Tag Archive for Chuck Jones Rules for Roadrunner

Rules for Roadrunner: A Lesson for Series Writers from Chuck Jones

 

Anyone who walks into a bookstore can see that series publishing dominates the children’s book marketplace. More and more, publishers seek out characters or situations that can appear again and again in books. From Harry Potter to the Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson to Merci Suarez, Goosebumps to The Hunger Games, Dog Man to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, it is series, series, everywhere. 

In fact, it’s probably never been harder to publish a “stand alone” novel.

And while that is disappointing in many ways — the compensations of commerce elbowing idealism in the gut — to quote a phrase that I’ve come to loathe: It is what it is.

The thought process is obvious. If readers enjoy one book, why not sell them another just like it. Different, of course, but also the same. Delivering the same promise, the same essence. Over and over again. Ca-ching!

And it’s not all ugly. Young readers genuinely like visiting with familiar characters and dependable storylines. There’s a comfort to it. Pleasure and satisfaction. When that reluctant reader (finally!) finds a book that he enjoys, it is wonderful for a librarian or parent to say, “Look, there’s more where that came from!”

It’s how some kids become lifelong readers.  A good thing!

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I happen to be a writer with some experience in series publishing. Most notably, there’s Jigsaw Jones, solving mysteries across 42 books. I’ve also embarked on three other series: “Scary Tales” (6 in all), “The Big Idea Gang” (3 total), and — coming soon! — “Exit 13” (just 2 so far, fingers & toes crossed for more). Each of those series are quite different, operating under specific guidelines.

Jigsaw Jones, for example, has an out-of-time quality. No one gets older. Nothing accumulates. Each book is entirely self-contained and complete. Whereas for “Scary Tales,” I followed “The Twilight Zone” model. Each story had new characters and unique settings. However, I borrowed TZ’s classic intro and outro format (building some familiarity into every different story). In the “Twilight Zone” television show, even the genre vacillates from episode to episode. While the stories diverged wildly, the promise of the series was consistent. Each story would deliver the essence of the “Twilight Zone” experience: strange, creepy, intellectual, clever, well-written and constructed. Currently, “Exit 13” presents new challenges. These stories build upon each other. What happens in Book 1 informs Book 2, and so on. And while each book should stand alone in satisfying a reader, nobody suggests that you start with Book 7 (fingers crossed).

         

I’ve recently been in (top secret!) discussions with an editor and my agent about how to extend a manuscript into a series. Which is curious in that I had originally thought I was writing one simple story; the push for series came from the editor.

So what’s the thought process like?

For me, I start with the book itself. What is it that is repeatable? What is the essence? What is the heart of its appeal? In this case, there’s a character. What happens to the character? What qualities does that character possess? And once I decide on what might be consistent from story to story — I also have to decide what can be (or maybe, must be) changed. The setting? Can I introduce new characters? Can the nature of the main character develop, grow, shift? Does each story have to hit on the same emotions (tenderness, silliness, excitement, fear)?

For Jigsaw Jones, for example, there is of course always a mystery, a case to be solved. He writes in his journal. There is at least one secret code to be solved. Mila often sings a familiar song with made-up lyrics. He almost always references a real or imagined book. Jigsaw usually provides the energy, the forward motion; Mila, the smarts and steadiness. Each book tends to go deeper on a different classmate from room 201. And so on.

I’ve been thinking about Chuck Jones, the brilliant creator of the “Roadrunner” cartoons. Famously, Jones and his writing team developed a list of 9 rules (elsewhere expanded to 11) that would help guide (and more importantly, limit) the creative thinking for each and every Roadrunner episode.

The two rules added at a later date:

10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

I’ve found this list to be extremely helpful to me as I cast about for answers for this Next Series Idea. A distillation of essences. And a way to avoid distractions, misguided meanderings, dead ends. The first book is easy in that respect. The playing field is wide open. But by the second book, you’ve made some decisions that you are going to have live with for as long as the series continues. 

Maybe the thought process behind Chuck Jones’s list will be helpful to you, too. It sure hasn’t hurt the Roadrunner. 

 

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