So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 1, I took a quick look at three types of book series. Now it’s time to zero in on one of the biggest challenges of series writing: creating and maintaining a coherent plot and compelling characters over multiple books.

This post is necessarily going to focus on the Single-Arc series, since that type tends to make the most demands on plot and character. However, some of this advice is applicable to the Episodic and Shared World series as well.

What Writing a Series Is

Essentially, it’s telling a single, very long story. Before books or even writing existed, storytellers wove tales in the form of epic poetry and oral narratives that were commonly interconnected–in other words, a series. The reason that book series today are published in multiple volumes instead of as a single, massive book is the same reason the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh would have been told over the course of several nights around the campfire. Splitting a series into parts helps the audience or reader absorb it more easily, not to mention increases their anticipation for the next part.

Series have an advantage over standalone books in that they allow for more story; they give the writer the space and the word count to realize ambitious, nuanced plots full of both scope and depth. Characters have more room to grow and change, and readers have more time to become attached to them and follow their journeys.

However, the challenge of balancing plot and character can be exacerbated by the sheer size of a book series. With so much narrative space, it’s easier than ever to lose the thread of the plot or forget what your hero’s driving motivation is. This gets even trickier when you account for series’ tendency to develop large casts of characters.

5 Ways to Manage Plot and Character Across a Series

Create a series bible. Outlining is your friend. I’m a born outliner: for the latest installment in my Expansion Universe series, I sketched out the scenes and beats in 120 PowerPoint slides, indexed by color, and over 100 pages of supplemental handwritten notes. While you don’t have to be as detailed as this, it will be super helpful to have a solid set of notes delineating at least a tentative plot and character arcs. Do yourself a favor and back up your memory, which can be fallible, especially if it takes you months or years to write your series.

 

Give consideration to character arcs over the whole series. You know you need characters to grow and change over the course of a book; this is no less true over a series, and I’d say actually more so. I’ve seen reviewers complain about books where the characters don’t change, or worse, backslide from earlier development. Your plot should throw opportunities for growth at your characters over the whole series. Ideally, these challenges should build on growth we’ve seen in past volumes–for instance, by having your character respond to a familiar challenge in a new way

 

Have an idea of the endgame from the beginning. Readers aren’t too fond of a story that seems like it’s making things up as it goes along; this can often be a symptom of the writer not having a solid idea of where the story is going. Outlining the whole series before you begin, however sketchily, can help a lot. Some writers even advocate writing the whole series before publishing it, so you can go back and plump up earlier volumes based on what you know of the story by the end.

 

Give each book its own arc. Each installment of a series inevitably builds on what came before, and unless it’s the last one, will leave the overarching story incomplete. However, this shouldn’t mean you leave the arc of the current volume unfinished. There still needs to be a recognizable beginning, middle and end to the plot of the book. And please avoid cliffhangers! It’s okay if the story finishes on an uncertain note, but try to at least end on some kind of concluding beat to wrap up the action for the time being.

 

Establish each book as part of a whole. Having made sure the book stands on its own, it’s also important to include some form of recap. This helps both readers who may be coming into the series not having read previous volumes, and readers who may not remember what happened. Dropping in small details or summaries is better than infodumping. My rule is a paragraph or two of recap at most. If you can do it naturally by working it into the characters’ thoughts or dialogue, that’s even better.

I want to hear from you, writers: what are some of your strategies for wrangling plot and character across multiple books? What are some plotting challenges you’ve overcome (or are working on)?

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

So, who am I to talk about writing a book series? My soon-to-be-released novel, Absence of Blade, is the first volume of the six-part Expansion space opera series. This story has gone through many permutations, but I always knew it would be a story I’d have to tell in multiple volumes. And that’s one defining characteristic of a series: the story has to be big enough to warrant multiple books.

There are different ways to do this. To figure out if your story idea would best be served by a series, it might help to look at some common types of series below.

Types of Series and Considerations for Each

The Single-Arc Series

This first subtype is probably the most common type of series. An example that’s likely familiar to anyone reading this is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones. What do I mean by single arc? Essentially, there’s an overarching, plot-driven story that begins in the first volume and is more or less tied up by the last volume.

Pros: A single-arc series works really well for giving your story the same sense of urgency and stakes of a standalone book, while the series format gives you leeway to craft a more ambitious plot and larger cast of characters than is workable for a single book.

Cons: With a single-arc series, you run the risk of reader fatigue; especially if readers have to wait a long time between installments, they can grow impatient waiting for the resolution and may well decide to move on to a more productive author.

There are a few ways you can mitigate this, such as planning out your series beforehand so you can write it more quickly, writing shorter series that are quicker to produce, or having two or more series going at the same time. That way, if you ever find yourself needing a break from one, you can switch to the other and still keep up a regular output.

The Episodic Series

The second-most common type of series is what I call the episodic series. The story follows a few main characters through a series of standalone adventures that take place in the same universe. A good example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, which can be read in any order. Although the novels do make reference to what came before, it’s not necessary to have read the previous installments to understand the current one. Instead, the series is held together by its focus on Miles and other recurring characters.

Pros: One obvious pro of this approach is the standalone nature of each installment. If readers don’t have to have read what came before, they can dive in at any point of your series, enjoy it, and come back for more. Some of the longest running and most popular book series, such as Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, take advantage of the episodic series’ newbie-welcoming format.

Cons: The flip side of the coin is that you must do a greater amount of worldbuilding and setup with each new book. Single-arc series offer considerably more slack, with the assumption that anyone who’s read the first one or two volumes more or less knows the characters and plot arc by book three. In contrast, with an episodic series, every new book must be treated as potentially the first time your readers are encountering your universe.

The Shared World Series

The last major subtype is what I like to call the Shared World series: while this type of series may have recurring characters, typically it follows a new cast for every book, with the unifying factor being that the stories take place in the same universe. An example is Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: each volume takes place in the Culture universe but starts fresh with a new story and characters.

Pros: Shared world series give the writer even more freedom than episodic series, since they only have to establish the existing world with each installment. This kind of series offers a lot of opportunity to create a sprawling universe while avoiding the danger of overly repetitive storylines that can come with the episodic series.

Cons: On the other hand, the writer of a shared world series has fewer shortcuts available to get readers invested in the story and characters. Since the plot is not a continuation from earlier volumes, and the characters aren’t people the reader might be expected to know, the writer has to do all the work of both plot setup and character setup just as they do with a standalone book.

Standalone Novels Are Still Okay

With all the hoopla about series these days, writers might well wonder if it’s even worth writing a standalone novel. My answer is, absolutely! Your choice to write a single book or a multiple-volume series should be determined by one factor above all–the needs of your story. If you think the story can be told effectively in a single volume, listen to that. You don’t serve yourself or your readers by cramming the narrative with filler to stretch it over multiple books just because “series are hot right now”. Write that one book. Many readers enjoy the change of pace offered by a standalone. Plus, you may find that one book inspires ideas for more in the future. Some of the best series are those that arise organically.

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“I Finished My Novel … Now What?”

“This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

I finished writing a novel last Friday. The first draft is now complete at just under 144,000 words. That word count will decrease in editing, but for now that’s what it is. This is the same manuscript I blogged about for my NaNoWriMo challenge–little did I know I’d be adding almost another 60,000 words to it by the time I finished!

But now I’m done … yay?

That question mark is why I decided to write this post.

The advice below is culled from personal experience and advice that’s worked for me. Rather than how to get yourself to finish that novel–there are plenty of articles out there on that–this article is about what do when you’ve finished a draft and find yourself at loose ends.

What To Do Once You Finish Your Novel

1. Celebrate. Reward yourself with something fun. You did it! Then…

2. Take a break from writing. For a set length of time–I like a week or so–don’t write or edit anything at all. Don’t even look at your newly finished manuscript. Take some time to pursue non-writing-related projects or hobbies: draw or paint, garden, play video games, whatever. (For instance, I’ll be taking time to finish Portal 2 and then laugh at how behind on games I am.)

3. Focus on self care. Especially in the home stretch of a big writing project, we can become, let’s say, hyper-focused on the work and neglect our routines like cooking and cleaning (or delegate them to a supportive partner or roommate). Refocusing on the day-to-day requirements of living will not only make you more popular around the house, but I find it a good way to decompress after a long sojourn in my imagination. Then, after your break week is over…

4. Work on something else. Write that short story idea rattling around in your head, or edit that novella you haven’t gotten around to polishing. The liminal space between novel drafts is fertile ground for experimenting and exploring new ideas. Using this time to work on new material does two important things: first, it helps refresh your well of creativity, which can often seem like it’s running dry after you’ve spent months plumbing it for novel material. Second, it helps you resist the temptation to dive back into your first draft right away to begin revising. Which brings us to my last point…

5. Let your novel sit before revising. It’s crucial to let time lend you some objective distance from your novel before you self-edit. In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends letting the manuscript lie fallow, so to speak, for at least 6 weeks, longer if you can stand it. Like wines, as novels age they steep; they start to feel like someone else’s work, and this is good. It’s a lot easier to read someone else’s work with a critical eye, to spot the continuity errors and places where a character’s motivation is thin, to note where there are setups without payoffs, and all the other important work of developing the piece. When we first set that manuscript down, our emotions are running too high to do this effectively; it still feels like our baby, rather than someone else’s.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot has been written about the creative process of drafting a novel, but less often discussed are the emotions that go into writing it. For all you might focus on craft, it’s important to remember that you’ve also put your heart and soul into writing your novel. If you’re like me, some of your most moving and exhilarating experiences have come while writing. It’s only natural to feel a certain amount of letdown once that first draft is finished. Putting some distance between the writing and revising can help, as can remembering that the first draft of a novel is just that–first. It’s the beginning of the story that is your novel, not the end.

Writers, I want to hear from you: what do you do once you’ve finished a first draft? What do you find helpful in mentally preparing for the next step?

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Writing Convincing Aliens Part 3: Interstellar Relations

d9-paving-the-way-to-unityThis series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.

My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade (coming summer 2017), is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.

Part 3: Interstellar Relations

With a solid biology and culture in place, it’s time to consider your alien species’ place in the larger universe. What relations, if any, your species has with other intelligent species will depend on the scope of your narrative. Though rare, there are stories out there written entirely in the perspective of a fictional species that has never encountered other civilizations.

However, it’s more likely that your aliens will interact with other intelligent species, including humans. Adopting the perspective of a nonhuman species is an effective strategy for reflecting on our own unconscious assumptions, biases, and cultural discourses through the lens of an intelligent species that may share none of these assumptions.

For this reason, the most common trope of interstellar relations is the First Contact narrative, where humans make contact with an alien species through radio communication or with a research team. Establishing your aliens’ biology, environment, and culture ahead of time will help you answer several questions that often arise in a First Contact story, such as:

-How technologically advanced is your alien society compared to human civilization at the time of the story?

-Are there areas of technology where your aliens have outpaced humans while lagging behind in others?

-What’s the economic base of your alien society (agricultural, industrial, post-scarcity, etc.)?

Knowing these features of your alien society will help you decide their likely reaction to First Contact with humans, as well as how it might occur. If you flip the script and have your alien species contact ours, what’s their motivation for doing so? Is it a research survey, an act of war, a religious mission, an accidental encounter?

If your universe incorporates several alien cultures, what are their interactions like? What are the histories behind their various instances of first contact, and how have their relations developed since then? What is your alien culture’s basic stance toward the other cultures they interact with–are they traders, researchers, conquerors? Are they active in interstellar relations, or are they largely reclusive and indifferent to galactic affairs?

Finally, if applicable, what standing do humans hold in the galactic community and why? One of my favorite examples of interstellar relations done well is the Mass Effect video game trilogy by Bioware: the story is set in a galaxy-spanning federation of species to which humans are relative newcomers. As such, humans are still commonly dismissed as upstarts by more established members. Not only is that a great worldbuilding detail, but it comes into play when the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, tries to apply to the galactic council for aid in fighting the Reapers, synthetic intelligences that constitute the series’ endgame threat.

What Not to Do: They Invaded Us Because They’re Warlike

I think I could happily go the rest of my life without reading or watching another aliens-invade-Earth story where their motivation for invading is glossed over, or worse, totally unexplained. Even when there’s a reason for the invasion, too often it’s something lazy like “They need our resources”, or worse, “They’re just warlike”.

I agree it’s possible for a species to have a warlike culture–there are many examples of warlike human societies that raided and subjugated other cultures. The problem with this explanation lies in the enormous investment of material and energy a civilization would be required to muster before it could cross interstellar distances to invade Earth. If you stick to Einsteinian physics as well–in which the speed of light is the upper limit–it also means a significant investment of time. Traveling at sublight speeds, it would take aliens from even the closest stars hundreds if not thousands of years to reach Earth. There needs to be an extremely compelling reason for an alien species to cross that gulf of time and space.

In Donald Moffitt’s The Jupiter Theft, our solar system is one stop of many for the space-faring Cygnans, who left their system millions of years ago when its suns threatened to go nova. The Cygnans are actually there not for Earth but for Jupiter, which they plan to steal so they can harvest its hydrogen to refuel their generation ship. That’s right–they steal an entire planet, and yet it’s believable not just in terms of the supporting science but also because their motive for doing so makes sense.

Even if you choose to bend Einsteinian physics a bit to allow wormholes or some other way around the lightspeed barrier, your alien civilization would still need to be fairly advanced to circumvent that limit. At this stage of development, it’s unlikely they’d be invading Earth–or anyone–simply for our raw materials or our real estate.

So does this mean you shouldn’t write an aliens-invade-Earth story? Definitely not! It just means it will be to your story’s benefit to spend more time than a Hollywood script-writing committee crafting a reason for your aliens to invade Earth. One of my favorite series of all time, Animorphs by K.A. Applegate, is based on such a plausible invasion scenario: the characters learn that Earth is being invaded by Yeerks, a slug-like species that infests and takes control of a host species’ brain and body. The Yeerks have invaded and conquered a number of species before discovering Earth, making humans just the latest victims.

Boom. The Yeerks have a plausible motive for invading–they need the mobility and senses of host bodies–and it’s a motive that fits into their history of interstellar relations.

I hope you found this series on writing convincing aliens useful. Now I’d really love to hear from you: What are some of the alien species you’ve come up with, and who are some of the writers whose alien species have inspired you?

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Writing Convincing Aliens Part 2: Culture and Society

Futuristic CityThis series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens*. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.

My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade (coming summer 2017), is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.

Part 2: Culture and Society

Once you’ve built a convincing biology and ecological niche for your alien species*, it’s time to think about culture. Of course, many nonhuman animals are social, and some, such as tool-using primates and hive-building insects, could be said to have a material culture. However, human culture and society is distinguished by its complexity and variety, which has allowed us to successfully–maybe too successfully–exploit many ecological niches.

Along with material alterations to our environment such as agriculture, industry, and the arts, culture also encompasses things such as written and spoken language, social structures, and religion. If your alien species possesses human-level intelligence or greater, it would likely have cultural expression as well.

What is culture? At its most basic level, it’s communication. Culture allows ideas and knowledge to be transmitted across distances and across time. The first thing to consider in building an alien culture is the way your species communicates: do they have spoken language? Perhaps they communicate by transmitting patterns of light, radar, or sonar, or through sign language. The kind of culture your alien species develops will be shaped by its primary mode of communication: for instance, a species that communicates using pulses of light might develop a highly complex visual language, but have no concept of spoken language (and be puzzled by humans who keep making nonsense sounds at them).

Another element to consider is your species’ social structure: are they social or territorial? Do they form family groups or are they usually solitary? Is there a concept of genders, and is it one we would recognize? Is there a concept of the individual, and how is this defined?

Like communication, your species’ social behaviors and concept of the self will be influenced by their biology to some degree. For example, in A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge creates a very convincing hive mind in the tynes, caninelike aliens for whom individuals are made up of several distinct bodies that communicate with each other via scents and ultrasonic sound.

The hive nature of their consciousness affects every aspect of their self-conception: when bodies die, new members can be added, which affects the entire system’s sense of self. Furthermore, intelligence is shared between bodies. Various members possess different skills and aptitudes, including the ability to speak, with some segments being nonverbal.

Having defined from the outside what type of alien society this is, it’s equally important to look at epistemology, the culture’s conception of itself and its place in the universe. Try for a moment to imagine yourself as a member of this culture: what is its place in the world? Does the culture have a religion or philosophy, or maybe several competing ones? How do these belief systems influence the species’ other areas of knowledge, including science and technology?

In his Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer has created a convincing alien civilization in the Quintaglios, who evolved from Earth dinosaurs which aliens transported to a distant world millions of years ago. The Quintaglio planet orbits a gas giant and has a single large continent, Land, with the rest covered by ocean. It’s also tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet always faces the gas giant. Their ideas about the nature of their world is shaped by its geography and planetary system: Quintaglios consider the gas giant, which is only visible from the other side of the world, to be the face of God, and make religious pilgrimages to see it.

What Not to Do: The Monolithic Alien Culture

Depending on the scope of your story this may or may not be possible, but if it’s possible, do not make the alien culture a monolith. I’ve read stories by otherwise very creative authors that make the mistake of presenting all members of an alien species as belonging to one culture, and it always detracts from the story’s verisimilitude. Like our biosphere, human cultures are stunningly diverse. Unless it makes sense for your aliens to be culturally homogeneous–they only live on a tiny portion of their world, they’re a hive mind, etc–it’s a good idea to at least gesture toward the existence of multiple cultures and regional differences, even if fleshing them out is beyond the scope of your narrative. At minimum, you’ll be creating a more lived-in world that better captures your reader’s interest; at best, you’ll have potential background material you can spin off into more stories!

Fictional alien species are rarely alone in their universe. In part three, Interstellar Relations, I’ll look at how to establish your species’ role on the galactic stage.

*I use the term “convincing aliens” rather than “realistic aliens” because at present humans have never made contact with an alien species. It’s disingenuous to comment on what a realistic alien would be like, biologically or socially. However, for the purpose of writing fiction, we can make certain assumptions about the beings that might evolve from a given ecological niche that provide a foundation for creating a convincing nonhuman ontology.

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Writing Convincing Aliens Part 1: Biology and Ecology

couleur-etThis series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens*. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.

My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade (coming summer 2017), is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.

Part 1: Biology and Ecology

Creating convincing aliens starts with establishing a well thought-out biology and ecological niche for your alien species. The more thought you put into an alien’s basic biology and environment up front, the less chance you’ll end up contradicting yourself and dispelling the aura of verisimilitude around your invented species once you begin to write. Taking the time to make notes on your critter’s biology and environment will also help you start thinking about the ways your aliens differ from humans in their worldview, culture, and society, which saves time when you’re developing these details later.

Where to begin defining an alien’s environment? Try starting with the big picture: did they evolve on a planet? While that’s definitely the place of origin most ready to hand, it’s far from the only possibility. Take Robert L. Forward’s Cheela, the arguable protagonists of his novel, Dragon’s Egg: the Cheela are flat, wormlike entities who evolved on the surface (and in the crushing gravity) of a neutron star.

Taking an environment that is extreme or seemingly inhospitable to life and imagining what kind of creature could live there is a great way to create really alien aliens like the Cheela, or the sentient hydrogen clouds of Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud, which evolved in the cold wastes of interstellar space.

If you do decide your aliens evolved on a planet, start thinking about their potential ecological niche. Do they dwell on land, in the oceans, or in floating cities? Do they prefer a narrow range of environments, or are they generalists like humans? Are they herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores? Or perhaps that doesn’t apply at all–maybe they draw sustenance from inorganic sources, by photosynthesis or metabolizing hydrogen sulfide from deep ocean vents. Try looking at terrestrial examples for inspiration: Earth possesses stunning biodiversity, and there’s no reason to believe alien species wouldn’t be just as diverse.

Of course, if you’re like me, you may have thought up your alien’s basic biology before considering the environment that spawned it. That’s okay! In this case, you can work backward from what you know about your species to imagine the environment that gave rise to it. When applied to a work in progress or in the late outlining stage, this method can also help you spot inconsistencies in your species’ design that don’t make sense given their environmental niche.

What Not to Do: Human with a Coat of Paint

Unless there’s a conscious reason for it, avoid creating aliens that are very similar in appearance to humans or other Earth animals. This can come off as lazy worldbuilding because your readers are likely aware that a “space” version of an existing animal is very unlikely to be discovered.

Sorry, Space Dog.

Sorry, Space Dog.

An exception to this rule is if the author is consciously writing humanoid aliens for reasons relevant to the story. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Ekumen universe concerns several different societies of humanoids who are implied to be offshoots of our own species, but who possess varying biologies and cultures that she uses as a vehicle for commentary about our own society.

Similarly, aliens who look nonhuman but think or behave exactly like modern humans probably won’t pass muster with your readers either. I’ll explore how to create convincing nonhuman worldviews and cultures in Part Two.

*I use the term “convincing aliens” rather than “realistic aliens” because at present humans have never made contact with an alien species. It’s disingenuous to comment on what a realistic alien would be like, biologically or socially. However, for the purpose of writing fiction, we can make certain assumptions about the beings that might evolve from a given ecological niche that provide a foundation for creating a convincing nonhuman ontology.

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This Book Is Not Yet Rated

About a year and a half ago, I was spending a lot of time on the fiction sharing platform Inkitt. Inkitt lets writers create a profile and upload short stories and even entire novels to the site, where other users can rate and review them, kind of like an online beta reading system. Inkitt also sponsors writing contests. When I was still interested in traditional publication for my first book, Absence of Blade, I entered it in Inkitt’s breakout novel contest. Inkitt pledged to act as the agent for the winner and shop the manuscript to publishers.

I don’t know how it all turned out for the eventual winner, or the ethics of Inkitt’s “platform-agent” model. I bring it up here because of Inkitt’s rating system. For each piece you upload, Inkitt asks you to rate the story for content, such as violence, profanity, sex, and other assorted adult themes. When I uploaded Absence of Blade to the site, I found myself checking off many of these boxes for content. If my book were made into a movie, it would almost certainly be rated R. Yet anyone of any age could waltz into a bookstore and buy it without the supervision of a guardian.

This made me wonder–why don’t books have a rating system like television and film do?
One might argue that violent or explicit visual media have both a more immediate and more lasting impact on impressionable minds, but I’m not sure that’s true. Some of the most powerful ideas and images I’ve encountered came, for me, from books. Literature can be every bit as affecting (positively or negatively) as visual media: take me at fourteen, forcing myself to finish Stephen King’s Pet Sematary at 9 am in broad daylight because I was too scared to read it after dark.

So why no warning ratings on literature?

In a sense there are–they’re called categories. Physical bookstores maintain separate shelves for children’s, YA, and adult literature as well as many other categories. Virtual bookstores like Amazon accomplish the same categorization with algorithms. Besides making it easier for readers of various demographics to find what they want to read, separate kids’ and adults’ shelves help screen kids from material they’re not ready for.

Publishing isn’t subject to ratings boards as film is. The Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration controls the ratings films receive based on their violent and sexual content, profanity, and other so-called adult themes. These ratings are often highly subjective and biased against sex while being much more permissible toward violence, including violence against women. For those interested in learning how deep this rabbit hole goes, I highly recommend the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” (itself rated NC-17 due only to the clips from other films it includes), which explores the peculiarities of the MPAA’s rating system.

Some former rating guidelines would be side-eyed now: for example, the Hays Act of 1934 made homosexuality a forbidden subject; when homosexual characters appeared in film at all, it was often as villains whose villainy was heightened by their supposed “sexual perversion” (as homosexuality was defined at the time), and who got their comeuppance in the form of death by the end of the film. This “bury your gays” trope still appears all too frequently in film and literature despite the Hays Code being long abandoned.

Finally, printed material has in fact been rated and censored in the past, but such strictures have relaxed with the times. Take the mid-century Congressional hearing on comic books, which resulted in the implementation of the Comics Code Authority of 1954. The CCA was essentially a self-censorship handbook for comics publishers.

Based on the argument that children were the primary audience for comic books (I’m not sure this has ever been true, but that’s another story), the CCA provided a list of obscene, graphic, and unwholesome material that publishers should strike from their comic books, including murder, true crime, rape, and the depiction of monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Although it was a set of guidelines, many distributors would not carry comics that didn’t follow the CCA, giving it the de facto force of law. However, the CCA was all but abandoned by the 21st century, and by 2011 it was completely defunct.

Finally, cultural attitudes toward books may play a role. Reading has long been viewed as a more “wholesome” pastime than watching TV, and educators have promoted literature to kids from the age they can read. In the 18th and 19th centuries especially, it was believed the purpose of reading was to enrich the individual; stories were as much instruction as entertainment.

It’s also a lot harder to point to graphic content in a book, because reading is such a private and subjective experience. It’s much easier to take clips from a film or game and argue the material should get a rating. With a book, readers create the graphics. An enormous amount of imagination and inference is required of readers to take static words on a page and extrapolate them into a mental world; the world thus created is as much the reader’s as the writer’s. In a way, rating literature would be tantamount to rating the reader’s own imagination and the ideas they have access to. Personally, that’s not a road I want to go down.

Readers, I want to hear from you: Should books have ratings, or trigger warnings for sensitive readers? Where is the line between concern for readers’ sensibilities and censorship?

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