The expectations for a book series are growing.
There is of course a great reason for writing a series. When you write a standalone novel, it may go to the bookstore and sit on the shelf for only two months before the stores strip them off the shelf and return them to the publisher. Just about the time that you think you have a hit, the books get destroyed. There isn’t much time for the book to build a presence, to garner reviews, and take advantage of word-of-mouth advertising.
But if you put several books into a series, the stores tend to reorder the early books in the series, and it greatly lengthens the shelf-life of your books—sometimes taking the shelf-life from months to years. If the series sells well, the books will even be put on permanent reorder status, so that each book that sells automatically sends out a reorder.
Now, back when I started writing, Lord of the Rings had been published as a “trilogy,” and every fantasy author seemed to be writing trilogies. We all knew the reasoning. We were trying to establish ourselves as authors, and if a publisher liked the first novel in a trilogy well enough, it wasn’t hard to sell the whole thing.
But that’s not enough anymore.
Recently I had a movie studio looking at one of my series for adaptation to television and they made a strange request: they asked that I outline the broad story arcs for the first eight seasons, with each season consisting of eight episodes. Think “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad.”
In case you’ve never done that before, it can be an onerous task. You have multiple characters with different kinds of arcs. One character may be seeking to solve a mystery while another is searching for love. A third is hoping to overcome a weakness while another is struggling to deal with a catastrophe and a fourth wants to save the world, and so on.
With a long series like this, you aren’t just developing one person’s story, you may be developing the story for an entire cast of characters—perhaps as many as a dozen people, and you have to deal with broad changes in history and locations over the timeline.
The goal of the studio of course is to get a general idea of how big a cast they will need. How many major sets will there be? How many characters? How many battles? What will the special-effects budget need to be? Do we need to plan on twenty million spent per season, or two hundred?
And I don’t think that the request was an anomaly. That request for an eight-part series was followed two weeks later by a request for another series sketched out ten seasons ahead.
I suspect that this will be the new norm.
Here’s why: Twenty years ago, Lord of the Rings was introduced as a movie trilogy. It was going to be three films. But when the first film became a hit, everyone—studio, director, and distributors—all wanted a longer ride on the gravy train. The same happened with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, then with The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and so on. Every studio is looking for an open-ended hit. As a result, the final book in a trilogy got turned into two films.
As a result, we got a lesser book like the Hobbit bloated up into a trilogy where even its fans complained that it was just overwrought.
Now, we’ve got a new gold rush in television. The cable channels and networks all want a hit series. It’s not enough to plan a season or two, the way I was doing a couple of years ago. The studios are asking for a decade, “just in case.”
As a novelist, I’m concerned of course that plotting too much for a television series is a waste of my time. Even if a series does become a hit, the showrunners are going to want to revise everything, “make it their own.”
Still, as I’m plotting a couple of new book series, I suspect that paying attention to these longer arcs will make a big difference in how the books perform. It could have a huge payoff
We all need to learn the art of perfecting longer tales. At the very least, you now need to think about it.
Free writing workshop online! I’ve teamed up with award-winning authors Tim Powers and Orson Scott Card to teach a free writing workshop, based upon our popular Writers of the Future Workshops that we teach in Hollywood. Come take the workshop, write a story, and enter it into the contest or send it off to a publisher. It’s fun and free! https://www.writersofthefuture.com/register/online-workshop/
For Saturday, with my Apex writer’s group I’ll be interviewing bestselling author Aleron Kong about how he broke in as an Indie and started his own genre. If you;re interested in joining the group, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject of Apex in the header, and I’ll send you the info you need to apply.
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