Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Serial Craze: When Writers Sacrifice the Story

Not so many years ago, one could view a television drama or pick up a novel, and expect to be told a story.  A complete story. Beginning, middle, end. Can you imagine?  With the exception of daytime soaps, serial stories were the exception, not the rule. As we have entered an era where, across many entertainment platforms, serials are more common - books, movies, television, games - it has often occurred to me that this practice has hurt the quality of stories.

The first time I remember being bored by the serial thing was with the ABC television serial from the 1980s, Twin Peaks. I watched most of it, but grew increasingly annoyed as my writer's intuition (and experience) told me that there was no ending. We were all waiting week after week for a big fat nothing, because the writers hadn't a clue how the thing was going to play itself out. They were making it up as they went, and their ever bringing it to a conclusion seemed to depend upon how long the network was going to keep renewing its call for new episodes.

Apparently I wasn't alone; early in the first season viewership dropped off dramatically. Largely due to great critical reviews based on its innovation, and likely to some ego on the part of ABC, the show was renewed for a second season that proved to be a mess. The key mystery was solved mid-season (a bone-headed decision if ever there was one) and viewership dropped to negligible numbers, financially speaking. The series died a long drawn-out death. Creators later admitted that they never considered that the series was about plot (the murder of Laura Palmer), but more about the interactions between the show's quirky characters - a confession that likely surprised not a single competent writer in viewer land. 

Other shows were smarter; The X Files incorporated a secondary ongoing storyline regarding the relationship between the leads and with their pasts, but still offered a complete story weekly. This was a formula that kept the show alive far longer than producers of Twin Peaks could have dreamt of - several years. 

By the middle of the 1980s, movies that were "sequels" or "prequels" or whatever inanity-du-jour producers came up with were a bit of a joke. (How about that second Indiana Jones story?  The "prequel". Yeah.. that one.) One could expect the sequel to be a lame attempt at money-making on the part of producers, and rarely anything that lived up to the thrill moviegoers had at the original. 

In recent years, the serial craze has crept into the realm of novels. Interestingly, many of the classic novels that we still revere from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in American and British writing were originally published in serial form in various newspapers. And yet, even that took a different form than it does now. These novels were complete and promised to be so from the beginning: they would be advertised as for example "a novel in four parts".  The reader was reassured every time they began a new installment, that they were reading a real story with a real, logical plot, and that it would have a real ending.

Nowadays there is a lot of laziness in writing all around. While Amazon, I personally believe, has been a godsend in allowing innovative stories to find a place in the marketplace, I abhor the laziness - from people just wanting to make a quick buck who would not take one week to learn to write a plot in any coherent manner, to people who want to call themselves a writer but don't understand that putting a book out there with grammar and spellings issues and a mess of a structure does not a writer make. Of course, the buyer is as responsible as the writer, if not more, for this state of things in the marketplace - and that is another discussion. The point is, I have come to believe that writing serials is another rather cynical attempt to make money with bad writing.  One need only slap together the beginning of a story, and put of having to take it to a logical end. 

Why does this matter to me?  Because 1) we have so little in the way of novels of quality on the already flooded market, and 2) serials as they are currently being presented cheat the reader. And do that quite intentionally.

The best plots - and in my mind the only way to structure a novel - consider the outcome as they go. The author knows the ending and the conflicts and pitfalls, and leads the reader through a maze of clues (foreshadowing) that all contribute to the satisfaction a reader feels as they reach a great ending. If the writer from the get-go has no idea what the plot is or where the conflict is going, they cannot foreshadow, they cannot tease and lead the reader. To me, there is something really low about spoonfeeding a reader little bits of an incomplete meal of a story, allowing him to anticipate for nothing.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that whether you are a novelist or a playwright, a screenwriter or a producer for TV, you owe those to whom you are telling the story a well-structured plot. You owe this above all else, because without a good plot, the story doesn't take shape. I talk to too many writers who will tell me all about the great protagonist they have dreamt up for the upcoming series (usually this protagonist is based upon themselves, interestingly), but are unable to articulate any coherent plan for a plot.  "It's a series," is the excuse, "I can figure it out in Book Two."  Oh.  

The problem is, there are too many instances where the first book establishes the lead character and a conflict of sorts, and ties up just a few loose ends by the finish but leaves a few bigger loose ends for the second book, enticing readers to buy in order to be fulfilled. Fine, but too many times the author grows bored by the end of the second book, resorts to dragging it on to a third, or simply doesn't publish a book with the ending. (Can you spell "c.h.e.a.t."?) So what starts out as an enthusiastic following results in a lot of frustrated readers, and rightly so. The author struggles to keep plotting alive, the second and subsequent (God forbid) books lack quality, and the series fizzles out. The problem is that the writer didn't take the time and effort - and perhaps lacked the skill in many instances - to lay out a complete plot structure, and then figure out what would happen in each book.  Experienced writers (and most of them stay away from serials) don't make the mistake of making it up as they go - they know that unless you have plot issues resolved from the beginning, they become potholes that grow into craters, and you may end up without an ending that works, and a failed series.

I find that this scenario usually involves an inexperienced writer, eager to make a paycheck, and unschooled on the finer points of successful plotting.  Often, this is a writer who does characterization well; he or she can come up with a great character and stick them into a book. But that character ends up throwing up his hands and complaining to the author, "What do you want me to do?"  when he becomes hopelessly mired in the chaos of a lack of plot.

A few people - a few - who are experienced writers do serials well. But the ones I can think of all do one important thing that is different from inexperienced writers:  they roll a complete well-plotted story into each book. Each book can stand alone as a good read. And a person can read Book Three and pretty much enjoy a full story, never having read the first two at all.

One good example of this is the wonderful historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. He has done a few different series of novels designed around themes. Each book within a series is a separate story; it may involve an ongoing protagonist observer to the historical period. Bestselling thriller writer Tom Clancy uses the Jack Ryan character as a protagonist through many of his novels, yet each novel contains a complete mystery thriller. Another good example is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Each story could be read separately and is complete in and of itself.

Unfortunately, the success of Harry Potter spawned a generation of novels that are badly written as series. Either, as mentioned above, an inexperienced writer is just in over their heads - or worse, the success of a first book prompts the writer to come up with an extension to the story that is never going to live up to the first because the writer doesn't understand the sophistication of plot structure required to pull it off (consider the Twilight story by Stephenie Meyer, or the 50 Shades of Gray books by E.L. James - yes there are three of those trainwrecks). 

The genre of erotic novels, along with "urban fantasy", offers up some of the worst nonsense in series reading. There, you often experience both bad characterization and bad plot structure, all rolled up in one. Why any reader continues to finance an author who can't be bothered to offer those two fundamentals to the reader, is beyond me. 

I'll continue to be annoyed by series writing, and dismayed that it seems to indulge a sort of greed amongst some bad writers, as their naive readers snatch up the first few books in a series before becoming disappointed.  I'll continue to tell the inexperienced writers I work with as an editor that series writing is not a good idea unless you are willing to plot out three novels, before writing a word of the first. You have to be willing to put thought into the last chapter of the third book, before you can presume to be able to successfully write the series or understand character development and conflict - those very things that form the true backbone of good writing and a successful series. 

I'll continue to believe that it's a trend whose life will be limited as people become tired of disappointment. When that day comes, there will be a lot of nervous TV writers, novelists and screenwriters, who will finally have to learn to write a structured plot!