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?