On Series Fiction: Why readers love series, and how to utilize their strengths

1408766_flying_books_1Series fiction is popular. That’s not news to anyone. But why is it so crazily consumed these days? What aspects of series fiction attract us? What can a series accomplish that a standalone work cannot?

I am a huge sitcom fan. Most of my favorite sitcoms ran for over 7 or 8 years, so they are long and established series.

I got to thinking today about how I wrote a trilogy, which is its own kind of series, though in a different medium than sitcoms.

That led to me thinking about why I love to consume as well as produce series. What is it about a series that makes us want to keep going beyond one installment? (Beside cliffhangers. I don’t like cliffhangers. I’ve written before about why I don’t end my series novels with cliffhangers.)

I’m not saying series fiction and television are better than “one and done” novels/movies. I’m saying they’re different. Structurally, they can be quite different.

Series fiction lends itself to lots of advantages writers can take advantage of: things that are less common or much more difficult to pull off in a single installment book. If you write a series, you want to remember all the tactics you have at your disposal, tactics like:

  • The completed story in the middle of a larger arc. Though the Harry Potter series as a whole tells the story of Voldemort’s return and downfall, each novel is its own complete and engaging tale. Each installment wraps up a plot in its entirety while leaving readers wondering what’s going to happen to Harry next year, and how Voldemort’s scheme will progress after a setback or advancement. TV does this too: think of Monk solving case after case in episode after episode, all the while trying to advance the investigation into his wife’s murder.
  • Running Gags. It’s hard to drag out running gags in a single novel. But when you revisit Hogwarts year after year, you learn to anticipate something sinister happening around Halloween. Also the month of June. June is NOT the time to be at Hogwarts or generally  anywhere close to Harry Potter. On the TV side of things: my favorite episodes of “Cheers” are the ones that follow, season after season, the feud between Cheers and Gary’s Old Towne Tavern, with a back and forth of triumph, defeat, betrayal, and revenge. And then: who will ever forget the appearances of miniature pony L’il Sebastian on “Parks and Recreation,” his death, tribute service, and then the appearance of a L’il Sebastian impersonator?
  • Extending a minor subplot across several installments. This is one of the most effective ways to ensure continuity between your series novels, and as a reader, I love this device so much! Perhaps while saving the world or solving crimes, a chronically single character whom you establish has self-confidence issues in book one finds the perfect woman for him in book two, but pushes her away because he doesn’t deserve her. She comes back in book three and shows him what he’s worth and that he deserves to be happy. Book four: an old flame resources and threatens their relationship. That kind of extended arc rings true because that’s generally how our lives develop. While you could fit that arc into a single novel, I love to see such twists and turns unfold over a greater period. It feels more realistic that those developments would take place over the course of multiple adventures, not just one.
  • Characters who return from time to time. When you have a series, you can have “regular guest stars.” Characters that are loveable and fun but maybe a bit much too handle as regular players. When they show up, it’s exciting, new, and comfortably familiar all at once: like a visit from an old friend. Sitcoms provide the most obvious examples here: Chandler’s girlfriend Janice on “Friends,” or Ron’s ex-wife Tammy 2 on “Parks and Recreation.” (These characters don’t have to be obnoxious, of course. Remus Lupin, a regular guest star in 4 of the 7 Harry Potter books, is one of my favorite characters ever.)
  • You can really, really invest in the major players. The major players in the series I love are like real people to me. I spend so much time with them, after all; over the course of several novels or seasons of a show, I see them mature and change the way real people do. Now, do characters mature in a stand-alone novel? Of course. Can a novel take place over the course of several years? No doubt about it. Still, the extended screen or page time a series affords shows that development more fully through each stage. You can develop a character three times as much over three or four novels as you can through one.

Series don’t have to include these aspects, of course. But I’m fond of series when they make great use of their innate strengths:

Their less limited time.

Their access to extensive backstory and thus detailed subplots.

An extensive cast of characters to develop, each of whom can aid in plot advancement in various ways.

So, I’m curious: what are you favorite things about series, either tv shows or novels? Which series are your favorites? Or do you prefer books that don’t belong to a series?

I had more fun writing this post than I’ve had in a while dealing with the blog 🙂 Series are very dear to me for some reason….

Anyway, if you liked this post and its focus on plotting across multiple volumes, you might find these other posts about plot and structure useful. This post–about plot resolution and closure in creating writing–is one of my favorites.

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35 responses to “On Series Fiction: Why readers love series, and how to utilize their strengths

  1. My favorite thing is that you can slowly evolve your characters. You have more time to make them grow and become true heroes. It’s very realistic to me because a person won’t become their true self after a single adventure. It takes time and multiple experiences.

    • I totally agree with that. I love watching characters grow and change. My trilogy takes place over 25 years, so there’s a LOT of changing going on!

      • I ran into a problem with my timeline. The adventures come one after another, so my 15 books might take place over a time of 2-3 years. I couldn’t find any methods to make delays between books since the main plot has a sense of urgency.

        • makes total sense you would want to keep the books linked up then 🙂 that’s tons of fun. Harry Potter is a bit like that.

        • Never thought of that. I’m trying to set a few up to have months in-between, so I can feel like it’s a long adventure. Probably makes sense since some books end with heroes gaining new abilities, so they need training time.

        • That’s a PERFECT way to avoid training time boredom in your novel! Even if there’s backstory or information involving the new powers that your readers need, they don’t need to see the heroes grapple with the powers, so to speak, unless you feel they need to. Which you clearly don’t. 🙂

        • I had a part in the third book where a character needed training. I did a single scene that started the day of training. Then the poor character came dragging their carcass back to the village, whimpering about their torturous ordeal. I found that a lot more enjoyable than the actual training.

        • hahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!! excellent!

  2. I like searching for the little plot seeds that may be in say book one but do not pay off until later in the series, as well as pretty much everything you’ve listed. I do love a stand alone book but I also love diving into the first book of a series 🙂

    • Oooh, I do love that too! I remember reading book 2 of the Harry Potter series, when Peeves breaks the vanishing cabinet to get Harry out of trouble with Mr. Filch. Nothing comes of it until book 6. Book 6!!!!!!! BRILLIANT.

      • I’m reading a series by Scott Sigler and it’s a seven book series so I know there things that are in there that are all set up.

        I’ve never actually read any of the Harry potter books lol

        • Ioh, I love them. The first one is definitely a children’s book, but I think they are amazingly well developed. I also write fantasy, of course, so it makes sense I would love Harry Potter.

          I should check Sigler out!

        • I may check them out on audiobook. Sigler is awesome, but not a writer for the faint of heart.

  3. Reblogged this on Darswords and commented:
    I love reading and writing in series!

  4. Jane Taylor Starwood

    I’m just starting a romantic thriller series and I found this post very interesting and right to the point. This is a keeper! Thanks, Victoria.

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  6. I can see why you had fun writing this post: it was chalked full of interesting tidbits. As a new writer, you have given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

  7. Love, love, love series books–especially Harry Potter (for all the reasons mentioned above)!! It’s so great to live with the same characters through their joys and struggles and triumphs, and so sad when the series is over and you have to find another one, but you fear it won’t be as good, because you’re still in the world of the last one, and…. Yeah…. I wonder if the experience of reading a series–that extended interaction with the characters over time–just gives me as reader more of a sense of relationship, even friendship, with them. Not that I can’t love the characters in a standalone novel, but it’s different.

    • I totally agree. I think it is different. By definition you invest more time and spend more with the characters of a series novel. I think that does make me, at least, feel closer to them.

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  9. I so agree in regards to series fiction however, I prefer open-ended series as opposed to Harry Potter as he concluded in 7. With an open-ended you write as many stories as you have ideas. The Hamish Macbeth series is what inspired me to write my own open-ended series in terms of Fantasy Mystery series.

    Love the Bar Wars episodes of Cheers as well which inspired me to do a Tavern Wars as the first story is set in a tavern. As of this moment I have ideas for at least 9 books.

    • oh my gosh, Tavern Wars sounds amazing!!! And that’s a great point, about open-ended versus closed series, a series that doesn’t run toward an overarching end. As for 9 books…. I don’t even have an idea for a next one, haha. 🙂

  10. I do love a good series. Harry Potter was great as you mentioned. LOVE Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, LOTR, AND MANY OTHERS. I’m working on a series now. The characters are starting to feel like comfortable clothing.

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  12. I read a blog post the other day about how series sell better than stand-alone and the writer suggested these same things; readers can invest in a series because they can invest in the main characters.

    • that’s an interesting point, that series sell better. I would imagine that’s true for fantasy. But there are stand alone sci-fi novels that sell well. I wonder how much genre impacts that??? Interesting to think about.

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