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Ending a Series: When do you say good-by?

Some writers, or at least the names assigned by publishers to a series, don’t end. If you have any question, look at the shelf of westerns at your local bookstore, and if you get to # 400 with the same author and character, you can be pretty certain you’ve found the Eternal Series. In other cases, the publisher says, “No, you have to keep going, because these are too popular to stop now!” You’ve encountered those, I’m sure, where the reader can tell that the writer dreams of killing off the protagonist just to be free of him or her. And there are the series that stop abruptly, leaving reader and characters hanging because the publisher decided that the series wasn’t producing. For indie writers, or those with more flexible publishers, we have to decide for ourselves. It can be a little difficult.

I am wrapping up two series this year, three if you include the Powers trilogy. I’ll look at the reasons in reverse order.

[cue Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman “Time to say Good-By”]

The Powers: This was always meant to be three books. Come the third book, the series ends, because the main character has reached the end of what he can do, and because the alt-history aspect draws back into synch with our chronology, sort of. The story ends, and the series ends, all plot strings tied up, no muss, no fuss. Readers curious about the next events in that world can jump to Promises and Powers or Double Edged Wish (C.a.D four and three respectively) to pick up what happens next.

The Colplatschki Chronicles: This series will conclude with the release of the prequel, the first book in series chronological order. In terms of time, this is a messy batch of books, with events scattered across several hundred years and two continents on ColPlatXI. Part of the problem was that the series was not supposed to be a series, but one book. One book became four. Then the world proved so intriguing, and my Muse so demanding, that it ended up with eleven books, of which ten will be published. Since they were not written in series chronological order, finding an end point was a trick.

Reader demand provided the answer, as sales of the last two books were very low. Too many books, too many stand-alone stories, and series fatigue have combined to encourage me to end the series. I will publish the story of the Great Fires and the founding of Vindobona and Peilovna. That ends things on an up note, and provides a start-point for new readers who want to go in chronological order.

The “not intended to be a series” series may be the hardest to wrap up neatly. All the books share a world and a culture, but in some cases little else. If I were to go back and re-write the set as a “real” series, I would play up the importance of Sarmas and the DeSarm family, making that the linking thread connecting all the books.

A Cat Among Dragons: This is the hardest for me as a writer to bring to a conclusion. Rada was my first major character, she was my vent in grad school and I’ll miss her and Joschka keenly. However, the series needs to wrap up. I’d planned on ending it with the end of her life, but realized that readers were not going to like that. The reading numbers have been declining with each book since A Cat at Bay, because the story has gotten darker. It’s not the fun romp and world building that it once was. Hopeful endings and survival are not enough—my readers want a happy ending. So even though I have material for at least two more books, plus the one coming out this year, I’m ending things on a very up note.

However, that also meant that I had to gut and heavily rewrite the last book, because otherwise a major plot thread—OK, plot chain with three-inch-links—would be left flapping in the wind, thunking people on the head. Two chapters got cut out, three more added, and other chapters seriously pruned or trimmed. As it is, I may go in and remove another chunk to make the end even lighter.

(Added three days later: I did lop off 10,000 words or so. It had some really neat scenes and a cool setting, but the key event no longer made sense, and the end got far too maudlin for how the characters have developed. And that plot thread that I tied off earlier? Made the climax of the chapter moot to the point of possibly inducing book-walling. Not a good way to end the series.)

When do you end a series? When the story ends, at least for your readers. You, the author, may want to keep things going, but unless your publisher is demanding that you keep writing that world/character OR ELSE, eventually readers are going to get tired and lose interest. Ideally, you stop before that point, and leave them happy but wanting a little more. When your protagonist becomes a demigod is probably time to stop. When your protagonist is smiling from the porch of the Old Characters’ Home at his g-g-g-g-great grandchildren is time to stop (unless you are R. A. Heinlein). Before you get sick of the character is a great time to stop.

Tie off your major plot threads, send your characters off to a Pretty Happily Ever After as the Bad Guy hisses, “Curses, foiled again!”, and type

THE END

Then release your next book.

14 Comments
  1. I guess going into a series with a beginning and an end isn’t that easy. Think I may be having an open ended series I started working on. Book two is coming along and book three was started and I don’t know where that’s going. I just know there will probably be more as I progress.
    As a reader there are some series that I wish wouldn’t end. Then there’s others where I scream at the author to end the bloody things already. 🙂

    January 7, 2018
  2. I’ve heard (especially related to TV shows) is that you should end a series when people say, “Why are you ending it so soon?” And not when they say, “What? Is that still on?”

    January 7, 2018
  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    When your protagonist is smiling from the porch of the Old Characters’ Home at his g-g-g-g-great grandchildren is time to stop

    There were the old “romances” (actually more fantasy adventures) where a story teller would start out with one adventurer and other story tellers would write stories about his sons, nephews, grandsons, grand nephews, etc but none of the story tellers would dare kill off the original adventurer thus he’d been mentioned still being alive. 😈

    January 7, 2018
    • German fairy tales all conclude with “And if they are not dead, they are living still.”

      January 7, 2018
      • Hunting Guy #

        I really enjoyed the cat series but gave it up several books into it. There was no continuity that I could find. I looked for a timeline list of the stories but never ran across one.

        My reading style likes stories in order.

        Sorry.

        January 7, 2018
        • I’m glad you enjoyed them. 🙂

          It’s not a time-line per-se, but the series order is posted on my blog under the Cat Among Dragons tab. You are correct that because Rada jumps across time and space, there is no good “our world” chronology.

          I do have a master dated list, but I’m not certain it would be helpful for you, since it includes unpublished material and some chapters have different titles as compared to what is on the list.

          January 7, 2018
      • Which, oddly, I liked as an ending.

        January 7, 2018
      • I may have to steal that for a specific series I’m working on…

        January 7, 2018
  4. I’m having this issue right now. Three trilogies within a 9 book series. How do you say goodbye when you’re only saying goodbye for a little bit?

    January 7, 2018
  5. I think I have reached an end, also … at least for the foreseeable future with my Texas historicals – it’s been three generations and 75 years, and I have never been tied to just one or two main characters. There is some scope for writing of several minor characters’ adventures during the Civil War, and some readers have asked for the continuing adventures of the fourth generation, which would take it into the 20th century … but I am not terribly keen on writing about the hideous destruction that WWI wrought on all that 19th century optimism and energy. And I would have too delve into it. I’m planning on one more in the series set in the Revolution … and then I think I’ll wait for something fresh to draw my interest.

    January 7, 2018
  6. I think it’s sometimes helpful to draw a distinction between a Universe and a series.

    Lois McMaster Bujold has written a lot of stories in her “Five Gods” universe, but only the Penric novellas are a series. Matthew Hughs’s Raffalon stories and his Baldemar stories are two different series, but they’re set in the same universe. (They even meet once.)

    I would think a decision to end a universe would be a bigger deal than ending a series.

    January 7, 2018
    • I agree. Pam Uphoff’s Wine of the Gods universe includes a number of small(er) series. And you can have a shared universe that ends up affecting a series, such as the Honorverse. I heard David Weber say at BuboniCon 40 that he’d planned to end the series at what is now book 9, but got pulled into a different track by co-authors and ‘verse writers.

      January 7, 2018
  7. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    A related problem, if you are, like me, worldbuilding strong and plot weak. You know the major wars and the historical timeline, and you can always iterate some more years and figure out who is fighting whom next. Where do you put the story? How do you decide the core plot and characters who will help you sort out the stuff to include from the stuff that doesn’t really matter?

    The current project to execute is fairly well defined. I keep on finding all sorts of stuff I could have the survivors get up to in later years, but I mean to tie things up at the end, and there’s only enough ‘cool’ in the thing for one story. Current time management isn’t even serving the needs of the essential and important priorities, much less providing a surplus for a luxury like creative writing. But if I’m learning, I can do better in the future.

    January 7, 2018
  8. It’s always a good idea to have other stuff on the burner, for when the series starts to sag, or you’re just tired of it. But when the never ending series books sell triple the other books, it’s almost impossible to not go back and writing in, if not the series, the Universe.

    January 9, 2018

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