On Series

The benefit of creating a series -- either a book series, or a movie series, or a game series, or etc. -- is that the creator is allowed to develop the story's setting in greater depth. The audience not only gets to enjoy the world in which the series takes place, they also get to explore it right along with the series' creator. Perhaps, for example, we see or hear about a far-away mountain range in the first episode of the series; in episode two, we actually get to go there. The sum total of both episodes is a richer understanding of the series' "world."

You could compare it to traveling. Suppose you spend a week in Costa Rica. For the first couple of days, you hit the beach, and it's quite nice. From the beach, you can see various islands and nearby shorelines, but in your microcosm on your current beach, they really just seem like picturesque details to your current setting. The next day, you take a big boat tour during which your boat travels to the very shorelines you saw from a distance. Now you get to see them up close. You see people milling about on those beaches, you see people's houses and gain a little insight into their lives. Now, when you see those faraway shorelines from your hotel, they're not picturesque details anymore. Instead, they're real places where real events take place, and you understand them a bit. You look at them less in awe and more in wonder. The next day, you take a day trip into the mountains and rainforests, and a similar phenomenon occurs. When you first arrived, your experiences felt like the photos on your hotel's website: glamorous, picturesque, but ultimately a little hollow. By the end of the week, your experiences add up to a rich impression of the whole country. Costa Rica isn't just a collection of Instagram photos for you anymore. It's a country.

A second benefit to creating a series is that the creator can create more character and relationship development over the span of several episodes than he/she can over the span of a single story. A character who started out wide-eyed and naïve can grow into a capable, knowledgeable, experienced veteran. Two characters who started out hating each other can eventually become good friends or passionate lovers. This sort of thing can happen in a stand-alone story, too, but in a series the transition can be slower or it can be more meaningful. Character development is more believable and realistic if it happens in conjunction with a multi-faceted storyline. In a stand-alone story, the character's development usually is the story. In a series, the story is the sum total of all events; the character's development becomes one dimension of that, as opposed to its main focus.

Despite these strengths, series are a challenging way to tell a story, owing to the fact that so many different things have to happen. So many events must occur that, if the storyteller doesn't take the time to place each event in the context of the greater storytelling objective, each individual event starts to lose its impact. A great car chase, for example, can be a thrilling climax. But if a series includes three or four car chases, then each individual car chase loses some of its thrill. If characters in one fantasy novel must go on a long journey, that can be interesting. If characters in a series of fantasy novels go on many several long journeys, then the overall impact of "journeys" is lessened. One shootout can be amazing; fifteen shootouts become "just a lot of gun-fighting."

To help maintain the literary impact of each of these events, many series creators tell their stories in the form of a serial, like a comic book or a soap opera. In this case, every event is exciting, but we lose sight of the over-arching storyline. Think of your favorite comic book super hero, say, Batman. If someone asks you the question, "What is Batman about?" you'll have a hard time answering that question except in the most generic terms. Batman is the story of a masked man with a lot of money and technology who decides to fight terrifying criminals. Fine, but what's the story about? There are lots of "Batman stories," because Batman is just a soap opera. There's no real beginning and no real end; if there were, they wouldn't be able to keep selling Batman comics. So, instead of an over-arching story, Batman is just a collection of exciting events. No matter how exciting they are, each event has little if anything to do with any of the other events.

So it is with a series of novels, or movies, or video games. There is somewhat of a trade-off between the ability to have lots of exciting events occur over the span of a series, and the ability to preserve a compelling and forward-moving overall plot. For this reason, the very best stories have always been told in the context of a single book or movie. Stories told over the course of series tend to either be boring, for lack of excitement, or vapid, for lack of contiguous plot.

This is also the reason why sequels and prequels are often disappointing to fans. Storytellers face a choice between creating a sequel that has just as much action, intrigue, or mystery as the original story on the one hand, or creating one that consistently advances the plot of the over-arching story in an intelligent direction on the other hand. The former is often too disconnected from the original story (think Crocodile Dundee 2), while the latter is often boring (think Star Wars 1-3).

It takes a very good storyteller indeed to deliver a series that is consistent in both storytelling and action.

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