Cedar here: I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with school and work this week, so when Sanford emailed me this I was delighted. Not just because it meant less work for me, but because we talk all the time, and this has been a topic recently. When is it time to stop? Do you leave them wanting more? I mean, personally I love series and following characters as they grow and age, even when it leads to tears as it did with the Vorkosigan series. Sanford has been reading both the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia and Butcher’s Dresden series in parallel, recently, which led to lively discussions about series. But he has a good point about the Big Bad in the series getting too big, and the Hero becoming invincible, and the series jumps the shark… Although I want to see this scene: Franks fighting the creatures in the picture, standing knee-deep in the surf! The MHI series could literally jump sharks and it would work.
Hi, Cedar is a bit busy with school, etc. this week, so I’m pinch hitting today. I’m Sanford and you’ve probably seen me around here on occasion. 🙂
I’m not a writer but I am a reader so I can discuss things pretty well. What I want to talk about this week is keeping a series fresh.
I’m old enough to remember the Destroyer series about Remo Williams, government hit man. There were about 3 decent novels in that series, after that it got ridiculous. I think most of the rest (around 150) were written for… well I’m not sure why anyone would read them. You have seen series jump the shark, most of you know the Xanth series which even the author admitted he was phoning in after a while.
So, how do you keep your stuff from getting that bad? OK first things first, if you can sell books that bad go ahead, cry all the way to the bank and write good stuff in your spare time. That’s exactly what Anthony did. I’d do it too. Problem is that most of us have no chance of developing such a cult following. So we need to figure out how to balance our fans requests for more against the dreck we will eventually be churning out. Better yet, let’s avoid getting to the dreck stage.
Again the question is how? Well there are several ways to do this that I’ve seen. The simplest and best in my opinion was the way Heinlein did it. He didn’t write a series so much as use a loose universe that he could write almost anything in. The major drawback to this is that it pretty much ignores doing a run of novels about the same character(s). Cedar has three Pixie For Hire novels planned starring the same characters Lom and Bella. She doesn’t plan to write any more Bela and Lom stories after the third comes out. We are looking at doing more stories set in the same world/time frame but focusing on other characters (Cedar: well, he really wants me to write Alger’s story, for instance… LOL). This is more or less the Heinlein model but, those wanting more Lom and Bella will be terribly disappointed. Note, we have discussed a series of x short stories filling in all of Lom’s background, selling them as collections as we get enough.
The next way is to do stand alone books or duologies or trilogies and introducing the stars of the next book/duology/trilogy in the book/last book. This way the reader doesn’t realize you having been doing the old bait and switch because the old favorites are still there, just faded into the background. This is somewhat unsatisfying because it is the old bait and switch. It can be very successful though, I would love to see John Ringo do a series based around Portena the armorer from his March series.
I saved the hard one for last because it is hard. Jim Butcher is writing the Dresden Files series. There are 20-25 books planned in the series and he has outlined the entire series from the beginning. This way he can pace the characters and not have his mage become all powerful too soon. Larry Correia has apparently done something similar with the Monster Hunter series, which is why he can foreshadow 4 books in advance. Most of us are going to have trouble looking that far forward. I admire them but would hesitate to attempt emulating them.
Those are the ways I see to do it. Any of you have any decent ideas how to keep series fresh? One of the neatest things about this blog is that the bloggers can learn as much from the commenters as the readers get from the blogs.
I like the linked-but-separate stories, both as a reader and a writer.
In my ‘Tribes of the Hakahei’ sci-fi series (4 books, all done) I have a “crystal ball” navigation computer. And in my stand alone techno-fantasy (or retro-space opera as Rowena Cory Daniells kindly blurbed for me) ‘The Brightest Light’ we visit the planet where the computers are made (though neither end of the deal is aware of the other). And in the Sword and Sorcery I’m close to releasing we get to know one of the creatures we just glimpse in the first ‘Hakahei’.
Most (not all) of my stories are going to be set in this multiverse (called Tengama) because I like the idea of following ideas, if not characters. Writing the same characters over and over again (at least without a decent break in the middle) can get very stale.
Dave Duncan does this really well in his Kings Blades ‘series’. The stories are all completely separate stand alones but are very closely linked with interweaving plots.
Most mystery series do the “Linked-but-separate” thing, which I like. The overarching story plot that runs through long books leaves one in danger of creating the mess that is most Epic Fantasy series. Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones… There’s a reason I gave up reading them.
One of my favourite series is the Malazan books (just thought of htis one). It does the linked thing brilliantly. It circles around events and characters, adding layers every time.
Linked but separate; main characters still around, but change the focus and bring in different characters. Let them drive the events.
And keep the challenges different. In my Wizards series, Combat Wizard is about the protagonist learning to use his abilities and discovering that the ability can be spread to others. There are several challenges, but his antagonists are human. In book Two, Wizard at Work, the challenge is largely facing natural disasters while trying to remain below the radar. But book three, to be published this month, is about the abilities and how they begin to spread on their own. There are challenges, of course, but the underlying thread is society and how it will cope with unexpected change. And that’s it; the series is a trilogy, and I have no plans to revisit it.
The plots won’t get stale; I have another series I’m writing (Darwin’s World) which can go on forever but always change because it involves an entire world being seeded by humans; they’ve got to survive and develop different forms of civilization. I could add in a ‘cowboy’ theme involving domesticating animals, a ‘pirates’ theme where seaborne commerce is being developed, island living, you name it. Whatever humans have done, my characters can replicate but with a difference. Harry Turtledove and others do a form of this, alternate history, but I hope to write totally-new history in a changed setting.
And when I get tired of that, I’ll write my fantasy series beginning with ‘Hands’. Or maybe a western, based in Texas just post-civil war. Explore the reconstruction era and how that changed society, but more realistically than most do. Michael McGarrity is doing this, but his focus is on New Mexico history.
But avoid rewriting book after book following a formula and calling it a ‘series’!
A good mix, I think, is the way C S Lewis wrote the Narnia books.
The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe started with four children, Prince Caspian had the same cast of Earth characters, but put them in Narnia a few hundred years later, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader introduced a new Earth character, The Silver Chair took the new character from VODT and added another new Earth character, The Magician’s Nephew went back in time to the origin of Narnia and of the Earth/Narnia connection, and then The Horse And His Boy and The Last Battle were both set entirely in Narnia.
I think that people get hung up on the idea that a series has to have the same protagonist throughout, and that leads to the kind of power creep that leads to jumping the shark. Letting one hero (or set of heroes) retire and new ones arise is, I think, a hedge against that.
I’m trying the “linked series” approach right now. The Maxwell Saga (my “core” SF series) is at 3 books, with the 4th scheduled (hopefully) for September. The Laredo War trilogy was launched last month with “War to the Knife”, set in the same universe and time period. In Laredo 2 (due in December), my protagonist will meet up with Steve Maxwell, who’ll have some valuable input into the series: and I may have them meet again in Book 3. That way I have a different series, on different planets, but mingling familiar characters. I have two more in mind that will “spin off” from the Maxwell Saga as trilogies or single books, bringing a fresh perspective to my fictional universe, but tying in to the main series.
I’m not sure if it will work, but frankly it’s my problem to make it work. I’ll do my best, and see if my readers like it.
I like the idea of the book evolving out of the main characters. Raymond Fiest did it well with his Krondor books. Pug is the protagonist at first, but as he becomes more and more powerful, he is clearly going to be less interesting. So…Feist pulls the focus and puts it on other characters. As those characters age (and I love how they’re not in constant danger every day of their lives), new characters are introduced, become more prominent, then eventually “age out” and let new characters take their place.
To some extent, my own work is reflecting this, with my plans for the main character to eventually live the quiet life and his son to be the new hero. After that, who knows.
As for long plotted out stories over so many books, I wish I could. I haven’t been able to successfully plot a single novel yet. I just have to sit down and write. However, now that I finished the initial writing on a novel, I do know how the events in this one will tie into the next one. I do know of some things going on in the background that may play in later in the series (provided i still have it in me to write in this universe. This post nuclear war world wasn’t built for a series originally, after all), but haven’t figured out how well they’re foreshadowed and what else I should do. Not really any need to worry about it on this first book, but the next? Better figure it out pretty quickly.
Then again, the overarching thing may actually suck. Need to bounce it off of some folks and see.
Just replying because, apparently, I’m incapable of successfully clicking to subscribe to other comments.
Aside from the four Elizabeth books, the Colplatschki series are linked by family. “Circuits and Crises” introduces Elizabeth’s great grandfather (off-stage) and sets up some things with the Babenburg family. “Blackbird” comes twenty years later and fills in more things, setting up the situation when Elizabeth arrives. “Fountains of Mercy” and “Untitled Yet” are far earlier, but readers will see the connections. And I’m not stuck listening to Elizabeth grousing about her aches and pains as she ages. 🙂
The Cat stories and the spun-off (or perhaps spun-in is more accurate) alternate history, alternate-future stories center on a few key characters. I think they will stay fresh because they hop settings and time, and the characters develop and mellow (or not.) And I’m now reworking short stories I wrote, um, *counts on fingers* ten!?! *Gulp* Ten years ago. So they’re fresh to me, too.
I am definitely a Jim Butcher and Larry C fan. BUT, I haven’t been able to foreshadow worth spit. As I get better, I hope to be a better writer as well. I really enjoy sequels. I am now trying to work on a sequel in-between real-life drama.
My favorite series, beyond all, is the Vorkosigan series by Bujold. Each book is self-contained and could stand alone, but each book also links in with the rest. Major characters fade into the background, Minor characters become major ones, and people grow up, grow old, are born, and die.
These things keep it very fresh:
1. Each book is self-contained, and could be read as a stand-alone. This avoids the tedium of having to rehash books 1-5 to get book 6 up to speed, or the annoyance of half-completed plots and one-dimensional characters relying on prior knowledge to look fully fleshed out.
2. Major characters fade into the background, Minor characters become major ones, and people grow up, grow old, are born, and die. But there’s always continuity, and layered “here’s what they’re up to” in the background. This also really helps flesh out the world, because you know there is an entire world going on other than the protagonist’s crisis at any moment. It also keeps things from becoming stale, because by the time we get back to that character, they’ve grown and changed.
3. The heroes never become overpowered by facing the same challenges over and over. Cordelia wasn’t fit into cliche of iron woman running a council with a bloody sword. Miles gets broken, damaged, and he doesn’t get to overcome it. He has to think around it. And just when you assume the hyperactive weasel is going to figure out the plot and save the day, yawn – he’s stripped of the ability to use the mercenary force, and then he’s given a challenge where being clever is far less important than being kind. (Not his forte.)
4. The types of plot vary – there’s a mystery, there’s a regency romance, there’s a thriller, there’s space opera, there’s a non-regency romance (I’d call it contemporary, but it has no sex scenes unlike “contemporary” romance.) There’s a hard SF book, there’s a coming of age… all wrapped up in a long series.
5. There is a subtle, but overarching theme to the whole series – the effect of biological & medical technology on people, on families, on cultures, and on civilization(s).
6. It begins and end with Ensign Dubauer. Which is, in the end, the most profound, thoughtful, and touching way of tying it all together. He was never more than a secondary character, but in retrospect, he is the epitome of the entire series’ theme.
As a reader, I like characters I can invest in and care about. Even if I don’t like them necessarily, I want to have a reason to follow them around. From this I really enjoy the opportunity to follow them around for as long as they remain interesting. Jim Butcher (so far) has kept me emotionally invested in Harry’s life. Anne McCaffery managed it with initial characters, transition characters and ultimately her whole ‘world.’ David Weber managed it for quite some time with Honor. David Drake has a similar series with Daniel Leary.
I suspect a key theme in each of these cases is, whether or not they had every book plotted, they had a larger story arc in mind and the ‘world idea’ fleshed out as they went along. They weren’t stumbling onto a popular character and starting each book with “okay, what new pot do I drop ’em in now?” If they are/were, kudos.
Another key in development in the series I listed, and others I’ve seen done well: The character arc is defined by rank/experience/exposure, so life or death struggle for young Harry Dresden does not have as far reaching consequences as it does for Harry 12 years later. This allows for good plot challenges within each book without needing to reach “ultimate power” level on the protag to further the series. And the characters and the stakes can grow together without answering the Superman question.
What really bogged WoT down for me, the ultimate challenge was always known, everything else is a stepping stone, and after a while when abilities have been practiced and honed there comes a point — go get the thing done, already! There was no real investment in the smaller challenges as anything other than obstacles to the grand finale. And that robs some immediacy from the story, because I know these characters are going to get through this to reach the finale. There is going to be a finale, right? One of these books?
Another author whose broader stories I enjoyed without wanting to read all the way through the books is Tad Williams, I have one of his series still hanging because — it just kept dragging out without any resolution.
In those scenarios, I think remembering the stand-alone book goal is important. Give me some resolution, even if it’s sub-plot, give me (and the poor characters) some breaks from the intensity. Or it burns me out and your characters are going to go quietly insane. (Jack Bauer is a gibbering maniac in a padded room somewhere.)
As an author:
How NOT to do it: ‘X Files.’ Interesting, involving, and a plot line that vanishes.
Niven’s Known Space is another example of what works.
Ringo’s Aldenata also has room to play, as does Eric Flint’s 1632.
“There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
The 1632 series wasn’t really planned as a series it was supposed to just be part of a linked universe and there is one other book, so far, in the linked universe ‘Time Spike’. It was just that 1632 was so popular that Eric Flint hasn’t left it.
If a series can hold my interest, I don’t generally care how many books end up in it. I’ll likely keep reading MHI and the Dresden Files through to the end. On the other hand, Xanth just got boring. And I love a good pun. Or a bad pun. (Same thing, really) The Wheel of Time lost me as a reader when it stretched to years between books and whichever of them took place in a single day. For 700+ pages. I’ve been planning a read-through now the series is done, but we’ll see if it actually happens. I don’t have so much free time as I did when I was fourteen.
NB: I’ll be discussing *SPOILERS* in what’s below. If you haven’t read far enough into long series, you may want to skip what I go into. TL;DR: If I really like the writing, I’ll forgive a lot of silliness with characters and plot.
One thing that is typically bothersome in long-running series is power creep. Butcher has rather neatly avoided the inherent problems associated with this by keeping Harry constrained in other ways. His duty to Mab, spending a year dead (for tax purposes, you understand), required to work with enemies he just as soon see dead. Larry’s doing it slightly differently with MHI, where focus shifts between characters. Everybody you like is involved, but they may not get a lot of camera time in any given novel. It’s a useful approach for a long series, and I’d love to emulate it. I suspect it’s more useful for people who work the outline system. For those of us who know what happens about a paragraph ahead, I’m given to understand the foreshadowing that far ahead and such requires a solid couple of decades. Or the ability and focus to work like a golem for a couple of years, really.
Related to power creep is scope creep. See the Wheel of Time and the Honorverse for this one. I mentioned it above, but this is where the former lost me. In seven hundred pages, we spend a chapter or so with each character, learning what they did in a day. DO NOT LIKE. I suspect this was the tipping point, and from there, everything started to accelerate toward the conclusion, but I haven’t yet read through to find out. Honor Harrington is was dealing with a similar issue. In the beginning it was just Honor, the Fearless and the Peep Q-ship. And an engineered native uprising thrown in for fun. Still a pretty broad scope, but nothing compared to later novels where the individual missile barrages were rated in the tens of thousands. I get what’s going on, but numbers like that become hard to keep in the head. I find myself skipping things to get to the “important” parts, and I don’t like that. I keep suspecting I’ve missed something because of it. I haven’t read past the beginning of War of Honor for just that reason.
That said, I’ll forgive a LOT if the writing stays engaging. Chuck Gannon is great at this. His prose is fun to read, however dense the concepts and dire the circumstances. That’s why I keep reading the Dresden Files. I like Harry, and I’m always curious to find out how he gets into and out of trouble, but the style is enough. Scott Lynch is like this, too. And Larry, again. Also, Pterry. Throw Sam Vimes in a mess and I just want to read along. Same with Moist von Lipwig. I read to have fun, and if I keep having fun, I don’t much care how bizarre things get for the characters.
IIRc the missile barrages are in the millions now.
Sometimes numbers become simple statistics… and I no longer find it interesting. I stopped reading the Honor books 4-5 books back, I’ve lost count. I really like the beginning of the series, though, started my daughter On Basilisk Station not that long ago.
Not the YA spinoffs?
I gave her the first of the YA spinoffs, and she was having trouble getting into it (this is the kid who adores the Star Wars spinoff novels and was tellng me to bring her anything by Tim Zahn).
The space battles have become less and less of the Honorverse from what I’ve seen, and now mostly seem to be used as examples of the fleeting nature of military tech superiority. That said, I think the Honorverse has maybe three novels left in it, to close out the war with the Mesan Alignment for the main arc.
Butcher’s short stories are also freaking hilarious. He’ll sometimes come up with a scenario, problem, setting, ‘set Harry down in the middle of it and watch it catch fire.’ The RPG takes it a step further and leans on the Fourth Wall, in rather entertaining ways.
I’m a big Dresden fan. I can appreciate how Butcher over the course of the series has balanced maturing Harry’s capabilities with ever increasingly powerful opponents. I would also recommend Butcher’s other series, Codex Alera, complete in six books, and totally different from the Dresden books. I would have sworn written by a completely different person.
Borrowing from a different genre, in Robert Parker’s Spenser books the main character grew somewhat emotionally, particularly in regards to personal relationships, but mostly remained the same strong capable detective type. Where that series has remained fresh over some 30 or so books has been a continual variety of new protagonists for Spencer to pit his wits against. Somewhat formulaic, but all good fun. On my “I’ll pick up the e-book or paperback, but never consider a hardback” list of author/series.
And I’m with y’all on the Honor Harrington stuff. I have all of them, but haven’t read the last several. I have read with enjoyment the young adult back story stuff about the early days when the treecats were first discovered.
Mrs. Dave and I both greatly enjoyed the Codex Alera. The story, the characters, the writing, etc, but also because it stemmed from a dare. Someone dared Jim Butcher to write a story crossing Roman legions with Pokemon. Worked out fairly well, IMO, though apparently didn’t make much (compared to Dresden, at least).
I started with a story about bards, storytellers, and then I realized I wanted to flesh out some of the stories my bards knew. So I have it in mind to tell the story of the three greatest bards, and then maybe some of the heroes. I have a King Arthur in my world, but he’s a lot less French and a lot more Welsh.
I do not recommend this approach, by the way. It’s confusing to write history in reverse.
Yeah, the escalation problem is the reason I never got into comic books. I like stories that end.
Also, that’s a velociraptor holding a rocket launcher riding a shark, right?
I think the rocket launcher also has a laser built in. Because Sharks with Lasers!!!! [Jawa Report joke]
It looks to me like it’s a lightsaber on the side of the rocket launcher.
So, a bayonet
Forgive me, but I am compelled to inform y’all that the SiFi channel has announced the release of Sharknado 2 at the end of July.
I have every confidence that somewhere someone is frantically working on sequels to Plan Nine From Outer Space, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes II I’d watch… LOL
And Rifftrax is taking Sharknado apart live this week…
Yes, and the shark has a laser strapped on his head. It struck me as funny for MHI, because I can just picture it!
You don’t have to picture it; look up the 60s Batman movie (with Adam West / Burt Ward) that actually had them…..
I thought that started in Austin Powers.
*Favorite batman quote, from the 1966 Movie: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
I’m sort of a writer. But here’s my take.
You don’t have to have a comprehensive timeline. For example, Bujold managed to have the Miles Vorkosigan series go on for QUITE some time, and, dear me, she was a pantser. She even admitted it– in public! Of course, she kept the series going by introducing side novels, but always came back to old Miles and his family. I think keeping things fresh by having more than one character a part of the action, people who have room to become favorites is a part of it. The other is to make sure you don’t get into a situation where you have a stakes escalation feedback loop.
The writer has to have least a sense of where or when it is going to end, and have a sense of proportion for the series itself. I think the technical term is “scope”. Trying to wow the reader by constantly jumping scale and making every episode more galactically impressive than the last– you WILL run out of interesting stories. You WILL run out of “gee whiz” room on the top, and that is where “Jumping the Shark” comes from. Once you run out of the sublime, you end up with the ridiculous.
Um… “The Simpsons” did it, anyone? 🙂
But we also must remember that the feedback loop is a side effect of wanting to avoid the old “I have thirty novels with basically the same plot” type problem. On the other hand, skillfully written, you can get away with that. Murder mysteries have a very tight structure, and there really are only a handful of patterns and outcomes that are acceptable. If the villain gets away with it, it removes the title “mystery” from it, as well as pisses off your fans to a strong degree. As well it should. However, there are lots of situations and ways that people die, or other Terrible Crimes that need to be solved. The father Brown mysteries come to mind… there were a great many of those, and they were in some ways even more limited than the average mystery for various reasons. But Chesterton kept them fresh to the point that they still sparkle with life after the 30th reading. Knowing how it ends isn’t really the point at that level of skill.
But then, skill can fix practically anything. John C Wright manages to go for three ox stunning novels through a universe where it seems that every paragraph jumps to the next level of whizbang, and I frankly have no idea how he does it. It is jarring to the point I have to dose him out carefully, but I enjoy it a great deal, and find that “take my money” is the appropriate response.
So I think even a panser can get away with a long series that doesn’t jump the shark by maintaining a sense of scale and proportion, as well as at least keeping enough notes to know where the series may or may not go. I think some of it may be a function of pressure from editors onto writers who’d really lost interest in the story, so part of it is just, “stay interesting, and stay interested.” Presumably, if you are doing a long series, it’s either because you want to, or you have a lot of interest in a given book– or set of books.
I agree with everything Dorothy Grant said about the Vorkosigan. I’d also add, however, that I like the stand alone nature of her fantasy books, even though they have a shared theology.
My two books so far are in a shared universe. The first one I wrote is set next century about a returning starship, and the second is set this century about orbital debris. I have an immediate sequel planned for one of them. Writing history backwards, I have a seasteader story about the origins of New Oregon, but I have to find a substitute for silkworms, which I’ve been told are wrong. I find the backwards approach soothing. I know the boundaries of the future. I’ve also got other short stories planned for minor characters.
Eric Flint says in ‘Worlds’ how easy it was for him to write short stories when someone else had already laid out the parameters.I’m hoping that’s what you meant when you said the backward approach was soothing, otherwise, please disregard this as irrelevant.
Yes, exactly. Choices are limited.
And i agree. Last short story i nearly completed was an Alldenata short story about the evacuation of Los Angeles at the beginning of he Posleen war. Currently, I’m in the process of doing the worldbuilding necessary to file the serial numbers off of a piece of fanfic that some people really liked.
The Liaden universe stories work for me. It seems there is a connection between all. Some books are very close with the same characters other books are only tangentiality connected.
I think you can tell when an author has sketched out their universe and everything is on an arc. For example, apparently David Weber intended to kill Honor at the Battle of Manticore. That, to me, would have been a fitting ending. Instead, we have Manticore Uber Alles, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the series. I’m as big a fan of technology is a force multiplier as the next person, but as many a Wehrmacht unit can tell you, quantity has a quality all its own.
For me, I often write a short story that puts me in constraints first. Or I sketch out the left and right limits in a notes file. (So, yes, when I get hit by a bus tomorrow, TXRed can finish my alternate history novel as well as hers.) But the key part is that there is a plan for ending things, at which point it’s on to the next show.
Sounds like I’d better put those Wright-Cyclone and P&W engine rebuild manuals, and the aircraft handbooks, on the front shelf again. But very much yes on “where-is-this-going-and-where-does-it-stop?” Emphasis on the stop.
Okay, let’s start with a little definition. Over here (wow, was it that long ago?) Jo Walton talked about what kind of series there are http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/01/what-makes-this-book-so-great-so-what-sort-of-series-do-you-like
Type one: one book in multiple volumes (e.g. Lord of the Rings)
Type two: Volume closure but need to read in order (Doctrine of Labyrinths)
Type three: each one standalone, but reading the whole set gives you a bigger arc and more investment in the characters (Vlad and Vorkosigan)
Type four: completely independent, although set in the same universe (Union-Alliance)
Now, part of what she is pointing out is that when we buy books, if it is a type one or two, we really need to know up front that we need the others to get the whole story. Type three or four, a timeline or guide in the back is fine, because we don’t need the context to read the book.
Going sideways — the Liaden Universe is a great set of books, in my opinion. But there are some readers who complain that the authors don’t seem to stick to the main line. I think this is a mistaken perception, thinking that the rich tapestry of the Liaden Universe is actually a type I or type II series. In fact, there are several threads – the Agent of Change series, the Balance of Trade/Trade Secret duology, the prehistory, the recent Fledgling, Saltation, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship series, the romances, oh, and Necessity’s Child… all set in the same universe, several of them reflecting on others, but mostly standalone (although they often grow in richness if you read them in context of the others). Type Three, I guess, even if people keep trying to squish it into a type II?
Now let’s take a look at the MICE quotient – milieu, idea, character, event. Some series basically work with the setting – Pern or Valdemar come to mind. Others are perhaps more focused on an idea – the 1632 series seems to fit that, somewhat. And then there are series built around characters. Mercy Thompson, Rachel Morgan, the Dresden files and many others. There are others that work because of an event. The return of magic, the Apocalypse (pick your favorite horror), and so forth.
No real conclusions there, but different types of series probably need different things to stay fresh. Type one — once you have written the book, trying to stretch it runs into the common issues with sequels and other reboots. Type two has a similar problem with trying to stretch the uber-arc. Type three and four are where you really have freedom to grow the series. Although they sometimes run into the problem of being episodic, without enough connection to keep readers coming back.
Or take it from the foundation type. Milieu series are very open-ended, since it is just a setting. Idea series are almost as open-ended, you can probably stretch that idea into new places without much effort. Character series — ah, here’s where things get tough. The character has already done their growth arc, and you want to put them through another one? Switching characters can work, although readers may gripe as minor characters step forward and old tried-and-true folks take a rest. Next generation, perhaps? And the event book — well, you can tell the story from the point-of-view of some others, but it’s still likely to look like the same event.
Freshness? I think you probably need to look at the same kind of things that make any story a fresh story. Characters, point-of-view, richness of details. A different problem, genre, or whatever. Mix it up and keep writing!
Incidentally, if you, the writer, are tempted to kill your protagonist in a waterfall or some such, it may be time to let the series go, and pick up something else. Even if the fans and money are still calling you.
Thank you for this in depth analysis of the different types of series. I was mostly sputtering along on the type that is prevalent, the character driven ones. Some of them are done after about 3 books and hang on for another couple of hundred. I am not a big fan of character series though some of them are wonderful. Others get really bad
See, that’s kinda the problem I have – do I pants it and see where things go, or do I outline the whole thing? Or have a loose, but flexible outline, where I have a general idea of what happens, and let each novel be created with a general story, and pants how it gets written? I’ve a series planned and am still building it, but already these things are being considered in my mind, since I’m thinking what I’m hoping to do is a light novel.
Light novels, I’ve noticed, tend to go upward of 10+ volumes (yes, I’m being ambitious…) but I’m not sure how that would be received by Western readers.
Spice and Wolf is 17 volumes alone! Though a few, like The Twelve Kingdoms are 8 volumes; Higurashi no Naku Koro ni is 4 (because most of the story are in the visual novel-games); and one I would like to see translated is The Story of Saiunkoku; which ended at 18 volumes. My gateway into the genre, Slayers, was 15 novels but only partly translated.
Another thing that has me wondering if I should go down this route is the fact that light novels tend to have illustrations in the book. (My first exposure to this was actually one of the Shannara books, then later with the Dragonlance short story anthologies, as well as the item-based illustrations of the older Dragonlance books.)
But, when I look at the longer novel series, I think as long as the story is entertaining and engaging, it’ll be okay, no matter how long the series actually ends up. Well, I can hope so…
Lord of the Rings is not a series. Lord plus Hobbit plus the poems plus the Silmarillion is a series.
I read over 3/4 of the total Remo Williams series in high school (thanks to a teacher who had a big collection of paperbacks given to him) and most of them were excellent in themselves (fun and funny action) and as parodies of every literary and genre trend during its run. It featured some remarkably hilarious sex scenes too, mostly parodying men’s adventure series from the same publisher, or James Bond, or martial arts books about ninjas. You could fairly argue that some volumes were a bit misogynist, though there were also some memorable heroines.
During the course of the run the setup did change every so often, there were recurring villains and allies, and there was extremely slow character development of Remo, Chiun, the nature of Sinanju, why the heck Chiun did not take out the North Korean government, and the nature of Emperor Smith’s operations to defend the Constitution.
There are websites out there which discuss which parts were the best parts of the long run, just as you get with Doc Savage aficionados.
Basically, you don’t judge a long-running pulp as a novel, but more as a comic or magazine. The primary goal was cheap, consistent, fun, and frequent. They were putting out a Remo book every month, sheesh.
For those too young or not from the US, there used to be a reasonably big market for men’s adventure series books, generally short novels full of action, often set in exotic places or hundreds of years after we all got nuked, with mercenaries of huge competence and hardboiledness. Many of the series were quite long, like Mack Bolan.
They sold really big in truck stops to truckers, which is why the truck stop audio book audience was also pretty important once they got cheap enough. They also used to be in Kmart and other discount stores, but that went away at the end of the 80’s.
Robert Adams “Horseclans” series. Undying High Lord Milo Morai, his wives, the Horseclans, and the eeeevvviil Ehleni. And talking saber-tooth cats and horses. Something for everyone, unless you get tired of the “corrupt religious leader drags faithful into disaster” trope.
Not talking…. telepathic….