Plotting a Web Serial…

The Fire Man

Kuzey­tac via Comp­fight

Melanie Edmonds is one of those indie-authors who’s man­aged to make a a suc­cess out of the web-ser­i­al.  A real suc­cess.  She pro­duces smart, con­cise, pro­fes­sion­al look­ing tales and she does it all by the seat of her pants.  Imag­ine!

My own ser­i­al flopped tremen­dous­ly, plot holes and incon­sis­ten­cies abound­ed, and I couldn’t, so close to the end fig­ure out how to fix the flaws.  I thought that a seat of your pants web ser­i­al was impos­si­ble to pull off…at least for me.  Accord­ing to Melanie, there are some rules or not rules to keep in mind though.  This is what else Melanie had to say…

Plot­ting a web ser­i­al…

Or, how to keep your pants on fire.

There are many ways to approach writ­ing a web ser­i­al. Some writ­ers have the whole ser­i­al writ­ten before they start to post. Some have at least a large por­tion of it com­plete: half, or three quar­ters, or enough for sev­er­al months’ worth of entries. Oth­ers always have a hand­ful of posts in hand.

I’m not one of those writ­ers. In some ways, I’d like to be, but it just doesn’t work like that for me.

On my first web ser­i­al, the Apoc­a­lypse Blog, I had a strict sched­ule of at least one post a day. For the last eight months of the year-long project, I was writ­ing, edit­ing, and post­ing in the same day. Every day. It was insane, and I loved it.

Writ­ing that way doesn’t leave much time for plan­ning, so I fell into the dis­cov­ery, ‘seat of the pants’ kind of writ­ing. This works well for me, but it has a num­ber of pit­falls that are worth keep­ing in mind. It’s easy to write your­self into a cor­ner or mean­der through the posts with­out direc­tion if you don’t have some way to con­trol the plot.

So how do you plot a web ser­i­al you’re writ­ing by the seat of your pants?

Have strong, ful­ly-formed char­ac­ters. These are the peo­ple you’re tak­ing this jour­ney with, and they’ll help you through it. When you get stuck, they will help you get out of it. Trust your char­ac­ters to help you tell their sto­ry, and you’ll be fine.

My writ­ing is char­ac­ter-cen­tric. The action (and plot) is dri­ven by their per­son­al­i­ties and deci­sions, their steps and mis­steps. Hav­ing a good mix of peo­ple is essen­tial, even if they don’t all get along (in fact, it can be more fun if they don’t!).

Even the gaps they can’t fill can help to dri­ve the sto­ry. Do they need a mechan­ic but don’t have one to hand? Then they’ll need to find a way around their bro­ken gad­get, or go find some­one who can fix it for them. And maybe that will lead to an impor­tant lack that they’ll need to work around lat­er on, or they’ll have to deal with some­one who exacts an awk­ward price…

Have a  plan in mind. You might be writ­ing by the seat of your pants, but that doesn’t meant you can’t have a long-range plan you’re work­ing towards. In fact, if you don’t, you’re like­ly to end up with a long, ram­bling sto­ry that goes nowhere at all. Your read­ers will be able to tell and this isn’t a good thing!

You don’t have to have a 3-act struc­ture and you don’t have to have every twist and turn nailed down before­hand. You don’t even have to have it writ­ten down. But if you have an idea about the plot arc (or arcs!) you want to cre­ate, where your sto­ry is going, then it will help your sto­ry main­tain a direc­tion.

I use the ‘step­ping stone’ method of plan­ning my sto­ries, includ­ing my web seri­als. I know spe­cif­ic plot points I want to hit and the rough end­ing point I want to get to in each ‘book’ (rough­ly 100,000 words in a web ser­i­al).

This helps cre­ate arcs for the sto­ry to trav­el through, allow­ing it to have crescen­dos and pay­offs, which is less exhaust­ing for the audi­ence than a con­tin­u­ous lev­el of excite­ment (or, worse, lack of excite­ment!). In the project I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on, Star­walk­er, there are three books planned out, each one with its own arc which builds up into a big­ger arc run­ning through the whole tril­o­gy.

Every­thing in between those step­ping-stone plot points is writ­ten dis­cov­ery-style. I might know where I want them to get to but I don’t always know how they’ll get there! I take the jour­ney with my char­ac­ters, and that’s part of the fun for me as a writer. I ask myself a lot of ques­tions, exam­in­ing my goal, options, and char­ac­ters, to pick the best path for the sto­ry.

No, really.

Doug Geisler via Comp­fight

For exam­ple, I want them to get to point D, but how do I make them want to get there? If they don’t want to get there, how do I make it nec­es­sary for them to go any­way? Do I need to throw in a road­block, or have them remove one? Do they need to go through points B and C first? What choic­es will this group of peo­ple need to make? What won’t/can’t they do? How can I jug­gle the pieces I have at my com­mand to make this hap­pen?

What­ev­er you do, don’t force the plot. You should nev­er need to. No-one wants to see the author’s hand in there, push­ing the sto­ry towards where you want it to be; you should be invis­i­ble. It’s impor­tant to stay true to your char­ac­ters and the rules of your game; your audi­ence will hate you if you don’t.

A lot of this comes down to expe­ri­ence, exper­i­men­ta­tion, and keep­ing your options open. You will get bet­ter with prac­tice! There is always a way out of where you are, and a way to where you want to get to. Find the one that fits your char­ac­ters, sto­ry, and world.

If you find your­self stuck in a cor­ner, or with no idea what to do next, find a tac­tic that works for you. Ray­mond Chan­dler famous­ly used the ‘man enters the scene with a gun’ tac­tic when he didn’t know what to do next. For me, I tend to ask myself ‘what’s the worst thing I can do to this/these character/s at this moment?’ I may not do that worst thing, but it tends to gen­er­ate some inter­est­ing ideas!

Last­ly, don’t for­get to have fun with it. Writ­ing as if your pants are on fire is exhil­a­rat­ing and some­times exhaust­ing, rather like try­ing to keep con­trol of a sack­ful of fer­rets. But it’s worth it!

Strap in, light the match, and let your­self get car­ried away!


Melanie Edmonds is a tech­ni­cal writer by trade and fic­tion writer by love. She has a degree in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing, and has been writ­ing since she was old enough to hold a pen. She writes pri­mar­i­ly sci­ence and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, and her pub­lished work includes web seri­als such as the Apoc­a­lypse Blog and Star­walk­er.

You can read Melanie’s work at: Apoc­a­lypse Blog and Star­walk­er Blog

You can fol­low Melanie at: Face­book, blog, Twit­ter

  • Ann (bun­ny­girl)

    I wrote Diana’s Diary like this. My cen­tral char­ac­ter was one from pre­vi­ous con­ven­tion­al­ly-writ­ten fic­tion, so I knew her pret­ty well. I had a very basic plot in mind: Diana leaves her New Mex­i­co home on horse­back in search of a new home in Ken­tucky. How she would get there and what adven­tures she would encounter in post-col­lapse Amer­i­ca were unknown to me. Each night I sat down with a map and pho­tos and tried to fig­ure out where she would be next, although there were days and entire weeks where her jour­ney would get stalled for one rea­son or anoth­er. It was a gid­dy ride for me and one of the best adven­tures I’ve ever had.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly I can’t write seri­als the same way when the action is main­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal or if I’m work­ing with more of an ensem­ble cast rather than focus­ing on a sin­gle char­ac­ter.

    • khaal­i­dah

      Hi there Ann.
      Actu­al­ly it real­ly does sound exhil­a­rat­ing the way you did it, and quite inge­nious too.  A map and imag­i­na­tion.  Smart!  Writ­ing a ser­i­al is def­i­nite­ly a lot of work, and I did enjoy it, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning.