My first novel (Shroud of Vengeance) was part of an ongoing adult western series (think Louis L’Amour with sex scenes) featuring a character named Diamondback. The editor gave me the bible for the series providing the limited information needed as part of the characters backstory: Diamondback got his nickname after being the victim of a horrible whipping, he is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, he wanders the west acting as a travelling judge settling disputes between outlaws and he is very, very popular with the ladies.
It was pretty simple to include this information as part of the ongoing series of books, which could be read in any order without any intrusive information dumps or large chunks of narrative explanation. Drop the nickname on the first page, show his scars when he takes off his shirt for the first sex scene, and tie the plot into a dispute between dangerous outlaws for Diamondback to settle. With series of this type, the main character remains static. There are no consequences or character arcs to carry over from one book to the next.
Until the last decade most television series were also examples of this type of storytelling. This was perfect for reruns, as series could be shown in any order. Think about I Love Lucy. It doesn’t matter which episode a viewer watches, the set-up is immediately clear – wacky redhead doing wacky things. There is no need to know what has happened in prior episodes. There are no ongoing storylines to confuse the narrative if episodes are shown out of order. Many, many mystery and cop shows operated, and still operate, on the same principle.
However, times have changed. Now, books and many of the most popular television series thrive on ongoing storylines continuing from episode to episode, or book to book, to maintain viewer/reader loyalty.
When my literary career moved on from writing under a house name pseudonym (which in the case of Diamondback just happened to be Pike Bishop) to my first standalone, hardcover, novel under my own name (Citadel Run now Hot Pursuit in e-book), I ran into this problem. What I had envisioned as a standalone novel, suddenly became the first in a series when the publisher asked for another book with the same characters (Sand Against the Tide now Deep Water in e-book). Staring at the blank page at the start of writing the second book, I was faced with the problem of how to integrate the complicated backstory and relationships of the characters established in the first book into the narrative of the second.
My issues with the situation also included overcoming the fact I had wrapped up the first book with the main character retiring from the police department and his female partner promoting to detective. I probably would never have done this if I had realized I was going to be writing more books with the same characters. As it was, I had to quickly figure out a fictional situation in which these two main characters could continue to interact together on the same case.
After writing the second book in the series, I went on to write another standalone novel (Chapel of the Ravens now Penalty Shot in e-book). Not having learned my lesson the first time around, I again ended the novel in a way precluding an easy transition to a second book with the same character and, consequently, there was never a second book. Publishers love series characters as a way to build reader loyalty, and I was shooting myself in the foot.
When I sat down to write my next novel (Kill Me Again), I decided upfront I would also design the book to be the first in a series. As a result, I outlined a four book story arc for the main character, LAPD detective Fey Croaker. I also took into consideration story arcs for the secondary characters comprising her crack homicide squad.
One of my concerns in doing this was how much background from the first book in the series needed to be included in the second book. And how about the third and fourth books? Did I need the same amount of backstory? More? Less? Or did I need any?
Currently, almost all television show writing staffs plan out a full season story arc before any individual episodes are written. When the individual episodes are created, there is already a larger established macro arc containing what information needs to be included in the micro arc of each individual episode to keep viewers watching.
There is almost always a quick story recap provided usually in dialogue at the beginning of each individual script act. This is done to bring a viewer up to speed if they have just turned on their set or are channel surfing from other shows. Television also uses previously on… lead-ins before the new episode starts to remind regular viewers of story points, or bring new viewers into the fold.