Having made a general typology of series (with a lot of good comments on the DW version of that post in particular, unpacking the various gradations between what I called the Setting Series and the Cast Series — I’ll include those when I make a more polished version of these posts), I want to start chewing on “so how does one write one of these things, anyway?”
I mean, you can just start typing and not stop until you have lots of books. But I don’t recommend just charging in blindfolded like that. 😛
Obligatory Disclaimer: prescriptive writing advice is a mug’s game, since somebody will always come along with an example of people not doing it that way and ending up fine. This is me talking about what I suspect may be helpful, not what is required. It’s what I would say to somebody who feels adrift and needs some direction. And in that vein, I welcome comments about how other people view this process.
The first thing I would say to do is, consider what type of series you’re writing. Not in the sense of “oh, I must fit neatly into one of those pithily-named boxes or I’m Doing It Wrong,” but in the sense of knowing how much interconnection you want. This will partly be determined by individual preference (some people love strong arcs; some people don’t), and partly by the nature of what you’re writing: the conventions of the romance genre are not well set up for doing a long metaplot where the relationship of your two leads gets developed over the course of three or five books, while mystery, as mentioned before, is ideally suited to a more episodic structure, with variable amounts of growth and arc-ness in the background.
What type of series you’re writing can shift over time (and one of the things I want to chew on in a future post is how to make changes mid-stream), but anecdotally, I feel like the direction of the shift will almost always be toward a greater degree of interconnection. An Episodic Growth series may sprout an arc plot after a while, especially if the writer is looking to wrap it up with some kind of grand finale. A series that told a relatively self-contained story in its first volume may shift to being a Metaplot Series once the writer has the certainty of being contracted for more books; you see this a lot with trilogies, e.g. the original Star Wars going from “yay, battle won; medals for everybody!” at the end of its first installment to “shocking revelations, severed hands, and unfinished business” at the end of its second. Shifting in the other direction is odd: a series with an arc is unlikely to ditch that and go purely episodic, unless it’s headed toward a new arc (e.g. from season to season in a TV show). When a jump happens all the way to a Cast or Setting Series, what’s usually going on is that one series has been wrapped up and the author wants to start another — this being why the Setting type is so often a super-set of the other types.
Once you know what you’re writing . . . then what?
My main thought on this front leans on that typology: The closer your series is toward the discrete end of the spectrum, the more you benefit from having a foundation. The closer it is toward the interlinked end of the spectrum, the more you benefit from having a target.
Foundation first. One thing I admire about the Dragon Age franchise is that its creators did a very intelligent job of creating a setting that could support the franchise — a world with lots of narrative toys in it that could be used to generate plots. In the first game, the plot is that horrible monsters from underground are attacking the world at the direction of a draconic archdemon and spreading their corruption to the surface; your job is to stop that invasion and defeat the archdemon. But along the way to doing that, you encounter all kinds of other conflicts in the world. Mages are susceptible to demons, and as a result are supposed to be monitored and controlled by templars, with major tensions between those two groups. Elves once had an amazing civilization that got smashed and now they’re an oppressed underclass in the human world. The main religion has heresies. The qunari are invading the continent, many many miles away from where the story takes place. Etc. These things help generate side quests for the game, but they’re waaaaay larger than they need to be for that purpose.
Because those things exist, though, it’s easy to tell other Dragon Age stories that have nothing to do with darkspawn and archdemons and Blights. The second game focuses on the mage/templar conflict, with a substantial contribution by the qunari invasion. The third game digs into the elven stuff, as does one of the novels. It’s extremely fertile soil for many kinds of stories — which is exactly what you want, if you’re trying to create a franchise.
Or let’s say you’re writing a Cast Series in the romance model. Here your foundation is based in character: if you’ve got five brothers you intend to marry off, then you want to spend at least a little time thinking about their personalities and their conflicts, so that you put yourself in a good position to tell a new story about each of them. You don’t have to outline every single one of those books, or even necessarily know who they’re going to wind up marrying; their eventual partners may or may not be on stage in book one. But the brothers probably are, and knowing a bit about them now means that 1) they can be vivid personalities from the start and 2) you won’t paint yourself into a corner later on because you’ve run out of interesting ideas for them.
Even in the Episodic Growth type of series, there’s foundational work to be done. If you’re writing a procedural series about a detective, with the intent that the detective’s personal life will change over time, then it’s beneficial to set her up with some conflicts that can generate good side plots throughout. Maybe she’s got a drinking problem because of the trauma she’s already been through, which she’s trying to keep hidden. That means you can later make plot out of the problem getting worse, and her partner finding out, at which point she goes to rehab, but then later she falls off the wagon and her partner leaves her — you’ve got books’ worth of material right there. But you aren’t necessarily committing to that path; maybe she goes to rehab, but then her partner cheats on her, so she ditches the partner and spirals back down into alcoholism. You can also say she’s estranged from her family, which sets you up to have a relative show up eventually, with plot ensuing. Seeding two or three such things at the outset gives you something to work with in the longer term, separate from the individual plots of the episodes.
The reason you want to think about this ahead of time is that it reduces the need to pull something out of your ear later on — and the risk of the reader noticing. If Dragon Age hadn’t set up the mage/templar conflict at the outset but suddenly in the second game OMG mages are totally dangerous and can become demonic abominations . . . the player would be thoroughly justified in asking why this didn’t come up before, when they were running around with mages in their party. If one of the romantic brothers is a colorless non-entity who unexpectedly turns into a notorious rake because it’s time for his book, your reader will side-eye you; if the series is going well and so, uh, there are actually six brothers instead of five, that’s going to look like exactly the cheap trick it is. (You can try to say the extra one never got mentioned because he’s the bastard half-brother nobody talks about . . . but you’ve still missed your opportunity to set that up and make the reader crave his story.) And we’ve probably all had the irritating experience of following an episodic series where the writers abruptly graft a heretofore unsuspected problem onto a character because they need to generate new plot.
But if you’re coming at things from the interlinked end of the spectrum, I think it’s helpful to approach it with a different mindset. I’ve already been wordy enough, though, that I’ll save that for a later post.