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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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