Shadow, available on August 3rd, is the 4th book in James Swallow’s Marc Dane Series! Since he’s a seasoned series writer, James joined us on the blog to share some writing advice on how to keep ideas fresh and, as he says, “maintain your dramatic momentum across multiple novels”.
By James Swallow
I’d love to say I started writing my Marc Dane action thrillers with a grand plan for an ongoing series, some gigantic conspiracy wall of narrative filled with f-tons of material… But the truth is, back when I sold NOMAD, the first novel of Marc’s adventures, I was just happy to get it published. Sure, I had some thoughts about where to take the characters, and files of half-finished ideas and story seeds – but when it became clear I had a full-blown series on my hands, I realized I was looking down the barrel of a challenge I had never faced before.
My previous writing had all been stand-alones, tie-in fiction or series works with several writers. For the first time, I had to build a coherent narrative on my own that would reward readers who bought in to the whole journey of my characters, and lay in (and pay off) plot threads that would unfold from book to book.
But how do you maintain your dramatic momentum across multiple novels? How does a writer keep the work fresh and interesting, not just for themselves but for their readers?
The first thing I did was go back to the series written by the writers who had inspired me. How did Ian Fleming evolve James Bond? How did Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan grow? What did Robert Ludlum and Eric Van Lustbader do with Jason Bourne? And I looked to the big screen too, to blockbuster franchises like the Fast Saga, the Marvel cinematic universe, Bond movies and the Mission: Impossible movies.
As I write this piece in the late summer of 2021, my third Marc Dane novel GHOST is out in paperback and the fourth book SHADOW is about to release in hardcover across North America. Writing the Marc Dane novels, my goal was to create a fast-paced, tech-savvy espionage thriller for the digital age, set in a post-Snowden, post-WikiLeaks world where private military contractors, agile terror cells and corporations wield as much power as national intelligence agencies.
Marc is an MI6 field operative accused of betraying his country who uncovers a horrific conspiracy. Relying only on his skills and his wits to stay one step ahead of those hunting him, Marc joins up with ex-Special Forces sniper Lucy Keyes and her boss, the enigmatic African billionaire Ekko Solomon, who funds his own private team of vigilante black ops specialists. In each novel I feature a new threat and a key antagonist, but I also evolve the abilities and relationships of my main characters – and the plans of a shadowy cabal of over-arching villains, whose influence is felt throughout all of the books.
The key lessons I learned from experience and from my favorite books and movies came down to six key points:
1: Don’t give it all away at once
You can understand the writer’s urge to put everything they have into the first novel in a series – after all, it might be your only shot, what if it’s not popular and you never get to go the distance? But revealing every last detail of your characters and their world is like filling in all the blank parts of the map. Once you’ve done it, it becomes progressively harder to find new ground to explore.
So keep a few cards in your hand, hold on to a little doubt and uncertainty. Drop hints about unseen, unknown bits of backstory that you can revisit in future books. Set up questions in the mind of the reader that will bring them back for the next installment. But if you do so, make sure you pay it off.
2: Give your characters somewhere to go
If your heroes are the best at what they do right at the start, it will be hard for you to find antagonists who can match them in future stories. Give them space to learn and develop, make them a little fallible, then let them grow.
And this goes for the ‘scale’ of your narrative as well. If Hawaii sinks into the ocean in book one, how do you top that for book 2? Or top the next thing for book 3?
I think of this one as the Predator Rule: back in the 80’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest, toughest action hero in movies – so much so that there was no screen villain that audiences would accept as realistic threat to him! So producers literally had to create an inhuman antagonist from another planet in order to present a believable challenge.
3: Hit the reset button
As your characters move through the series, they’ll gather things around them – a home and a family, a great job, a nice car, a heroic reputation – but the savvy author always remembers that all is fleeting.
Growing and evolving characters means giving them things, but it is important to remember those same things can be taken away, by happenstance, by deliberate choice or a tragic turn of events.
Don’t allow your heroes to get too comfortable in their lives. Maybe they’ve worked hard to earn that Ferrari and the penthouse in Monaco – but oh no, someone just blew them up and now they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. And all the cool gadgets and resources your spy agency has on tap mean nothing if you just got a burn notice and your access has been revoked.
4: Shake up the status quo
Point #4 is a direct follow-on to Point #3, but it has a specific quality that I think deserves its own entry – and that is, don’t be afraid to swing the executioner’s axe now and then.
No character should ever be invulnerable. Jeopardy is part of drama, and in order to make the stakes feel authentic, there must be loss.
But don’t make this choice lightly – remember, even Conan Doyle grew to regret killing off Sherlock Holmes and retroactively brought the great detective back to life. Think carefully when you consider a character’s final fate, and make it meaningful as well as painful. Because like the gunslingers of the Old West would say, if you pull it, you better use it.
5: Visit new places
The world is a vast and fascinating canvas, and there’s so much of it to see and experience. Keeping your characters in just one part of it might allow you to heavily detail that background, but ultimately familiarity breeds contempt. New locales put different stresses on your narrative.
If the only limitation is your imagination, why not venture far and wide? Travel broadens the mind, as the saying goes, and it can also broaden the experiences of your characters, and create new challenges for them to face.
6: Have an endgame in mind
There has to be an ending, and in the author’s ideal world that ending should be one of their choosing, a way to run down the curtain in a manner that serves their characters and brings closure to their narrative. Even if you have enough ideas to fill a hundred novels, it helps to have a sense of how you might conclude things.
And also remember that an ending doesn’t automatically mean “the end” for all time; it can be the completion of a story arc, the final pay-off for something set up in a previous novel, or the closing of a narrative ‘phase’. One arc concludes, but another one begins – and your heroes, refreshed and renewed, carry on to their next adventures…
James Swallow is a New York Times, Sunday Times and Amazon bestselling author, a BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and the award-winning writer of over fifty-five books, along with numerous scripts for video games, radio and television.
His latest novel SHADOW is the fourth in a series of fast-paced action thrillers featuring protagonist Marc Dane, out now in hardcover; the previous novels in the series – NOMAD, EXILE and GHOST – are available in paperback from Forge Books.
You can also follow James on Twitter at @jmswallow or visit him on his website at www.jswallow.com, which features free downloadable fiction, including the original Marc Dane novelette ROUGH AIR.
Pre-order a Copy of Shadow—available August 3rd!