Animorphs II: How to Write a Book Series Like It’s a TV Show
Lord Ravenscraft is a video essay series created by Eric Ravenscraft. You can watch the latest full episode above on YouTube.
Everyone who tries to explain Animorphs to the uninitiated struggles. Because they’re doing it wrong. It’s not possible to tell the singular “story” of Animorphs — though that didn’t stop me from doing my best in my first video essay on the subject — because Animorphs wasn’t written the way other YA book series were.
It was written like a TV show. With a new episode every month. And that format shaped how the story was told in a way that few other book series have experienced.
Most episodic book series tend to rely on one of two formulas to structure their stories: the anthology model, which Goosebumps used to unfathomable success, or the mystery-of-the-week. These are your Hardy Boys, your Nancy Drews, and also every crime show you’ve ever seen on TV.
Animorphs followed a different model, that more closely resembles Doctor Who or Star Trek. While the series had an overarching plot — the war with the Yeerks who have come to earth to enslave humankind — most issues in the series used the framework the authors built to explore moral and philosophical issues through a cheesy sci-fi adventure lens.
It also means they get to — and I am directly quoting co-author Michael Grant here — “ do stupid shit that amused us if no one else.”
So when someone who has read Animorphs tries to explain that this series is about child soldiers committing war crimes…but also have to get sidetracked explaining goofy shit like Helmacrons — a race of blue people a sixteenth of an inch tall who are convinced they rule the galaxy — this format is why.
Much of Animorphs’ structure is built around keeping kids coming back each month, and hyping major events. Rarely did the series go more than a month without a new adventure, and every holiday season that the series was running (sans the first one) there was a major Chronicles book fleshing out the alien races and covering major events in the story.
I think there’s a tendency, when describing a book series like this, to compare it to things we already know. We call it a gritty, harsh war story and you think Game of Thrones. We say it helped kick off the YA dystopia trend and you think Hunger Games. But those books were written with very few major installments, in large chunks, and designed to be consumed as a linear narrative.
Even comparing it to Goosebumps, it’s closest contemporary relative, is imprecise. Goosebumps was an anthology, unburdened by any continuous narrative. The only way to understand Animorphs is through the lens of TV, a format that it emulated so well that it broke the mold.