Monday, November 24, 2014

Series musing

Series are popular right now, especially in genre fiction. Mystery series, fantasy series, sci-fi series. Some of them have a set number of volumes, like trilogies. Others seem indefinite – going on forever, with 10, 15, or more books. Writers approach their series in different ways. For me personally, the worst kind of series is when a writer divides her long story into parts, and each part is one novel ending with a cliffhanger.
I hate cliffhangers. They feel like the writer tricked me. She promised a story but delivered only a fragment. She is manipulating me into reading her next book, and I dislike manipulations. As a rule, I don’t read such books, not the second books of such series anyway. Besides, cliffhangers are not a necessity. There are other types of series I read and like, and here are a few possible approaches to series writing. I use a couple of them myself.

1. The same hero. This works well for mystery series. All the stories are about the same detective, but each novel is a different case. In such stories, often the protagonist doesn’t change much, doesn’t grow. In fact, the readers derive pleasure in seeing him the same from book to book, like meeting an old friend. There is almost never an overall story arch for the entire series, or at least it’s not pronounced. I could name plenty of examples, one being Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf Mysteries. There is no limit to the number of books in such series. Some authors manage to write over 20 titles, while others turn it into a franchise.
This type of series works in fantasy and sci-fi too but not as well. When the author takes one hero on a different adventure each book, after five or seven books, the series frequently grow stale or darken. After all, how much could a writer punish the same character?
The examples: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, or Mercy Thompson novels by Patricia Briggs.
I use the same approach for my novels. The hero of my novel Eagle en Garde will appear in two or three other novels (at least that’s the plan).

2. The same group. Here we have a group of people – a family or a bunch of friends – and every novel concentrates on a different member. This series is finite by default; any group can only hold a limited number of members. This type of series works well for romance or speculative fiction. Examples: Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series (fantasy) or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series (romance). 

3 The same world. This type of series can last for a long time without getting tired and it subscribes well to speculative fiction. In each novel, a writer can focus on different countries of her world, different social or political groups, professional aspects, or even different timelines. Here 200 years ago is as good as 50 years later. The well-known examples of this kind of series are Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. Lackey remarked in one of her old interviews that she specifically designed her Valdemar universe as having 'open borders', so she could explore them at her leisure in multiple novels.

In this approach, consistency in descriptions is paramount. If you devise your world as flat in novel #1 (Discworld), you have to maintain the fact in every subsequent novel.
I use this approach for my overall series of fantasy books, published and upcoming. Some of them have one protagonist, others have another, but they are all united by the same world. Consistency issue: my world has two moons in every novel.
What other approaches are there? Which ones do you use as a writer? Which do you prefer as a reader?


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I am becoming addicted to the memorable private eye in JK Rowling's new books for adults. And, nobody does sisters and friends better than Nora Roberts. Neither author leaves the reader without a current conclusion.

Good blog.

Liz Fountain said...

I'm working on book 3 of a series now - this is very timely, thank you!


Big Mike said...

According to the women in my life, they love series because they get to continue their visit with the same people and setting. Personally I don't like to read them with one except, the Jesse Stone series. I could watch a hundred and still not get enough.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

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