Last week I began a discussion on the concept of a series in fiction. They seem to pop up everywhere in the various genres — science fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery, young adult, etc. Quite often, I think authors have too easily jumped into creating a series, thinking that all it takes is slapping a couple characters together and following their wacky adventures.
In truth, the creation of a series takes extensive planning and meticulous care. The characters must be compelling enough to carry off a number of books, the plots must be intricate enough to mine enough material from them, and the writing has to be damn good to keep people coming back again and again.
Today I’d like to explore the limited series. A limited series is one that has an end planned before the first book is written. Some writers might have the entire series, scene by scene, planned out. Others may only have the beginning and end, with some haziness on the middle.
Some recent limited series I’ve read include George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire / A Game of Thrones (which isn’t finished yet), Jeff Somer’s Avery Cates series, the Star Trek Vanguard books, and Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series. I realize that not all of you will have read these books, so I will add the Harry Potter series as another example — I haven’t read the books, but I’ve seen the movies, so I’m comfortable using it as an example.
The limited series has a plot arc running through the series that resembles the plot arc of the individual novel. Tension and conflict must continue to rise with each entry — it must get more exciting as you go. Martin’s ASOIAF / AGOT series is a good example of this. I sometimes find it difficult keeping track of all that’s going on since he tends to name-drop like crazy and I often get lost in discussions about characters I haven’t met, but as the books move forward, the plot gets more intense.
*GEORGE RR MARTIN SPOILER WARNING*
Book 1 ended with the birth of the dragons and the death of Ned Stark. Book 2 developed the series plot a bit more and deepened intrigue. Book 3 did this even more and then killed off Robb, Catelyn, Joffrey, and Tywin. I’m 1/4 into book 4 right now and though it starts off slow, the series tension is high as we don’t know where a bunch of characters are and we sense the ever-deepening doom awaiting everyone.
*HARRY POTTER SPOILER WARNING*
Each entry in the Harry Potter series is whole and complete by itself, but each movie also adds a significant piece to the overarching plot, ratcheting up the tension and danger. As the series progresses, we march ever closer to the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. That final showdown can’t happen in book/movie 3 or 4 — it has to happen in the final one. Though each entry is self-contained, the entire series builds up to this final showdown. Like I said, I haven’t read the books but I’ve seen the movies — the entire final act is a masterpiece that not only ties up the movie, but gives the viewer an incredible payoff for the series, amazing and stunning them with the power of the final scenes.
You wouldn’t be satisfied with a book that reaches its high point in the middle of the novel, so you also wouldn’t be satisfied with a series that reaches its high point in the middle of the series.
The payoff has to happen in the final book. Preferably, in the final pages of the final book.
Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series is my best example of this. Throughout the series, Jason’s life is destroyed by war with against an alien race. It saps everything out of him and kills him piece by piece. This alien enemy is a hive race, with the foot soldiers essentially being controlled by an alien mind somewhere. By the fifth and final book, Jason is tired, he’s worn out, and he just wants it all to end. We know a confrontation is coming — it’s telegraphed something like fifty pages before it happens (if it wasn’t already obvious way earlier in the series). The final fifty pages or so feature Jason and the hive mind in confrontation. (I really don’t want to give away spoilers as it is truly the most amazing ending to a novel and/or series that I have ever read in my entire life and if you’re reading that series I don’t want to accidentally ruin it for you.)
The payoff in the final Jason Wander scene is amazing. Readers follow Jason through an entire lifetime of fighting and war, with tension and conflict continually rising. There are plot twists to the series that jolt new life into it and suck in readers (much like you have plot twists within a novel to change things up and shock readers). The tension builds and builds and builds until this final moment of the series, a moment that stuns the reader and acts as not only a fitting end to the novel, but the perfect ending to the series as a whole.
This is not planning that can be done on the fly, nor is it something a writer can stumble in to. Yes, there may by a skilled and lucky writer somewhere who can pull off such a feat without reams of notes. But, for the rest of us, It takes planning. And if it takes planning, that means any writer can do it — you can do it and I can do it — but it takes time and careful deliberation. It takes deepening characters, broadening plot, creating rich and diverse worlds, and, basically, a ton of planning and prep work.