The Delicate Art of the Serial I: Balancing Conflict and Resolution in a Series

Instead of a personal note on mood or what’s on my ipod, from now on I’ll be dropping a note on style or grammar into the blog. As my intended readers for this blog are largely fellow aspiring authors, I want to share my findings as I scour the Internet for tips:

Thanks to Daily Writing Tips, I know that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) has finally dissolved my tradition of using two spaces after a period. It has been a factor in writing as we transition from print to electronic media. Since I was trained to type in the business manner, I’ve had a hard time letting go of that second space: but I learned in my History and CIS degrees to treat the CMS as definitive so one space it will be from now on.

I don’t think it will shock you much to learn that I was something of a nerd in high school. A bit anti-social, extremely awkward and shy, I spent a lot of time in the company of paperbacks, many of them in a connecting series. This was a great escape, running off into vast landscapes of books where characters grew in slow arcs, defeated foes who’d come back to haunt them, and eventually marry the man or woman they’d been fighting alongside for hundreds of pages. As I intend Eastlight to be a series, I want to spend some time analyzing successful series and what makes them tick. This will be the first of three blog posts looking at series as I read and analyze them.

In high school, I first read long serials, before moving on to comics. I wish somebody had explained that Dickens wrote in serials and should be read as such. We had to read vast chunks of Great Expectations all in one go, and I utterly hated it. I’ve since learned to appreciate Dickens by reading him the way his original readers did: bit by bit, week by week. In this manner I can sip at his prose, slowly taking it in, without feeling buried by his language. Instead of stressing to complete a big block of reading in time to write a terrible paper about it, I have time to enjoy Dickens and look forward to the next chapter.

Back in my awkward teen years, the series that kept my attention the most were Star Trek novels. They were a great way to spend infinite time with characters I loved. I went on to read a lot of comic books. One author who crosses between the two mediums with deft, prolific, effectiveness is Peter David. I think the man must sleep very little. His X-Factor comics have a consistent high quality in a bloated landscape, and his Star Trek: New Frontier books demonstrate a well plotted, character-focused serial.

I took about a twenty year break from Star Trek novels so I’m still surveying the landscape, but as far as I can tell, David was the first to try something of this type: he took a number of B characters in the Next Generation Universe, stirred up his own funky aliens, and dropped them into a ship in an uncharted region of space. Remember when I said he’s deft? David’s strength in writing characters he didn’t create is that he picks vaguely-defined figures and brings them to vivid life.

The short length of the books means I can breeze through one in an evening, though I quickly find that I need a few on hand as I’ll reach for the next as soon as I put one down. In this manner, he’s constructed his series to work just like episodes of a television show, and it works really well. Part of why the series succeeds is that threads aren’t left to dangle: he tracks unresolved elements over the course of many books and gets the conflict resolved. He’s shown a similar talent with X-Factor, where I’ve been happily surprised to see him pick up threads other writers dropped fifteen years ago and wrap them up. His way of writing comics, in self-contained chapters which culminate and collect well into larger books, serves him well in his novels. He likes to leave you with a cliffhanger or an ominous portent. Both serials benefit from a large cast, which aside from cannon fodder, also provides him with many smaller arcs to stretch the narrative over a larger canvas.

One weakness in the serial is that the suspense can be tiring if threads don’t get wrapped up. You want to see things resolved at some point. If an author stretches things out for too long you get anxious. There’s a delicate balance to this that many authors struggle with. In comics, where short attention span reigns, writers only have so long to wrap it up (or we get those annoying dropped threads when the writer changes guard). In the novel these open ended moments can bring you back for more, but only if the payoff is worth the wait. An easy out for a conflict that has stretched over three books leaves a bitter taste. David doesn’t suffer from this problem.

David’s second strength is that he doesn’t lose track of his characters. He keeps them in mind when he returns for the next episode. We get surprised by new facets of a personality, but he doesn’t radically alter a character’s nature. They grow, and our understanding of them grows too. Using this technique, he lets characters resolve their individual conflicts. In the New Frontier series, he seems to have started things with each individual coming on board with a different secret or desire. Each episode clears up one or two of these, so the reader is satisfied while they wait for some of the larger mysteries to simmer. I think David intimately knows his characters, and while they surprise us, I get the feeling he knows exactly what they’re hiding before he began writing the first episode. I’ve long been a fan, but I’m really beginning to admire Peter David’s craftsmanship as well.

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