Today’s question: when does series fiction wear out its welcome in fans’ hearts?
People love series, in television, in movies, and also in books; series are especially popular in epic/ sword and sorcery fantasy (which happens to be my genre). I’ve found that one tricky aspect of writing a series–any series–is knowing when to pull the plug.
The question becomes even tougher because every series is different. I ended up writing a trilogy, though I originally thought the story might extend beyond three books.
One of my greatest inspirations, JK Rowling, wrote seven Harry Potter books. One book is dedicated to each of Harry’s years as a student at Hogwarts. Seven books are a lot–and the last few are very long–but each installment contains its own adventure as well as advances the overall story arc of Voldemort’s return and eventual demise.
So, how do you know how many books your series should be? Three? Five? Ten?
There’s no set-in-stone answer, obviously. But television sitcoms can provide a useful tool for gauging when a series is losing its flair and excitement.
GOING TO TELEVISION SHOWS
Yesterday I explored how sitcoms can teach us about characterization. Don’t worry; I’m not going to repeat the “show by show” breakdown I used in that post; today’s topic is more suited for generalities.
The fact is, certain televisions shows (they don’t have to be sitcoms) are famous for outwearing their “good” period.
“Happy Days” spawned the common phrase “jump the shark” to designate the moment when a tv show resorts to crazy antics to try to keep engaging viewers. (The Fonz, literally, jumped his motorcycle over a shark in a tank of some kind).
People consistently say that “The Office” should have turned off the cameras with boss Michael Scott’s departure, and I agree.
Such shows that continue past their expiration date share some negative traits in their later seasons. These characteristics can serve as warning signals for writers of series, whether they notice them in their own work or beta readers are pointing them out.
- YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NO LONGER GROWING ORGANICALLY. Maybe they’ve stopped developing, because honestly, there’s nowhere else for them to go that’s interesting. Maybe you are forcing them to change in ways that don’t feel natural and don’t make sense. Either scenario can indicate that maybe it’s time to say goodbye.
- YOU ARE RECYCLING THE SAME IDEAS OVER AND OVER. Sometimes, a series is designed so that minor variations on the same scenarios replay over and over and over….. sitcoms are notorious for this. When the scenarios you have in your playbook get stale, you have a problem.
- YOU ARE STRETCHING THE BORDERS OF CREDIBILITY IN YOUR PLOTS/CHARACTERS. This is a result of trying to break out from the same old plot structure and further develop characters that are more or less fully structured. In an attempt to keep going and to do something new, a writer can end up with scenarios that make little sense and don’t fit with the style, tone, or overall development arc of the series.
- YOU’RE NO LONGER HAVING FUN. This one is obvious. If your series has become so “old hat” that it’s become a chore rather than a thrill, the time has come to move on.
I miss my characters from the Herezoth trilogy a lot. A LOT a lot. But a trilogy that saga needed to be, nothing more. I recognized that, and I cut the cord.
I’ve always said it’s better to end on an upswing, when I can wrap things up in a satisfactory way while everyone, including me as the author, is still interested, loves the story and the characters, and is sad to see the series go.
My point of view is this, as influenced by a colleague and fellow sitcom buff from my old doctoral program:
- A tv show (or fiction series) can go off at the top of its game and leave a great reputation and a positive legacy
- A tv show (or fiction series) can outlive its use, go stale, and end with an asterisk in the minds of its fans that it used to be much better.
When I die, hopefully many decades from now at a ripe old age, I sure want people thinking I was full of life and fun to be around, not, “I’m glad the old gal’s gone already! It was about time.”
THAT FOURTH HEREZOTH BOOK I SOMETIMES TALK ABOUT?
(an explanation AND an update)
You might remember me mentioning that I wrote a fourth Herezoth book last year, during National Novel Writing Month.
I did, but this book starts a new arc and a new story…. It doesn’t continue the plot of my original trilogy. Many of the characters are different, and my intent is that readers won’t have to be familiar with the first books to understand this one (though some familiar characters make cameos.)
I have been struggling for months to figure out where to take this new plot arc, because some things haven’t felt realistic to me. I have FINALLY figured out my problem: Herezoth and rival kingdom Esclavay don’t need to go to war. Esclavay and Traigland, Herezoth’s ally, do.
I haven’t worked everything out yet, but I’m beyond excited as the pieces have begun falling into place. I will have TONS of editing to do, but I’m feeling upbeat about it. Once “Writing for You” releases at the end of the month, I should be ready to start editing “The Esclavan Abductions.” I didn’t think I would be.
But, to get back on topic:
What are your thoughts about series outlasting their shelf dates? What series (tv or book) do you find have declined in quality as they expanded and expanded?
Can you think of other qualities such series have in common?
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