Series: a balancing act
Yesterday marked the release of my second novel, UNDER THE ROSE. It's the second book in a planned four-book series (starting with SECRET SOCIETY GIRL) that chronicles the irreverent and intrigue-filled adventures of one Miss Amy Haskel, a college co-ed who joins her Ivy League school's most powerful secret society, the Order of Rose & Grave.
Working on a series always poses a set of unique challenges and opportunities for a writer, but exactly what proves challenging can change depending on the make up of the series. Not all series are created alike. Some follow many characters in the same "world" (the Ender series or the Narnia series are good examples of this) while some, like mine, concentrate on one main character. Some series are open-ended (like Stephanie Plum), and some have a planned start and finish (Harry Potter). Some series are really more like unconnected adventures which have little bearing on what came before or what comes after (James Bond), while other series have volumes that each build on one another and could not exist without the repercussion of what came before (Uglies). Some series were planned from the start while others arise due to their reception.
The Secret Society Girl series is probably most like Harry Potter or Uglies: each book will build upon the events of the last, it has a planned start and finish, follows the same main character, and was conceived as part of a series from the very beginning. My first contract stipulated a two-book deal for the first and second books in the series. At that point, I hadn't yet sold books three and four, but I had ideas of where I wanted to take the story. Luckily, my publisher agreed, and offered me a contract for the others.
Before writing Under the Rose, I'd never written a sequel. I'd never even had an idea for a sequel. Nevertheless, I am a big fan. One of my favorite films of all time, The Empire Strikes Back, is a sequel. I figured that if George Lucas could do it, so could I. I think that sequels often get a bad rap, perhaps because there are so many sub-par blockbuster sequels released by Hollywood. But for every Stayin' Alive, there is a Speaker for the Dead, so maybe there is something to the idea that good stories can have even better follow-ups, and I kept that advice firmly in mind when I started on the second book.
Still, there are many ways that a sequel can go wrong:
- It could merely rehash the same plotlines, characters, and jokes of the first (we'll call this the Meet the Fockers Disorder)
- It could do the opposite: go so far afield from the original that it loses sight of what everyone actually liked about the series to start with (Speed 2 Syndrome).
- It could be in the unfortunate position of following up on a story whose conclusion makes further drama improbable, if not entirely unfortunate. (The Matrix Effect).
When I was writing Secret Society Girl, I knew there were several story arcs that would remain incomplete at the end of the first book, and that I would further develop in book two. In some cases, readers recognized dangling story arcs, but in other cases, they didn't seem important enough to the main narrative -- and won't, until they come back, fully blown, in a later book.
And example of this is the Jabba the Hut plotline in Star Wars. (Please let us not speak of the "new" trilogy.) In the first movie, Jabba is a throw away scene, used mostly to establish Han Solo's character as a morally gray ruffian. He's a smuggler, and he's down on his luck enough (owing Jabba money) to risk the dangerous cargo of Luke and Obi-Wan. But that's all we really hear about Jabba, and we've mostly forgotten him by the end of the film, what with all those adventures on the Death Star and rescuing princesses and using The Force. When the first film ends, the audience isn't going, "what happened with Jabba's money?" They're asking "What happened to Darth Vader?"
And yet, Jabba is an important presence at the end of the second film, when the bounty hunter tracks our heroes down not to help the Empire, but to get the bounty on Han's head, and of course, he's a huge part of the third film. But you might not recognize it on the basis of his role in book one.
Character development is another important aspect of series writing. Everyone knows that characters must grow and change over the course of the story: it's called a "character arc." But what do you do if you need to write characters that not only grow over the course of one story, but over the course of three or four? Mess this one up and you either have characters spinning their personal-growth wheels, progressing at a snail's pace, or, worst of all, backsliding in an attempt to create drama.
I think series provide writers with an amazing opportunities to create multi-layered, fascinating characters. Given the space you have to work with them, characters can undergo an enormous amount of change over the course of the series. Enemies can become allies, friends can become lovers and back again, and there is plenty of time to see how these relationships develop, deepen, and change. In the first Secret Society Girl book, the main character Amy has an enemy who she learns to respect and even like. Where will their relationship go in the second book, let alone in the third or fourth? People she never knew before are suddenly thrust into a position of personal intimacy, whereas friends she might have known for years are growing away from her. It's a fascinating thing to watch and given the length of the series, I have the opportunity to explore ever aspect of these changes.
In Star Wars, one of the most interesting character changes occurs with ...a-ha! You thought I was going to say Han Solo, didn't you? Yes, he goes from morally gray ruffian to general of the Rebellion Army, but you never really see anything more than posturing resistance out of him. He's always a good guy underneath. That's not quite as interesting to me as the change you see in the character of Lando Calrissian. Lando starts as a man who Han (one of the series' heroes, and thus someone whose opinion we trust) doesn't entirely trust -- and he's right not to, because he has betrayed Han and his friends to Darth Vader. He has noble reasons for doing so -- Vader has threatened to shut down Lando's entire floating city, and also, he promised Lando that if he turned over the fugitives, they wouldn't be hurt. He just wanted them as bait to catch some dude named Luke. But he does betray them, and he pays the price of traitors everywhere when he is double crossed himself. His guilt over what happens at the end of The Empire Strikes Back drives all of his actions for the rest of the series. He helps Chewbacca, Leia, Luke, and the androids escape, then works tirelessly to rescue Han, and, in the end, is the one who explodes the second Death Star. I'd say he redeems himself, but he needs that third movie to do it.
Some authors who write series plan out in advance how their character will grow in each installment. My friend Colleen Gleason, who is currently writing a regency vampire series called The Gardella Vampire Chronicles , recently said this in an interview:
The book is the launch of a series in which the same protagonist, along with a cast of characters, grows and evolves through a complete character and romance arc. I think of the books as if each book equates to a “season” of a television show. There’s a beginning and an end, and a “Big Bad” that must be conquered, but there’s still more to do for the next season or book.
It’s important to note that I have a definite, finite plan in mind for my series. There will be five books about Victoria Grantworth, vampire slayer and Regency miss. So I know who she will end up with, and I am moving toward a particular goal and resolution.
I'm totally on the same page. For me, the entire Secret Society Girl series has a very definitive arc that starts on page one of book one and ends on the last page of the last book. In each individual novel, there are also complete plot and character arcs, as well as a few problems that span book to book.
Not a bad arc. I wonder if there are any evil galactic empires around for Amy to tackle.________