Lessons Learned – Developing a Serio-Episodic Story

Want a scary thought? I started Chasing Normal in October 2014. As of right now, I’ve written roughly two dozen Scenes. This isn’t the first time I’ve created and maintained a serial project, but it’s probably the first one I’ve managed under strongly adverse conditions. As happens when you work on something under any type of duress, I’ve learned a lot about managing a serial project, so I thought I would share some of the more important things I’ve learned.

The first tip concerns story structure. If you write, regardless of your format, you already know that good writing has a structure, usually governed by the form, medium, and length, and that all of those stoires have some sort of rhythm to them. A serial story takes a little bit more thought, because you’re breaking up your story into consistently sized arcs, allowing you to develop a posting rhythm that will keep readers (or viewers) happy. But it’s not just enough to break up the story. Each of these episodes (be they chapters, scenes, individual short stories linked to other parts, etc.) have to have within them a beginning, a middle, an end, and a hook to the next part. If you use a question-response structure to bridge chapters in your novel (or similar long work), you’re familiar with this mini-structure already. It’s the same thing. These episodes must also have their own rise and fall that has to make sense within the rise and fall of the larger story. Again, if you’re a novelist or a long-form writer by practice, this isn’t a new concept.

The second tip is keep a story bible that tracks both your world and your story. I’ve been writing Chasing Normal as a hybrid outline/pantser story. I can’t tell you where the story is going. I don’t know the ending. I do know where the next two arcs (what I call each cluster of six scenes) are generally headed. As you’re reading this, I’m probably outlining the six scenes that will comprise Arc 6. Writing a specific story by the seat of your pants is a confusing, but flexible, experience. It’s worse when you’re pulled away from the story for over a month by unforeseen circumstances. And that is when a well-maintained story bible becomes a lifesaver. I keep my story outline at the front of my story bible, updating it as I plan out each arc and adding in information when plans change. I then update the settings and character sheets as I edit each scene to make sure I’ll have it when I need it later. When I came back after that accidental hiatus, I was able to review the story outline, the plans for upcoming arcs and scenes, and continue the story with minimal disruption. (I also keep track of hooks I’ve dropped in earlier scenes so that I’ll remember to pick them up later when an opening presents itself.)

The last tip I want to share is quite possibly the most important. If you screw up the first two, you can fix them. If you screw up this one, it’s a mess. And this is the easiest one to screw up. Ready? It’s simple: Keep your production on track and on schedule. Production calendars are not just for professional creators. They are your best friend when you’re creating a long project. A well-developed and managed production schedule can keep you going when everything else has fallen down around your head. (I know. It’s saved me twice so far.) It keeps you going. It keeps you working. It keeps you publishing. Even when you would rather just sit and stare out your window at the terribly cruel, unfair world.

That said, life does happen and production calendars derail. About three months before I finished producing the Dead Bunny videos (about six months before they finished releasing to YouTube), my life completely disintegrated around me. I had to make a number of major life changes very quickly, including moving halfway across the country…and most of Dead Bunny’s subscribers never had any clue there was anything going on. Toward the beginning of Chasing Normal, and then again earlier this year, my household went through two major crises. And it impacted the story. At first, I thought about just dropping the story all together. And then I revamped my production schedule to try to keep things sort of working while things were going on. And now the story is back on its original release schedule. The key when life deals you these obstacles is to give yourself permission to freak out for a moment, and then take a deep breath and figure out how you’re going to pull things together and keep going, even if you can’t figure out how to pull yourself together.

There you go. Three (really, four) tips for surviving a serial project, at least according to my experience. Hopefully, they’ll help you get started and stay motivated, because serial projects are a lot of fun to work on.

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