Series and serials

Very soon now the third and final book in my Worldweavers trilogy, “Cybermage”, will be hitting the bookstores (look at www.worldweaversweb.com for more info…) At least one writer friend is currently in the same boat as I am – namely, coming out with a capstone, the completing book in a story arcing over several books, and wrestling with the same notion of whether books in series are best tightly intertwined (necessitating a reading of the whole series in order, or not at all) or as much stand-alone as possible, giving individual readers who might come in at different points the ability to pick up the series and get enthralled in the storyline and THEN picking up the rest of the series and reading it in order so as to enrich their story-experience.

Several different ideas some into play here.

The identity and relative celebrity of the author enter into it in a big way for certain readers.  If you are a fan of Author X, and you find book 2 of a series that you hadn’t heard of before but book1 is not in evidence right then, you’re probably going to snap up book 2 and either squirrel it away until such time as you are able to find #1 or else just go and read the thing anyway and see if you can figure it out from there. You are much less likely to do this for an author who is not a household name, especially if you find the books in hardcover – these days shelling out more than $20 for a book by a complete unknown (at least unknown to you) without a guarantee that you’ll ever return for the rest of the series – well – it’s a serious investment. The unknown writer has to tread a tightrope in order to reel you in – the book HAS to be both a standalone and enough of a lure to make you come back for the rest.

This is HARD.

Inexperienced and/or less adroit experienced writers may fall into the Infodump Trap, wherein they attepmt to summarise the events it is necessary for the reader to know (and which occurred in a previous book, or books) by doing some sort of summary or precis in the current volume. It can be more or less well disguised – a recap done in dialogue, or a page torn from someone’s journal or diary, or an honest-to goodness flashback, or a prologue… and they all have their troubles. Do it too little, and the new reader may get lost in the current book without the necessary backround knowledge to help him along. Do it too much, and you run the risk of annoying the readers who HAVE read the previous books and DO know the material (“Yes, yes, yes, YES, we know all this already, get to the chase…[flipflipflip]“) or simply annoying readers in general because you’re sliding into the storied swamps of “as you know Bob” territory and expounding at length on things that are blindingly obvious because you no longer know how much information is too much information.

Sometimes the waters are muddied by the simple fact that your readers are individuals too and their perceptions of what you have attempted to do may differ widely. DIfferent reviewers of “Spellspam”, the second Worldweavers volume, have individually called it difficult to follow if you haven’t read “Gift of the Unmage” (book #1 in the trilogy) or a brilliant stand-alone novel which can be read without recourse to the previous volume – unh, well, yeah. that. I dread to think what some of those people will actually make of “Cybermage” because although it IS a self-standing story on its own it does use as a cornerstone of it an artefact that was discovered by my protag and her friends at the tail and of book 2, and the roots of its existence and importance lie squarely in THAT book.

So, for what it’s worth, here is what *I* tried to do with a trilogy.

First, the pitfalls I was aware of and tried to avoid:

1. large-scale infodumping of explanatory material from previous books, where I could help it

2. using book 2 as a bridge between books 1 and 3, without giving it any redeeming merits of its own

3. making it absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to read any one of these books without having touched on the previous ones.

Here’s what I DID try to do:

1. Build two different kinds of story arc – smaller individual volume-length story arcs which resolved the storyline of each individual book at the end of that book, giving the books a stand-alone feel, and an over-reaching trilogy arc which began building in book one and crescendoed throughout the three volumes until the greater story was resolved at the end of the third and final book and hopefully gave closure to the entire series as a whole.

2. Give enough complexity to each book for it to be worthwhile as a read as and of itself, as opposed to being “filler” or backstory.

3. Built up the tension and the stakes in incremental measure, sort of like putting the frog into water that is only gradually being brought to the boil instead of dumping it into boiling water in the first place, teasing out individual ideas and issues of interest, making the reader involved with the small things in my protags’ lives so that they could not help but become involved in the big picture because they now cared about what happened to these characters.

4. Realise that characters who are still growing up have goals that change and mutate as the characters change, and adapt the actions and the storylines to these changes as they occur – and making the stakes bigger and bigger in each book as more information, more knowledge, and more wisdom becomes available to the characters as they mature. I hope that what I eventually achieved is a character who is capable and responsible enough, at the end of book 3, to take up the burdens that her broadening world-view is giving her to bear – and who would have been recognisably unable to bear those burdens at the beginning of her journey, when the reader first meets her at the start of book 1. I hope I have achieved organic, believable growth for my character over the course of the three books chronicling her journey – and more importantly, that this growth and this journey are sufficiently recognisable and interesting to the reader for the reader to follow its course.

Worldweavers is a series (finite and rounded, recognisably part of the same pattern but with a final closure at the end) rather than a serial (think “Wheel of Time”…) The third book in the trilogy closes out THIS part of the story, at least. There may well be other stories set in the same universe but they will have to definitely stand on their own, their only connection to this trilogy a tenuous worldbuilding thread which might lead the cognoscenti back to the original three books but which is not a primary plot node. Once the third book is well and truly out, I look forward to hearing from readers about how well I achieved the goals that I tried to aim for, how well the series succeeded as a whole, and how easy/hard/impossible it might have been to read these books individually or out of their projected order.

Over to you, readers – what do you look for in a series or a trilogy? How important is stand-alone-ness to you? How annoyed DO you get when you can only find book 2 of a trilogy with books 1 and 3 unavailable or even out of print…?

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    I’m pretty obsessive about never beginning a series anywhere but at the beginning, and about reading *every* book in a series. Now that I’ve been burned by Jordan and Goodkind and, to a lesser extent, Feist, I’m a lot less likely to start a fantasy series that goes on for more than three or four books. I realize that writing books set in a popular universe brings repeat business in a way that stand-alone books do not, but the cost, I guess, may be readers like me, who won’t start a set of ten books unless it comes with some pretty amazing recommendations. (This is why I’ve never gotten into Doctor Who. Way too much for me to catch up with.)

    Though I always read the books in order, being able to stand alone is pretty important to me. Which was the WoT book where none of the bad guys died and nothing gets resolved? Was that five? Six? SoT had one of those too, IIRC. When I run across that, I feel like my time has been wasted. Why is this a book? I need something to be resolved.

    I don’t tend to mind the bringing-readers-up-to-speed infodumping, as a reader. Pretty much no matter how it’s done, I let it slide. Actually, I kind of like it. There’s a comfortable familiarity. I’m not sure I can adequately explain why, but I’ll give it a shot. When I read a book, the characters are real people to me, and I feel like I’ve lived the events. So when I see that subtle (or not-so-subtle) recapping, it feels kinda like when I reminisce with my friends. There’s a comfort in retelling stories you’ve heard before. I get the same feeling in the Star Wars sequels when it takes a few minutes to see the leads on the screen. Suddenly Han is there, and I’m like, “Hello old friend!”

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I’m kinda OCD about series. I have to start with 1 and read through in order, regardless of how well I know the author.

    One thing I hate, even if I have the whole series in-hand, is a “series” that is really a single book separated into multiple volumes. Lord of the Rings did this, but it wasn’t really Tolkien’s fault. But because LotR did it, many, many other fantasy authors feel they have a right to do it as well (I’m looking at you, Terry Brooks). Bugs the heck out of me.

    So I fully agree with your principle of making each book have its own identifiable and complete story arc, even if there is a larger story arc at play. Cliffhangers are okay, but they shouldn’t be huge cliffhangers. The story shouldn’t begin with the quest for the four crystals and end with only one being found. If that’s the ending, then the beginning needs to promise something different to the reader – throw them clues that the bigger quest won’t be solved in this book.

  3. 3. S. M. Payne

    I’m with the previous comments. I like the recap, but sorry, each book has to stand on its own. I know when I read the recap why it’s there and personally, it never bugs me. What does annoy me is if it isn’t there. A lot of times I get started on a series midway in, because I have no book budget and am reduced to reading library offerings and cheap sales. So often, unless I love wherever I start, I’ll never pick up the beginning. Which means you better tell me what the beginning was and why I ought to bother to read it.

  4. 4. cedunkley

    I like long stories told over multiple volumes. There are many types and I guess I would say I like whichever one works best.

    For example:

    The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is a trilogy. Each book, however, had a clearly defined plot that was resolved within the book, while still keeping the larger story arc going.

    The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is a trilogy. However, it is one story told over the course of the three books. Each book has its own story arc as well, but there is less a sense of completion with each novel as there was in the first since Covenant stays in the Land throughout this book. (The first trilogy finds him returned home as a mechanism to bring extra closure (sort of the way Harry Potter’s semester ends at the end of most of the books).)

    Then you have Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. In one sense this is a Series and a Serial in that she has trilogies tell stories set in a specific part of her timeline, spanning hundreds of years.

    And while I know it’s fashionable of late to pick on the Wheel of Time and perhaps A Song of Ice and Fire (for the lengthy delay between books these days), I love both. These are huge sprawling epic fantasies that have an incredible amount of activity to follow as they impact the entire secondary world they are set in, and much of their worlds are shown in detail.

    Again, I don’t have a specific preference. For me, it all boils down to what works best to tell the story.

  5. 5. Tom Gallier

    I actually prefer series where each novel is a separate story or adventure, and ongoing series. I’d rather escape into one of those literary worlds than read a standalone or limited series.

    Now, for a limited series, like most of the commenters I won’t knowingly start with one of the middle stories. I want to read from beginning to end as the author intended. Info dumps just don’t give all the info, emotion and nuances of the previous stories. I have only read a few middle books that didn’t have complete story archs within, and found it annoying but it didn’t ruin the experience for me. But I do remember each one. Hmmm.

    I also rarely will even purchase a story I know will be a trilogy or limited series until the entire series is published. So I haven’t read Martin or Jordan’s WoT. I will read WoT once the final novel is completed by the ghost writer.

  6. 6. Joe Iriarte

    Oh I like the Wheel of Time; don’t get me wrong. But brick-size fantasy is a jealous mistress that allows me too little time to read the other genres I enjoy. So much as I like that specific series (and I like Feist’s books too, btw) I’m a lot more hesitant to pick up a series of ten seven-hundred-page novels, or even a series that looks like it *might* go on for that sort of length. That’s my point.

  7. 7. cedunkley

    Tom -

    Brandon Sanderson has been picked by Jordan’s widow to write the final WoT book. Brandon talks about this on his blog (among his own writing projects).

    I know what you mean about waiting for a completed story. I have a few I’m looking forward to once they are complete. As for Martin’s however, I’m reading his books in chunks at a time, in-between reading other books. I’m able to retain what’s going on and find that the breaks help since this is one rough and dark series.

    Joe –

    I understand what you mean. There certainly is an expectation of a lot of time required to read certain stories. And Epic Fantasy certainly has its share of still ongoing door-stopping series that we don’t know exactly when they will end.

    As this is a market I’m hoping to someday break into, it stands to reason that I make the time. However, I’m at the point where I wait for a significant number to be published before I start reading these days as there are already so many books in my TBR pile.

    And to return back to the actual article, I have to start at the beginning (or at least in order published). If the author lists a preference for what order the series and/or serial should be read I’ll go with that.

    As for how the author lets the new reader know what happened in the past, that depends again on how it is done.

    Does the Editor have a say in how this is done?

  8. 8. Tom Gallier

    Yes. I’m more willing to read a massive standalone than a series of massive, 700 page tomes. Strangely (to me) I like a 70k to 90k novel to read, but I have a hard time keeping the stories I write under 150k.

  9. 9. Margaret Y.

    Here is how I think about series. When the bad guy is defeated, the book ends. When the main character overcomes her fatal flaw, the series ends. In the case of stand-alones, these two things will coincide. In the case of series, they won’t. So, even though there is a different antagonist to overcome in the next book, the protagonist is still doing her same internal work. You see this a lot in the mystery genre.

    If it’s the same antagonist the whole series, then you’ve really got one long book, haven’t you? (Perhaps Harry Potter is really one long book.)

  10. 10. Joe Iriarte

    “If the author lists a preference for what order the series and/or serial should be read I’ll go with that.”

    I can only think of two instances off the top of my head where the author did that–both science fiction. One is Asimov; I don’t remember his saying it was his preferred order, but he specifically included a list of all the Robot, Empire, and Foundation books in chronological order, in case you felt like reading them that way. The last time I reread the books, I went ahead and followed that order. I enjoyed it, but then, rereading just isn’t the same. I don’t know how well that would work for me if I were reading them for the first time, going back and fourth between golden age stylistics and those of the eighties.

    The other example that comes to mind is Orson Scott Card, who recommends new readers begin with Ender’s Shadow before Ender’s Game, and I’m sorry, but he’s wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. His take on it, as I recall, is that he was a more skilled writer when he wrote ES than when he wrote EG. But ES is based on the assumption that the reader already knows the surprise at the end–at least, it spoils that surprise about two-thirds of the way in. In EG, on the other hand, that surprise has quite an impact on most readers. If you read EG first, you’ll get to have that experience before enjoying ES. If you read ES, though, that experience is ruined for you.

  11. 11. Joe Iriarte

    Margaret, I’d never heard that before. What a cool way of looking at it! I like it a lot. Hopefully I’ll remember it if I’m ever trying to write a series.

    (WRT one antagonist for a series, I think it’s probably fruitful to distinguish between antagonists-of-the-moment and überantagonists, don’t you?)

  12. 12. Graeme Williams

    As a reader, the thing that annoys me the most is incomplete or inaccurate information on the book jacket.

    I’m anal about starting a series at the beginning, but I don’t care if the series is more like one book chopped into pieces (K.J. Parker’s wonderful Engineer trilogy is a recent example) or more like separate books (Walter Jon Williams’s wonderful Praxis space opera trilogy is a recent example of THAT).

    But I do want to know if a book that I’m looking at is in the same world as other books, or shares characters, or whatever. Would it be too much to ask for this to be spelled out in some detail on the back cover? And there’s a special circle of Hell reserved for publishers who truncate an author’s bibliography in the front of a book because earlier works were published by someone else.

    This is the sort of information that’s also very helpful if it’s included on an author’s web site. Then it definitely makes me more likely to buy the author’s books.

    But, Bob, what about infodumps? Well, Jane, I’m glad you asked me that. Clumsy infodumps are just plain clumsy writing, and clumsy is as clumsy does, as my sainted mother used to say. In her more sober moments, I mean.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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