This post is about a writing theory I have – a theory I call trap doors, off-ramps, and monsters in waiting. This is a theory about sequential writing.
What is sequential writing?
Sequential writing is a form of story telling that takes the shape of a series or periodical. Television dramas like Lost, Star Trek, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Burn Notice are all examples of sequential writing.
The trouble with sequential writing is that while wanting to tell a satisfying story, you have no idea when it will be allowed to end. A show that is poorly received will probably end while the writers have a lot more story to tell. Kyle XY, Firefly, and Sense8 are all examples of this. As viewers (or readers) we are left with an unresolved plot. Not by design but by executive veto.
In other cases, the series might have run through everything the writer wanted to do with the story and characters but are forced to keep writing nevertheless. Sherlock Holmes is a prime example of this. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was so determined to be done with the character that he killed Holmes off. (He got better).
Here are three writing devices that might help a budding sequential writer plan for a series that lasts too long, needs to end, or gets a chance of cast halfway through.
With each of these three techniques they all work with both planning and discovery writing. Admittedly, a little planning is needed. At least in as far as laying down the seeds for things you might want later. I will circle back arround to this in a bit.
Written fiction has never suffered from the problem of actors quitting because there are no actors, to begin with. Television, on the other hand, does have this problem. This is why you are most likely to see a trap door employed by TV writing staff rather than book authors.
A trap door is an amount of foreshadowing and so much undeveloped plot. That plot that might be nothing, could be a season end cliffhanger, but could also be a way to allow an actor (and thus a character) to depart without disrupting the overall story.
The science-fiction show Babylon 5 famously was written with trap doors for every significant character. This way the show was not dependant on any single actor. If they needed to leave for health reasons, quit for personal reasons, or were let go for demanding too much money the story would happily carry on without them.
The best way to write with trap doors is to think of the major characters not as protagonists but as employees filling a role. The leader, the detective, the hacker, the – insert your needed character role here. Of course, you should absolutely flesh out these characters – that’s just good writing. However, if you need to drop a character, you have a ready reason for them to leave and a way to bring someone else to the forefront to take over.
Babylon 5 did this with the Commander of Babylon 5 – in many ways the central protagonist. We got a new Commander and the story carried right on regardless.
It is true that trap doors require planning. Trapdoors also allow you to pivot from characters readers are not responding well to. Or to replace a character when the actor playing them needs to take a break for health reasons. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have been happier had he a trap door to boot Sherlock Holmes out through.
If trap doors were about keeping going, off-ramps are about planning to finish. They are an ending you can work towards with a full and satisfying resolution for your characters and the plot.
You can even signal to the readers with appropriate foreshadowing that there is a good ending for the characters if they can get there. The thing about off-ramps is that you do not have to take them. All you need is a monster in waiting ready to block that exit and – boom – you now have another hurdle between the characters and their happy ending.
You can let readers (or viewers) see that the some cathartic ending is possible but that events have transpired to cause the characters to miss out. This can allow you to up the emotional stakes for the characters without going for bigger monsters and louder explosions.
Off-ramps can be a trap door to let a few characters ride off into the sunset while the rest are left to deal with the new big bad (we’ll come to those when I talk about monsters in waiting). Some times a characters personal story is done and you need to let them leave for pastures new. This can give you space for other characters to get their moment and begin their journey.
Monsters in waiting
What, I hear you cry, is a monster in waiting? A monster in waiting is a trick used my Games Masters for Table Top Role Play Games like Dungeons and Dragons. A potential baddie that you let the characters encounter that you can – if you need to – build up into a series antagonist.
Your monster in waiting is some one or something that could flair up to become a problem later. Ideal if, for example, you are heading for the off-ramp and the studio demand another season or your fans are begging for just one more book.
A monster in waiting is maybe the best tool of the discovery writer. Will the grouchy old sherif become a problem for the heroes? Who knows. It depends if you need another antagonist. Any possible source of trouble that your readers (or viewers) have had a chance to meet, maybe work with, perhaps have to work arround. They are just hanging about on the side lines getting warmed up incase you call them on to the field to make trouble.
If you do not use them your fans will praise your rich cast of supporting characters. If you do use them, you will be hailed as a hero of foresight and planning because that baddie has been hanging around for ages. The same things that made them an interesting supporting character are also the things that readers or viewers (or players) will point to as genius planning. Even if you had no idea they would be the big bad until just now, your readers do not need to know that. You can bet they will go back through your book wondering how they missed the clue wich will all “be there”. Confirmation bias is a writer’s best friend.
Discovery or planning
Most writers fall somewhere on the spectrum from discovery writer to detailed planner. These tools of trap doors, off-ramps and monsters in waiting can be used by both.
Sure, the planner can set up a lot more off-ramps, trap doors, and monsters but a discovery writer can lay the seeds of possible endings, antagonists, and character changes too. The planner can work out every last detail and create a menu of planning possibilities. The discovery writer can lay down interesting characters, situations, and settings and decide later which plot threads are going to matter most.
Us book writers also have the luxury of having the entire book to play with these things in. If we get to the ending and decided that one of our heroes should ride into the sunset. No problem. Skip back to chapter two and seed in some foreshadowing. Job done. (Or not. I’d add a bit more than one mention in chapter two but In hope you get my meaning).
This whole post in a nutshell
I think it is a great idea to lay out some plot seeds that can be turned into endings changes or new baddies later on. You can plan this in advance or just lay down some material and decide what it means later. I call these trap doors (for quick exits), off-ramps (for cathartic endings), and monsters in waiting (for when you need another baddie).
Do you use any of these sequential writing techniques in your own work? Let me know in the comments what you think.