Tracking Our Recurring Storylines

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigblog1

One of the things I forgot to mention in my “Time Savers for Writers” post was storyline-tracking for series writers. This is different from a series bible. My series bible has lists that include detailed character descriptions (down to birthdays, favorite foods, aversion to cats, and addresses) and setting information. This is more of tracking recurring motifs/elements/conventions in our stories.  Our own tropes for our books.

I almost hesitate to mention this because tropes are sort of an odd area for series writers.  But I’ve been surprised to find how much readers care about them.  I’ve accidentally—and occasionally purposefully—left out recurring storylines/conventions/gags from stories. And I’ve gotten dinged in reader reviews and sometimes via direct emails from readers for doing so.

And these are for books that function as standalones in my series. For writers who have series arcs…I can only imagine you’re tracking those to pieces. This is just for the types of story elements that pop up in each book in a series.

I made a list of all the bits and pieces that I include in each series and was amazed at the number of items.  There were seventeen elements for just one series.  The list includes everything from my protagonist suffering epicurean disasters of epic proportions, to the hypochondriac sidekick, to the slothful housekeeper whose back is conveniently thrown when faced with challenging cleaning, to the garden gnomes that my sleuth pulls out  into her front yard when she’s angry with her son.

I never really felt comfortable with my homegrown tropes. Part of me felt, maybe, that I was leaning on these recurring elements as a crutch. It’s so easy to include them. I tried to be fresh and original in each book.

The problem is that readers don’t necessarily want us to be fresh and original with each book. There’s a comfort, maybe, in the series trope. Almost an inside joke?

I started thinking about all the recurring storylines and conventions that I loved in various book series and television.  I expected Hercule Poirot to be insulted when someone called him French. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth would  always desperately try to escape promotion and credit his successes to other policemen. I knew to expect elaborate scheming when watching I Love Lucy and Ricky’s unintelligible English.  Jerry would always have a ridiculous reason for breaking up a relationship in Seinfeld.  In some ways, if there had been a break with series tropes in these shows, it wouldn’t have made sense or been faithful to the series.  What if an I Love Lucy episode showed Lucy performing in one of Ricky’s shows with no machinations behind the performance whatsoever? How bizarre would that be?

I’ve found listing these recurring subjects/gags/motifs very helpful. For one, they help me determine important elements in the stories. And if I’m considering taking my series characters on a road trip (like I did in Quilt Trip or in a book I’m planning on for next year for Myrtle), the list helps me incorporate elements as best I can while the characters are on the road.

I think there can be a danger in pandering too much to our homegrown tropes.  One danger is straying too far from the main plot or in bloating a book to include all the recurring bits.  Elizabeth George is one of my favorite writers, but I do see that she sometimes bloats a book to stuff in all the fun elements surrounding various secondary characters. There does need to be a balance there.

As a reader or TV viewer, what do you think of recurring elements in a book or show?  Do you see a pattern in yours? How many do you include in each book?

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29 thoughts on “Tracking Our Recurring Storylines

  1. That’s something I hadn’t even thought about, let alone written down. Well, crap, some writer I am. I think I can see one in my series, but wow – I’d really have to think about the rest.

  2. I think readers really do like what they see as ‘inside jokes’ or running gags, Elizabeth. They like to feel as though they’re ‘in on something’ – that they’re part of a group that gets it, if that makes sense. And I think the writer can include that sort of thing and still have something fresh in each book.

  3. Hi Elizabeth – if a trope is used … we feel we know the series, or the book and understand the relevance more than if it was a once off mention … I hadn’t thought about it – but now you raise it … most popular series have quirks … we come to expect them. At some stage we’ll tire of them … and that’s when the series quietly fades away, or no more books are produced … or the series ends.

    Keeping track of those too – interesting thought! Cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–And that’s a very interesting point…when the series starts feeling stale because the tropes are getting old with the readers, that’s when it’s probably time to start thinking about writing a new series.

  4. Great topic. I consider tropes to be part of world-building, even when they’re not tangible. For instance, the narrator’s or MC’s perspective on what is happening or where could provide the crucial thread through multiple books, even when the setting changes. Think of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser–it’s more than just the author’s voice, or the recurring elements (Susan, Hawk, cooking, the dog, etc.) that make each book feel like part of a continuum, even when the mystery takes place outside of Boston–it’s what Spenser chooses to observe and the way he remarks on it.

    That might be the one way that a series can stay alive a long time. I know I never got tired of the Spenser novels!

    1. Meg–Cool way of looking at them! I didn’t think of it that way…and I can see exactly what you mean. It’s worldbuilding and character building at the same time.

      I loved the Spenser novels too!

      I think it’s a double-edged sword, maybe, too. These tropes are things that the readers *love* about the series, but they have the potential, as Hilary mentioned, to be the first things that seem stale to readers if a series goes on a long while. May have to think of fresh twists on mine after a while.

  5. Maybe one way to keep the tropes from getting stale is to shatter them every now and again. I love when an author of a long running series breaks away from its tropes and puts the characters (and readers) in uncomfortable positions. Usually this is accomplished by radically changing the setting and premise. If this is done well it can liven things up and teach us new things about the sleuth. Then in the next book we can go back to the same ol’ same ol’. I’m thinking of books like the Spenser novel “A Catskill Eagle” or the Nero Wolfe novel “The Black Mountain”. What I’m really trying to say is that I’ll be first in line to buy the book where Myrtle’s alone in L.A. trying to solve a gang related murder.

    1. Robert–I think you’re right. So the twist can either add conflict for the character, as you mentioned above, and some character development. Or even some humor to the story, if some is needed. Mine use a great deal. :)

      Myrtle solving a gang murder!!! Ha! Honestly, the gang members should be shaking in their shoes since Myrtle is quite the force to be reckoned with.

      I’m putting her on a cruise ship in her next adventure (which I’m outlining now before going on to write a book in *another* series), which is why I think I’ve got this on my mind. Readers always want characters to go on a road trip…until they *go* on the road trip and all the recurring characters aren’t there, setting is different, tropes are hard to fit in, etc. I’m a bit nervous. I’ve done it with another series and it went well but a ship is a different set-up.

  6. Elizabeth–
    Who can (or would) fault such attention to detail as you bring to your work? For someone as prolific as you, it’s a great advantage, if not crucial. I write slowly. I trust myself to absorb what matters enough about my central character to figure in future stories. She’s actually the principal if not the only point of continuity in my Brenda Contay suspense series. Would keeping track of her from book to book with a story “bible” and trope catalogue the way you do produce better novels? Very possibly. But I’m not temperamentally suited to it. I have to rely on consistency of voice to serve the function of tropes.

    1. Barry–I have a feeling that you’re also blessed with a better memory than I am! Most people are. I wrote exactly one Myrtle book with no gnomes (somehow totally forgot about them and they’re basically a series brand) and boy…I may never hear the end of it. :) You’re so right–it’s temperament of the author, too. Just as some writers can and should outline and others do much better making it up as they go along (like Stephen King).

    2. I call these “rituals.” I usually use Columbo and other TV series as an example. You HAVE to have the “just one more thing” moment in very Columbo. The writers would often switch it up, so you couldn’t fully anticipate when it would happen. Often they would throw in variations that make you think it wasn’t going to happen. (Columbo would start to leave, and the killer would call him back, and then he actually would leave and the killer would start to go on with what he was doing, and THEN Columbo would reappear. “Oh, just one more thing….”)

      Television is a great model for this. So is comedy. (Watch Arsenic and Old Lace sometime, and note how many times the joke is dependent on the characters doing exactly the same thing, or reacting the same way, in spite of all the forces of the universe trying to stop them.) There is satisfaction in ritual. It raises anticipation, and gives us a great deal of satisfaction when it pays off.

      In the meantime, there is the opposite issue to track — how many times the killer turns out to be a certain type (middle-aged male avuncular type, or the long-suffering wife, etc.), or the final clue of a certain type (In Murder She Wrote — the killer always lets something slip in conversation, and that’s the only thing that proves they did it). I generate so many ideas that I don’t even use, I have to watch out that I don’t choose ones that all fit the same pattern that way. (Unless, of course, I decide that it’s a “ritual.”)

      1. Camille–Okay, I’m *totally* stealing the word ‘ritual.’ :) So, so much better than trope. Tropes embarrass me a little…like I’m being lazy. But a ritual that everyone enjoys and is part of? I’m definitely up for that.

        Great example with Columbo. And you’re right, television is rife with them. I was a huge fan of “Frasier” because of the rituals in it and because of the simplicity of the show and the way it made me feel as if I were watching a play.

        And you’re *also* very right about tracking the killer. This is the next thing on my to-do list. Editors at Penguin used to do that job for me (“No, Elizabeth, remember a couple of books ago?”) I need to pick up that thread myself for the self-pubbed books or else I’m going to really mess things up (and soon).

        1. IMHO the difference between a trope and a ritual is that a trope is something that happens across a genre. A ritual is something specific to the series.

          However, I do think that both are positive. Some people use “trope” to mean “cliche” but that’s different. Both trope and ritual are things the audience is anticipating — things they want to happen, things that, when they don’t happen, causes suspense because the audience is afraid it won’t happen, and they will be angry if they don’t get it.

          A cliche is something handled with indifference. It doesn’t add anything to the story, it just fills space. The audience may accept it, but they aren’t looking forward to it, because it’s just _there_.

    3. The ability of readers to spot things like this in series they love can be amazing. Consider it a compliment that they get into your stories so much that they care about things like this.

    4. Great post, Elizabeth. I think this gets at the heart of a genre writer’s challenge when writing a series: how to keep books fresh while still meeting readers’ expectations.

      I’ve been thinking about this topic this last month since I listened to Marina Adair speak on writing a (romance) series. She spoke on understanding what kind of characters we write, as this is also a reader expectation. In romance, this can mean heroines suffering from some kind of loss, heroines looking for a second chance at love, innocents corrupting… that kind of thing.

      But I hadn’t thought about the importance readers place on reoccurring motifs–and specifically cultivating and placing them in books, much like familiar landmarks. I’m inspired to think through my books so far, see what has already become a reoccurring motif and decide what I want to add.

      As always, thanks for the insightful post!

      1. Rebecca–Well put! Yes, familiar landmarks, exactly. And interesting that Ms. Adair mentioned character expectations. I can see what she means. Our characters will take who they are and their background and their beliefs into any number of situations, just like we do. Good for me to remember as I take my sleuth on a road trip next year.

    5. This would be so important. A tracking system, with my memory, would be a must. I could see how you might think tropes (rituals) might feel lazy, but people are full of habit behaviors. When people don’t follow through on their normal habits I sometimes think they’ve been switched by aliens. ☺️ Characters need to “be” the same in a series, too, within reason. It’s a comfort food, if you will.

    6. This is an excellent notion! I like calling them rituals too. Or even the expected thing – and why is it expected? Because we know these people. We know the man at work is going to say the same thing when we leave ‘another day, another dollar’, and that Barbara Havers will spill something on her shirt. It is comforting and puts us squarely in the world we want to be in. Inside a book!

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