I started a new story this week, the first in a series of novelettes featuring dinosaurs, time rifts, orangutans, and a ’77 Holden Monaro that has definitely seen better days. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve attempted to write a story without planning it, and the guiding words for the story are “short, fast, pulp, wahoo!” because I’m tyring to focus on establishing tone and structure above all else. When stuck on the plot point, I break out Lester Dent’s pulp formula. Or send a velociraptor through the door with a shotgun.
Here is what I know about this story, beyond those details: not a goddamn thing.
Except that’s not entirely true, because that’s not how writing works. There are structures to the way that stories develop, a rhythm that has built up over centuries of people telling us stories and shaping our expectations. We know that tension escalates. We know that characters attempt to resolve problems. We know there are specific beats that mark the end of the first act. Knowing these things is not exactly the same as having a detail, meticulous map, but it does give you a pretty good idea of how the terrain works and provide you with enough survival skills to muddle through. You may need to backtrack every now and then, figuring out a new path, but you can make it through.
What’s tricky about pantsing this particular story is the decision to make it the first of a series. It’s comparatively easy to pants a stand-alone, because the decisions you’re maing in the text will only affect that text. When you’re pantsing a series, you’ve got a whole new bit of terrain that needs to be considered in the form of every other story you may write in that series.
WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES BEGINNINGS
I mentioned David Mittel’s Complex TV in my newsletter this week, and it’s largely the reason I’m attempting to pants this way. He’s got an entire chapter devoted to beginnings – and particular TV pilots – and his breakdown is illuminating and delivers a new set of tools for navigating the series as a form.
Mittel breaks down a number of things a pilot is meant to do: assemble the cast and introduce them to the viewer; provide a blueprint for future stories; deliver necessary exposition about the story world and the characters; provide enough familiarity to draw in viewers who watch a particular genre, but promise enough surprises that they’ll feel like they’re seeing something new done in the space.
More importantly, one of the primary purposes of a TV pilot is to teach the viewer how the program should be read and spur the viewer to keep watching. This is more than just establishing what the viewer needs to know about the world and the characters – it’s foregrounding the style and the narrative strategies at work so the viewer can attune themselves to what’s coming.
This is true of any opening, when you get right down to it. I’ve been known to point at the opening for Charlies Angels 2 as a great thing for writers to study, even though it’s an excessively goofy film and probably not to your taste. What it does do, exceptionally well, is deliver an incredible amount of over-the-top action and characterization in the opening minutes, including a diving-off-a-bridge-and-into-a-helicopter sequence where the laws of physics aren’t so much bent as frozen, shattered, and swept up in a dustpan. This opening is the most ridiculous action sequence in the entire film, the sort of thing most people would attempt at the climax, but they put it up front to teach people an important lesson: Realism and character depth has no place in the Charlie’s Angels film franchise.
Now if you stay, the second film’s opening will turn many people off…but if you stay, accepting the films premise, then it’s told you exactly what to expect from everything that follows.
WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES ENDINGS
Mittel also brings up something that it’s worth being aware of when you start a story: the presence of a beginning presupposes that there will be an ending. This is balanced against the fact that many TV viewers aren’t necessarily going to see a pilot episode, particularly in the days before streaming and DVDs, which can mean that the original point lies deep in a program’s history. Further, television has a history of stopping rather than ending; we may get a final episode, but we rarely get the feeling of a story being concluded and a character arc wrapped up. What we tended to get was a whole bunch of character revisiting, and a feel-good moment as people moved on.
The birth of Complex TV – basically, the kind of television that is both episodic and accumulates narrative episode-by-episode until you’ve got a season-long arc – owes a lot to the rise of technology that makes it easier to go back and revisit the beginnings of things and re-examine part of the story. Prior to that, keeping things episodic (and hitting the conceptual reset button at the end of episode) was a much safer bet for retaining viewer engagement, especially in the days when missing an episode meant it was gone forever (or until you caught it in re-runs).
The model of Complex TV offers a number of measures to counteract the ending problem. Stories can conclude at the end of a series, and the next season opener may serve as a re-set for expectations, an opportunity to reiterate and re-educate. New plot elements can be introduced that open up new stories, rather than building the series around the same iconic, unchanging characters and structures (although many shows used to have nd the occasional breach of the series structure, carefully foregrounded to adjust viewer expectations, to serve as a change of pace. See every Halloween episode in which a show takes a detour through horror).
WHY THIS MAKES ME EXCITED AS A WRITER (AND A READER)
Although fiction and television are very different, these concerns aren’t unique to the TV series. I’ve talked about the problems that prose writers have faced with series on this blog before, but the limitations of fiction publishing often mean that series works defaulted to short arcs like trilogies, or retained the episodic model where each book was designed to serve as a stand-alone with a central, iconic character sitting at their heart.
Even if we set aside the writing time required to do a 20-installment series with a cumulative arc, and particularly doing it fast enough that the arc would be easy to follow, the market forces around publishing wouldn’t necessarily sustain it outside of a few outliers. Publishers would often balk at committing to a rapid run of that many novels, and it would be damn difficult to establish any kind of continuity in short-stories unless a venue agreed up-front (the nearest thing I can think of in the short fiction space is Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, which featured three arcs across nine instalments, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series, which was self-published as a series of novelettes before being collected into a novel).
Given those limitations, episodic stories tended to trump writing serialised fiction, or any blending of the two approaches, right up until the rise of independent publishing meant a bunch of writers started using TV as the model, complete with “boxed sets” that brought together a season-long arc as a singular story.
The kindle may be ten years old, but we’re still in the early days of this compared to the speed with which television has been adapting to the technological change (and continues to adapt, now that the streaming model has freed structural concerns based on timeslot and episode length).
I’m looking forward to seeing how series narratives shift and evolve in the fiction space, in light of all this. Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading up on the first waves of people to start making a success out of independently publishing short-story length series instalments (without necessarily serializing), particularly as the practice moves outside of the erotica space where it dominated for a few years.
Right now, the implementation of the model is mimicking television because TV is ahead of the game, but as it grows more prevalent in the fiction space and more people try it out, there’s pretty good odds it will evolve into its own thing (in much the same way that film stopped mimicking the photograph and theatre, and started developing its own techniques).