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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 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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