THE CARE AND FEEDING OF THE OPEN-ENDED SERIES
Series fiction dominates fantasy and science fiction, and I see no reason to buck the trend. To the contrary. I want in on it. I want the loyal readership and dependable income that a successful series provides. To that end, I’ve established my “Brotherhood of the Griffon” characters in the Forgotten Realms universe and am about to launch The Impostor, my attempt to write a hero pulp like Doc Savage or The Shadow for a modern audience. (You could also call it my attempt to do a superhero comic in prose.)
So I’ve been thinking about the long haul, how writers keep a series running for more than ten stories, or twenty, or a hundred. I believe I’ve identified at least some of the strategies (which are not always mutually exclusive):
1. Nothing ever changes. At least not permanently. The core characters have adventures, but their personalities, relationships, situation, and even their ages remain stable. We see this in long-running detective series like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.
This approach depends on giving the audience characters so entertaining and individual adventures so interesting that they don’t want anything to change. They’re happy to try a blind eye to the absurdity of Wolfe being exactly the same in 1934, when the series began, as in 1974, when it ended.
2. The big stall. This strategy keeps enticing the audience back with the promise of some momentous event, often an apocalyptic battle or catastrophe. But the writer never actually delivers it because doing so would end the series.
If the characters are engaging and their adventures are exciting, this approach can work for a long while. Its storyline driven by the threat of an impending alien invasion, The X-Files ran from 1993 to 2002 and was fascinating for much of that time. Ultimately, though, the fact that the invasion never happened became frustrating, and the show lost some of its appeal. (Admittedly, for many viewers, David Duchovny’s absence didn’t help, either.)
If you structure your series around such a threat, you probably should resign yourself to the fact that though you can stretch things out for quite a while, ultimately, you owe it to your readers to deliver a finale. But even after you do, you may not have to abandon the series and (God forbid!) make up something altogether new. You may be able to use one of the following strategies.
3. The reboot. DC Comics used this when core characters like Superman and Batman had been around for decades. Concerned that a long, complicated continuity and a feeling of stale predictability were costing them readers, the editors commissioned Marv Wolfman and George Perez to create Crisis on Infinite Earths, a miniseries intended to make the DC universe new again. In that story, a cataclysm altered space-time itself and swept the old history away.
Kind of. As the dust settled, readers soon learned that the new history wasn’t all that different from the old. Superman was still from Krypton. Batman was still chasing the Joker. Green Lantern still had a power ring. Still, the do-over attracted readers and revitalized the storytelling.
4. Another one just like the other one. Just because your hero eliminated one ultimate evil, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another ultimate evil in the next country over. You just launch a new epic centered on a new threat.
Stargate SG-1 used this approach after the heroes finally disposed of the Goa’uld. It turned out that the equally villainous Ori were waiting in the wings to pick up where the Goa’uld left off.
This approach generally works best if the new threat doesn’t seem like it’s pretty much just the old threat with a new name (which unfortunately was the case with the Ori) and if the new problem seems to rise logically and naturally from what has gone before.
In the season just concluded, Supernatural did it right. The problem the Winchesters faced didn’t feel like a rerun, and it developed as a consequence of what had happened previously.
When you create a new threat, one potential problem is that the audience will see it as unimpressive or even downright wimpy compared to the old one. Some writers try to forestall this by using the next strategy.
5. Go bigger. In this approach, the writer creates a new threat more formidable than the old one. Done properly, this avoids any sense of deja vu and makes the reader feel that the stakes are higher, the tension is tenser, and the spectacle is more spectacular.
One potential problem is creating a menace so powerful that it stops being credible for the protagonist to win. If, for example, you find yourself writing a scene where Nancy Drew defeats Yog-Sothoth, even Nancy’s most diehard fans may have trouble buying into it.
Another problem is that if you go to this well very often, you may find it tough to keep coming up a new big thing even bigger than the last big thing. This happens in superhero comics. Marvel created the Cosmic Cube, a device of infinite power that turns the possessor’s wishes into reality. Later on, in an effort to write about an even more powerful maguffin, Marvel gave us the Infinity Gauntlet, a device of infinite power that turns the possessor’s wishes into reality. The writers assure us the Gauntlet is more powerful, infiniter, if you will, than the Cube, but there’s nothing to support this other than the mere assertion itself. There’s no way to show the Gauntlet doing things the Cube can’t when the latter has already been defined as capable of doing anything.
If you hesitate to try to flat-out top yourself or slog on beyond your epic finale, you can try the next strategy.
6. Fill in the blanks. Sometimes a writer can continue a character’s exploits by writing prequels about his early years or filling in the gaps between stories already published. This can work well if your characters have an interesting back story that readers would like to see laid out in detail. Supposedly, Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit will show us what Gandalf got up to when he split off from the expedition to the Lonely Mountain, and while there are probably some who will protest such a major change to Tolkien’s original story, it’s a safe bet there are also people who will enjoy seeing these events dramatized.
The strategy may not work if the reader thinks you’ve already told everything of interest. Or if he takes the perspective that he already knows the end of the story, so why bother with any more of it?
You may also reach a point where it’s hard to find new holes to plug. When Lancer Books reprinted Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, they commissioned L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others to write additional tales, and these authors filled in the gaps in the character’s history. Gradually, the effect became ludicrous. Conan no longer had the necessary time to wander from place to place, learn new languages, or establish himself in new situations as a mercenary, pirate, or whatever. You got the feeling that the poor guy never got a single day off from fighting demons and sorcerers.
The final strategy is the opposite of some I’ve already discussed.
7. The characters change and age, but in a controlled way. You let them evolve to a degree, but not to an extent that ends the series before you’re ready for that to happen.
To an extent, Howard used this approach with Conan, who starts out as a teenage thief and ends up as the forty-something king of a great realm. Fritz Leiber arguably used it in a more profound way with the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, who, in their final adventures, are clearly middle-aged not just physically but psychologically. They’re ready to abandon their roguish ways, settle down, and become solid citizens.
One advantage of this approach is that it lets you deal with themes and plots that the nothing-ever-changes strategy simply won’t allow. This can help keep the series fresh for readers and the writer as well as he takes on the task of writing about his signature characters for the twenty-fifth or ninety-second time.
One potential problem is that even if you’re trying to guard against it, you may make a change that detracts from the appeal of your characters. I enjoyed every Mouser and Fafhrd story, including the final ones. But to me, they’ll always be the whimsical scoundrels of Lankhmar, not the staunch defenders of Rime Isle.
So there you have them, strategies for keeping your series alive for installment after installment, year after year, decade after decade. If you’re a writer, I hope you get the chance to try them out. Needing to figure out how to keep a popular, profitable series going is the best problem a genre author can have.
And now, before you move on, may I indulge in some self-promotion?The Q Word and Other Stories, an ebook collection of some of my best short fiction, is now available for the Kindle at Amazon and for all platforms at Smashwords.
The Spectral Blaze, my new Forgotten Realms/Brotherhood of the Griffon novel, comes out June 7th.
If you enjoyed what I wrote here, I hope you’ll check the books out. You’re also more than welcome to friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and check out my blog.