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.
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.