Serial narratives

I’ve been working on some short fiction lately, taking advantage of the gap between manuscript submission and incoming edits to explore a few smaller ideas.  And, as is usually the case, when I’m working on something short I start trying to figure out how to handle a much longer story.  Something about the restrictions of the form automatically makes me look outside it at other models.

I’m not talking about novels.  Novels give you a lot more freedom in some ways: you have breathing space to add a few digressions or asides, you can develop more characters than the few who surface in a short story, and yet there’s an expectation that the main plot threads will at least be tied off by the end of it, the heroes riding off into the sunset/nuclear explosion or however you end it.

What I’m talking about is serial fiction, in any number of formats.  Think TV shows with season-spanning story arcs.  Long-running comics or manga.  And yes, multi-volume series of novels as well, though those tend to add another level of complexity.

There are certain stories that just don’t seem to fit in the mental space I’ve laid out for novels.  Sometimes it’s a matter of time — events over decades, or centuries, particularly if the generation of characters changes with it — sometimes it’s space, sometimes it’s just scope.  Serial fiction seems to offer a way around that: you build the world and the work piece by piece, each story separate but creating a larger picture.  There’s something about that that both intrigues and worries me, since it seems like matters could go off the rails at any moment.

(I admit part of the reason I’m thinking about this is that I’m watching the last season of Lost (wtf?  just wtf?  more wtf!) and, as a friend pointed out, this is a pretty singular experiment.  Lost is an incredibly expensive show, and the odds of seeing something like it again are unlikely even without knowing whether it’ll pull off the multi-season arc.  Yes, we’ll probably see more shows with season-long arcs, but something on this scale may be a one-time thing.  (Of course, I’m saying that after HBO’s given the green light to A Song of Ice and Fire, and yeah, that’s even more complex, so we’ll see whether that keeps going.  Hope so.)  But part of the reason Lost worked so well is that for every question it answered, it added three more.  That’s something you can’t do easily in a short story form, or even in novel form (unless you’re very, very good at balancing reader expectations).  )

When working on the Evie books, I didn’t think of them as a long serial, though I’d tossed around the possibility of writing more after the third.  But I still found myself dropping in ideas — sometimes without really noticing them the first time through — that would be useful if I decided to pick them up later on.  The Unbound Book, for example, or Woodfin’s traveling ministry, or the shadowcatchers.  But I still found myself worrying that these would be more of a distraction than anything else.  (One of my early readers used to pick up on throwaway lines I’d added to a story for verisimilitude and demand to know more about them.  At first I got irritated with her for focusing on the wrong thing; later I realized that if one line was more interesting than the rest of the story, I was doing something wrong.)

What is it about long-running serial fiction that’s such a draw?  (Or is it a draw at all, for you?)  Are there ways in which the depth of detail in such a work can be off-putting, rather than immersive?  Is it better just to follow a world through standalone pieces, or does there need to be some underlying connection?  And, just for the hell of it, what are some of your favorite serial works?

9 Responses to “Serial narratives”

  1. March 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I find the difficulties involved in massive serial story telling fascinating. How on earth can one creator/group of creators make a story so large, rich, and complex that to tell that story in less than 12 books / 80+ television episodes seems impossible in retrospect?

    I have to mention Babylon 5, the most remarkable instance of serial television I’ve ever seen. A single story with dozens of plot threads wound through 4 years of television episodes, the whole of which was plotted before the pilot was filmed. An astonishing achievement.

  2. 2 Jeremy
    March 9, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Babylon 5 was the first thing that sprang to mind for me as well — the first four years were all one big story arc, and the fifth was aftermath and tying up loose ends. There were certainly bumps along the way, some of which were handled exceptionally well (the changing of captains after season 1), and some were a fair bit rougher (the actress who played Ivonova leaving after season 4), but overall I thought it really helped to make the show.

    I’d assumed the Evie books were planned to be serial fiction with no set ending from the beginning, so I’m a little surprised to hear they’re (at least for the moment) just a trilogy. Especially after reading Wild Hunt, I’d gotten a strong impression that you were gradually building your supporting cast and laying the groundwork for Evie to start exploring and finding her place in the undercurrent of Boston.

  3. 3 Jeremy
    March 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Oh, and since I didn’t address any of the questions, here goes:

    My draw to serial fiction is that it really allows you to get to know the world and the characters that inhabit it. It can backfire — Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon were outstanding, but Hannibal and especially Hannibal Rising didn’t measure up. Hannibal Lecter proves to be a much more awe-inspiring supporting character than protagonist. The level of detail isn’t a negative to me (rather the opposite, mostly), although the amount of time between installments is. Waiting a year or more between releases isn’t something I have an easy time with — it’s not unknown for me to decide to wait until all the volumes of a trilogy are out before buying it, for example. I count myself very lucky that you and Diana both had your second volumes coming out not terribly long after I finished the first, although now I’m in that state of anticipation/frustration as I wait for my next fixthe next volume knowing it won’t be soon. There’s also the big danger of pacing, as anyone who’s started reading the Wheel of Time and grown frustrated with it can tell you — especially if they’re telling a specific tale, stories have to end sometime; stories that are more open-ended have an easier time with this.

    As for connection or standalone, I tend to prefer a connection of some kind (though it does not have to be sequential.) Charles de Lint’s Newford stories are a great example of being connected without being sequential, in that you see many of the same characters throughout, although often from different POVs. Steven Brust’s Taltos novels still qualify as a series, although he deliberately doesn’t write them in sequential order (which can be confusing at times, but also means you don’t have to worry about going back and rereading all of them in order to have the current one make sense.) My third and final example of serial fiction that I particularly enjoy would have to be the Dresden Files — in this case sequential and definitely building on what came before, but really gives you a chance to see Harry and the rest of the cast evolve as characters as events unfold.

  4. March 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    If you think about how many times you’ve heard someone say “The story is about the characters” (or a variation thereof), you’ll begin to get an idea of how serials work. In a serial, the characters themselves are the draw, and the plots and arcs are just a convenient way to present the characters in action. All the depth and background is just that, background. As long as the focus is on the characters, people will keep watching/reading/whatever.
    That’s why so many book adaptations are movies or miniseries instead of full shows. They don’t jive with serial structure.

  5. 5 mlronald
    March 10, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Ulysses, Babylon 5 was probably my first introduction to it as well (I’m trying to remember whether I watched any of the big plot-heavy anime series before then, and I’m drawing a blank). It was also my first introduction to “sit down with friends and catch up on the backstory” evenings, which were a hell of a lot of fun — and still are, especially when we’re going through new series.

    Jeremy, that’s probably why I missed a lot of Season 5, but overall, yes, the way it handled the different threads was something that drew me to the series.

    As for the Evie books, I still don’t think of them as a trilogy; it’s more that I had a good idea of what the first three books should be and more fuzzy ideas of where I could go from there. It’s a more open-ended storytelling than the definite arc of four seasons in Babylon 5, and that’s both freeing and a little worrying at times. But yeah, I’ve been laying groundwork, and now I think I may start playing with what I’ve laid out.

    Pacing through one book is hard enough to keep going; the idea of carrying it through four or more books is daunting to say the least. A friend’s mentioned that that’s why she plans on coming back to the Wheel of Time series once it’s done; that sense of Something Huge About To Happen is so deeply a part of the story, but to have it there for several books does strange things to one’s expectations. (I haven’t read them in a while, so can’t speak to it myself, but will probably go back once the series is complete.)

    Atsiko, I think you’ve hit on the key. There are certain shows where I don’t care so much about the plot, but the characters have completely hooked me. So long as I get to see more of them, I’ll read along or keep watching. I wonder if there’s a narrative form in text that maps perfectly onto a dramatic form — I’d always thought a short story was suited for movie adaptation, while you’re right about book adaptations needing a little more room (but not enough for a full series). Of course, I’m saying this having never adapted anything, so it might not mean much.

  6. March 12, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Narrative form in text that maps perfectly onto a dramatic form? Don’t they call that a script? 😉

  7. 7 di
    March 14, 2010 at 6:03 am

    Characters are very important to the whole serial story – without beguiling characters I’m not going to want to read any further. But without a beguiling plot and lovely prose I’m also not going to feel like reading any further.

    Sometimes one aspect of the writing will be so incredible that I can forgive a lack in other areas but for the most part I think a balance of good characterisation, solid plot and decent writing is the way to go.

    And I think I like series for the same reason I don’t read many short stories. You just get into a short piece of fiction and the story is over. There’s a time and a place for short fiction but I really like something I can get my teeth into. 😉

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