. Tolkien is the same way, with The Hobbit as sort of the gateway drug to The Lord Of The Rings, but with other books and notes taking place in middle earth as well. An author who writes in a universe (in my case the Trubeverse, jk), can have many series or standalone books that all play by the same rough set of rules, and so are easier to pick up outside of the “canon” order, but provide a rich tapestry when read all together. The Sandman graphic novel series is another good example of this type.

The antithesis of this is the fractured series. This is a sub-type of the epic series, but there is really only one story being told. A fractured series could be restructured into one long book, and may have even been originally written that way. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy might be one of these, though it is kind-of on the line. From what I understand (and please correct me if I am wrong), The Hunger Games is definitely an example of this fractured type, 3 books that really could’ve been just one long book. This is the type that is probably the most frustrating to pick a random book out of order since it is quite literally the middle of one story.

There are other series that fall kind-of in the middle of these two, that have episodes that build toward an epic confrontation, with each successive book becoming more dependent on knowledge of what has come before (Harry Potter might be a good example of this).

I personally love universe books. It allows you to form a comfortable set of assumptions about the world you are playing in, the 3 Laws of Robotics or the Kingdom of Manticore, but still tell unique stories about the individuals living in that world. Complex histories can be constructed which can be resolved and tie threads together from many directions, not just one linear fractured one. I’m working as a writer to form my own universe (or maybe a couple), and I love thinking about the different periods of times and how they might eventually tie together.

What kinds of series do you like to read? Do you prefer a more episodic or epic storyline? Are there other categories of series you can think of?

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