By Shawn Coyne | Published: July 10, 2015
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The subject of today’s post comes from dedicated SP.com commenter and Story Nerd, David Kaufmann.
For those of you who’d like to suggest topics for my posts for What it Takes, feel free to email me at Shawn at Storygrid.com. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to answer every question, but I’ll do my best to respond. I’m a digital idiot, so please don’t be offended if you don’t hear back. I still haven’t responded to an invitation to my 25th College Reunion.
Sharing your topics of interest will help me to create stuff that is useful for all.
So here’s David’s question about creating novels that feature a recurring lead character.
If writing a series, how much previous background from earlier books needs to be included, and does that apply equally to the second as to the seventh or later in a series?
This is a great question and one that every series writer and editor face each and every time they add a title to the body of work.
My advice is to answer these questions “off the page.” What I mean by that is that I think the writer should create a “Story Bible” for their entire series.
That may not be possible when you write the first one. You’re probably just trying to get the damn thing published, not thinking about your next two novels.
But if you’ve written a terrific thriller or mystery, the first question an editor at a publishing house is going to ask your agent is “will this be a series?” And the answer to that question, if you really want to get a deal done no matter what, is “of course!”
Then you’ll have a two-book or three-book contract that requires you to feature the protagonist from your first novel in the next book/s. Publishers aren’t interested in ‘one-off’ deals. They want to lock you in for at least two books just in case the first one goes through the roof. And even if your book doesn’t go through the roof, at least there will be a core market of people who have read the first one who could be interested in a second.
This is the book marketing 101 that built the careers of Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Lynda La Plante, James Lee Burke, Lillian Jackson Braun, Robert Crais, Patricia Cornwell… I could go on and on.
So what’s a Story Bible?
It is what writers of long form narrative television series write before every season if not for the entire run of a show.
Before TV shows like The Sopranos, or Sex and the City or Mad Men or The Good Wife or Breaking Bad shot one episode of a new season, the writers for those shows worked for months to create an episode-by-episode arc for the entire year.
Did they solve every Story problem in those months? Absolutely not.
But what they did do is create the major Story events for each episode as they related to the global arc of the entire season. So they began with the Beginning Hook of the season, worked through the Middle Build and then finished up with the Ending Payoff. Of the entire Season!
They basically create a Foolscap Global Story Grid for the year’s work…which becomes their Storytelling map.
We’re gonna start here, go here, go here, and end up here. Everyone got it?
Then what happens is that the episodes are divided among the group. Each of the writers is responsible for writing up one or more episodes. They all know the global BH, MB and EP, so they know where their episode sits in the trajectory. They know where their episode begins and where it must end in order for it to fit in to the global Story. All they have to do is fill in the middle.
These first drafts by the individual writers in the group are then handed out to the entire room and notes are generated for fix ‘em up editing. With the final judge being the creator of the Show (David Chase or Matt Weiner) or the Showrunner (Michael Patrick King). These sessions are not for the faint of heart.
Guess what happens after all of the edits are complete and everything is locked and loaded for the cameras to roll?
Each episode rarely refers back to previous episodes. We don’t know that Tony Soprano has a history of anxiety attacks that required him to take anti-depressants when he kills Ralph Cifaretto (played by Joe Pantoliano). And we don’t need to know that. We’re too shocked by the immediate action on the screen to care.
The best long form television episodes are constantly moving forward. They have their own internal architecture that pays off for anyone watching. Even people who’ve never seen the show before!
You’ll never hear exposition like this in Mad Men: “You remember Don Draper, don’t you Jim? He’s from Sterling Cooper and won the Clio for his commercial about floor wax.” Matthew Weiner was in David Chase’s writers’ room during The Sopranos run… Great craft begets great craft.
Because the on the page and on the screen action is so thoroughly clean and clear that the audience is invested from the first page or the first image of the Story, you don’t need any exposition about the past if the Story Bible has been worked through. All of the characters in the Story will have mapped out clear destinations, and the only thing necessary to engage an audience is to make each character’s wants in their scene-by-scene journeys obvious.
What I mean by that is their attempts to get what they want Right Now! must be hugely compelling.
Of course the characters have Macro Wants that each scene’s Micro Want will bring them closer or further away to that goal (Tony wants to be a benevolent King), but we don’t need to know the Macro Want right away to care about a character pursuing a Micro Want. Tony wants to be rid of the dangerous Ralph.
Are they getting closer to what they want in this immediate scene? Are they getting further away? This is what keeps us glued.
These Stories within the Global Story (The Story Spine for each dynamic character) are so authentically crafted in these shows that the audience can’t help but become engaged. For more on The Story Spine, check out this, this, and this.
So what is my advice if you decide to write a series of novels about a single character or a few characters?
Write a Bible. Pick some number of novels that you wish to write about that character. Three is a good number to start with. Then map out the global Story Bible that will get you from Book One through Book Three.
And most importantly, use The Foolscap Global Story Grid format to create that bible. Why? Because it is a single piece of paper that will not allow you to hide behind thousands of words of baloney. You have to write down exactly WHAT HAPPENS in a single sentence to represent a major shift in the story.
Here’s an example of a Story Event that could be on your Foolscap page that takes an entire 60 minute episode of The Sopranos to pay off…
Tony Kills Ralph.
Here’s an event that takes an entire episode of Mad Men:
Don goes AWOL from McCann Erickson
And then write each book without referring to what’s happened in previous books.
Do they work without any reference to past or future story events?
Or do you need to drop in exposition to fill in Story gaps? That is, do the events (crucially the Inciting Incident) in Book Three require that you summarize what happened in Book One and Book Two?
If you find that they do, you’re in trouble.
Because you want the reader/audience so thoroughly “in the moment” of the scene-by-scene action that what is most important to them is finding out “what happens next.” If you need to drop in explanations about what happened before to make sense of what might happen next…you’re story structure is flaccid. You’re not ramping up the conflict in the scene enough to keep the laser focus on the present.
You’re taking a shortcut…basically asking the reader to delay their immediate gratification from the current scene for a bigger payoff later. And readers/viewers will never forgive you for that. You have to deliver in every single scene. Or you will lose them.
You can watch Episode Seven in Season Three of Breaking Bad and be swept away…without knowing anything about the characters. So much so that you’ll probably go back to Season One, Episode One to find out how the Hell everyone got to where they are in Season Three.
There is no secret to why that is. It’s because the writers of the show did the Story work necessary to drive those scenes in the moment before they wrote them.
What’s my bottom line advice?
Write each novel in your series without referring to anything that happened before…think of each novel as a Stand Alone.
That way a reader who picks up book five of your series will have as terrific of an experience as someone who read books one through four before they read five.
A series novelist who does thing impeccably well is Lee Child. The Jack Reacher Novels are all related, but it is not necessary to know exactly how they are when you read one out of sequence.
Guess what Lee Child did before he began writing novels?
He worked under the name Jim Grant (his real name) at Granada Television for twenty years on shows like Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect and Cracker.
Do you think that’s a coincidence?
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