f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Inspiration -- Formula vs. Serial – Two Types of Series Creation

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Day 4 of Inspiration -- Formula vs. Serial – Two Types of Series Creation

Our final day of looking at methods of inspiration/creativity gets the farthest away from cold imagination and the closest to mechanical or mathematic reproduction.

I think the biggest place that formula fiction exists—or used to, at least—is in the world of children’s fiction. The Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. Three Detectives. Bobsy Twins. These are some classic formulaic fiction.

This is fiction series in which there is very little forward progress in terms of character growth or development. The characters are static; the plots revolve around that sameness. This is different from say, a serialized series of books like Little House on the Prairie or Harry Potter. Serialization depends on reading the book before. At this point, it’ll be well-nigh impossible to pick up Rowling’s HP and the Half-Blood Prince and understand what’s going on. But pick up any Hardy Boys book and you’re caught up.

TV deals with this a lot. The current rage are the crime scene investigation shows. Law & Order I, II, and III. CSI’s I, II, and III. Very few character arcs or multi-show storylines. Compare that to something like Alias or, the classic example of 24 which is a literally a 24 show story. Law and Order and Alias might both garner 8 million viewers a week, but it’s likely that for Alias those viewers are consistently the same people.

I think it says something that so much formula fiction is written for children. Kids LOVE repetition. They thrive on it in many ways. They like the same jokes repeated. Like knowing the ebb and flow of stories. Like knowing the Shaggy and Scooby are going to yank the mask off the old man who was pretending to be a ghost at the end of every episode.

At the same time there’s a growing desire for forward movement. Little House is certainly written for young readers. I’m going through George Seldon’s linked Times Square books with my daughter. Classic kids fantasy series like the Dark Also Rises, Book of Three, and His Dark Materials are all impossibly serialized.

One of the most fascinating examples of this discussion comes from the wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. The first three/four books in this series are formulaic. Three orphans go to live with a family member. Discover they are being chased by Count Olaf. Try to escape. Tragedy happens. They are able to foil him at the very end, but now have to go live with other family.

Around Book the Fourth, something strange happens…suddenly plot threads are left dangling. Clues to a greater mystery begin to be left. The series, on a dime, turns into a serialized series. (And recaptured my attention. I would’ve given it up.) I have no idea what sparked it. Was it the author’s idea? The publishers? I would love to get the inside scoop on that transition.

Here at Bethany House we recently went about going the other direction. For a long time, we published Gilbert Morris’ HUGE House of Winslow series (now at book 36 or so) as a serialized series with numbered books. Because that was the industry norm. Now however, things are going to smaller series or stand-alones and since, technically, HOW is a formula series, we’re in the process of re-releasing all the books with new covers and no numbers to be found. Bookstores no longer have to feel odd about carrying books 4, 8, 24, and 34-38. Instead, they can simply carry as many titles as they like and readers can’t start wherever they like.

Both formula and serial series have their places in the industry. Know what you’re getting into with both, however. With formula books, you’re going to be called on to adhere, pretty closely, to the structure/feel/tone/etc. of your first book. With serial series you’re going to have to plot out from 3 to 5 to even more books. And the industry seems to be moving away from them. At least anything longer than 3 books.

In the end, though, you’re still going to have to write the books. You’re still going to have to entertain readers. That hard work never goes away.