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Posts tagged ‘Paranormal Romance’

CROSSROADS: Will You Be My Undead Valentine?


Amazing Stories Logo Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! Not only is today Thursday, nor merely even Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the day when another of my Crossroads essays goes live over at Amazing Stories.

This week, I’m taking a close look at paranormal romance and urban fantasy, how they work and the complicated ways in which they use metaphor and power dynamics. Come and take a look!

REVIEW: Lightbringer by K.D. McEntire


Title: Lightbringer
Author: K.D. McEntire
Pub Date: November 15th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Reasonably compelling characters, but the love triangle was wasted on me.

What is it with contemporary YA novels and love triangles? Maybe I wasn’t quite the lady’s man I thought I was in high school (I’m sure my ex-girlfriends and my wife are all laughing right now), but it seems like everywhere I turn in YA today, I come across a heroine torn between between two opposed romances. Team Gale vs Team Peeta. Team Edward vs Team Jacob. Clearly, I must have missed out on a defining characteristic of the teen years since I didn’t have multiple women competing for my affections. Wendy, the heroine of K.D. McEntire’s debut YA novel Lightbringer, does not have that problem. She’s got two guys fighting over her…and one of them has been dead for a long time.

Lightbringer is an interesting YA paranormal mystery. It’s got the standard love triangle (are there YA books today that don’t?) but that’s actually the least compelling facet of the book. Two entirely different facets caught my attention about Lightbringer: McEntire’s mundane, living characters, and her take on magic and death.

The book introduces us to Wendy, a teenager facing some tough times. Her mother is in a coma, her dad has to travel all the time for work, and she’s responsible for her two younger siblings. And she sees dead people, who she is duty-bound to help move out of limbo into the Light (whatever afterlife that might imply). It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, on top of school and boys. The plot’s primary engine is Wendy’s quest to find her mother’s not-yet-dead soul, which she believes is lost somewhere in the Never, the limbo-like afterlife that certain stranded ghosts get stuck in. If ghosts stay too long in the Never, they will gradually lose their vitality and fade into Shades. If they don’t want to fade, then there’s a straightforward solution: eat the Lost, the souls of children who haven’t yet moved on. Yeah, it’s a bit dark. And McEntire’s depictions of the Walkers (the ravenous ghost-eating zombies) are chilling. A band of teenage ghosts try to protect the children from the Walkers, though they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The Never makes for a particularly compelling setting, an interesting ghost-eat-ghost parallel world that McEntire skillfully depicts. Her descriptions have an eery, ethereal quality except where the action comes hard and fast. That juxtaposition of misty language for place-setting, and concrete viscera (literally) is a highly effective combination.

Wendy, despite her ability to see the Never and send ghosts into the Light, is entirely unaware of the Never’s social complexities. For her, ghosts are ghosts. She is convinced that by sending them into the Light, she is helping them. That they might have different opinions, or that the Never’s population represents different moral choices, she is utterly unaware. All of this changes, as her quest to find her mother’s lost soul takes her deeper and more aggressively into the Never. There, she meets Piotr – one of the Riders who cares for the lost children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything (the cover copy makes it clear) by saying that he’s one vertex of that love triangle. Of course, life and love are nothing if not complicated: he doesn’t realize that Wendy is the “Lightbringer” – a monster who destroys ghosts.

While Wendy is looking for her mother, Piotr is trying to find some of the Lost Children, who have presumably been kidnapped by the walkers. This represents a menacing divergence from the walkers’ normal behavior: typically they just eat the kids in question. But now they seem to be acting with tactics and guile, perhaps at the behest of a mysterious “White Lady”. With his experience in the Never, it is natural that Wendy should look to Piotr for help in finding her mother. As the book unfolds, their respective quests remain superficially parallel but separate. It is only through Wendy’s experiences in the living world, through her flashbacks to her relationship with her mother and her friendship with Eddie (Piotr’s rival for her affections) that the reader develops a sense of linkage between the two quests.

Much as I loved McEntire’s depiction of the Never, it was the living characters who carried the story. I wouldn’t expect a teenager who can see dead people and who is essentially duty-bound to kill them to be "normal". And she isn’t: she has issues, and how she responds to her family situation is heartrendingly believable. A grown-up might look at how she is described and shrug it off by saying that Wendy is “acting out”, but her actions are realistic, deftly handled, and most importantly – McEntire skillfully avoids any sense of authorial condescension. Wendy is engaging, and her voice rings true. Her friendship with Eddie, and their complex and shifting relationship both resonated for me in a way that the Wendy/Piotr hookup didn’t.

As a character, Piotr is quite frankly bland. His heart is in the right place, which I suppose counts for a lot, but for most of the book he felt like a placeholder character. All of the ghosts – Piotr included – are one-note characters who were removed from different time periods (one’s a Native American, one’s a flapper, we have no idea what time period Piotr’s from, etc.). Their speech patterns are peppered with dialog idiosyncrasies, which helps to make them distinct, but it does little to really flesh them out as characters. If the ghosts’ flat natures were by design, then this is some clever storytelling on McEntire’s part. It would be an interesting statement about the depth of characters who hang on, rather than move on with their after-lives. But I’m not certain that was the point McEntire was going for: the Wendy/Piotr romance undermines that point.

Wendy’s relationships with the living people in her life are much more fully realized. The scenes involving her younger siblings, who are both wrapped up in their own problems, are incredibly touching. I wanted to see more of those relationships, and to get a better understanding of how Wendy’s family dynamic worked. I really enjoyed the way Wendy’s relationship with her mother is gradually uncovered as the book progresses. The flashbacks that show Wendy learning how to use her gift, and the past/present family dynamics are all presented very well. McEntire does a good job of leaving vital truths unstated: they might get intimated, but it is up to us to make the connection. If we do, then the eventual reveal becomes that much more satisfying.

Bravely, McEntire does not skirt the moral implications of Wendy’s actions. And by the end, the book avoids offering a prescriptive solution to her quandries. Which worked well for me: the dénoument does not tie off the story with a neat little bow. Whatever conclusions she will draw from her harrowing experiences will be unpacked over the course of years (likely years in therapy). There is nothing easy about that, neither in real life, nor in well-drawn fictional characters. And that sense comes through.

The weakest aspect of the book for me was the whole love triangle aspect of it. I admit, I’m inclined to believe that love triangles in YA fiction (in particular in YA paranormal fiction) are ubiquitous to the point of being overdone. But in this case, I don’t believe that the love triangle actually added much to the story. In fact, I felt that Wendy’s relationship with Piotr detracted from the relationships with her family and (living) friends. Perhaps I would feel differently about this if the love triangle had some sort of resolution. But instead of resolving it in some fashion, it ends with a plot hole that I was simply unable to leap across. Hopefully, that plot hole will get plugged/clarified in a sequel, but the lack of resolution in this one book weakened the experience for me quite significantly. If it weren’t for the fact that the love triangle fell apart without resolving, I would happily have given this book four stars on the basis of McEntire’s creative world-building, deft writing, and excellent characterization. It has all of those elements, but the love triangle just really didn’t work for me.

Overall, I think Lightbringer is solid YA paranormal romance/mystery. As this is publisher Pyr Books’ first foray into the YA market, I think it’s a fine title to start with. Artistically, their experiment is a reasonable success (though not a category-sweeper). Despite its one significant weakness, I enjoyed Lightbringer. While I might not recommend it for everyone, I think that folks who enjoy the YA paranormal romance category will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I’m looking forward to more books from K.D. McEntire (whether in the same world or not), and I’m curious to see how Pyr will develop their YA list in the future.

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 3 of 3): The Hero’s Emotional Journey


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.

Conclusion

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

Sub-genre Author Series First Book
Adult Urban Fantasy Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Storm Front
Adult Urban Fantasy Harry Connolly Twenty Palaces Child of Fire
Adult Urban Fantasy Kate Griffen The Mattew Swift Novels A Madness of Angels
Paranormal Romance Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake series Guilty Pleasures
Paranormal Romance Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse Novels Dead Until Dark
Paranormal Romance Kim Harrison Rachel Morgan series Dead Witch Walking
Adult Fantasy / SF Steven Brust Vlad Taltos Novels Teckla
Adult Fantasy / SF Richard K. Morgan Takeshi Kovacs series Altered Carbon
YA / Middle-grade (various) The 39 Clues The Maze of Bones
YA / Middle-grade Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl Artemis Fowl

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 2 of 3): Episodic Plots and Pacing


NOTE! This is the second in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. The previous installment discussed the episodic hero, while the third installment (planned for Tuesday) will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how episodic heroes are constructed in contemporary science fiction and fantasy series. While an episodic series relies on that hero, it is each individual book’s plot that keeps the reader turning pages. A good episodic plot will avoid formulaic writing, while providing an escalation in tension so that the reader keeps turning pages. The key to this is to establish momentum, and as the series progresses to vary the structure of each book’s plot. This keeps the reader interested in the book they’re holding in their hands right now, while the hero’s emotional journey (discussed in the next installment) keeps them buying the next book.

Pacing: Hitting the Ground Running

By leaving the character’s backstory off-stage, episodic books typically open with the hero actively starting the adventure. This is a page taken right out of the detective novel playbook. When we first meet Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, we find her turning down work from a shadowy vampire organization. We first encounter Ray Lilly traveling to his latest case, or Harry Dresden getting a job. Episodic series sprinkle the hero’s backstory here and there, but no time is wasted by delving narrative-style into the hero’s psyche or providing an infodump on “what-came-before”. Episodic series hit the ground running, and they tend not to let up until the mystery is solved, the monster is slain, and the hero can put his feet up.

Middle-grade novels especially establish the stakes early on (often on the first page!). I strongly recommend reading middle-grade episodic novels (like The 39 Clues series) to find some tricks on how to establish stakes and simultaneously establish the hero’s characterization. From conversations I’ve had with children’s book editors, the speed with which readers are drawn into the story is one of the most important characteristics they look for. Adult episodic series, with their tendency towards functional prose and page-turner status, can learn much from the pacing techniques used by children’s authors.

The Shape and Structure of Episodic Plots

Most episodic series rely on mysteries for their plot structure. Many employ the classic mystery plot: clear identification of the mystery, broadening suspicion, a sub-plot intrinsic to the hero’s emotional arc, discovery that the hero has been on the wrong track, re-focusing of the hero on the right track, explanation, climax and denouement. This type of plot may seem a bit cliched, but the practical reality is that if it worked for Agatha Christie, it’ll work for people writing today. The originality and inventiveness of the individual authors shines through in how they flesh out these bones to create their books.

Urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files or the Twenty Palaces novels rely on a combination of characterization and world-building to enrich their basic plots. Paranormal romances like the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the later Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books combine mystery plotting with the techniques of romance. Episodic adventure series like Artemis Fowl or Vlad Taltos invert traditional tropes (criminal vs sleuth, commit a crime vs solve a crime).

The Sense of Escalation

As the series progresses, building a sense of escalation becomes critical. Think of it this way: if the hero saves the universe in book one, what’s he going to do in book two? Many episodic series avoid this pitfall by focusing the plot on rather narrow concerns: if an epic hero saves the world, an episodic hero is more likely to save an individual. By keeping the scope focused, it makes it easier to escalate the stakes as the series progresses.

With her experience writing children’s books, Kate Griffen does an excellent job escalating the stakes across her Matthew Swift novels. In the initial installment (A Madness of Angels) Matthew Swift is focused first and foremost on his own survival. He is looking out for Number 1, and if others get swept up in his fight for survival that is their problem. In the second book (The Midnight Mayor) Swift has the (magical) mayoralty of London dumped in his lap, and he must deal with the consequences. At stake is the entire city of London and England itself.

Connolly uses a similar tactic to equally good effect: in the first Twenty Palaces novel (Child of Fire), the primary stakes are the hero’s life. Sure, there’s a town involved but Ray Lilly is focused on his own survival. In the second book (Game of Cages), his focus shifts to that of the town where a ravenous predator has escaped. What makes Connolly’s execution so strong is the unity he achieves between the explicit escalation of the stakes in the plot, and the escalating tension/stakes on Ray Lilly’s emotional journey (more on this in the next installment).

This kind of thematic and tactical escalation across books in the series can also tie into the character’s experiential growth: if the inexperienced hero can do something, it stands to reason that as their capabilities and understanding grow, so too will the stakes they fight for. The Harry Potter novels, themselves straddling the fence between epic and episodic, manage this experiential escalation very well.

The Danger of Formula and Using a Change-Up to Avoid It

The danger in all of this is that a plot model that works for the first, second, and third book in the series may seem formulaic and dull by the fourth, and fifth book in the same series. This is a point where the best episodic writers introduce what I call a “change-up”, a device which imbalances the hero’s routine and changes the plot structure of the books.

Different authors employ different change-ups: Steven Brust took away Vlad Taltos’ fortune, profession, and family by the fifth book. Jim Butcher introduces varying changes into Harry Dresden’s personal life (roommates, family members, etc.) while weaving strands for a super-plot that ties into Harry’s backstory and extends across the series.

By introducing such new elements, or by subverting the formulas employed in the earlier books, the plots can remain fresh for long-time readers and the momentum can be maintained throughout the series. But to be effective, the change-up has to do more than just intensify the predominant theme. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are centered around romantic relationships. The characterization of Sookie represents the series’ greatest strength, with an iconic and engaging character and a distinct narrative voice. But as the series progresses, Harris attempts a change-up by complicating these romances through the introduction of new paramours and the removal of old flames. Because the books were already centered around relationships, the change-up rings flat and fails to build a sense of increasing stakes. As a consequence, the books rely upon the reader’s prior investment in the character and the world of the series. In Harris’ case, this gamble might work due to the audience’s strong emotional involvement with Sookie. But it is a big risk to take.

Plot versus Emotional Arc

This discussion of plot is centered around one book, within the context of a broader episodic series. The defining characteristic of episodic series is that each installment stands alone, and in order for that to work, each installment’s plot must stand alone. However, it must balance its independence with the foreshadowing and references necessary to link subsequent books and preceding installments. The key to this, I believe, is the hero’s emotional changes over the course of the series. This emotional development is not confined to any one book, and it represents the glue that binds the books to each other. The next installment (Tuesday) will focus on this.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on using the hero’s emotional arc to keep readers engaged across books in the series.

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (Part 1 of 3): Episodic Heroes


I recently had the pleasure of reading the first two books in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series, and this got me thinking about the nature of episodic science fiction and fantasy. By episodic series, I’m thinking a four, five, ten book series where each book is a standalone story where the series’ principal character goes on whatever type of adventure is typical for that character. Think books like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. How are these kinds of episodic books constructed? What makes them tick?

NOTE! This is the first in a three part series of posts. This post is focused on the episodic hero. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on the episodic plot, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

Epic vs Episodic: What’s the difference?

Science fiction and fantasy are replete with series. That’s perfectly reasonable, when we consider that publishers, authors, and agents all love the “automatically” accumulating reprint sales that series make possible. But it is quite difficult to compare Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. There just isn’t that much commonality there.

Series like The Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time are epic in scope. They tell one story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But that one story does not fit in one book: it has to be spread across multiple volumes. The vast majority of these epic series simply cannot be read on a standalone basis (for a great counter-example, see my review of N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms).

If you look at an episodic series like Butcher’s Dresden Files or Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels, the series itself has a very different structure. Each book is a completely self-contained story, with its own beginning and ending that can be read independently of the other books in the series. And in contemporary series, each book and the entire series focuses on the experiences of one particular character.

Building an Episodic Character

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books were structured around a single universe (Shannara, Pern, and Valdemar, respectively) with standalone trilogies (or duologies) of books set within that universe. Each standalone sub-series could be described as an “epic” sub-series, while if we take the entire oevre together they begin to resemble episodic series. However, following the late ’90s’ rise of “Chihuahua-killer” fantasy tomes, these types of episodic/epic series seem to have vanished from publishers’ new lists.

With the contemporary focus on one character, that character becomes the most important aspect of an episodic series. This is true whether we’re writing an adult urban fantasy series like the Twenty Palaces, a paranormal romance mystery (à la Charlaine Harris), or a middle-grade adventure series (like Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Of course, character matters in every book. But it is the foundation of any episodic series.

What would Sherlock Holmes be without Sherlock Holmes? Could we have the Dresden Files without Harry Dresden? Or the Sookie Stackhouse novels without Sookie? The identity of the series’ protagonist is intrinsically tied up with the identify of the series. Few people realize that the Sookie Stackhouse novels were in fact first dubbed the “Southern Vampires Mysteries”: the pervasive character of their protagonist eventually subsumed the publisher’s attempts to brand the series independently of its hero.

There is a lot of commonality in how episodic authors create their heroes. First, almost all episodic heroes have a Past (note the capital “P”). In many ways, this is a product of the history of episodic series, who are pretty clear descendants of the serialized mystery (Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, etc.). When we meet Connolly’s Ray Lilly, or when we meet Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos each brings to the table a checkered history.

Ray Lilly is an ex-con who survived an unpleasant run-in with magic, and now finds himself employed as a “wooden man” (a sort of enforcer) for a society of wizards (called the “Twenty Palaces Society”). Harry Dresden is a professional wizard private investigator who has had serious altercations with magical society. Vlad Taltos is a low-ranking minority (human) criminal in a larger criminal organization on a magic-filled secondary world.

Each is in some fashion iconoclastic. They have survived altercations with some form of authority in their world, which gives them some form of reputation. This reputation becomes a double-edged sword that both helps and hinders the hero on their adventures. As the books unfold, the reader learns more of this backstory through subtly planted information, for the most part avoiding an infodump that would stall the fast pace of the story. As the series winds to a conclusion, the overarching conclusion likely leads to some resolution of the lingering effects of that backstory.

Every one of these characters is gainfully employed. What’s more, they have jobs that will force them into adventures. Lilly is an enforcer. Dresden is a wizard/private-eye. Taltos is a low-level crime boss/private-eye/assassin. It is their means of employment that makes a long, episodic series possible. A detective will always have another case. An enforcer will always have another assignment. An assassin will always have another target. This enforces a certain structure, along with certain strictures, on each book in the series.

When we meet the hero, they are often inexperienced in some critical aspect. Ray Lilly knows almost nothing about magic, save that it exists. Harry Dresden has lots of magical power, but very little control. Any middle-grade or young adult episodic series (like Artemis Fowl or The 39 Clues) has inexperienced heroes by default: youth and inexperience go hand-in-hand! The use of inexperience makes it possible for the reader to learn alongside the hero, and for the hero to progress through adventures (books) with escalating challenges. As the hero’s experience increases over the course of the series, the challenges that they face can become more difficult, more challenging, more dangerous. Done artfully, this keeps the tension high in the later books in the series, and if tied back to the character’s emotional development can keep the character engaging, whether we’re in book two or twelve.

The use of iconoclasm and employment are both traditional tools of the mystery novel. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, even Sam Spade – all of the classic detectives were iconoclastic, and the vast majority were actively employed as detectives. The use of inexperience to provide character progression seems to be a newer development, and it is one that an increasing number of episodic series rely on.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment for episodic plots, how to keep the reader reading in one book, and how to avoid flagging interest as the series progresses.

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