Many books recently on the bestseller lists have been part of series. From the Divergent series to the new cliffhanger and serial books, series are a popular trend. But what if we don’t naturally write series? Will we be left behind?
The “lessons learned” section in my post about Beverly Kendall’s self-publishing report reiterated the fact that most successful self-published authors write series. Kristen Lamb just posted about series being hot, hot, hot.
Yet at the same time, we see posts like Roni Loren’s asking if readers are becoming too impatient for series. Or from reviewers ticked off and saying authors are doing cliffhangers “wrong.”
What should we believe? And more importantly, when it comes to series, what can we do to achieve success yet avoid the pitfalls?
The Shifting Expectations for Series
Yes, series are popular, especially in certain genres and with certain readers. Children’s books (including Middle Grade and Young Adult (YA)) have long been filled with series. The growth of New Adult (NA) has continued that trend.
Historically, these series would sometimes end with cliffhangers, but more often each book resolved the main conflict by the end. For example, each Harry Potter book ended with open series arc threads about Voldemort and the ongoing threat, but the book-specific conflict about the Chamber of Secrets, etc. was complete. Each Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew story was episodic, with virtually no bearing on future books.
In the past, only a few adult genres, like epic fantasies, embraced cliffhangers. Most genres like mysteries or thrillers expected series to be episodic, with one book not necessarily affecting the next. Genres like romance, which expects a happily-ever-after (HEA) ending for the couple, utilized common settings, secondary characters getting their own book, etc. to create series.
In other words, genre expectations play a huge role in what readers will and won’t accept. So there’s no one right answer for “how to do a series.”
However, some popular YA and NA series have pushed those expectations. They involve the same characters in each book, end with cliffhangers, and if done well, can feel “epic” by the time they reach their conclusion.
Those successes have inspired authors in other genres to push against their expectations as well. Some books calling themselves adult romances now drag out the happily-ever-after for three books. Some genres are experimenting with serial novels, essentially releasing a chapter or so at a time, forcing readers to buy all the parts to receive a complete story.
Sometimes, especially for books on the edge of New Adult or in genres with a history of serial novels, these stories find success. Or some books feel epic enough to justify dragging out the conclusion.
Others? Not so much. Reader backlash has started against series that seem to drag out the story simply for money. Using unimportant obstacles to increase word count is like the series version of a “sagging middle.” Even more readers are complaining about books that don’t feel complete.
In other words, there’s definitely a way to write series that might be more “wrong,” at least as far as the potential dangers. So like any trend, we shouldn’t hop on the bandwagon without knowing the specifics.
The Dangers of Series
If each book is a complete story, either along the lines of each book resolving its conflict, being episodic, or having only setting or secondary characters in common, I think we’re safe in most (all?) genres. Readers won’t usually complain if they pay for and receive a complete story.
The problems come when we try to write and sell an incomplete story. This could be a serial novel (a couple of chapters at a time), a story that doesn’t meet genre expectations (no happily-ever-after at the end of the book), or a cliffhanger story, where the book’s main conflict isn’t resolved.
(A second type of cliffhanger story resolves the main story conflict and then introduces a new conflict in the last scene. This approach essentially incorporates a “teaser excerpt” into the story itself. Again, genre can play a huge role in whether this will be successful.)
With any of those approaches, readers often won’t feel satisfied. Yes, these cliffhangers could lead to sales by readers eager to learn the ending. But they can also lead to potential readers refusing to pick up Book One once they read the reviews and see that it’s not a complete story.
Personally, I won’t read serial novels and I expect a complete story. As I commented on Roni Loren’s post in regards to romance series:
“If the romance is the main plot and it drags on, that’s too angsty for me. Most of those don’t have the plot to support the drama, and it feels like the author is just throwing in kitchen sink obstacles to make more money. I don’t get serials until they’re complete and published in a single edition either.”
More readers seem to be getting tired of the “incomplete story” ploy. They’re waiting for the complete series to make sure the payoff will…:
(Many a traditionally published series has been canceled mid-series, and some self-published authors don’t have the dedication they claim they do.)
- and be worth it.
(We don’t want to invest many hours reading a series only to have the final act fall to pieces, leave too many unanswered questions, go in the “wrong” direction, suffer from slow pacing or pointless obstacles, etc.)
But what if the majority of readers takes this attitude? The series will look like a failure because everyone is waiting for its completion before they start reading.
The Bottom Line on Series
In other words, while series are popular, we shouldn’t feel pressured to write against our natural inclinations just because it’s trendy. Series have plenty of pitfalls that might come back to bite those authors who jump on the trend.
If we want to join the series bandwagon, we can do it while still writing connected-yet-standalone stories. In other words, we can market books as a series without featuring the same characters or cliffhangers.
When we hear about series books helping self-published authors, that doesn’t indicate we have to change our writing style. If we want to write series with a big series arc or continuing characters, we can target readers who enjoy that approach. But if we want to write series with connected-standalone stories, that can be hugely successful too.
So when we decide whether our future writing will include series, we can keep several points in mind:
- What are the expectations of our genre?
- What types of series could meet those expectations? (episodic, connected standalones, series arcs, etc.)
- Does our genre have a history of serial novels or cliffhanger stories?
- Does our genre have a history (or current rumblings) of backlash against those techniques?
- What risks are we willing to take with our stories and marketing?
- If we want to write cliffhanger stories, do we have enough conflict to create an epic feel and avoid pacing/sagging-middle issues?
- If we don’t want to write cliffhanger stories but want more than episodic, could we use connected standalones (maybe with a series arc building in the background)?
- What elements of our story could connect to other stories (setting, worldbuilding, themes, minor characters, unseen relatives or other referenced-but-off-the-page characters, villains (or villain organizations), types of conflicts, etc.)?
My current stories take the connected-standalone approach. My paranormal romance series started with a standalone novel, but as soon as I thought about the basis for the paranormal aspect, ideas filled my head with additional standalone stories connected by worldbuilding.
I see this as the best of both worlds for my genre. I’m able to meet the genre expectations for paranormal romance, complete with a happily-ever-after ending for each couple at the end of each book, and I’ll be able to market them as a series.
We’re asking for writer’s block if we try forcing writing styles that don’t work for us. But if we’re creative, we can meet marketing trends and keep our muse happy. In fact, writing a series doesn’t require learning anything new except for thinking broader about the possibilities. *smile*
Are you able to write book series? If you’ve struggled, have you worried about how to capitalize on the “pros” of having a series? As a reader, do you read some types of series and not others? Do you enjoy serial novels or cliffhangers or do they disappoint you? Does this post give you ideas for how to approach series?