Continuing in our discussion on series in fiction, today we explore the open-ended series. Unlike a limited series, which we discussed last week, an open-ended series does not have a conclusive end planned before the author begins. An open-ended series may reach a conclusion at some point, but it was likely not intentioned when the author began writing the first book.
The open-ended series, for authors and for readers, holds great appeal. We know these characters are going to stick around for a while and we’ll get to join them on many adventures — whereas with a limited series, we know there’s an end coming. That, though, can also be a downfall. With a limited series, we know that the series is going somewhere and the author has a plan. With an open-ended series, we’re not quite as sure about that. The author may have a plan, or he may not. There may be an overarching storyline that will drive the whole thing, or there may not.
I confess that I read a lot of open-ended series. If you poke through my book reviews or my list on GoodReads, you’ll see I read Star Trek fiction, which is a collection of open-ended series. I also enjoy James Rollins’s Sigma Force novels and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Prendergast novels. And in the past, I have read, among other things, most of Orson Scott Card’s Ender and Bean novels.
As we discussed last week, a limited series has rising tension and conflict throughout the series, reaching a climactic finale. An open-ended series cannot do the same. There will be hills and valleys in the tension and conflict. The writer cannot always up them with each consecutive novel, as there is only so high one can go. Or, if the author does raise the tension with each successive entry, readers will begin to wonder how the character can continue to take such punishment.
I’ve read all of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, a young adult series featuring a teenage British spy. I believe it began as an open-ended series, though it was ended recently. That series, in my opinion, reached its pinnacle in book 5 (out of 9). While book 9 was an amazing conclusion to the series, I feel it still doesn’t even come close to the success of book 5 — which made the conflict, Alex’s mission, intensely personal and became a heart-wrenching character piece interwoven with the usual high action that Horowitz writes. So… after such a high note, the rest of the books never quite measure up… it really becomes quite disappointing for the reader.
You can only save the world so many times before it becomes old hat. I think this is partly why the success of the Star Trek movies has been so uneven. After such mega-hits like The Wrath of Khan, The Journey Home, and First Contact, the in-between movies (which often are excellent movies on their own) fail to measure up to the high points of the series.
Changing paths here, another issue for a writer is the potential overwhelming success of a series. Why is that a problem?
Once readers latch on to a series with fervour, they demand books. And if it’s an open-ended series, the author can be forced into continuing to write that series, even if they grow tired of it. I honestly don’t know how Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich feel, but they are “trapped” in such a predicament. Sue Grafton writes the alphabet-based mystery series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) and is currently up to V. Yes, this book series might end up being a full 26 volumes long. Similarly is Janet Evanovich’s number-based mystery series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, etc.), which is currently up to 19, does not logically need to reach an end, as numbers don’t end like the alphabet does. It’s entirely possible that these authors love these series and never grow tired of them. But I know that in my own writing, I might want to abandon a series for a while and try something new… which wouldn’t be possible if I were in a Grafton/Evanovich situation.
As I’ve said, I like reading Star Trek. One of my favorite series is the book-only New Frontier (meaning it was never a show or movie) by Peter David. It’s a fun series and largely well-written. However, the books are getting further apart from each other and they seem to be dwindling. I still read them because I generally like the series and I’m already committed to the characters, but I often don’t remember much from book to book, and I sort of wish they would come to a conclusive end, rather than continuing to leave me dangling, especially since I know the continuation of the series is questionable, according to Peter David… and it doesn’t help that the writing has been getting a bit weaker as of late. I keep buying books hoping it’ll pick up again and reach it’s great point, even though that was quite a while ago. It feels almost like a pity-buy, and I don’t like that feeling. (All that aside, Peter David does an excellent job of the continuing series — he regularly introduces new characters and crises, which manages to keep tension up without it ever reaching that ridiculous level.)
I think that open-ended series hold great appeal for writers and readers, but I also think these same people don’t always know what they’re getting into when they start such a literary journey. There might be immense potential for plot mining in the characters and settings, but can the author maintain a steadily rising tension level without it becoming ridiculous? Can the author maintain reader interest even if the series hits the double digits in entries? Is the author prepared for the demand the reader might place on them? And is the reader prepared for the uncharted exploration the author is going to take them on?
When done right, an open-ended series can be a source of joy and excitement. But, like with anything, it takes excellent writing and a certain indefinable mix of elements and creativity for it to succeed.