The Reactive Net: A Strategy for Writing Series

The Harry Potter SeriesUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve almost certainly noticed that a lot of authors are making money with series. The reason for this is simple: readers buy the things that they like, and a sequel to a book they’ve already enjoyed is the easiest sale of all. However, many writers are finding out that crafting a series isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.

It turns out that creating a series is, well, hard. Not only that, but series are prone to different types of failures, both in their initial setup and in how they progress. Here are a few examples (slightly exaggerated for effect) of what can go wrong:

  • The rebels killed the evil emperor and took over the empire in Book 1. What’s left for them to do in Book 2?

  • The world-building details were sufficient to set up the precise constraints needed for the first book to work, but they weren’t consistent or detailed enough to support additional books.

  • The hero has a mystery in their background that needs to be solved. How long should it take to solve the mystery? What happens to the series when it’s solved?

  • The series is built around the tension between a vampire and the human woman who loves him. What happens to the dynamic of the series when they get married?

  • The author takes their sexy, supernatural urban fantasy and starts emphasizing the kinky sex until they lose (the male) half of their audience.

I believe that I have some interesting insights when it comes to series, despite the fact that I don’t have a New York Times best-selling series or a Hollywood-optioned trilogy to my name. You see, I’ve been doing series for thirty-five years a really long time. Not only that, but I’ve regularly put my series to the test in front of a highly critical live audience and, frankly, I haven’t had a lot of complaints.

I create and run run roleplaying games.

I’m not talking about the kind of fun but simplistic gaming sessions where the heroes descend into a “dungeon” and kill lots of monsters. I’m talking about “interactive novels” with complicated story lines, unexpected plot twists, hundreds of supporting characters (non-player characters for you gamer types), lots of competing factions, etc. Some of my “campaigns” continued for twenty or thirty twelve-hour games with the same loose group of characters.

Can you imagine keeping someone involved and engaged with the details of an intricately unfolding plotline for 360 hours?

I can. I’ve done it.

Leveraging this experience from the gaming realm, I came up with what I call the Reactive Net, a set of steps for crafting the canvas of your series. I believe the Reactive Net works just as effectively in the world of prose fiction as it did for me in the gaming realm.

Oh, it doesn’t solve every problem. It’s a strategy for designing a series, not a silver bullet. As such, it won’t solve all of the problems I highlighted above, but it can help you with a bunch of them. At the very least, it’s another tool in your Writer’s Toolbox.

Maybe the Reactive Net will work for you, or maybe not. It’s certainly helped me with my own fiction.

What is the Reactive Net?

The Reactive Net is a set of steps for creating a coherent, consistent and connected background that can support the creation of multiple story lines over time leveraging the same setting, characters and a diverse cast of supporting characters. It’s primarily focused on developing sufficient background details and connectivity to provide your series with a firm foundation that will support whatever you want to do with it.

Crafting unique primary characters and their ongoing story arcs is something you’ll have to layer on top of the Reactive Net.

The steps for creating a Reactive Network are detailed below, along with an extended example that illustrates the design of an urban fantasy.

  1. Define the “Playing Field.”
     
    The Playing Field is the home territory where most of the action in the series will occur. For Batman, it’s Gotham City. For Harry Potter, it’s Hogwarts. For the wizard, Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, it’s Chicago. We’re looking for a bit more than just “Chicago,” though — what we really want is a thumbnail sketch that gives us a bit of the flavor of your Playing Field.

    Our Playing Field will be Kosmopolis, a small but growing city in the state of Tennessee, situated in a valley surrounded by rolling hills and forests. This up-and-coming city has become a high-tech center thanks to the relocation of the headquarters of MOEX Technologies, a cutting-edge bio-tech company, to the city. Kosmopolis is also the home of Dartfell University, an educational institutional with an excellent reputation in bio-tech and computer science. Whether you’re looking for the cultural amenities of a booming city, the beauty of nearby nature reserves or just want to experience our local agricultural and art festivals, Kosmopolis has something for everyone.

    OK, there’s a bit of “marketing speak” in the description above, but basically Kosmopolis will allow characters to rub shoulders with urban, rural and artistic communities, as well as high-tech companies and a university. There’s nothing particularly fantastical about this setting, yet, but we’ll fix that before we’re through.

  2. Are there any special rules in play?
     
    Special rules are things that are of vital importance to your series, like whether magic works, supernatural creatures exist, people with superpowers exist, etc. To put it another way, if there’s a Hell-Mouth (as in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series) anywhere nearby, here’s where you mention that vital fact.

    For this series, there are some special rules. Supernatural creatures have come out to the public. Vampires and werewolves are known to exist. There’s speculation about other types of supernatural creatures that haven’t revealed themselves yet.

    As a corollary, magic exists, too, but isn’t very common. Of course, it’s a little more common in Kosmopolis, since one of the major nexus points for ley lines lies just outside the city. Strangely, the artistic sub-culture of the city seems to be anchored around the nexus.

  3. What are the factions?
     
    A good series needs conflict, but predictable conflict is boring. To provide the potential for interesting conflict, you need factions, i.e. – groups or organizations, with differing: 1) attitudes, 2) goals, 3) strengths and 4) weaknesses. Sometimes factions can oppose each other; alternately, the interests of two or more factions may be aligned for a short time.

    Here are eight factions for our urban fantasy series:

    At a minimum, you’ve got the Kosmopolis city government (which is notoriously corrupt), MOEX Technologies and Dartfell University. There’s also the police, which is a powerful group that’s not necessarily precisely congruent with city government policy. Since the city government is corrupt, the FBI could be conducting an ongoing investigation into the corruption. That’s five factions.

    Since this is going to be an urban fantasy, let’s add three more factions. We’ll add a local Werewolf Pack (Kosmopolis has ready access to nature parks and is set in an area of rolling hills and forests). Let’s also add the Kalifey, a small community of diverse fey living in the deceptively-sized Brambles (an old-growth forest adjacent to one of the large parks and conveniently close to the nexus). Finally, we’ll add the Church of Christ Triumphant, a conservative religious group that holds supernatural creatures to be irredeemably evil.

    Let’s flesh one organization out in a little more detail: The Church of Christ Triumphant.

    Attitude: The Church of Christ Triumphant hates everything to do with the supernatural. Everything supernatural is part of a nefarious plot by Satan. All supernatural creatures and those who dabble in the black arts (magic) should die violently. Supernatural creatures, including mages, are not really people.

    Goals: Their goal is to expunge the supernatural from the world. However, they are ruthless and pragmatic about achieving their goals.

    Strengths: They’re relentless, smart and wealthy. They’re also good at public relations.

    Weaknesses: They are relentless. Sometimes they don’t recognize when to cut their losses. They’re fanatical. Compromise isn’t a word in their vocabulary.

    If stories truly revolve around conflict, well, I can see lots of ways in which these eight factions can come into conflict.

  4. How do the factions operate?
     
    How do the factions perform their day-to-day operations? Where do they get the money they need to run? How do they recruit new members? Who’s doin’ deals with who? Here are some potential answers to some of these questions:

    Here are some examples:

    The Werewolf Pack has a group house owned by the pack leader where they all meet. They live separately and tithe 10% of their income to the pack.

    Dartfell University has research programs sponsored by the federal government and MOEX Technologies. One of those programs is to develop drugs that can affect supernatural creatures.

    MOEX Technologies pioneered the blood substitute, AAA-Plus ™, that vampires use so they’re not dependent on human blood.

    The Church of Christ Triumphant runs a syndicated “Anti-Monster” radio show. They also accept donations from all over the country to campaign against the supernatural realm.

    When you’re done working some of these details out, you’ve got a web of organizations with competing goals, who are likely to clash in certain areas, or cooperate in others. Again, anything that provides for potential conflict is good.

    Note: You don’t have to work out every possible detail about each faction. You just need a rough sketch of how each organization operates and the general attitudes/motivations prevalent within them.

  5. Define key people in (and outside) the various factions.
     
    The key people are supporting characters that you expect will probably play a role in your series. Spenser, the famous detective from Boston, had his friends in the police force that he could call on for help. He also had periodic run-ins with some of the mob posses in his city.

    Here are some sample characters (or, really, just roles at this point):

    The ambitious reporter who’s looking for a great story.

    The FBI agent investigating corruption in the city government.

    The local fence for stolen goods.

    The veterinarian at the local zoo (who may have some insights into unusual creatures).

    The fixer from the local Werewolf Pack, responsible for making sure the werewolves aren’t portrayed in a bad light (and fixing any problems that arise).

    The guy selling a new recreational drug that impacts supernatural creatures.

    You don’t have to work out these people in detail (not until you need them). You just need to know the types of people that exist so you can bring them into a story if it makes sense.

Everything I’ve just described is your Reactive Net, the canvas where the events of your series will be taking place.

Putting the Reactive Net Through It’s Paces

We just spent a lot of time working out background details for our series. Isn’t that just world-building? Well, yes, and, at the same time, no.

Drawing a map is world-building, but how much does it help you craft a story? The goal of the Reactive Net is to provide a background with connectivity (the “net” part of Reactive Net) that can help you determine what happens as a result of the inciting events of your story.

Let’s just try it out, and everything will become clearer. We’re going to sketch out some story ideas layered on top of the Reactive Net of our urban fantasy, so we can see how it all works in practice.

Your hero learns that someone has been savagely mauled in the nature park by an animal. The local Werewolf Pack is worried that they might have a rogue lycanthrope that’s moved into the area, so they send their fixer to quietly investigate. The Police want to know what’s going on. Your hero wants to prevent anybody else from getting hurt. The hero talks to the vet at the local zoo, who was originally brought in by the police to look at the body. The hero may also encounter the fixer from the Werewolf Pack. The Church of Christ Triumphant would like to use the incident as part of an anti-monster campaign. Your local reporter smells a story, too. Finally, the Kalifey are annoyed because the body was left near the Brambles — was it a warning or a threat aimed at them?

We haven’t even defined who our hero is yet, but one little incident has attracted interest from the local Werewolf Pack, the Police, the Church of Christ Triumphant and the Kalifey. We’ve also brought in characters like the fixer from the Werewolf Pack, the vet from the zoo, the ambitious reporter and, potentially, others. There’s a workable story in there somewhere.

Still not convinced? Let’s do it again.

A half-blood fey dies of an overdose of a new street drug that affects supernatural creatures (this isn’t really supposed to be possible). The Kalifey want to know where the drug came from, but they’re a little hampered when it comes to investigating a crime in human society. They ask our hero to investigate on their behalf. Meanwhile, the Police want to find whoever’s distributing bad drugs (they don’t know about the fey connection). The Werewolf Pack is involved again because the drug affects werewolves, too. Dartfell University is involved because the drug was a byproduct of one of their experiments, and its been hijacked by an insider for illicit purposes.

The essence of the Reactive Net is that when an event occurs, people and organizations react, generating various types of conflict. Not only do they react, but they do so in logical, consistent ways. But the reactions don’t just occur in response to the inciting events of your stories, they also occur when your hero takes action as well. After all, what lengths will Dartfell University go to to cover up the scandal your hero exposed with regard to their most lucrative government grant?

Conclusion

The Reactive Net is basically a highly connected, interactive model of your series, a simulation that you can run in your own mind. It allows you to explore what-if scenarios, like: What would happen if the child of a member of the Church of Christ Triumphant was accidentally bitten by a werewolf? It’s a tool for generating plausible reactions to events that might reasonably occur in your series. It’s your background details, but packaged together with expected behavior on the part of the factions and key supporting characters that you’ve defined.

So there you have it: the Reactive Net, a new and, hopefully, useful tool for your Writer’s Toolbox. I hope it proves as useful for you as it has for me.

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6 Comments

  1. Susan Saylor
    Posted February 11, 2015 at 9:40 AM | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Really got a lot out of reading this. I am always thinking of a series when I write fiction.

    One thing I would add that doesn’t seem to be addressed. What I find with successful series and especially successful TV series is the extremely important element of the characters having chemistry. If you have a compelling set of characters that can bounce off of one another is ways that will be consistently interesting and funny and otherwise compelling, then you can put these people in just about any setting or situation and the strength of this group chemistry will carry through even a blase plot.

    • Posted February 12, 2015 at 7:16 AM | Permalink

      Hi Susan. “The Reactive Net” is more focused on crafting the foundation of your story. By this, I mean creating an expanded setting that can support diverse story lines. Of course, a story is far more than just the “foundation,” and crafting well-drawn characters is a vital part of any story. I look at this, though, as the next level of your story.

      Can you tell I’m a software developer in my day job? “Layers” tends to be, I think, a fairly natural way to think about problems like this.

      So, in my example story that I developed in the article, I suggested “roles” that may be useful in a story…the zoo veterinarian, the trouble-shooter for the Werewolf Pack, etc. When you’re working on the next layer, the characters, you can flesh out these roles in more detail, probably starting with the main character.

      For example, the main character might be a twenty-five year-old man born in American from Brazilian immigrants…and a were-jaguar. The Werewolf Pack might want to know about him, even if he won’t be a member. The veterinarian for the zoo could be fleshed out as a potential love interest. The fixer from the Werewolf Pack could be a rival, both in the general macho realm and as a competitor for the affections of the veterinarian (who happens to be related to somebody from the Church Triumphant).

      Add these relationships and interconnections, along with some more character details, and your story is really starting to take shape.

      I hope this helps…

  2. Shea M.
    Posted February 12, 2015 at 6:36 AM | Permalink

    Really excited to read.

  3. Chris A.
    Posted February 14, 2015 at 9:52 AM | Permalink

    It’s my humble humble opinion that writing is art, art mimics reality, and reality is complicated. A story and its characters (fiction or non-fiction) are all products of unapparent complexity and chaos. The readers don’t necessarily need to be familiar with all the factions, but you do because it’s part and parcel to the fabric of your story.

    Chris

    • Posted February 15, 2015 at 12:42 PM | Permalink

      Well said. Stories provide the semblance of reality, not necessarily the detail of reality. It can be a fine distinction.

      Just imagine if Tolkien had tried to dump all the background information from “The Silmarillion” into “The Lord of the Rings”? Eek.

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