Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Long Form: Series

Writing Wednesday

No discussion of the long-form would be complete without looking at series.

There are two kinds of series: the open-ended series, in which known characters have continuing adventures (e.g., Nancy Drew), and the finite series that tells a story larger than a single book (e.g., Harry Potter). Open-ended series are like episodic television and could, in principle, go on forever (which is why most open-ended series are owned by the publisher who brings in work-for-hire authors to produce new volumes). Finite series are extra-long-form narratives, generally the work of a single, acknowledged author, that build to a final culmination. (We'll focus, for the rest of the discussion, on finite series.)

Done right, a series can be a rewarding experience. If each book contributes a new, enriching view of the story, we begin to feel at home in that universe. Done poorly, we feel like we're stuck on a roller coaster covering the same increasingly tedious ground.

Undertaking a series is challenging--and risky if you're unpublished (which is why the common advice is to sell the first book before you write the others).

If you think you'd like to write a series, ask yourself some questions:
  • Do you have enough story for multiple books? Or do you simply want to keep playing in the same playground?
  • How will you give readers more of what the want and make it fresh instead of basically rehashing the first book?
  • Are you holding back your best ideas for the end of the series? What's going to keep the middle of the series from feeling like filler?
  • Will your characters continue to develop?

I've tried to make the case that the art of the long form is qualitatively different from the art of the short form. The same is true for the art of the series compared to the art of the novel, though the differences are more subtle.

I can't do justice to all the differences between a novel and series of novels, but consider the problem of the promise made to the reader at the very beginning: not only must you sustainably deliver new and interesting material across multiple books, you've also got to satisfy reader's expectations across the entire span. Time and again, a series was ruined for me when the author, perhaps because they'd grown bored or jaded, took an unexpected turn at the end.

A novel is a tremendous undertaking. A series of novels kicks the undertaking up by an order of magnitude. Beyond art, it takes a tremendous amount of dedication to do a series well.

Image: Simon Howden /

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