Why So Series-ous?: Part 1: The First Book

Yes, I’m creating a series of posts about novel series.  And sorry for the lame pun in the title. 🙂

There is a preponderance of series throughout the world of fiction, but particularly in genre fiction.  Fantasy, science-fiction, young adult, mystery, and romance are rife with series.  Sometimes they thrive and other times they flop.  Some series should never be series, and some stand-alone novels should be continued into series.

So how does a writer make these choices?

With a lot of what I’ve been reading lately, I question why a book needs to be made into a series.  It seems like some writers love the idea of a series, of creating a world that is rife with stories to tell and characters to follow, and they immediately latch on to the idea.  But the problem is that the first entry was so poorly executed that a series is a big mistake.  (In my humble opinion anyway.)

I won’t name any names, or even any genres, as this comment spans authors and genres — there have been a handful of books I’ve read in recent years, the firsts in their respective series, that have been so overrun with characters and the initial rumblings of further plots that the novel becomes a horrible mishmash of confusion.  Why would a reader ever go on to pick up book two if book one was so incredibly hard to follow?

The first book in a series has to be carried off with considerable restraint.  Ideally, the first novel should be entirely self-contained.  There can be plot elements that do not resolve, but the main plot of the novel should reach somewhat of a resolution.  If it doesn’t, readers can feel ripped off, like they’ve only bought half the story.

The second and subsequent books can pick up on the unfinished plot elements and introduce new characters, if needed.  All of this does not need to be crammed into the first book.

I recently read a book that was apparently the first in a new series.  In the span of ten pages in the middle of the book, the author introduced about a dozen new characters.  It was clear from how this was handled that these characters would later carry books in the series on their own — so the series would rotate between characters rather than follow the same leads all the time.  There were so many new names and faces and it was all so poorly managed that I almost put the book down right then and there.  (And it didn’t help that the writing was a bit weak.)

If the author wanted to rotate between characters, the leads for the following book could have been introduced, rather than ALL of the characters all at once.  And then, in the second book, the leads for the third book could be introduced.

An author who handles this very well is Christopher Koehler, whose CalPac series follows a team of college rowers.  Each of the three books published so far follows a different set of romantic leads.  The first entry was self-contained.  The second entry picked two minor characters from book one and followed them.  The third entry, which I’ve not yet read, I’m assuming follows two characters from book two and a minor plot hint that was introduced.  Never does Koehler overwhelm the reader with stuff for future books — he practices considerable restraint here, which works to his benefit.  Each book is self contained but, when read as a series, adds complexity to his overall universe.

The author must leave the reader fully satisfied, especially with the first book.  Any dissatisfaction and unanswered questions (at least, significant questions) can turn a reader off.  Why would they pick up the next one if the first one didn’t leave them happy?  But being “fully satisfied” does not mean every little plot element has to be tied up nicely.  For a series, there must be some things that are left open-ended, there must be something to entice the reader to continue on to book two.

So how does an author create a series that generates a following?

To explore that, we need to explore the different types of series — their pluses and negatives, and how they present themselves to the reader.  (See what I did there?  This post was self-contained as it talked about the first book in a novel series, but I’ve left some unanswered questions that will hopefully have you checking back next week!)

Next weekend (March 2), I’ll write about the limited series.  Limited series often have the end planned before the writer starts the first book.  While each book is likely self-contained, there is a larger plot thread running through the entire thing.  The structure of the series should follow the structure of a novel, in terms of rising tension, turning points, and climax.

The following weekend (March 9), we’ll explore the open-ended series.  An open-ended series does not have an end planned out right from the start, though an open-ended series can sometimes reach a conclusive end.  An open-ended series presents its own set of challenges that are not usually present in the writing of a limited series.

And, finally, the weekend after that (March 16), I’ll have some final comments on what I think about novel series and why a writer should or should not go about writing one.  We’ll look at the choices of the reader, and how that should influence the choices of the writer.  And I’ll also share some cliffhanger endings that I’ve loved and have sucked me into reading the next book ASAP.

All blog posting dates are, of course, tentative and dependent on my homework load, work load, and other things (like my upcoming birthday).

Hope to see you back here next week!



Filed under Publishing, Reading, Writing, Writing Tips

4 responses to “Why So Series-ous?: Part 1: The First Book

  1. Pingback: Why So Series-ous?: Part 2: The Limited Series | Cameron D James

  2. Pingback: Why So Series-ous?: Part 3: The Open-Ended Series | Cameron D James

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Two Graves | Cameron D James

  4. Pingback: Why So Series-ous?: Part 4: The Epic Finale | Cameron D James

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