NOTE! This is the third installment in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. This post will focus on using the hero’s emotional arc to link the standalone installments in the episodic series. The previous two posts focused on the episodic hero, and the episodic plot respectively.
This past week, I have been writing about episodic series in science fiction and fantasy. While the episodic hero is central to any episodic series, and while each book in such a series relies on a solid episodic plot to keep the reader turning pages, it is the hero’s emotional journey which keeps the reader buying new books in the series.
Each Book as a Step on the Emotional Path
Plot can keep an episodic book going, but plot alone will not carry a series. If the reader is to buy the next book, they have to care about the hero. If the hero does not evolve over the course of the series, if the hero doesn’t change or grow due to the choices made, then readers will quickly stop caring.
This is harder to do in a long-term episodic series than one might think. For one thing, the seeds of that character growth should show up early on. The defining characteristics of the hero’s personality, of their values, and of their emotional journey should already be there in book one. At the close of each book, the hero should have taken at least one (or more) steps on their emotional journey.
Ray Lilly’s journey in Game of Cages shows a good example of the hero having to come to terms with the reprehensible acts he might commit in the name of the greater good. Lilly’s squeamishness and his innate goodness are traits established early on in book one, and the hardening that occurs in book two was foreshadowed (predicted) by more experienced characters (his employer) in the first book. The fact that Connolly follows through with this hardening, and that this toughening becomes a key emotional facet of book two speaks well to both the author’s skill and to the overall emotional journey that the series will take.
Heroes Stumbling on the Emotional Journey
But that journey need not be a stately progression. Heroes can step forward, step backward, step sideways. Like real people, they can make mistakes and it is concern over those mistakes that can keep readers engaged. Within the confines of any single book, the direction of their evolution is immaterial. Heroes are allowed to make the wrong judgment call as much as we are. What matters is that in each book their character does change in some way, that the character’s state at the end of the book is clear, and that at the opening of the next book that state is maintained. This helps to make the books flow together, and leaves the reader satisfied with the overall series. If the character isn’t changed by their experiences, the series will quickly start to ring flat and eventually readers will just tune out.
One method that is frequently used is to introduce the hero’s personal life as a sub-plot that spans the series. Harry Dresden’s relationship with his mother, his fairy godmother, his half-brother, and other family members (including new ones that show up later in the series) becomes an evolving sub-plot that spans the books. This emotional sub-plot weaves into the fabric of the superficial plots, contributing to the more action-oriented conflicts that Harry has with various factions in his magical world.
In some books, relationships like these are tangential to the direct action of the plot. But they provide the hero with an emotional tension and concerns outside of the direct challenge in front of him. These relationships and the emotions they evoke in the hero and reader represent “the other shoe” that the reader knows will drop at some point.
Relationship between Emotional Arc and The Plot
Such emotional arcs can either be used tactically (to modify pacing, to foreshadow events for a future book, etc.) or they can be used thematically. The Sookie Stackhouse novels painstakingly explore themes of Sookie’s relationships with lovers, family, friends, society, etc. In a very real sense, this exploration is central to the entire series. However, this emotional arc should be separate from the plot arc of the story. And just as series plotting can become formulaic, so too can the emotional journey.
To a great extent, they’re like the double helix of an episodic series’ DNA: they move in parallel, but they rarely cross. In those instances where they do cross – namely when the emotional aspect of a relationship from one book becomes the plot engine for another – then it is best to have another emotional strand waiting in the wings to be introduced. If a particular book is such an emotional intersection, then the strand in waiting need not be introduced or focused on: doing so risks trying to pack too much into what should be a tightly-plotted, fast-paced book. But the seeds for that strand in waiting should be planted, such that they can be further developed or focused on in the next book.
The Denouement: Leaving the Reader Eager for More
I have always found the conclusion to an episodic series book to be absolutely critical to maintaining my interest in the subsequent books. The hero concludes the adventure, the monster is slain, and now it’s time for some well-earned rest. In an episodic series especially, the denouement sets the stage for the next book. It sums up the emotional changes that the character underwent as a consequence of their adventures. Because editors like to have episodic series published annually (keep those reprints rolling!), odds are the author is already aware of what the next book will bring. The denouement offers an excellent opportunity to plant the seeds without leaving the dreaded cliff-hanger ending.
It’s hard to get right, and it is especially hard to get right consistently across multiple books. An impression I get is that much episodic fiction tends to skimp on the denouement: the action is over, so the book just ends. While an abrupt denouement may work for some readers, I think it weakens the ties between books in the series.
If the denouement is an outgrowth of the hero’s emotional journey, it should effectively outline (or at least hint at) the starting conditions for the next installment’s emotional journey. If written well, it can also hint at the stakes of the next installment’s emotional arc as well, although this runs the risk of a cliff-hanger ending. A good example of an artfully-handled denouement can be found in Brust‘s Teckla. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into what happens or how he handles the denouement, but it manages to avoid abruptness, provides closure for the plot, but leaves enough unresolved emotional strands that the door is open for future emotional evolution…which the author addresses in subsequent books. The end result is that the end of the first book increases our emotional investment in the hero, and makes us want to learn what happens to him in the next book.
There are critics inside and outside of the science fiction and fantasy community who tend to view episodic series as less worthy. Episodic series generally don’t win the Hugos, the Nebulas, or the World Fantasy Awards. But they do sell. And they sell a lot. Many episodic series regularly find themselves at the top of bestseller lists, whether we’re talking about Locus, or even The New York Times.
Many readers get their first and only exposure to genre from such episodic series. Consider the countless people who would never wander into the “horror” or “fantasy” aisles at their local bookstore, but who love Sookie Stackhouse. As a result, these episodic series are a powerful missionary force for the genre. They extend genre reading protocols across a broader audience, and they provide adults and children with plenty of enriching entertainment. While they may eschew lyrical prose styles and experimentation, I suggest that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the more people read any type of genre fiction the stronger the genre becomes. And if we look to our own history, who do we remember? We remember the episodic heroes: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, James Bond.
An Attempt at an Absolutely Non-exhaustive Episodic Reading List