Greetings, my wonderful readers (and people who followed a link here blind)!
Before I dive into Part 2 of my series on the serial writing form, I just want to say thank you to all of you who have bought books, recommended books, etc of mine this year. For the second year in a row, I was able to do all my Christmas shopping using the proceeds of from my work and that’s a damn good feeling. Thank you all for being so awesome and helping me get closer than ever to living my dream.
Aaand with the shmaltz done, we’re back to talk about serial writing. Specifically, this time around, we’re talking about the anatomy of the form; what key elements go into a serial to make it what it is. To avoid repetition, I’m going to just ay this once: not all serials will have all of these things in them. It’s a highly customizable artform, but there are of course recurring tropes and themes.
First and foremost:
The Core Plot
While many serial tales will have many main plots over the course of its lifetime (remember when the group at Freeland House were trying to hide from Project Tome?), there is usually one major thread (or several related threads) at the forefront of the story at a time. This is the Core Plot, which all other stories told in tht section of the serial will relate to.
I say ‘relate to’ because they don’t have to plug into the Core Plot so much as happen with it in mind. For example, in my very favorite anime of all time, Slayers, there is a half-season long search for an artifact called the Claire Bible. Most episodes during this plot revolve around finding a lead only to discover that it isn’t the Claire Bible, but several are also just things that happen while they’re on the road searching that happen to tie into Character Arcs (more later) or serve as breathers or filler (also more later. Much later). Everything was still in the context of the search for the Claire Bible even if it isn’t really part of a given episode.
As I said before, a core plot can wrap up or change even if the work itself doesn’t and some stories happening concurrent with it can be hooks for other future Core Plots. Some of you will recall my repeated attempts to jumpstart an arc I called the Game of Kings in the Descendants; you’ll see elements of it as early as stories like the 4 Arc and stronger hints of it have been showing up more recently, such as part of Emet, and especially the last two parter. (By the way, right after I finish writing this… and playing my turns on Kingdom of Loathing’s Crimbo Event… I’ll be starting on the major turning point for War of Kings: Avalon Rises Parts 1 & 2).
By necessity, Core Plots need to be more complex and important than any surrounding stories aside from a Myth Arc. They need to be able to carry an audience’s attention through the long haul, even if that means putting up with an episode or two they may not like.
And make no mistake, no one is going to like every single episode. I’m sure many of you have a least favorite Descendants issue (hey, post it in the comments so I can simper and try to justify it… unless it’s the War Machines arc—I have no excuse there. The key is that the Core Plot is your workhorse, being good enough to be worth the extra investment that keeps audiences following along.
The other thing that keeps people following along (and also makes those ‘didn’t like it’ episodes inevitable) is variety. Alongside the Core Plot, you need to add more substance and variety with things like…
I think everyone that follows this blog knows all about these, but for the sake of completeness: Character Arcs are dedicated to the growth and development of a given character. When they’re given out sparsely (especially to secondary characters) these are what TVTropes called A Day In the Limelight. They can also span in length from a single episode to spanning the entire story.
Now, I will admit that I am biased and absolutely love the hell out of Character Arcs. I’m sure if someone went back and counted, there have been some volumes where they were more Character arcs and Worldbuilding episodes than Core Plots (Vol 5 is probably the the crowning achievement there with precisely 3 Core Plot episodes comprising The Beach House).
In addition to basic stories about the characters and their development, there is a related concept called a Relationship Arc—which amazingly doesn’t have a lot to do with shipping. Relationship arcs deal with two or more characters and how they interact. This is done masterfully on Leverage, where the writers quickly discovered which characters worked well together and then had fun mixing and matching out the groups formed by dividing up the five leads.
You’ll notice that I love these too. Early on, there was a lot of Warrick/Cyn and Kareem/Melissa plus Ian/Alexis/ Laurel and I’ve progressed to having more Cyn/Laurel in the mother and child aspect and Laurel/Alexis in the BFFs aspect with Ian/Issac playing bash brothers whenever the former comes around. I look forward to having Issac hang out with other characters because dude is awesome and might earn his own mini one of these days if I can get him to stop being all successful and start being a superhero.
Just via non-scientific sampling, I feel like Character Arcs make up a hefty amount of favorite episodes of serial works among fans. Characters are one of the largest draws these days (to the point that most authors will try and sell characters in their blurbs even if the story is about the world), so that should really come as no surprise.
That said, I would never say no to…
Every story, even those ostensibly set on Earth in the hear and now takes place in a world that is essentially a complex lie on the author’s part. And that’s great. Some writers and readers are comfortable with leaving it at that and letting the story stand on its own.
I’m not one of them. Yes, I can and do read stuff where the world is (and I’m not using this as a pejorative) flat: just a backdrop before which the story unfolds. This is completely fine and valid. We don’t really need to go anywhere but the main character’s house in a sitcom, or learn more about anything not related to the crime in a mystery. At the same time, if you do have a world in mind, and you are writing in the long form, I think it’s a crying shame not to take some of the wide-open real estate of the serial to explore the wider world and how it ticks.
Now, Worldbuilding takes place whenever something happens in the world, but a Worldbuilding episode is actually about exploring the rest of the world or at least part of it.
For example, the episode ‘Bushwhacked’ from Firefly. While every character gets a little moment, the episode is largely about showing the audience what the previously mentioned but never shown (until then) Reavers are and where they come from. We’re actually shown the process by which a seemingly normal person becomes a Reaver and why everyone is so afraid of them.
And, while Firefly was canceled before it was able to build more on it, I have no doubts that ‘Bushwhacked’ would have sown the seeds of a larger story arc, if the movie is anything to go by.
There is a major pitfall to Worldbuilding episodes that often makes them reviled among audiences and that’s the fact that often they build up an element of the world that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. For example, we have the almost universally hated episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, ‘The Great Divide’.
‘The Great Divide’ has Our Heroes happen upon two bickering clans who need to cross the largest canyon in the country to escape their enemies. The main character tries to mediate between them (as is his duty as Avatar), but utterly fails and nothing from that episode EVER SHOWS UP AGAIN.
Clearly they were tryng to make the world seem bigger by introducing these two culture (right down to having highly designed clothing styles and character models that are never reused in the series), but because nothing important (or interesting) happens, it all goes to waste. We learn that there are multiple cultures in the Earth Kingdom setting… and then nothing is done with it.
This is the kind of thing that makes audiences angry and it’s only because this is more or less the only time this happens in the series that the show remains so highly regarded. Meanwhile, Teen Titans combined this with breather episodes (that got weeeeeird) and these very much contributed to the idea that the show was ‘too kiddy’ despite this is the same show that featured a major villain dosing a hero with psychological poison that made him nearly kill himself fighting imaginary enemies in a way that was VERY un-silly.
Arguably, the first season of Farscape s nothing BUT these episodes, so it’s not the number of Wolrdbuilding episodes, but how they’re presented and how ‘worth it’ the new glimpses at the universe are to the audience.
Of course, as you travel along the Core Plot, you sometimes need to stop and make sure everything is all in order before proceeding. Those instances I like to call:
Not ‘reset’ as in start over. More like as in, how the pin setter sweeps away the knocked over bowling pins and puts the ones still standing back in place.
Reset episodes are, in my opinion, necessary, but tricky.
You see, the purpose of these is to take care of the continuity up to this point and make sure the audience knows who knows what, who has what, and to show that the world has caught up. In television, the season premier is often used in this way. In single-season shows, like a lot of anime, this is often the penultimate episode.
The problem is that this is where the clip show goes in many lesser shows. Stargate, my most beloved sci-fi series, is infamous for this. And in television, this is a matter of practicality; near the end of a season, you’re running low on money and want to do a lot in the season finale, so you toss out a cheap clip show and use that as the reset as well.
Why do resets get that treatment? Well, they’re often slower with less content and don’t do a lot beyond establishing the reset. And this is a shame, because resets are a great place to do scenes with the characters coming to terms with what’s been going on and making new plans. The aforementioned Avatar had decent resets each season, largely because that’s where the writers threw their curveballs and had the characters’ plans go pear-shaped—meaning they reset, then knocked over all the pieces immediately after.
Me? I tend to do resets in the Special and Annual Issues, and then only soft resets. The way The Descendants works, there are always enough balls in the air that they really can’t react to everything at once.
It should be noted that comic books RARELY do resets, which might be part of the continuity snarl problem thy tend to face.
And I’m going to have to cut this one short this week. I have a done of work to do around the house for Christmas and no time to do it in. Also, the next blog actually fall on Christmas (well the 26th), so no blog next week. We’ll conclude the Long Form posts in the new year. Stories will update as normal of course.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Oh, and one more thing: Once the new year is come and gone, I’ll be writing my first non-fiction book: Master of Games, a guide full of tips, exercises and supplementary material to help make RPGs you run more enjoyable for your players and yourself.
Just wanted to share that before I left for the year. 😉