This update was sent to the mailing list around June 2021.
Master Plan: The story structure of The Exander Project
What’s the best structure for an epic science fiction series? This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last decade. You can find plenty of books on this subject, but at its most basic, I think this really boils down to one question:
Do you have one story or multiple stories?
The Dune series (i.e., the original six books) is an example of the former, while Star Trek (through at least ENT) is an example of the latter1.
In Dune, you have basically one story that spans six books. The story doesn’t go in a straight line, and you can’t necessarily predict what would happen in book 6 based on what happens in book 1, but generally speaking, the events in book 1 are connected to the events in book 2, and book 2 to book 3, and so on down the line. There is a causal chain between what occurs in book 1 all the way through to book 6. And so I think it’s fair to call this “one” story, even if there are six books and several sets of main characters.
Contrast that with how Star Trek has been organized for most of its existence. Up until recently, Star Trek TV series were constructed as sets of episodes. Characters, ships, organizations, etc. might be shared between episodes—and so in a sense there is continuity. However, the typical structure of an episode is to introduce a new location, species or situation, present a problem related to this situation, and then (by the end of the episode) resolve the situation. Even with the new Discovery and Picard series, the structure that we seem to be getting is episodic at the level of a season, even if it’s not episodic at the level of a single show. This is even mostly true in DS9, despite the Dominion War thread that weaves its way through many of those episodes. The installments are still, by and large, episodic.
As much as I love Star Trek (and I really am a fan), I’ve come to realize that the episodic structure just doesn’t work for me. The problem is that this structure effectively resets the state of the universe at the end of each episode. The problem is solved, and the next show will move on to a different planet, so as far as the ongoing story is concerned, there are no ongoing consequences to what happened. This is the exact opposite of what I want! I want every action and every piece of the story to have consequences: consequences for the characters and world as a whole. There has to be change, or else I don’t feel like anything meaningful has happened.
There’s still the question of how one achieves a compelling story across an entire series. This gets particularly tricky once you get into a series that spans multiple books. It’s hard enough to write an epic that spans one book—as The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be published—but then needing to span a story across multiple books, and keep both the overall and the individual stories compelling, is quite challenging.
But Dune points us in the direction of a solution. And that is to grow the universe in each book2. In the case of Dune this is literal: the universe (as explored by the characters) grows as the series goes on. That universe actually changes as a direct result of actions taken by the characters in the books, such that we see ripple effects as those consequences have consequences, and so on, throughout the series.
If you were to compare the approaches of Dune and Star Trek side-by-side, they might look like the following:
In the case of Dune, I visualize the series as a set of growing circles, because each story effectively subsumes the last. With Star Trek, because the episodes are all independent, the circles are all non-overlapping and don’t build from one show to the next.
Please see this as aspirational—I’m not trying to make a comparison. But structurally, in terms of what I’m trying to accomplish, The Exander Project looks a lot more like Dune. The story starts small and telescopes out into growing circles as both the scope and the ripple effects of consequences expand.
Status and updates
I’m currently pitching book i to literary agents. At the moment, that means sending out query letters (basically asking if agents are interested in representing the book) and then waiting to hear back. I’m also attending writing conferences to pitch agents virtually or in person. (Typically such pitches are then followed by the usual query process.) If an agent is interested, they might request a copy of the manuscript, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
The book has been through a lot of editing in the last year, and I feel good about it. Having said that, the agent search process is infamously unpredictable—it can take anywhere from weeks to years. As a result, there isn’t really any way to predict how this will go. We’ll just have to see.
Of course, work is ongoing on the other books in the meantime. The focus right now is on making sure I have the right structures set up for books ii-iv so that the writing goes smoothly once I dig into them in earnest.
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Let me just say up front that by singling out these two series, I do not at all intend to compare my work with them. I’m choosing them because they’re well-known examples of the techniques I’m talking about, and I happen to like them.↩
If you’re looking for another example that does this, see NieR: Automata. This occurs on two levels. First, the game itself is a “sequel” to a relatively unknown original game (now remastered as NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…) but occurs after much time (read: many thousands of years) have passed. And second, within NieR: Automata itself, the structure of multiple endings provides a story structure that grows over the course of multiple playthroughs of the game. For more information, see my review of the game.↩