The Sunday Salon: Serial Storytelling

I have picked up the first installment in many a series, only to set it down again and never give that series another thought. Sometimes, it’s a bad book, but overwhelming, it’s because the novel fails as an installment in a series; it cannot stand on its own two feet or threatens to turn into the same book, executed over and over again. Which problem it has usually depends on what kind of series it is–close-ended (as most speculative fiction or historical fiction series are) or open-ended (as most mystery or contemporary fiction series are). With how popular series are in the genres that lend themselves to them, why is it apparently so hard to make them work?

First, I think it’s useful to look at what a successful series does. Let’s take the Harry Potter series as our example, as everyone is familiar with them. It’s a close-ended series where every book functions as a more or less satisfying standalone novel and answers enough questions to satisfy you, but also leaves enough questions unanswered to keep you interested in what happens next. You can technically pick up any Harry Potter novel and enjoy a novel with a complete dramatic structure; yes, you will enjoy it more if you read the series, but you’re not forced to read the entire series to make it satisfying. As for open-ended series, I have to tell you that I avoid them. I think they’re very difficult to do well. However, I do enjoy the television show How I Met Your Mother. It gives us an endgame (Ted will eventually meet the mother) that’s not urgent, dynamic characters (Ted has evolved from fairly ambitious architect to content college professor), and, in my opinion, just enough forward motion towards the endgame each season to keep things from getting stale. Quite technically, it could go on for another few seasons, but it’s reassuring to know that, when the time comes, there will be a satisfying ending, if only because Ted finally meets the mother.

It seems pretty straightforward, right? So then why, for every Harry Potter and How I Met Your Mother, do we get several Twilights and Heroes, a show that went off the rails so badly most fans (and, apparently, some of the cast) like to pretend it was canceled after the first season? There are dozens of reasons, but, in my experience, there are two flaws that can cripple a series like few things can.

The author fails to understand that an installment in a series of books must be, in itself, a satisfying book. This usually plagues close-ended series, especially in speculative fiction. As I read Karen Miller’s The Innocent Mage and the amount of pages under my right thumb grew perilously thin, I wondered how on earth she was going to tie up everything satisfactorily and set the stage for the next book, The Awakened Mage. I quickly discovered that Miller’s solution was not to bother. You see, The Innocent Mage just ends on a cliffhanger. There’s no climax or resolution to anything; it merely feels like Miller took a manuscript and split it in half, perhaps to shock and intrigue the reader. Unfortunately, it’s not satisfying and, if the Amazon reviews are anything to judge by, just frustrates the readers. The Innocent Mage fails as a serial installment by not being a novel unto itself, with its own satisfying resolution.

It’s formulaic with static characters and no endgame. This is what usually plagues open-ended series. As I mention above, procedurals are not my thing, as they often lend themselves to being formulaic. Like any genre, I believe they can be done well–but they, like any decent piece of fiction, require an endgame for the plot or at least an overarching motivation for a character, even it’s as simple as “getting home”. It also helps if the characters are highly engaging and dynamic; making it character-driven instead of plot-driven can take the pressure off. But when the characters are static, the series becomes a one-trick pony.

Just avoiding these pitfalls will make for a better series, but remember, these are just structure issues–a writer needs to also make their series, you know, good.

This is yet another Sunday Salon post scheduled well in advance; as you’re reading this, I ought to be returning from an out-of-state family funeral which required completing ridiculous amounts of schoolwork in advance to work around. I recently finished Sisters Red, which was disappointing, and picked up The Rose of Martinique and have been immersed in it ever since. I’ve also discovered NetGalley after being introduced to it by Celia, which has been interesting, to say the least. By now, I ought to have started in on Mansfield Park for my Jane Austen class, but I may or may not have done so.

Patrick over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is giving away a copy of Wild Cards I, edited by George R. R. Martin. Trisha at eclectic/eccentric is giving away a wire study stand and plenty of sticky notes until Friday. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you think makes or breaks a series, be it close-ended or open-ended?

15 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Serial Storytelling

  1. *hug* I hope the funeral went okay, and I’m sorry for your loss. 😦

    I think another big reason series can go off the rails is that the writers (I’m thinking mainly of TV here, but I’m sure it happens in books too) act like they have an endgame, by doing ominous foreshadowing, when all along they don’t really have an endgame. Something as huge and complicated as Harry Potter is impressive because JK Rowling had a plan for the entire series, set clues massively in advance of using them, and paid off her story arcs, including the emotional ones. But it’s hard to plan that far ahead and that complicatedly, and I guess most people don’t bother.

    Another big thing (or maybe this is still part of the same thing) is when writers appear to be afflicted with amnesia, and their characters show no sign of remembering events that happened only a short while ago. It is annoying. :p

    • Yes; pretending to have an endgame is nothing like actually having an endgame. I’m not asking people to have everything down in detail or even finished (although I did do that with fanfiction), but outlined. Oh, beautiful outlines.

      I hate plot-driven amnesia. It ruins characters for me.

  2. Sorry for your loss. I hope all went well.

    I’m a series reader but it’s tough to find a good one. I prefer the individual books in a series to have some sort of ending. I want to know how things turned out before I move on to the next one. In some cases, I’ve stopped reading because nothing came to an end and I became frustrated with all the reading only to find out the author had no plans for things to end.

  3. What I find annoying, and I feel this is especially true with open ended series, is what I call the bigger and better syndrome. My kids call it the Dragonball Z mistake – where each episode, story, movie (sequel) has to be bigger and better than the one before. When you play “Can you top this” things will inevitably be pushed to the point of absurdity and then the whole house of cards collapses.

    -Michael
    The Fiction Side: The Storyteller http://mgkizzia.wordpress.com/
    The Non-Fiction Side: Word & Spirit http://michaelkizzia.wordpress.com/

    • That, I feel, comes out in fiction aimed at that 18-34 male demographic, which, to be totally honest, is not the same demographic as most literature. (A good deal of speculative fiction is, but certainly not all.) But it’s a very noticeable phenomenon.

  4. Hm, you’ve given me lots to think about. Usually a book being (or not being) part of series won’t, on its own, make me decide to read it or not read it. If it is going to be part of a series, though, I must know up front — I really hate getting to the end of a novel, expecting it to wrap up, and discovering there is more to come.

    Looking at the series I’ve read and enjoyed, they are almost all close-ended: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy. Even if an individual book ends with a cliffhanger, each volume in the series could stand on its own. I think you hit the nail on the head:

    “[Harry Potter is] a close-ended series where every book functions as a more or less satisfying standalone novel and answers enough questions to satisfy you, but also leaves enough questions unanswered to keep you interested in what happens next.”

    I just read the first book in a new kids’ series that hardly left anything unresolved, so the likelihood that I will pick up the next book is pretty much nonexistent. At the same time, I read the start of a series a few years ago where nothing happened for most of the book, and then something huge happened in the last few pages that was, presumably, resolved in the second book (I didn’t bother reading it). Neither extreme left me with any desire to continue the series.

    I do think that characters can be the reason I keep going with a series. For example, Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series is open-ended (four books so far), but the cast of characters is so good that I’ll keep reading just to spend time with them again. That was true of Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. series as well.

    I think there are a lot of occasional readers out there who love the more formulaic series construction because they know what they’re going to get and that they already like it. They only read a few authors or series, and they don’t read enough to get bored of their chosen reading material. I think that’s part of why there are so many not-so-good series out there.

    Great post — a lot of interesting points to think about!

    • I don’t give books in a series a pass on structure; weakness will not be tolerated! 😉

      Characters are often the only thing that make me continue with genres that are more susceptible to becoming formulaic.

      Thanks, Erin!

  5. Great post! I think you are right in the idea that characters need to be dynamic, changing, for better or worse within the series and within each book. Some sort of endgame is also important for each book in a series, even if some things are left hanging. I think some of the best examples of good series writing happens in the mystery/thriller genre.

      • I am thinking of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, to name two. Also there is a series from Iceland by Arnalder Indridason. These have both evolving characters and specific story lines. Also some shorter fantasy/sci fi series, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore. I have never been partial to series that go on and on and on and on.

  6. When I was young, I’d read entire series before I’d start the next series. I can’t remember which ones I read, but I just would go through the children’s section of the library. But now I find myself frustrated with what you share. I think what makes a series fail for me nowadays is the formulaic aspects. For example, I loved the first book in the UGLIES series, and I rarely enjoy YA. But I read the second book and it followed the EXACT SAME PLOT, essentially. A few new characters, and little tiny bit of growing up, but nothing really new or inventive. So I can’t bring myself to read the rest. The Harry Potter books, on the other hand, each had a different story, more or less. It kept building.

    • There’s one thing I left out of this post, which was “one book can be built on internal conflict, a series cannot”. (This is why I’m not happy with Lev Grossman at the moment.) And that’s what I often find in mysteries and thrillers; characters go through the same development and the same basic thing is happening, with just a few details switched around.

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