Plotting a Web Serial…

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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!

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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

Awesome Serial Fiction

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I didn’t do very well with my ser­i­al web fic­tion Honor&Truth, but now that I’ve decid­ed to begin again with the tale, I know what mis­takes I’ve made.  That said, there are some pret­ty awe­some web seri­als out there and I thought I’d take the time to tell you about the ones I most admire.

1.  Steal Tomor­row by Ann Pino — This is one of the first web seri­als I’ve ever read and one of the best by far.  You can read the entire sto­ry along with mul­ti­ple extra short sto­ries.

When her par­ents died in a glob­al pan­dem­ic, sev­en­teen-year-old Cassie Thomp­son thought her biggest prob­lem was find­ing her next meal. But “Telo” is a viral­ly-trans­mit­ted genet­ic dis­ease that tar­gets adults, and no one is immune. Sur­viv­ing to adult­hood isn’t look­ing very good as her city suc­cumbs to food short­ages, san­i­ta­tion prob­lems, and gang vio­lence. When Cassie accepts an invi­ta­tion to join a group of young peo­ple liv­ing in a lux­u­ry hotel, she thinks her most imme­di­ate trou­bles are over. Her new tribe appears com­mit­ted to alliance-build­ing, order, and civil­i­ty. She soon finds, how­ev­er, that her new friends have dark secrets and the boy she is falling in love with might be the most dan­ger­ous of them all.

Steal Tomor­row can be pur­chased for Kin­dle on Ama­zon.  You can see more of Ann Pino’s writ­ing at http://www.ampino.com/.

2.  Caught Some­where In Time by David Schick — I start­ed read­ing CSiT over a year ago and unfor­tu­nate­ly nev­er fin­ished (some­thing I intend to do soon), but that is cer­tain­ly not an indi­ca­tion of how incred­i­bly awe­some this sto­ry is.  This glossy pro­fes­sion­al tale com­bines cool hard sci­ence, space, and aliens.  It is so very worth the read.

In the twen­ty-third cen­tu­ry, human­i­ty will live in colonies on many dif­fer­ent worlds, all of them still with­in this Solar sys­tem. We will not be part of any league of alien cul­tures liv­ing peace­ful­ly among the stars, because even though we can move around the solar sys­tem in a mat­ter of hours or days, the next near­est star is not close enough to reach in a human’s life­time, or even a hun­dred gen­er­a­tions. We are caught some­where in space, unable to leave this part of the galaxy, and no one ever real­ly comes here for a vis­it.

The recent dis­cov­ery of our abil­i­ty to move through time presents alter­nate ideas on how to reach alien cul­tures. The pre­vail­ing idea is that we could fea­si­bly go back in time and meet any extrater­res­tri­al cul­ture that might have pre­vi­ous­ly vis­it­ed us, maybe at a time in our his­to­ry when we were sim­ply not evolved enough to under­stand the impli­ca­tions of such a meet­ing.  The most like­ly can­di­date is the alleged crash of an alien ship out­side of Roswell, New Mex­i­co in 1947.

Caught Some­where in Time fol­lows a team of humans as they embark on a jour­ney to encounter alien life in our own past, while dis­cov­er­ing the seeds of a project called The Chil­dren of Time.

3.  Dark Roads by Laz­lo Azavaar — I read this sto­ry to com­ple­tion in a short peri­od of time.  I loved the swift pace and this sto­ry is about as unpre­dictable as they come.

Alex Abi­an (Also on flickr.com/alexabian) / Fot­er

Two run­aways, their psy­cho dad, and an unseen ene­my.  No longer able to with­stand his abuse any longer, Cal­lie Longstreet, in a fit of anger, takes a fry­ing pan to the back of her father’s head and knocks him out cold. Now, she and her old­er broth­er Michael must ride the dark roads, pur­sued by night­mares, their psy­chot­ic father, and an unseen ene­my who watch­es their every move.

There is a sequel called The War of the Ma’jai.  Laz­lo Azavaar says it’s stalled.  Per­haps if you went over to the site and made some noise you’d prompt him to get a move on…

4.  Star­walk­er by Melanie Edmonds — Like CSiT, Star­walk­er is one of those ubber slick and pro­fes­sion­al look­ing ser­i­al blogs.  The writ­ing is just as ter­rif­ic.  I found Star­walk­er around the same time I start­ed my blog as well and was unable to fin­ish it.  Again, the fact that I didn’t fin­ish read­ing is absolute­ly no indi­ca­tion of how won­der­ful­ly smart and tight­ly writ­ten this piece of ser­i­al fic­tion is.  It is sim­ply gold­en and is on my list to go back and com­plete.

NASA God­dard Pho­to and Video / Fot­er

The Star­walk­er is a star­ship with an exper­i­men­tal star-step­ping dri­ve. Designed to use the grav­i­ty wells of stars to fold space, she can trav­el between star sys­tems faster than FTL. That is, if they can get it to work.

She is run by a sophis­ti­cat­ed AI who doesn’t always fol­low her pro­gram­ming. She has only just been born, and she has a lot to fig­ure out. She is often torn between the needs of the crew and the demands of the sci­en­tists respon­si­ble for run­ning the tests on the new dri­ve. There are pol­i­tics sur­round­ing this new dri­ve of hers that she has to get a grip on before they get a grip on her.

Most of all, she needs to track down and explain the glitch­es in her soft­ware before some­one notices and wipes her mem­o­ry dri­ves. What she doesn’t know is that it wouldn’t be the first time.

5.  The Apoc­a­lypse Blog — also by Melanie Edmonds — The end of the world, zom­bies, and a girl who blogs about it…nuf said.  Zom­bies are always a good addi­tion, or a bad one, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion you’re in.

Scabeat­er / Fot­er

On 24 Decem­ber 2008, a bomb was det­o­nat­ed over Faith’s home city and her world end­ed. This blog is the chron­i­cle of her strug­gle to sur­vive and make sense of the bro­ken remains left behind by the bomb, told in real-time.

She must bat­tle through acid rain, sick­ness, and the descent of her own soci­ety. Then, the dead start sham­bling. With a small group of like-mind­ed sur­vivors, Faith has to find a way to live with­out los­ing all sight of who she is in a world ready to devour her.

You can read the Apoc­a­lypse Blog online or you can pur­chase it at Ama­zon.  Melanie Edmonds can also be found on Twit­ter and Goodreads.

 

(All descrip­tions come from author web­sites or oth­er places they are vis­i­ble.)