By Jeanette O’Hagan
A good series is a delight to the reader, author and publisher. How many of us remember those series we loved and avidly followed as children – Anne of Green Gables, Biggles, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or the Faraway Tree, Narnia, Sherlock Holmes – the list goes on. And as we got older maybe we moved on to Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Isaac Asimov, Janette Oke, Karen Kingsley or perhaps Stephen Lawhead. Well, you fill in the blanks with your favourite series author.
Series come in different guises depending on authorial choice, genre and reader expectations.
Serials: Serials have a common element – usually the main protagonist and/or setting – that remains relatively constant from book to book, with each book a standalone story. This is a common format with detective fiction such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holms, Christie’ Hercule Poirot or Miss Maples series or McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It also works for situational comedies like Wodehouse’s Jeeves books or adventure stories like Biggles or James Bond.
Linked series: A linked series is especially common in romance where a new romance story is told against the backdrop of a common setting. The new heroine and/or hero may have been minor characters in the previous books while passing mention of past romantic leads is made in the new books. Rose Dee’s Resolution Series or Amanda Deed’s Ellensvale series follow this format.
Family or Historical Sagas: The books in the series tell the story of continuing generations or group. For instance William Stuart Long’s 12 Volume Australian series (which runs from convict times to the early twentieth century), Janette Oke’s Prairie books or Carol Preston’s early Australian novels based on her family history.
Connected series: In a connected series there is an ongoing narrative thread with significant character development and changes as the series progress. Trilogies are common, the classic being Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings though Collins’ Hunger Games, Roth’s Divergent series and Lynne Stringer’s Verindon trilogy are further examples. Quartets (Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle) or more are possible. Both R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter come in 7 volumes. This format is popular in Science-fiction and fantasy though it can be used in other genres, e.g. Larson’s Millennium series or the notorious 50 Shades. The books often (though not always) end on cliff hangers – or at least have significant loose ends - and are usually best read in order.
Series are popular for a reason. They bring both benefits but also pose challenges for readers, publishers and authors.
As readers, a series can give us a sense of reassurance and anticipation. The blend of the familiar and the new is satisfying. Not only have we come to trust the author but have fallen in love with the characters, setting and/or premise of the series. If there is an ongoing narrative arc, anticipation intensifies and we can’t wait to read the next book.
There can be frustrations as well. If a book is not clearly labelled, we may only realize we are reading Book 2 or 4 in a connected series after we're several chapters in. Or, as has happened recently with Hunger Games and Divergent, the final book doesn't live up to reader expectations. And then sometimes a series just goes on too long and begins to get stale or lose focus.
Publishers like series because they build reader loyalty and publishing momentum. Perhaps too the author is less likely to be a one book wonder and more likely to produce new books regularly. On the other hand, the publisher takes a risk if they commit to a series as they may be committed to publishing more books even when the first books don’t sell.
For the author, a series can provide a framework in which to write and builds on previous research. A connected series, allows the writer to explore intricate plot lines and issues and to establish elaborate and complex narrative worlds.
Still, it can also make writing more complicated. I’m certainly finding writing the third book in my Akrad series, much harder than the previous ones I've written. Each work has its own narrative arc that resolves at the end of the novel but there are also ongoing narrative arcs throughout the series. Juggling all these narrative threads can be tricky. And it may make submitting to publishers more tricky too. If we have completed stand alone books, we can submit then simultaneously. Not so with a series.
Even so, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience as my world and characters continue to grow and thrive.
There are many great stand alone books that resonate and stay with us, but I wonder how many of our most favourite works are series? What about you – what do you like about series? What frustrates you about them? And given a choice, would you pick up a standalone book or the one that’s part of a larger narrative world?
Jeanette has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology. She is currently caring for her children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad fantasy fiction series. She is actively involved in a caring Christian community. You can find her at her Facebook Page or websites JennysThread.com and Jeanette O'Hagan Writes.