I don’t know what proportion of science fiction and fantasy novels are part of series as opposed to stand alone but it is fair to say that they are far from uncommon. Now it should be pointed out that there are different kinds of series. There those like say the Chronicles of Narnia which use the same setting and have some character overlap but are basically stand alone books that can be read in any order. Then there series like Lord of the Rings in which there is a single grand story arc across two or more books, all of which need to be read and read in one fixed order. It is the latter category I want to say a little about.
It isn’t hard to see from where the lure of the series comes; creatively it gives more room in which to develop and flesh out a story, this is specially important for science fiction and fantasy since we have to burn so much word count on world building. Since an individual novel is limited to between forty and a hundred and fifty thousand words(1), while even a short series can be multiples of that, the extra words allows the writer to avoid having to make compromises to keep the word and page count acceptable. From business standpoint it looks even better, sell one large book for twelve Euros (dollars, pounds, shillings, rubles, yen, goats, whatever) or two for nine, ninety-nine. If the reader wants to get the complete story, they have to fork over for each and every book. In fact on that later point occasionally publishers have split into two books that were intended as a single volume. But in doing so a new problem is introduced.
The ending of any story is the pay off, regardless of genre or style, a bad ending can completely undo any good work that has been done up to that point. The ending needs to resolve the major plot threads and if the reader is left unsatisfied or feeling cheated, well then that’s a reader who won’t be looking that writer up again. But for a single arc series it can’t tie everything off, it needs to provide a satisfactory close and at the same time provide a launchpad for the next book of the series. What is needed is a sub-ending. The writer Shantnu Tiwari makes an impassioned case that the very worst sub-endings are cliffhangers. While I can’t get quite as worked up, thinking back across my own reading history I can think of a few cliff hanger ending I’ve read and while they didn’t make me throw the book across the room, they didn’t make me rush out and buy the next book either because there was that lack of pay off. The other problem with the cliffhanger is that there is likely a gap between the publication of individual books, of between months to years (20+ and counting in the case of one series I know of). Will the reader still have excitement to pick it back up, will they still remember what was going on? The best sub-endings I seen are the ones that felt like they could have been the end of the series, for my money Juliet E McKenna‘s first series nailed this perfectly.
So, if you are sitting out there somewhere idly considering writing your own series what am I saying? I’m saying you need to plan ahead (2). You absolutely must know where each book is going to end. Even if the big finish at the end of the series is absolutely amazing, it’s going to count for nothing if most readers abandoned ship at the end of the first book.
While we’re on subject of endings, lets move onto big ones, not just the end of a series but the end of a setting. It’s a personal belief of mine that all setting have their limits. Regardless to genre or even medium, each setting has its limits. Now quiet where those limits are depends on the nature of the setting. It is hangs off a single character then the limit will be reached fairly quickly (3) while one based on a large world or universe in which individuals can come and go will have more legs (4) but even there are limits. I suspect it’s one of the reason I never got into comic books, by now Batman should have either cleaned up Gotham City or be dead, either way as a story without a final end holds no attraction to me. Obviously there is a damn good reason why the likes of Batman, Star Trek or any other property keeps soldiering on:
Be you an individual author or a good old fashioned soulless corporation walking away from an cash stream is going to be difficult to do at best and often impossible. Search the internet on any particular established series or franchise and it won’t be hard to find someone somewhere who feels its gone off the boil, the glory days are gone, it’s now just ploughing the same furrow. The solution to this if a solution is needed is in the hands of the consumer. We need to be ready to pursue to new and original. While we can continue to enjoy the glory days of our old favorites we should be ready to abandon them if they don’t come to an actual end.
FINAL THOUGHT: I say all that as someone who is very much a hobby writer. I don’t rely on my writing to pay the bills, just pay for the luxuries. I’ve certainly not had anything like a huge hit which I’ve continued to milk. Obviously if I do I may well turn into a huge hypocrite but at least if that happens, I’ve given everyone some good material to work with.
(2) Yes I do know what I said in a previous blog entry about my tendency to do more winging it than planning. I did know where the Nameless War and Last Charge were going to end when I started them, the Landfall Campaign it was figured out while WIP, which is a writing technique I call ‘making life difficult for yourself’ [patient pending].
(3) Say a few books, two or three of films or a television series
(4) Example Star Wars or Star Trek
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