Cultivating Plots: How to Grow your Series

After a wild winter here in the mid-Atlantic, spring has finally arrived. Daffodils bob on the highway medians, the famous local cherry trees cast pink carpets under my feet when I run, and my Laddie gulps allergy pills with his morning coffee. I can’t wait to get my hands in the soil, but for the past few weeks I’ve been neglecting my flowerpots (and my blog—I need to get that New Year’s Write-olution back on track!) for a different husbandry project: revising the manuscript of Syzygy.

Like an invasive weed spreading across the yard, my re-writes have spread out of control. I’d hoped my lessons from Blue Karma would result in a better first draft, avoiding the kind of overhaul my debut required. Instead I’m fighting my way through a dense, tortuous hedge maze of drafts. If I were pruning a plant instead of a story, I’d have dirt under my nails and bloody bramble scratches on my arms. (Actually, Syzygy does have a Thorn. And an Ash, and a Hazel, and a Willow…the joke will make sense when you read the book, I promise!)

Why the unexpected challenges? It turns out that series are a different species of story than standalone novels. Although the fundamentals are the same–every story needs characters and tension, just as every plant needs sunlight and water–serial fiction demands some special tending. Here are four “gardening tips” I’ve learned while writing Syzygy:

1. Series are perennials. Facts established in the first book carry through to subsequent installments. If you don’t keep track of how everything fits together, you risk inconsistencies popping up in your story like forgotten tulip bulbs in a vegetable garden. So take the time to get it right. Outline the entire series in detail to ensure the narrative thrives throughout all its seasons.

Master Gardener: Margaret Atwood. The Maddaddam trilogy retells parts of its story from different characters’ perspectives and backtracks to recount events mentioned in earlier installments. Atwood keeps the details straight, although she published the three books several years apart.

2. Plant your seeds deep. Book one is fertile ground for seemingly insignificant details that, later in the series, burst into prominence like crocuses erupting through the last snow. Planning to reveal a character’s past in book two or throw a big plot twist in book three? Tease it early. Story elements with roots in the first book will be sturdier and more satisfying for the reader.

Master Gardener: J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series became a decade-long Easter egg hunt for analytical readers like me, who soon learned to consider every scrap of information as a potential clue. Deceptively minor details (Harry spots a tiara among the other junk in the Room of Requirement) later prove critical (the tiara is a Horcrux!) providing rich continuity across the stories. Everything feels deliberate. This, to me, is a true master technique for serial fiction.

3. Fruition takes time. My favorite Thai dragon pepper plant doesn’t produce chillies the moment I plop it in the potting mix, and the same goes for serial fiction. The main arc unfolds more gradually when spread out over installments. This doesn’t mean it should be boring—far from it—but allow the plot time to mature. Let readers watch it ripen and anticipate the juicy harvest. If you’re impatient like me, adjusting your mental pace can be a challenge. But if you discipline yourself to it, it’s worth the wait.

Master Gardener: George R. R. Martin. Okay, Martin might actually be too patient. A Song of Ice and Fire has become a sprawling cottage garden, with seemingly endless characters and subplots twining around one another. But you can’t deny he’s incredibly patient in cultivating his plot, and fans around the world are salivating for more story.

4. Pruning encourages growth. Multi-part tales should be long and meandering, right? Wrong. Prolix undergrowth can choke out the drama and leave readers fighting through dense thickets of prose in search of the story. Don’t be afraid to transplant and trim. The story will grow stronger, and you might even find some better ideas hiding beneath the dead wood.

Master Gardener: Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games trilogy features very little extraneous material. The story moves with brisk purpose and keeps readers turning pages. It’s as tight as a topiary, honed and sculpted into a sharp piece of fiction.

Serial fiction can be a challenging variety, but these tools will help your stories flourish!

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