April 2021: Writing a Series

There are many reasons to want to write a series instead of a stand-alone work: maybe the story a creator has in mind is larger than can be encompassed by a single narrative arc or book or film or game. Maybe a creator wants to explore the features and narrative potentials of a single setting without necessarily being confined to the story of one event, or one life, or one location. Maybe a creator wants to secure a way to develop a fanbase around a given setting or series to secure a stable income by selling sequels or spinoffs – which is a perfectly valid thing for a professional creator to want, regardless of what others might think.

Whatever the reason, creating a series means taking into account several considerations which the creator of a standalone work might not necessarily have to deal with. That means if a creator wants to write a series, their best bet is to make that decision from the beginning, and to lay the groundwork for their series before they dive into the creation of their first installment. This month, I’ll be talking about how to make that decision, whether a creator should make that decision at all, what making that decision entails, and the things they should consider laying out before they begin the work of creation in earnest.

But before I start with that, I have to offer two things: a caveat and a warning.

First of all, I’d like to remind everyone that while I am currently writing two series with multiple published installments, I have not, as of yet, actually finished writing a series. The advice I can give is based on that profile of experiences. I can talk a lot about how to start or how to continue a series, but when it comes to wrapping one up, or dealing with a completed series, all of my knowledge is purely theoretical. I’m going to try to avoid talking too much about stuff I don’t have hands-on experience in, but when I do mention ending a series or dealing with a complete series, try to remember that this isn’t something I’m an authority on, and parse that advice accordingly.

Secondly, I’d like to remind everyone – especially new creators, that a series is not an easy thing to do. While it may seem like working with an established cast, narrative conventions, and plot threads from the first installment of a series onwards may make things easier, it really doesn’t. While establishing these series conventions will give a creator a foundation to build on in follow-up installments, that foundation can also prove to be constricting in unexpected ways, forcing the creator to wrestle with their own previously established characters and plot elements to get their narrative where they want to go. In addition, the first installment also sets certain expectations on the part of the audience – ones which will carry on for the rest of the series. The audience will expect a certain stylistic standard of writing, the influence of certain themes, the presence of certain characters; the sorts of things which bind a series together and make it consistent. Being required to fulfil such criteria can make things easier, but they also heavily limit the ways in which a story can go.

On top of this, there’s the fact that starting a series is considerably more of a commitment to starting a stand-alone work. The foundations a creator sets at the beginning will not just constrain them until that particular installment is finished, but until the end of the series as a whole, which means a creator could be working through the same set of narrative and worldbuilding constraints for years, if not decades. That can be a challenge for almost any creator. For new or inexperienced creators, who’ve yet to “professionalise” their creative process in a way which allows them to create content at a steady pace over long periods of time, a full series may end up seeming like an insurmountable challenge – one all too easily abandoned.

If you’re still considering starting a series after that, then I can’t stop you. After all Sabres of Infinity was my first published work, and it was intended as the first installment of a series from the start, so I’d be guilty of arch-hypocrisy if I argued otherwise.

Fundamentally, there are two types of series: closed and open. These distinguish themselves from each other primarily by structure. A closed series is one which planned from the very start to end. Its structure resembles that of a conventional narrative arc – just larger. An open series, on the other hand, is one which can go on indefinitely. Its installments are held together less by a unified narrative structure, and more by a shared setting, characters, and themes. Which type of series is better is determined by the kind of story a creator wants to tell.

A closed series is one which is best suited to tell a single grand, sweeping narrative over the course of multiple installments. While it is separated into different parts, it remains a cohesive story as a whole. The Lord of the Rings is, perhaps, the most well-known closed series, with each of the three (in reality six) books serving to tell a part of a unified story, building continuing plot threads and developing characters steadily through multiple installments to resolve itself in a final climax which has been built up, foreshadowed, and alluded to since the very beginning of the series. This sort of series is one which ultimately requires a lot of narrative pre-production. A Creator needs to know where the story is going, and how it’s going to get there. They need to have a general understand of which characters do what and where all the way up until the ending, or else they will find themselves with a tangle of plot threads and no way to turn them into a satisfying conclusion.

An Open series, on the other hand, is one which doesn’t necessarily have to end, and is considerably more episodic in structure, either by design or necessity. A creator does not have to understand where their series is going to end in this case because the series might never end at all. A lot of pulp fiction, detective serial, and thriller series are like this: with the series revolving around a set of central themes, a single institution, or even a single character, as they face new threats, obstacles, and narrative challenges in each individual title. Nobody knows (for example), how Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed are going to end up, because coming up with a conclusive ending to the Rocky/Creed series means no more sequels, and thus, no more money for its producers. However, we *do* know that any future sequels will be built around the presence of its namesake characters, as well as certain themes (Boxing, Family, Training Montages), which means that those sequels should (assuming they remain profitable) will be more or less instantly recognisable as part of that same series.

There is also a third type of series, which is often considered less of a series as it is a shared setting: stories which take place in the same world, with events and consequences that shape the world for other stories – even if those separate stories may not share themes or plot elements or characters. This sort of non-linear series is not one that necessarily rests on narrative or theme/character, but on worldbuilding. This is pretty common in the “expanded universes” of major franchises like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer 40 000, or Star Wars. Here, there are considerably fewer narrative and thematic constraints, but that means a higher emphasis on setting. When the setting is the main consistent element in between the different installments of the series, then the the series as a whole rests primarily the quality and consistency of the worldbuilding.

When a creator decides what kind of series they want to write, they are also deciding the most important factors in their series. However, regardless of type, there are going to be certain things which a creator is going to have to think about in a way different from how they’d consider if it they were simply writing a stand-alone narrative.

The most important of these, perhaps, is theme. That might sound like a pretentious term to some, but the truth is that themes are what bind a series together, and what makes sure that the stories in each individual installment feel like they are from the same coherent universe. This means a creator wants to pin down the major themes of their series early, and continually refer to them as time passes. That doesn’t mean they have to be obvious about it, but major themes (like, to use the examples I’ve already mentioned: the corruptibility of humanity in The Lord of the Rings, or determination as a key to victory in Rocky/Creed) should be established early on, be considered regularly.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a more episodic sort of series can’t have major themes unique to an individual installment, but if a series examines an entirely different set of themes with every new iteration, that’s going to mess with expectations in a way which won’t necessarily be conducive to good storytelling, or retaining a dedicated audience.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that while character development is important in just about any kind of long-form narrative, a series offers a creator the chance to really add a lot of texture and nuance to the way a character changes. Instead of requiring a character to change over the course of a single book or film or game, their presence in an entire installment can be devoted to establishing a given character as a certain type of person, with following installments devoted to showing slow, even unsure character growth or development. Of course, if a creator plans on showing a character develop over the course of a series, it’s important that they keep track of where a character is at any given point in the series – a character who seems to spend an entire installment becoming more complex or sympathetic only to snap back into their initial state with the next installment is a character which is hard for the audience to empathise with.

Both of these factors play into the need for consistency across a series. While what a series needs to be consistent about can vary from series to series, it is important that what a given series does need to be consistent about remains so. A series of books should, ideally, be written in the same style, a series of films should at least reference the same set of genre conventions, a series of games should have enough similarity in gameplay mechanics to allow players who enjoyed the gameplay of the first installment (be that gameplay narrative, exploratory, or combat-based) to enjoy the sequels.

Speaking of games, there is also one other thing a creator needs to keep in mind if they plan on working on a series of games, especially ones which allow for major player agency within the narrative with consequences which carry over from installment to installment: the further along a game narrative is, the more complex it becomes, as a developer has to account for and create content to reflect more and more world states. A decision which has two potential outcomes later on means that a developer has to produce both outcomes. If those outcomes lead to further choices which create further consequences, those outcomes also have to be modeled, and so on. There are ways to mitigate this. Choice of Games commonly uses what they call “delayed branching” to keep the number of end-states within reason. However, such methods only go so far. Generally speaking, the increasing number of game states at the end of a game will require more work than the singular (or in rare cases, multiple) initial game state at the beginning – and with a series, this effect becomes even more pronounced. If the second installment is able to import the end states from the first one, then those new initial states will in turn create more end states and so on and so on.

There’s a reason why Lords of Infinity is likely to be at least two and a half times larger in word count than Guns of Infinity – which itself was two and a half times larger in word count than Sabres of Infinity.

Lastly, there’s the matter of endings to consider. The importance of wrapping each installment up with a satisfying conclusion seems self-evident in the case of open-ended, episodic series, since each installment is supposed to be a narrative arc of its own, developing the themes of the series while also delivering a self-contained story. However, it’s just as important to deliver satisfying conclusions for the individual installments of closed series. That doesn’t mean that every installment needs to have a happy ending, it just means that at the end of every installment, some part of the overarching series plot should be resolved, or expanded, or transformed, based on the events of the previous installment. Without that conclusion, a series can feel like it’s going nowhere – something which can quickly lead to a disaffected audience.

This obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide to writing a series. That sort of thing would probably take a book (or a series of books) in itself. However, I hope that this overview has provided a few decent starting points for anyone considering starting a series themselves.

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