Writing: Story Arcs

I’ve mentioned before that when I started writing urban fantasy, I wasn’t too sure of what direction to go in, so I used a sort of shotgun approach that might not have been as efficient as I’d thought. I bounced all over the place, hoping to find something that “hit.” I wrote FALLEN ANGELS because the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I thought I could do a lot with a “good” angel who wrestled with his friend so that he couldn’t join Lucifer’s rebellion. Enoch saves Caleb from the pit, but they both get tossed to Earth as a result–Caleb as punishment, Enoch to clean up after him. When I read editors’ comments after they’d read it, though, that I’d veered too far from the norm, I decided to try for something more straightforward–witches, werewolves, and I threw in some gargoyles for good measure. The thing is, by the time my agent circulated Fallen Angels and I’d written and rewritten Wolf’s Bane, the urban fantasy market was glutted. So what did I do? I wrote another one, only this time I tried a myth-based niche. I don’t even need to tell you how that went over.

The thing is, it takes me a while to write a book. It takes me even longer to hear back from my agent. Then it takes longer still while she sends the book out to editors. By the time the whole process is over, a good year, usually lots more, has passed. That’s why writing to a trend doesn’t work so well. By the time you get your book out there, the trend’s probably peaked and died. But I was writing urban fantasy because I liked writing it; and since I’d written three books, and some readers found them online and actually LIKED them (thank you, Goodreads!) and asked for more books in each series, I decided what the heck? And I wrote them. It took me over a year to write a second book for each one, and I kept going.

What I didn’t think about–and I’m still debating–is whether my books would have done better if I’d gone for a big, from the beginning of the series to the end, story arc. One of my favorite authors, Ilona Andrews, did that for her Kate Daniels’ series. Every book has its own story arc, of course. And each is a standalone. But each book, unlike mine, also advances the OVERALL series’ story arc. Not all authors do that. When they write a series, the characters grow from book to book, and the reader learns more about them and hopefully, becomes more invested. That’s how I feel about Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. The easiest way for me to compare the two is through TV and movies. Star Wars had three movies that advanced one, big story arc. Each movie had a beginning, middle, and end, but the big, lurking question of whether good would defeat evil wasn’t answered until the final battle of the third movie. The Star Trek movies I’ve seen, on the other hand, (and I’m no expert in any of this) are self-contained. They’re fun and glorious, but they’re episodic.

My best example (for myself) of an overall story arc is the TV show Sleepy Hollow. In its first season, every single episode advanced the struggle of the Witnesses, trying to prevent Moloch from releasing the four riders of the Apocalypse. At the end of the season, they killed Moloch, and I assumed a new evil would take his place, but for months, the story resorted to episodic shows that pitted the heroes against one foul supernatural after another. Fun–at least, to me, but I missed the weight of the big story arc. I feel the same way about Gotham, that an overall arc makes it stronger. Why, I’m not sure. I’ve been a fan of Castle for years, and it’s fair to say that the characters on the show have grown and matured, and each episode is witty and fun, but there’s no pressing story arc. I watch it to be entertained, not to see what happens next. So maybe my preferences are based upon how the series started. I’m not sure.

I am sure that I never thought of writing X number of books to tell one, complicated story arc, but I can see that doing so would add depth and purpose to a series.

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8 thoughts on “Writing: Story Arcs

  1. I am attempting the same with my Irish epic. Wow is it hard- so many threads to keep track of and the arc spanning multiple books? Tough to do!
    Thanks for this great post- it helped put it in perspective for me. I always learn something from you!

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  2. Good luck with all the story threads! The longer I work on series, the more notes I have. Babet and Prosper’s notes are longer than each novella now:) Can’t imagine what it would be like with an overall story arc to connect them all.

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  3. It does take a long time to see your baby ready to be devoured by readers, but the whole journey is an amazing and exciting experience. Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genre, I am sure you’ll rock it, Judith, like always.

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  4. For sure a plot set-up, three twists, and a resolution seem possible to achieve, but writing a good story is demanding work! Why, oh why, do we do it?

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