Let’s break the rules, or at least dent them

Hi, gang. Craig with you again, and it’s confession time. Sometimes I free write these posts and that’s what you’re getting today. I’ve just been on an extensive blog tour, (My third this year) and in writing those posts it occurred to me some things are relevant here.

First we need a caution. I’m a big believer in the rules. Character arc, interesting setting, three act structure. These are the staples of good fiction, and you’re well advised to stick with them… except when it’s time to break the rules. Since that is coming into play here, maybe this is a bit more advanced post, but we try to have something for everyone.

I’ve been promoting an open ended series. Some will call this a serial, but that doesn’t work for me. These are not one big book that’s been published in weekly sections. These are individual stories about the same main characters participating in new adventures.

You all know that I like film and television for my examples, so these might be more like Murder She Wrote, or the James Bond films.

Most of this didn’t occur to me until the third volume, and a few storyboards into the future, but some of the rules don’t apply here. In fact they can be detrimental.

Let’s start with setting. Since my series is kind of an urban fantasy, I don’t have to get too descriptive as compared to science fiction or fantasy. We’ve all seen a city or the country as the scene demands. I save my descriptive bits for specific places in the stories. It isn’t like I have two moons, or a low gravity planet here that might require a bit more. That’s fairly easy to address. Might work in your genres, too.

Three act structure is still my friend, with some limitations. This might be just me, but these stories are targeted to that no-man’s-land that I’ve named noveloids. Too short to be a novel, but too long to be a short story. Because of that, I’ve tried to shorten up the acts. This has been a learning curve, but it seems to be working. I still like a “day in the life” as my main characters appear, but I’m not delving into their deep history. My third act is shorter, but more high-octane, if you know what I mean.

The big one is character arc. This surprised me, because I love a good character arc. Conquering those inner demons in order to solve the major plot points really works for me. However, in this series, it’s almost a detriment.

Think about it. I need my characters to have ongoing adventures. Things like “Happily Every After,” will kill the series. I need them to be the same age, so romantic attachments and children would mess the future tales up. I don’t want eight-month pregnant Lizzie chasing an axe murderer through the graveyard. (Might be interesting, but think about how it changes future stories.)

I still want some emotional issues that anchor readers to the stories. I try to weave in more of the daily stress and the risk involved with being monster hunters in the first place. I have one storyboarded that will lead to a mental breakdown. Paying the bills, hangovers, and automotive upkeep are things my readers can relate to.

This doesn’t mean I can’t have a sexual encounter, a false pregnancy, or put someone on probation. This brings emotional stress for the characters to deal with, but doesn’t change the overall timbre (a word for Marcia to collect) of the stories.

There are successful projects without a character arc, but approach writing these with caution. If you think about Inspector Clouseau, he started out an idiot, remained an idiot, and was an idiot even in the denouement phase of the story. I admit his slapstick antics probably work better in film than on the page. With that in mind, I’ll note Conan the Barbarian. He’s always Conan and never really changes too much. Then again, Conan was an open ended series much like I’m writing.

These open ended series don’t get a lot of attention in writing blogs. I hope we remedied some of that today. They’re still writing, they apply to authors, but they differ from stand-alone books, trilogies, or close-ended series. In some ways, they’re more like comic books or soap operas. Some of those have earned a lot of money over the years.

I’m going back to the caution. Break the rules at your peril. If you do, make sure you have a good reason. There are reasons, but they deserve some deep thought before you get 50,000 words into your projects.

How about it, gang? Do you like open-ended series? Would you ever consider writing one yourself?

50 thoughts on “Let’s break the rules, or at least dent them

  1. I love open ended series. They are my favorite because I never have to miss my favorite characters too long. Anita Blake and the Black Dagger Brotherhood series are two of my favorites. Anita Blake doesn’t seem to ever really age, so it’s easy to keep the adventures coming. With the BDB series, characters marry and have children, but the adventures continue for the adults and then skip time to bring in the next generation of characters. It’s great! But you are right, Craig. The authors need to be very careful in ending the rules to keep the series interesting. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoy many open-ended series. One I follow has 20 books, but I’m addicted to the main character. As far as I’m concerned, his adventures can go on and on (though he has aged over the course of the series). Dresden is another one that springs to mind. Love those books!

    I admit, I don’t focus on rules much (or even structure) when I write. Probably my bad, but I think they’re just ingrained in my subconscious 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Funny you mention it. I’ve been tossing around an idea for a couple years now. So, while I’m waiting for court records, I figured now might be a good time to dig in. The story would have the potential of a series if readers want more, but I’m not married to continuing if it works better as a standalone. Less stress, more fun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some series work fantastically well – take Terry Tyler’s Renova project, for instance. Others sometimes don’t know when to stop and end up as the book equivalent of ‘Lost’ or ‘The X Files’. Food for thought here, Craig. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I know of authors who have had up to fifteen or sixteen books in a series. I personally would find that hard to do. I think I’d tire of the characters and want to move on. But you make some great points here, Craig, about following the rules, the three act structure and character arc. And as they say, rules are meant to broken, as you pointed out with Conan. Things like this are part of what makes it so darned exciting to be a writer! Oh, the places you can go and the things you can do! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoy open-ended series as much as closed series. Maybe more, if I’m really attached to the characters and want to read more about them and their world. I wanted Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniel series (a closed series with a long story arc) to go on forever and keep buying any spin-off she does from it. And I’m more apt to buy a mystery in a series with a sleuth I like than a standalone, because even though I might love one series from a favorite writer, I might not like a second series from that same author.

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  7. You can’t break the rules to any sensible degree unless you know them in the first place. There’s a big difference between doing it through ignorance and doing it deliberately. Doing it through ignorance will show, to the detriment of the story. Doing it deliberately will strengthen it because you’ve thought about it first.

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  8. I try to keep within the rules, and then suddenly, I find an opportunity to color outside the lines. I think the opportunity for an open-ended series has some appeal. I’m doing that on Wednesdays just to see how it would work. Excellent post, Craig.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think there is a difference between a series and serial books. To me, serial books are open-ended and connected, much like LOTR. A series is a set of books based on the same basic theme, setting, etc. The main characters differ from book to book, although they are likely to appear as minor characters in the other novels. These can be read as stand-alone novels.

    But I’m all for breaking rules.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Reminds me of “The Gambler” (I miss Kenny Rogers.) 🎵 Gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em… 🎶 The only way to know when and how to break the rules is to know them first. If you don’t know that, you’ll probably break a lot of them. But to your detriment. I like breaking the rules once in a while. Makes a big impact. But there has to be a good reason for it.

    Nice post, Craig. (And great analogies re: Clouseau and Murder She Wrote.)

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I love that you reminded us that we need to know and understand the rules before we break them. Great post, Craig. The best day-in-the-life I’ve read was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. That was brilliantly done even though it broke most of the rules of setting, history, arc, etc.

    I must admit that I prefer a closed series rather than open-ended, but I do read both.

    Thanks for sharing, Craig 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. What a fascinating post, Craig. I’m one of those strange creatures who always tries to do what she’s told. But I’ve got a confession. I don’t like rules or the feeling of being boxed in. One of the reasons I love fiction is because it allows us to stretch, to create an alternative path — something you do very well. Wow… you’ve got me thinking. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  13. First, I always thought a serial was a series of open stories with the same character. Guess I was wrong. I kind of have one with ‘Bedlam’. The adventures have no true end goal other than surviving what is currently going on. It’s fun because I only have to think volumes ahead. Evolution is small and sometimes cosmetic too, but characters typically stay the same at the core.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Great post, Craig… as a lover of breaking at least some of the rules (in life, usually) it was refreshing to give thought as to whether doing it in fiction could ever be a good idea. Then I realised that we all nibble at the rules, I mean, that’s what fiction is all about, isn’t it?

    Liked by 3 people

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