When & How Should Series End? — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

by Jami Gold on November 22, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Hiking boots alone in a park with text: Calling a Series Done

We’ve probably all heard the advice to create book series for better sales. We don’t hear nearly as much about the other end of equation: ending a series.

Series that go on too long can receive bad reviews, as every book feels the same. Or readers can get upset with the author, thinking they’re milking the series for money, especially if the overall series arc feels dragged out. Or readers might abandon a series—and the author—if they start seeing the stitches of bad ideas or sloppy writing.

I’ve even seen several series lose readers because to force it to continue after a natural end point, the author had to shift the genre. Readers were no longer getting what they’d come for, so they had no reason to stay.

Series that don’t end well don’t deliver to readers, whether that means failing to deliver the expected writing quality, series arc development, character arc development, unique story ideas, genre promise, value for the money, etc. Whatever the details, the risk for ending a series badly is: Readers don’t get what they want from our books.

Authors can end up with a bad reputation—potentially losing those readers forever, even with a different series—if they don’t handle the end of a series well. Faced with this issue in her series, long-time guest poster Kassandra Lamb is here to walk us through some of the issues we need to keep in mind when it comes to ending a series, with tips on both when and how we should end a series.

Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! *smile*

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When (And How) To End A Series?

I’m currently writing Book 9—what I thought would be the last book—in my Kate Huntington Mystery series (Note to my readers: don’t panic; I think I’ve changed my mind—more on this in a bit).

When a writer sets out to write a series, often there’s no set number of books in mind. The vague thought is that we’ll keep writing as long as readers are reading and we’re still coming up with story ideas.

But everything has to come to an end some time.

When Should We End a Series?

When should a writer stop a series? Here are my thoughts on possible reasons to say “the end,” based on my own ruminations about winding down the Kate series:

  1. You’ve fulfilled the purpose/fully explored the overarching theme of the series.

Just as a story has an arc and characters have arcs, a series should have an arc. Since I’m a pantser, these arcs tend to reveal themselves to me over time.

Kate started out, in Book 1, as a fairly together thirty-something with a near-perfect life, which is ripped apart and turned upside down by a relentless killer. As the series progressed, the overall theme became: even together people have to deal with the uncertainties that life throws at them—they have challenges to overcome, develop anxieties and even neuroses that they have to struggle to resolve, etc. In other words, we can’t control what happens to us, only how we deal with it.

But as one of my reviewers put it, “How many bodies can one woman stumble over?”

The obvious answer is this is fiction and a mystery series, so bodies happen. But the reviewer has a point. My protagonist has had a lot more than her share of challenges. It’s feeling like it’s time to let the poor woman relax a bit in her (hopefully corpse-free) golden years. The series arc is bending down toward the end.

  1. You’ve run out of story ideas that fit that protagonist and his/her world. Or the story ideas that come to mind feel flat to you.

This was the biggest reason I was considering ending the series with Book 9. Whereas before I had more story ideas than I had time to pursue, I now was drawing a total blank. Then I went to a conference, and in a rather round-about way, ended up with an idea for Book 10. But beyond that, Kate’s future is murky.

  1. Your own interest in/enthusiasm for the series is waning.

The last two books have been harder to write. I didn’t really get “in” to them until the editing process. As I edit the current one I’m definitely getting more excited; it’s a good story and I’m looking forward to seeing it published. But even there, my excitement on a scale of 1-10 is now a 7 where with earlier books, it was a 10. (The new idea for Book 10 is currently about an 8.5.)

As a reader, I can usually tell when a writer is losing interest in a series. I read a book a while back by one of my favorite authors, and most of the story seemed kind of stale. Even in the sex scenes, the characters seemed to just be going through the motions.

I don’t want to let my readers down like that.

  1. Characters are aging/growing in ways that make them not work as well with the genre/setting/theme, etc. of the series.

As a reader, I find it kind of annoying when protagonists in series never age. Certainly writers have the right to do that. Sue Grafton has kept Kinsey Millhone stuck in her thirties back in the 1980s for going on 20 years now.

But if you do let your characters age, sometimes they will outgrow the series. In the last two books, I’ve made the aging process a subplot. In Suicidal Suspicions, Kate is burning out as a therapist (quite realistic after 20 plus years in a very intense field). In the current story, Anxiety Attack, she’s menopausal and dealing with a hormonally-challenged preteen daughter.

That’s fine, but the reality is that she has developed, emotionally and to some degree physically, into a kickass character. I don’t really want to reach the point where, when she uses her aikido moves to take down a bad guy, her knees are popping the whole time.

How Should We End a Series?

There may be other reasons to consider ending a series, but those are the ones that I’m contemplating. Now, on to how to end a series:

  1. Do you or don’t you tell your readers? And if so, do you do it up front or at the end of the last book?

I don’t have a good answer for this one. Obviously by writing this post, I’m telling my readers that the end is coming, but not exactly when. But I’ve also read stories where the author said up front, this is the last book, and it diminished my pleasure in the book. I was mourning the loss of those characters throughout the whole story.

But I was also savoring it, knowing it was the last one (kind of like savoring the last candy in the bag).

  1. Do you kill off the protagonist?

Personally, I think this is a really bad idea. But I know of authors who’ve done it. Some readers like the unexpected twist. Many seem to feel betrayed. And once the word gets out that the protag dies in the last book, this can affect sales.

But perhaps you can think of good reasons to do this.

  1. Do you hold out the carrot that you might someday resurrect the characters?

I wouldn’t suggest this unless you actually plan to do so. But it can ease the pain of loss for your readers (and for you). Making it as a false promise, however, will probably net you a bunch of annoyed emails from readers if these stories are never forthcoming.

I’ve written four novellas using the same characters (the Kate on Vacation mysteries), and I’m thinking I will continue to write short stories/novellas in that parallel Vacation series, for a while at least.

  1. Do you bring the series around full circle or in some way “tie up the package” at the end?

I found myself doing this spontaneously as I was writing Anxiety Attack. In a series, there are always moments where some earlier event from a previous book naturally comes up in the  characters’ thoughts or conversations. (These are great opportunities to insert teasers, to get those readers who haven’t read the whole series to go back and read the missing stories.)

I found this happening a lot more in this book. It’s a bit of a walk down memory lane for me and my readers.

But now I’m going to write another book in the series. I wonder if I will do something similar there, or perhaps do something else that will bring it around full circle (I have an idea or two in mind). Or maybe I’ll do a spin-off into a new series. *smile*

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Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer who now spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to that universe (i.e., her computer) is located in northern Florida where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.

She’s the author of the Kate Huntington mysteries, the Kate on Vacation novellas, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries. She has also written a short guidebook for new authors, Someday Is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book.

Connect with her at her website, on Facebook, or visit her blog.

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Multiple Motives coverMultiple Motives, Book 1 in the Kate Huntington mystery series

Psychotherapist Kate Huntington helps other people cope with the horrible things that have happened to them, but she herself has led a charmed life… so far. Now a killer with a mysterious grudge against her and her closest friend, lawyer Rob Franklin, is threatening everyone and everything that she holds dear.

When the detective assigned to their case decides they are lovers and the attacks against them and their families are veiled attempts to rid themselves of their spouses, Kate and Rob are forced to investigate on their own. Can they identify their mutual enemy, before he or she kills again?

Multiple Motives is FREE! Pick it up today!

Amazon U.S. | Apple | Barnes & Noble U.S. | Kobo

*****

Thanks, Kass! Any of us who have taken the advice to write series have probably wondered how far to take it. Heck, any of who have read series have probably encountered series that ended poorly or were dragged on too long.

If we ask our close friends or super fans about our series, we’re likely to get a biased answer. So it’s good to hear straightforward ideas of what some of the warning signs or considerations are.

Just like with a story, we want to find the right balance for the ending, not too rushed, not too dragged out. Hopefully, Kassandra’s tips will help us find the right balance for our series, leaving readers satisfied with this series and eager for more of our work in a new series. *smile*

As a writer, have you reached the end of any of your series? What signs did you see that helped you decide? Or have you struggled with the question of timing? As a reader, have you seen series drag on or end badly? What do you think is the right time to end a series? Is there a right or wrong way to do it? Do you have any questions for Kassandra?

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29 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

K.B. Owen November 22, 2016 at 8:05 am

Fab post, Kass! I think about this kind of thing all the time in my series. I think I’ve started wrapping it up, but I haven’t burned my bridges!

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:09 am

It’s a tough decision to make, for sure. I’m glad you haven’t burned your bridges. I would miss Concordia terribly. But your series at this point really illustrates #4 above, with your protagonist getting married in an era when that seriously limited a woman’s mobility in the world.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:11 am

I should have mentioned that, if one is going to start a new series, it’s a good idea to do that while the old one is still ongoing, especially if it’s in the same genre. That way you can get existing readers hooked on the new series before the old one ends.

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K.B. Owen November 22, 2016 at 11:46 am

Yes, that’s what I started doing with my Penelope Hamilton novellas. Great advice!

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 12:20 pm

And it’s great that the novellas are a spin off from the Concordia books. Should be easy to keep readers engaged that way (I am; love Penelope!)

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Julie S November 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I’m a big fan of series. The one I’m currently into is by Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen Cycle, as she calls it. While the first book was based strongly on a fairytale, the second book was first person, more “minor” entry based more on Heart of Darkness than anything else (huge contrast from the first book) and the third book, The Summer Queen, is a space opera similar to the first book BUT takes a more realistic stance on the “Ever After” part of the story, i.e., what happens AFTER the fairytale ends? And there’s a newish fourth book in the series that is more of an addendum, but unfortunately, it’s place in the past during the time period of the first book, and an important character would have been changed or new more stuff if it really had happened in the sequence Vinge says it did. I’d say the author in this case loves the character she features in the “extra” books, but is having a hard time fitting any new stories into that mythos and having it work as part of the series.

And then there’s the Dune series (just the original Herbert ones please). It ends with tragedy, basically, on an operatic scale, and that ending would have been good enough but Herbert then extended his series to follow the children of Paul Atreides. (And his obsession with Duncan Idaho, I don’t get that).

Another series probably left better alone the way it originally ended would be Jack Chalker’s Well World series. Five books, it’s good, let’s leave the characters holding hands into the sunset, please? His add-on books weren’t well-received.

The less said about the Xanth series, the better. Ugh.

I love The Princess Series by Jim C. Hines – four books and done. He wrapped it up with a great pace, answered all the questions a reader might want answered, and left the characters in a decent, bittersweet place. I was sad and happy and had a great reading experience with that series, AND his Librarimancy (sp) series. I highly recommend both series if you’re into fantasy. He’s a very thoughtful, feminist male writer. Great guy, too. Look him up on FB.

There’s Lord of the Rings, but that’s technically more of a single book broken up into thirds because it was such a huge publication. Plus the publisher could make more cash drawing out the story’s release. It ended well. And is, of course, a classic.

I like Agatha Christie’s treatment of her detectives – they stay the same until the last few books, where age starts affecting them (and time, really). It’s all how a series treats time, right? It’s a fascinating aspect of series and how to write your characters. It’s be awesome if James Bond would hang it up and hand the keys over to a daughter or son and stay on as a witty advisor (with a better writer).

And of course now I’m in the midst of writing a trilogy, but am banging up against a wall for the third one. So maybe a third one going in the direction I want it to go isn’t what the characters need or want.

Hm. Maybe I should have made this into a series of comments. Sorry for the one long post, LOL.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Wow, there are some great book recommendations in here, Julie. Thanks!

Agatha Christie is one of my role models. But I’m not sure I ever read her last few books. I’ll have to look them up and see if they seem familiar. Maybe I’ll re-read them anyway. Since my characters are now aging, it would be good to be reminded of how she handled that.

I am definitely going to check out James C. Hines. And I agree that James Bond hanging out with a daughter or son (I think daughter would be better) as witty advisor would be awesome.

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Teresa (Tess) Karlinski November 22, 2016 at 1:26 pm

I haven’t followed any series from beginning to end for years, but this is a fabulous post because I’d never considered how a writer ends one. 🙂

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Thanks, Tess! Glad you enjoyed the post. I love series, but I’d never given much thought to how they should end either, until recently. Then I drew a good bit on my experiences as a reader, as to what I liked and disliked about the way others’ series were handled.

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JazzFeathers November 22, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Years ago, I wrote a series of stories set int he same place, with recurring characters. I have written a trilogy of novels, and now I’m planning a series of novellas. But alsway, always, I have had in mind an arc for all my stories.

I know that I might come up with ideas that fit into the arc (will we call these spin-offs?) but I know there will be a time when the arc of the story will be completed and I won’t write stories beyond that point.

To me, this is just a necessity. The same way a story has a beginning, a series also has an ending and that’s a natural thing. It is ingraned in the beginning, it’s what gives the series its meaning.
I don’t think I’d ever be able to just write on, without knowing where I’m going.
But of course, this is just me 😉

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Like pantsing and plotting, there are bound to be different ways to handle a series’ arc. I’ve learned a good bit from this first series (the Kate one that is heading toward the end). Now, I’m taking a slightly different approach to my new Marcia Banks and Buddy series. But so far the subplot of the protag’s romance is driving the series arc more than anything.

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Althea Claire Duffy November 22, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Series that have an ongoing plot arc generally have a smaller “window” of possible lengths before they start to drag, I think. Extending an episodic series past what you originally planned for can work quite well, especially if you don’t write a false finale and then keep going. But extending an arc series usually leads to the plot slowing down more and more if you add books in the middle – or an awkward attempt at extending events and rekindling the drama if you add books at the end. (Writing a second series that’s a sequel to the first generally works better, especially if it focuses on different characters.)

As for killing off a character at the end – one of my favorite series ends by killing off the heroine and her love interest, heroically and spectacularly. It was an incredible emotional wallop that shook me for days, but artistically it worked. What doesn’t work is killing the main character in a trivial, incidental, non-plot-relevant, or gratuitous way – just to make sure the series is really seriously over, for shock value, or because you couldn’t think of another way to end.

I’m writing Part 2 of my “Treason”/Lirrisar fantasy-romance series now; I plan a Part 3, a few connected short stories, and that’s probably it. I’ve had a definite end point in mind since around the time I was finishing Part 1. I’m in very early planning for another series that’s larger and more ambitious, with a more complicated and weirder world – it’s going to have an overall arc as well as a complete sub-arc for each volume. I suspect I’m going to have to write drafts, at least, of the whole thing before publishing the first installment.

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Julie S November 22, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Okay, dying to know what series it was that killed off the FMC and the MMC in a heroic way. I can’t think of any.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 6:36 pm

*sigh* It’s times like this when I wish I was a plotter, Althea. I’d love to be able to plan everything out so carefully. But for me, when I do that, I lose interest. The story has already been told and my muse wants to move on.

Best of luck with your current and your new series!

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 6:37 pm

I was wondering about that too, Julie!

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 6:37 pm

But maybe Althea shouldn’t say as that would be a spoiler.

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Mae Clair November 22, 2016 at 7:50 pm

I’m usually torn when it comes to a series. I think it has to do with the author and their ability to keep each tale new and fresh. I follow the Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child that is now in book 15 or 16 (I’ve lost track) and I positively love it. I hope they never stop writing that character.

By the same token I followed a bestselling YA series (book 1 was made into a movie and a TV series) that left me struggling after book 3. I think the series had 6 or 7 novels but with the exception of the last novel, everything after book 3 lost its luster. I thought the author dragged it on way too long and I honestly couldn’t wait for it to end.

I am now finishing up my own series of three novels. Book three has been the hardest to write which tells me I made a good decision to end it with this novel (although I’m leaving some things open for a secondary character to continue in a spin-off series). There’s a lot to be said for series writing but a lot of drawbacks too. If an author consistently delivers a good lead character and great plots I’m happy to follow indefinitely.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:51 pm

It is a such a tough choice to make, Mae. As you say, some series seem to continue to deliver. But I’ve seen all too many lose that “luster” as you so eloquently put it.

And I love the idea of spin-off series. I’m kind of considering doing that with my Kate Huntington gang. There’s a homicide cop who’s a recurring character in many of the books. I’d love to get to know her better.

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Serena Yung November 22, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Wow, well, I have to admit that I have not ended any of my series yet, haha. What typically happens is that I feel so depressed at the prospect of “never seeing character X” anymore, that I comfort myself by writing a sequel with them in it. XDD But eventually, this “sequel adding” will have to stop, and I can still write little short stories or scenes about these characters, if I miss them that much. I don’t need to show anyone these short stories/ scenes either. Yeah, I get very emotionally attached to my characters, lol.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:53 pm

I totally get that depression, Serena. It truly feels like we are killing off our characters when we end a series. I’m trying to wind down this series in a way that implies that Kate rides off into the sunset with her yummy husband and enjoys a ripe old age.

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Vinnie Hansen November 22, 2016 at 10:11 pm

I didn’t know I’d concluded my Carol Sabala mystery series until the seventh book was finished and published. Only then did I step back and say, “Yes, that’s a good place to stop. Carol has finally claimed her full identity and she is on the verge of having her own business. She’s arrived.”

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:55 pm

I will miss Carol, Vinnie. But I get it. You have chronicled her coming into herself and launched her off into the world.

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Kassandra Lamb November 22, 2016 at 11:56 pm

I’m realizing I should have addressed the grief we feel as authors when we end a series. We are saying goodbye to characters who have become friends. That’s hard!

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Mark R Hunter November 25, 2016 at 1:23 am

I love the idea of writing and reading book series, but I wouldn’t tell people ahead of time that mine might be ending, until I was absolutely sure. And even then … I keep thinking of Sherlock Holmes, who died and came back. And L. Frank Baum telling all his kid readers that he was no longer in contact with Oz, and never could be again … until he gave into demand (and debt) and found a way.

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Clare O'Beara November 25, 2016 at 2:28 pm

Lots of reasons for a series to end as you say! One is that the main characters who carried the story have all died off / married off/ retired happily. Continuing with minor characters can feel forced.

In urban fantasy series, I find the first few books are all about adventure and exploration, then they get bogged down into who gives orders to whom and I stop buying.

As you say, how many murdered people can one person stumble over in her life? Police procedurals have a ready-made reason for the murders to be introduced so they have a longer potential run. My mystery heroine has a police detective friend who asks for her expertise on occasion, which is how I get around that one. Also cold cases can be re-opened which I did most recently.

Readers can clamour for more of the same, but authors used to be tied in to publishers who just wanted more of whatever sold. Literary ideals often went out the window. With more authors going independent that will no longer be such an issue.

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