Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: How To Plot A Series Without Driving Yourself Insane (Part 2)

Eeeeee!!! We're at T minus 3 days from the launch of One Good Dragon Deserves Another! I can not wait for you guys to read this book! The ever-awesome Mihir already reviewed it for Fantasy Book Critic and he loved it, so I'm now 100% confident you guys will, too! SO EXCITED!!

Also, Audible has started recording for the audio edition, and it should be out in October. They got the same narrator as book 1, too. Things are coming up all aces around here!

*deep calming breath*

Okay, now that I'm temporarily done flailing my arms in happiness, let's talk plotting a series!

Writing Wednesdays: How To Plot A Series Without Driving Yourself Insane (Part 2) - Handling Your Metaplot

In part one, I talked about the 5 basic steps I use to plot the course a series. If you're familiar with my blog, you probably noticed these steps looked very similar to the ones in my How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps post. That's not coincidence. 

The overarching story of a series and the self-contained story of a book share the same structure. Ideally, both have a beginning, middle, and an end, both have development and growth, and both have a dramatic narrative that builds to a climax. The only real differences between the two story types are scale, speed, and focus.

Because it is largely self-contained, the plot of a single book can be as big and move as fast as you need it to. Your narrative can focus on whatever part of the narrative is most vital to the story you want to tell. A book, in short, doesn't have to answer to anyone else. It can be whatever it needs to be--fast, slow, epic, intimate, first person, third person, giant cast, epistolary--to best tell the story. 

But when you sit down to plan out the overarching plot of your series, also known as the metaplot, your freedoms and tools are much more limited. Because a series is made up of individual books, each of which have to be good in their own right, you don't always have the freedom to tell your larger metaplot exactly as you want to. 

The needs of the individual books always have to come first, because those are what your readers are reading. No one sits down and reads a meta plot by itself. It always exists in abstract, the bigger picture you see when you step back and look at the series as a whole. 

This degree of separation puts a lot of pressure on metaplot structure. Your reader catches the big-picture meta plot only in glimpses through your other books, sometimes years apart if your series is still coming out. These are huge handicaps writers must overcome if we want our readers to keep our larger story clear in their heads. 

The easiest way to compensate for this is to just keep the metaplot simple, but not every writer wants to do that. I personally love a complex metaplot both as a reader and a writer. So how do you tell a complex, series-level story? How can you structure your metaplot to make sure readers can keep up without sacrificing the intricacy and depth that made you want to write that metaplot in the first place?

Like any problem in writing, there are a million good answers to this one. My personal favorite, though, is to always make sure that my metaplot isn't so much the story of my world as it is the story of my characters.

The Character Driven Metaplot

Characters are the reason readers stick with a series. Plot might be enough to suck us in for a single book, but it's our attachment to the people that keeps us coming back again and again. This personal connection is why even in traditional serial Romance--where every book tends to feature its own new couple--the author will keep all her stories set in the same city and time period with frequent cameos from previous couples and their ridiculously adorable and well behaved Romance children. This way, even starting over with a new couple, the already established character connections that readers treasure are preserved.

When you set out to tell a complex metastory over the course of several books, you're asking your readers to play a pretty serious game of keep-up. In order to appreciate what's going on in the larger picture, they have to keep track of a lot of details over a long period of time. That kind of memory commitment requires a lot of caring, and the easiest way to achieve that is to make sure that the big-picture, background story you're asking them to keep up with is centered on the characters they already care so much about.

This is exactly what I did in my Legend of Eli Monpress series. In classic Fantasy series tradition, all five books are their own stories within a larger world with an escalating conflict that takes us from small, kingdom-level stakes in book 1 to giant, end-of-the-world stakes in book 5. This ramp-up was powered in large part by the metaplot, which was the story of the larger world and its secrets. But though I dropped hints about this larger problem all the way back in book 1, I couldn't be sure readers would remember them. So, to add extra weight to these hints, I tied the mystery of what was going on with the world (and the eventual climax of the series) to the mystery of Eli Monpress himself, the series's very popular titular character. 

Readers might not have cared about my cryptic "this is the metaplot" hinting in book one, but they sure as hell cared about Eli. The mystery of who is the real Eli behind the smiling mask and witty comebacks and how is he able to do all this crazy stuff tied directly into the larger plot of the series, harnessing all that reader investment in Eli and transferring it to the metaplot of the series itself. This connection between Eli and the fate of the larger world grew clearer with every book, so by the time we were ready to actually dig into the giant metaplot climax in book 5, all of my readers were 100% on board, because it was also the big conclusion of Eli's plot, which was what everyone really cared about.

I could have done both of these plots (the meta-level world plot and Eli's character plot) separately, but that would have done a huge disservice to the series. Instead, by keeping them both in lockstep together, I ensured that my readers would be rewarded for keeping up with all my metaplot complexities with delicious Eli reveals. 

It worked amazingly, too. Despite having the most complex metaplot of any series I've written save for my Heartstrikers books, I have never gotten any complaints from Eli readers about being confused. Instead, they complained that the books (which were topping 170,000 words at the end) were too short. So, clearly, readers were not struggling with the complexity. 

So if you're working on, or even thinking about writing a series with a very complex metaplot, don't be afraid. Readers are very smart. They will keep up with you through any plot-bending you perform, but only if you make it worth their while, and a great and simple way to do that is make sure your bigger plot, whatever it is, is intimately connected to the fate of your characters. You want to milk that personal connection between reader and character as hard as possible. Use it in everything. Make your beloved, flawed characters the center of your series level plot, and you will be rewarded with the kind of rapt reader attention that remembers tiny details from five books ago with OCD levels of precision. Once you've got that level of attention, you can tell hugely complex metaplots with only the tiniest detail drops, which leaves you enough room to tell the actual story of the individual book without becoming a slave to the series.

Thanks for reading! I hope my tricks help you with crafting your own big series level plots. Come back next Wednesday for the final installment where I'll talk about the secret to working new ideas into your series without breaking the illusion that you're an all-knowing author who knew exactly what you were doing from the very beginning. Trust me, it's gonna be fun!

Until then, thank you again for reading, and I hope you'll check out One Good Dragon Deserves Another when it comes out on August 1st!

Happy writing!
- Rachel


Eileen K said...

Thank *you* again for writing!

Kelly Byrne said...

Another great post, Rachel. Thank you! Looking forward to next week.

J. Leigh Bralick said...

Ahhh...makes me want to read the Eli Monpress series....AGAIN.... ^_^ Every time I reread it I marvel at all the little hints and clues scattered through the early books that mysteriously become vastly important later much awesome.

Dianne J. Wilson said...

Rachel, you are a goldmine. Thank you for sharing all the awesome in your head with us!

Rachel Aaron said...

Yay! So glad you all liked it! Thank you so much for reading!

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Jimney said...

Thanks for this! It really help me to take a step back from my own work (I didn't even see the damned trees any more if I was nose-to-bark with them!) and consider what I am actually doing! Very nice.

Keith Manuel said...

I've learned a lot reading your posts here. If I want to publish the traditional route, I've noticed that lately most fantasy books tend to run 2 then maybe 3 in a series if the first one sells well. So should I plan for a trilogy even if I've got something bigger in mind?