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Nov 17

Susan Shiney

Losing the Plot: The Many Challenges of a Multi-Book Series by S.J. Howland

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The learning curve for a writer who aspires to become a successfully published author is both steep, and well-trodden by those of us in the writing community. The burst of enthusiasm from an initial idea, blossoming into characters who come to life in our imaginations, and worlds that open up before us, is the gateway drug that carries us inexorably forward - until we hit that first stumbling block. For some of us, it is the realisation that the muse alone will not carry us through to the finish; writing is a hard mistress, demanding the sacrifice of time and other easier pursuits. For others, passion for the story itself fades: the ideas and the characters not strong enough to hold our own attention, dooming them in any attempt to beguile others. For many of us, however, the answer is more straightforward: we have simply lost the plot.

Successful writing, it turns out, is both an art and a science, or more accurately, a work of engineering. That book or film which carried you effortlessly through the story, hitting your emotions at all the right moments and holding your interest throughout, before delivering a satisfying denouement, did not do so by chance and that is the real lesson that writers need to learn. In every case, below the surface of captivating characters and intriguing storylines is the real secret, an inexorable truth - plot structure is the key to it all. 

Having realised this, most of us turn to tried and tested guides to master this new challenge. There can be few writers who have not heard of, or consulted, ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ by Christopher Vogler, ’On writing’ by Stephen King, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Joseph Campbell, ’Save the Cat’ by Blake Snyder (or the novel version by Jessica Brody), or ‘The Fantasy Fiction Formula’ by Deborah Chester. We learn about three-act structures, beat sheets and how to avoid a ‘squishy’ middle. We come to understand that a story is built, as much as imagined, and the correct construction of that story will lift it out of the realms of paper and ink, and into the readers’ hearts and emotions. J.R.R. Tolkien did not merely imagine a strange little creature called a hobbit - he used the same hero’s journey, or monomyth, outlined by Joseph Campbell to carry Bilbo relentlessly through his adventure and home again, a different person to the one who had set out. 

For those of us who are writing stand-alone books, this knowledge should be sufficient to hone our storyline into something enthralling and taut, but what of writers whose stories are too large or complex for a single book, and instead aim to create a series? This is an extremely popular approach, as readers who have been seduced by an imaginary world and want to spend more time with the characters they have grown to love will provide a ready fanbase for each subsequent book. Writers who wish to travel the traditional publishing route will find that agents and publishers are very keen on series for exactly this reason, while for indie authors the creation of a faithful audience of readers is similarly critical to their success. 

Again, when searching for advice on this, certain resources rise immediately to the top - and the aspiring writer will be pointed firmly towards the trilogy. In many ways, the advice to be found mirrors that given for stand-alone plot structures - a secondary three-act structure which sits atop each individual book in the trilogy. There is much exhortation about the risk of the ‘squishy’ middle of the single book becoming the ‘squishy’ second book in the trilogy, and how to ensure that there are intriguing revelations or characters; in other words plenty of action bringing interest and a ‘pay-off’ in the second book, before moving on to the third and final book, the grand finale. 

The trilogy, then, appears to be a natural progression, or outgrowth, of all that we have learned of story structure to date, and the advice on successfully writing them is readily available. But what of those of us who are quite, quite mad, and have decided that their debut will not entail a single book, or a neatly plotted trilogy, but instead will run to multiple books - in my own case, five? In my hunt for guidance on this, I found that the resources are far more scarce. Indeed, the only really detailed guidance to this subject pertains to the creation of an episodic series, where a protagonist encounters a new challenge in every book but remains fundamentally the same. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and many other crime series fall squarely into this category, where a small group of characters follow a tightly plotted arc over each individual book, but the ‘story’ elements of emotional growth are far slower to develop, drip-fed over many episodes in the series. 

However, if this type of book series is not what you have in mind, the landscape is far more barren of the type of in-depth advice available for simpler scenarios. We are informed of the obvious - that we must have sufficient story to justify a series longer than a trilogy; that we must resolve smaller plots in each book, so as to satisfy our readers, while leaving some aspects unresolved to entice them back for the next book, but that we must avoid unnecessary cliff-hangers which serve to annoy the reader. These are things that we should already know, both as writers and as passionate readers ourselves.

More nerve-wracking are the dire warnings that our plotting must be tight, and our world and character building deep and cohesive, or loyal readers (who will end up knowing our books as well or better than us) will inevitably pick up on plot holes and inconsistencies. For consistency, the advice is clear - creating a ‘bible’ for our characters and world from the very beginning is critical, and will save time and mistakes later on when we have quite forgotten that our protagonist’s best friend has blue eyes and loves chocolate, or that the library in our first book is found to the left of the fountain in the square and not the right. Plot holes, on the other hand, are a whole different kettle of fish, and the idea of them gaping suddenly beneath my feet in the fourth or fifth book fills me with horror, but what guidance do our previously prescient sages have to offer on avoiding them? 

I am reliably informed that the only way to avoid plot holes is with intensive planning - the plotting out of my story from beginning to end. However, is this really feasible when embarking on a multi-book series? This would tend to assume that, before even embarking upon the first book in the series, I have already planned, in exhaustive detail, every action and element of my world from start to finish, so that each thread carefully laid across the five books will come together to form a perfect tapestry at the end. Is it really true that the only way to successfully write a multi-book series is to have every single element already in place before allowing my characters to come to life during the process of writing; their decisions and paths pre-decided and set in stone, lest I create a plot paradox which takes the whole edifice down?

I was unhappy and dissatisfied by this conclusion, as one of the great joys and revelations for me as a writer is watching my characters move in new and unexpected ways through the landscape I have created. Even wrangling those most un-cooperative of characters can bring a whole new life to the story, as you realise that you do not, in fact, have ultimate power as the writer; indeed, their intransigence is actually a sign that they have become real, both to their creator and ultimately to the readers who love them. 

Therefore, I turned at last to a couple of writers who have truly mastered the multi-book series, looking for their secrets to making it work. The first was J.K. Rowling, another person who took on a series for her debut in the writing world, and someone who has been fairly open about her plotting process. She spent an enormous amount of time thinking about her entire storyline before the first book was ever written or published, and she has certainly immersed herself in her world and its characters, generating a wealth of detail that was obvious in every element of her writing and which has enchanted fans of her books for years afterwards. However, is it also true that she had every element of the series plotted out in the kind of exhaustive detail apparently required? Reassuringly, it would seem not. 

While the key elements of the over-arching plot were already in place when the first book was published, and in fact one of her concerns was not to give away so much that the ending would become obvious, clearly not every single detail was ironed out and this resulted in a number of plot holes. Keen fans of the series have pointed out, for example, that Peter Pettigrew (as Scabbers) would surely have shown up on the Marauders’ Map, and therefore been visible to the Weasley twins, and also queried why Voldemort would not have insisted on his followers making the Unbreakable Vow to ensure loyalty, thus making Snape’s heroics impossible. 

It would not appear that the existence of plot holes has done anything to dampen the enthusiasm and love of dedicated fans. Rowling has kindly made public some images of the planning grids she created for each book and it is clear that she thought very carefully about how each of the critical threads would come together; she is a detailed and precise planner. Given the sheer size and complexity of this world however, a few minor plot holes over the entirety of the massive work she had created were both inevitable and not really pertinent, in the end. 

The second writer I turned to was the creator of one of my first loves, Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien could be considered as the writer of a first, stand-alone book, ‘The Hobbit’, which was then subsequently followed by a trilogy, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but in fact, his writing was more in the vein of a multi-book series from the beginning, with an enormous body of work encompassing histories, prequels, and the languages on which the whole edifice was built. Tolkien created a reality which was even more detailed than Rowling’s world, but was he a planner? Astoundingly enough, it would also seem not. 

Famously, ‘The Hobbit’ was a story that Tolkien made up to tell his own children, and he was somewhat perplexed when, on its success, his publishers wanted him to tell more stories based in this world. He wrote to them in 1938 to say, “at the moment the story is not unfolding…I squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world.” Not only this, he also wrote that he was frequently mystified about the events and characters that showed up in his writing, and often didn’t know himself what they were about until he wrote subsequent books. “I met a lot of things along the way that astonished me,” he said. “Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than Frodo did.” Tolkien also spoke of a rhyme of lore that had been constantly running through his mind: “Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree”, but he only understood its significance when the stone flew out of the window at Orthanc and the concept of a ‘Palantir’ suddenly came to him. 

His approach was quite different to his close friend, and another of my writing heroes, C.S. Lewis, who was an inveterate planner and mulled things over in great detail before putting pen to paper. Lewis worked swiftly and decisively once he knew exactly what he wanted to write and in what fashion, while Tolkien re-wrote draft after draft, only finding out where he wanted to go in the course of the journey, and often being surprised by how his ideas came together in the end. If Lewis was a ‘plotter’, in the terminology of the writing community, then Tolkien was the ultimate ‘pantser’, albeit one who produced one of the most detailed and well-loved book series in the world. 

In the end, my search for guidance on how to successfully create a multi-book series led me to a few conclusions. Firstly, in depth knowledge of, and passion for, the world you are creating is key in delivering an experience so immersive that readers will be able to forgive the odd plot hole, as long as they do not impact on the primary story and make it utterly illogical. Secondly, a deep understanding of the power of story structure will drive the narrative forward in a way that will carry readers along, whether over one book, or many. Thirdly, know where you are going and work backwards as best you can in your overall plotting, which will help you in dropping those all-important hints in earlier books. Finally, and most importantly to me, trust in your own imagination. If you have spent years eating, sleeping and breathing your story, there will be so much more in your subconscious imagination that you are ever aware exists. 

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