Recently I’ve just finished a couple of series that I first started about 10 years, ago and of which the first books of were some of the first books I ever reviewed online. Both were 5 book sequences and finishing them off got me thinking about what actually makes a good series.
First of all it might be worth mentioning some external motivations for series. I think that as writers we tend to be a little idealistic about series, feeling that not only are our characters delightful enough to warrant multiple books, but wanting that sense of a work being a part of something bigger. Novels aren’t typically just a flash in the pan, but there is nothing like a long running series to create a sense of something epic and significant.
In a similar vein traditional publishers are typically happy with a successful series. While a new author might be a risk to promise multiple book deals, a well selling series is a good investment, regardless of quality or art, its nice to have a steady source of sales based on name (author and titles) alone.
Regardless of the why we like series though, it thought it might be useful to consider what actually makes a good series:
Familiar but with something new:
Part of the key of a good series is striking a balance between offering what fans want more of, and having something novel within each story. While there is some argument that there are plenty of repetitive series out there that sell and sell (and sell), I would counter that the really striking books that stick in our heads and spark talking points in reading circles all over strike the right balance.
A good example would be Harry Potter. The series essentially grows up with Harry and the audience at the time. While each book contains familiar settings, and certain plots points, each book is also quite different in many ways.
For a counter example I would suggest Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. While some people don’t mind them, I think that the radical changes to content, and focus of the stories (if you’re unaware of the series it kind of starts of like Buffy with Guns, and is still going as 50 Shades of Grey with Vampires). That example is probably more of an abrupt shift in the series as a whole, but provides an example of not straying from the core values of the series.
Probably the most challenging elements of series is mapping an overarching journey while still having compelling individual installments. I notice that a lot of long running epic fantasy series suffer from this, often having the lame fourth book, and for some reason always a ‘flashback’ novel.
I think the reason this is difficult is that its difficult to sell a tense novel when its set within a larger context of a series, like when they arrest a suspect within the first 15 minutes of the CSI episode and you know its not them, or it is them after they get let out though…
This could just be my stance on this, but I think the trick is avoid linearity, or at the very least avoid multiple installments on the same trajectory. Often I see writers take the risk of just divvying up the steps of the “heroes journey” or other scheme into multiple books, which can make things pretty stale. What I mean by avoiding linearity is to not make the whole series about one journey, for example even with the same MC Book 1 could be the more traditional hero journey, book 2 more about hubris and fall from grace, and book 3 about redemption. OR each book can deal with a different direction of the heroes journey.
Careful with Stakes
One of the most troubling elements of series is dealing with the stakes. In the MCU people are concerned (note I haven’t seen Spider-man yet) about how Endgame managed to create some of the most epic stakes ever, and how the universe can go on to still entice viewers afterwards.
Not all series reach such heights but stakes do get very challenging. Setting them too low might make an individual story dull (although could actually be one’s best bet) trying to ramp up stakes has multiple issues. First if you overdo it then people will haven trouble getting invested, once you’ve had the MC save the world its hard to get enthused about them saving the local community in the next book. This sort of applies to “this time its personal” stakes, although in this situation if you put the MCs love interest, then their mother, then their business partner in harms way it just starts to feel mildly abusive or something perpetuating the stories.
Also burnout becomes an issue (no not yours you silly writer, although could be a topic for another post), but for readers really believing that MCs have gone through XY and Z, often in short spaces of time becomes unbelievable, or rather unbelievable that they keep being the hero rather than a nervous wreck (note some series deal with heroes becoming nervous wrecks and I think that is super cool [not the wreckage the fact they address it])
The obvious solution to stake issues is to slow build, although this can sabotage individual stories within the series. The other trick is not to meddle to deeply with the actual stakes but exactly what they mean. For example having a villain in book 2 that isn’t actually that much worse than the serial killer in book 1 except its the MCs brother (ok cheesy AF I know but it shakes up the formula). Finally switching the type of stakes up, having global issues versus more personal ones, challenges that address different elements of the characters, different sacrifices that have to made, that sort of thing.
Ending a great series
This is a huge topic and possibly meriting and entire post in itself, I don’t really have all the answers as a writer, but can offer a few thoughts as a reader.
I think the best endings, perhaps somewhat obviously, have to deliver on the promise of the series. One of the reasons people are pissed at the GoT TV series is there was so much raised throughout the series that didn’t have any resolution. While there were some callbacks there wasn’t really a sense of tie in between the beginning of the story and the end. While an overarching question or thematic issue isn’t always possible there should be some sort of sense of a major question being answered. Like in GoT it would have been nice to have a better sense of did characters make the right choices, did they do OK? While some it was suggested as such there was a real sense of things weren’t terrible and the villains died so shows over alright? Not all series have one overarching point, but a good ending plucks a string of resonance that fits with the whole sequence. For example if Childs ever decides to resolve Jack Reacher’s story it should finish with something that fits (but fits I mean says something about not necessarily being super tidy) with his actions throughout the show. So if he settled down with a wife it was in a way that contrasted his nomadic ways and made sense in the story, OR say the series ended with Reacher sacrificing himself to save an innocent bystander, it was in a way that resonated with all his past actions.
Endings don’t necessarily have to tie up lose ends definitively, buts its always important to say something, to give readers a sense that things are supposed to be left open, or unaddressed or concluded as they are. Not saying spelt out just not neglected.
Speaking of endings that is about all I can think of for this topic!
What series do you think ended well (whether it be books, TV, movies)?
What do you think makes for a bad series, or a promising but ultimately disappointing one?