05 July 2008

What Keeps Open-Ended Series Going?

Back in November 2006, I wrote about series of books as a genre unto themselves, different from the single novels that make up such series.

We can also make a useful distinction between:

Within the latter group are series in which the sequence of individual volumes is either invisible or unimportant: it's not necessary to read the Hardy Boys or Magic Tree House titles in order, if they even have an order.

Series in the first group have an overall plot that runs through the books, encompassing or parallel to the titles' individual plots. There's a major problem to be resolved (e.g., to destroy the Ring, to fight the Dark). The main characters go through important and permanent changes (e.g., leaving school, finding a family).

Those conditions don't pertain to open-ended series. While the protagonists may defeat villains, they never destroy evil itself or remake the world. Otherwise, there would be no story left. In the more interesting open-ended series, the protagonists have problems (or merely dilemmas or paradoxes) that make them interesting and individual. These personal problems often link thematically to the various stories' plots, but the protagonists can't resolve those problems without erasing some of their driving force and appeal.

Creating a successful open-ended series, especially in a mass-market form, requires more than telling a satisfying story. It requires creating a situation that leaves readers interested in (or perhaps dissatisfied enough to go on to) the next story.

A open-ended series is thus defined not by an overarching plot but by what John Seavey at Fraggmented calls "Storytelling Engines," which he writes about in the context of superhero comics. When constructed and used correctly, storytelling engines generate ideas for new stories, set out the themes those stories explore, and define the central characters' strengths, weaknesses, and basic appeal.

In addition to some books and many comics, the dominant storytelling medium dependent on ongoing plot engines is the television series. American TV has usually told open-ended stories. (In contrast, many British series are conceived for a specified number of episodes; that produces the artistic difference between The Prisoner and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) Lost is an exception to the American rule, with its producers now working toward a definite end date.

People who create ongoing series rarely get to bring their series to a close because the whole point of the exercise is never to reach an end. Agatha Christie was unusual in writing a final case for Hercule Poirot to be published after her death. The Fugitive on TV concluded with Dr. Kimball finding the one-armed man. Peter David was able to plan out the end of his Young Justice comic because DC's editors told him when they would move its main characters into a new Teen Titans series.

It's interesting to explore what elements of a series' storytelling engine are crucial. In the Time Warp Trio books, Joe's struggle to learn magic, Sam's fears, and Fred's dumb impetuousness are rarely at the center of the plots. But if the boys ever resolve those challenges, then their comic interactions will fade and that series will lose most of the appeal that carries from book to book.

As long as the crucial parts of a storytelling engine remain intact, details can change. Our Miss Brooks required Eve Arden's character to be looking for a serious boyfriend; which man didn't matter, and the show went through multiple male leads. On the other hand, Cheers and Friends could play with the romantic entanglements among their lead characters because those situation comedies didn't depend on an unchanging situation but rather on tensions among personalities.

Sometimes it's surprising what elements in an open-ended series turn out not to be crucial. For many years the world assumed that part of Superman's storytelling engine was that Clark Kent was in love with Lois Lane, but she was enamored of Superman and looked down on Clark, who could never reveal his secret identity. However, in DC comics since 1996 (and two decades earlier on Earth 2), Clark/Superman and Lois have been happily married. It turns out the frustrated infatuation that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created in 1938 wasn't so crucial after all.


Anonymous said...

Heck, not only have they been married for over a decade, Siegel HIMSELF wanted Lois to find out Superman's secret identity back in 1940!

Sam said...

Fascinating way to look at things!

Douglas Adams lampooned the open-ended series by ballyhooing The Fourth (and Fifth) Book in the Trilogy. But the quality of those 4th and 5th books, to my mind, suggest he went too far.

Conversely, my favorite "series," the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake were meant to be open ended, but he never got past the 3rd making it a very oddly-balanced trilogy.