Series 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.