As the author of three different series, I group series writing into two camps. One requires the author to know, at least in broad terms, the overarching story being told by the individual parts. The second approach relies on a formula for creating individual installments or episodes. The formula enables an open-ended path to creating an ongoing series that does not necessarily have an end in sight.
Writing a Story as Series
When the author knows the story from the beginning, each story within the series contributes to the master story arc guiding the narrative toward a conclusion. Each installment will contain its own smaller story arc, but the results of the arc move the overall story forward toward a conclusion. This is the method that came naturally to me as a fiction writer.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy provides a well-known example. Tolkien wrote the books knowing that the issue introduced in the first book (the Ring must be destroyed) would be resolved in some way in the final book.
This differs from an author who writes a successful novel that goes on to spawn sequels due to its success. The best-seller Dune by Frank Herbert serves as an example of a successful novel that inspired many more sequels. The universe envisioned by Herbert certainly provided fertile territory for ongoing stories, but the original Dune has the form of a standalone novel. It tells the story of the rivalry between the Harkonnens and Atreides coming to a head and Paul’s rise as a super being who took over the imperial throne. If the novel had been a flop, then sequels would not have resulted, but their absence would not have left the original Dune as an inconclusive orphan. Imagine if The Fellowship of the Ring had no sequels? Although entertaining, it did not resolve the issue presented in the beginning. Fellowship is a novel that was planned from the beginning to serve as a part of a larger whole.
Writing an Episodic Series
This story system introduces a setting and characters and places them in various conflicts within each story. Individual installments resolve their issues within each story.
The Star Trek universe illustrates the episodic approach to building a series. The Original Series in particular presented a single story in each episode that was not generally related to the preceding episodes or succeeding episodes. The formula called for the crew to go to a new place, encounter a threatening unknown, and figure out how to deal with it. The series formed a collection of individual stories instead of a collection of stories that built an overarching story.
Sometimes the episodic formula can develop into an overarching story. The X-Files was primarily an episodic adventure dependent on Mulder and Scully dealing with something strange each episode and then moving on to some new wonder in the next story. As the series went on, however, overarching story elements emerged around secretive groups. These narratives would rise as the episodes dealt with the larger story and then gradually yield to episodic adventures again.
My writing has fallen into the camp of story as series. Even if it takes me three or four novels to tell a complete story, I know where I’m going when I write the first story. In a new project that I’ve started, I’m going to try a partially episodic approach. I know I won’t be able to completely resist the urge to develop an overarching story, but I’m interested in exploring the demands of episodic writing.
As someone who has been writing fiction since 1997 when I penned (literally penned) the first chapters of Union of Renegades, I feel it’s important that I keep trying new ideas.