The serialist’s dilemma
When we experience a story we enjoy—whether it’s a novel, movie, episode in a television series, comic book, whatever—it’s natural to want to feel that enjoyment again. This need can often be satisfied by re-reading or re-watching, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Maybe there was a supporting character that we become particularly enamored with and we just wish more of the story had focused on them. Or perhaps it was a subplot that really intrigued us and we’d like to see more of that particular dynamic. Or it could be a single line of dialog that alluded to a past event that sounds very interesting and we’d like to know more about what happened. Or it could just be that we want to know what happened next. None of those desires can be satisfied merely by repeating the original story.
In any case, we wind up clamoring, “More! More! Give me more!”
When you’re the storyteller, this is a very flattering thing to hear. The audience liked your story! They love your characters! They want more….
In cases such as television series pilots, this is an extremely great reaction to receive, since the whole point is to try to sell the series and make a bunch more episodes. If you’re the show runner/creator/what-have-you, this means you can keep paying your bills, et cetera. Additionally, a bunch of other people get some continuing employment, as making those episodes requires a crew, actors, make-up people, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a bonus!
As readers and watchers, we’ve all experienced the disappointment of a sequel that didn’t live up to the original. But when a continuation or sequel works, it’s awesome. We get the “more” that we asked for, and so we continue clamoring.
From a writer’s point of view, while the clamoring is flattering, sometimes it’s also daunting, and occasionally downright off-putting. Maybe I’ve told all of that person’s story that I’m interested in. Maybe I know that what happens next isn’t going to make a good story. Maybe I just need or want to spend some time in another headspace. I have lots of stories bubbling around in my head, other characters whose stories need telling.
Even when I do plan to tell more stories involving a particular group of characters or setting, I’m not always ready just now to tell that specific story people are asking for next. Maybe before I can write story B, I need to write stories X and Y. Readers may think B is the next logical story to tell, but writing for me is as much an act of exploration and discovery as it is an act of creation. I don’t know exactly how that villain is going to get to the next situation where she will confront the heroes. And I won’t know until I tell some of the stories of adjacent characters.
Sometimes an author doesn’t feel there is any more of that story to tell. This might be because nothing else that happens in the rest of the characters’ lives makes a good tale. It might be that what happens next isn’t a story the author wants to tell. It could be that what happens next is a story the author knows the audience of the earlier story won’t enjoy. Maybe I had a lot of fun telling the story of how those two characters came to get together, became great friends over the course of an adventure, and overcame a problem together—but I know that their happily ever after ends soon thereafter. And I can squeeze more stories in before that happens, but there comes a time when the only way to fit in any more stories is to distort the characters in ways that make the story stop working for me. Forcing a story to go a different way than it wants to go—which is to say, in a direction that feels unbelievable to me, the author—makes the whole thing fall apart.
Of course, even the most conscientious storytellers don’t always know when a story has run its course. I’m sure anyone reading this can name a series of novels, or movies, or a TV show that kept going longer than it should have. If you were a fan at the time, you wanted more, but then what came next just didn’t seem to be up to the same quality as the earlier stuff. In their defense, I can list a couple of novel series that hit a rough patch, a few books that didn’t quite come up to snuff of the earlier works, and then the writer managed to get things back on course for a few more novels.
I’m thinking about this topic for a few reasons. I’ve got four different novels of my own in different stages. One is in galley proofs and should be going to press soon (knock wood), two others are in rewrite, and one is in the early writing stages. And I worry that I’m getting ahead of myself, or that my plan for a long series may not work.
I’m also reading (or have just finished reading) books from long series of novels (more than one series). And some TV series that I’ve enjoyed for several years that have been canceled, and I’m still processing my feelings about those.
I’ve always been a person with multiple projects in process. I’ve always been a reader who is reading multiple books at the same time. So this always feels natural, to me. But still, I worry…
And I have no conclusion, except to harken back to the quote from Ray Bradbury that I return to so many times: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”