Authors: What happens when you extend a series too long?

No entry! No more! Enough already!!!

No entry! No more! Enough already!!!

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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36 responses to “Authors: What happens when you extend a series too long?

  1. I loved the first season of “Heroes”, but they lost me by the middle of the second season because the powers had overwhelmed the story. There were several time characters who could travel in time, and so everything became reversible, and there was no tension because the audience knew that nothing that happened would have any lasting effect–someone would just go back and rewrite history to change it.

    As a counter example, I thought that the second season of “Life” had such a perfect ending that I couldn’t imagine the season continuing. I assume that the writers knew it wouldn’t be renewed and they decided to wrap up all the story arcs together in a very satisfying ending–something that you seldom get in television.

    • Love what you say about “life.” that is definitely rare in television and SO wonderful when the writers wrap everything up for you!!! I never watched Heroes but I know lots of people who agree with you. They say it began with tons of potential and then dropped off. 😦 sad!

  2. One of my favourite series of books when I was a teenager (and even now really) were the tomorrow when the war began series by Australian author John Marsden. Originally they were supposed to be a trilogy, but then they expanded to seven books, which honestly I loved. I was pretty obsessed with them. A few years passed before the author added another three books to the series, (although technically they were a seperate series with the same characters but this time after the war). However, I didn’t find it as exciting. The story lines felt as if they had been recycled and like you pointed out, the characters felt as if they weren’t moving on. It was just boring and as a reader I lost interest in what the characters were doing and how their story ended.
    But I just want to say that the first seven books are amazing and John Marsden is a great writer in general. He got a lot of Australian teens through high school 🙂

    • that’s fantastic, AH! Thanks for letting me know about Marsden. I had never heard of him before, and I don’t know how much Americans in general have heard of him. (I might just be out of the loop, but maybe he’s not well-known here). Nothing better than hearing about some great new books! The first seven sound great!

  3. I’m always scared about this. I have 15 books slated for Legends of Windemere because I have 6 main characters. That’s not counting the villains, who have their own evolutions. Each book has growth for at least one character and moves the main plot along. I just fear that 15 is a daunting number for a reader to get into. I’ve tried cutting it down, but none of the stories are able to be compacted or tossed away without losing something from the main plot. It’s definitely nerve-wracking.

    • My inclination is to think that if you’ve tried to consolidate, and you can defend how every story is necessary and advances the major plot, you’re likely fine. I think some authors screw up by expanding things past a reasonable end point and throwing in stuff that doesn’t contribute just to have another book. If it takes you 15 books to reach that end point, then I wouldn’t have a problem with that as a reader. I mean, I sometimes wish I had had more Harry Potters books to read beyond the seven!

  4. “The Simpsons” is one that people complain about these days. I know so many people who loved it years ago, but say that they don’t even watch it anymore because there’s nothing fresh or interesting happening. If you enter “the simpsons” for google search, the first auto-generated suggestion is “the simpsons tapped out.” Yikes.

    I can understand the temptation to continue a series long after its best days are over, but I’d much rather end things before people got tired of it. I love the idea of doing a fourth book but having it be a separate entity, or using it to start a different-but-connected trilogy. It’s worked for other writers before, and I can see why. More story, same world, maybe some familiar characters (yay!) but you’re not locking readers into a MASSIVE series just because they loved the first trilogy.

    Perfect set-up for carrying on, I think!

    • Thanks! I’m hoping it works out. Still have some development to do but realizing that I had the kingdoms at war wrong was a major breakthrough for me. It opened up a lot of doors in regards to a major subplot that had me completely stymied. 🙂

      And the Simpsons….. yikes! That’s a fantastic example. I’ve heard that too. Understandably, you can’t really be new with the same characters who haven’t even aged in 20 years.

  5. “House MD”. I loved the show but when the writers decided the doctor’s original trio of assistants needed to branch out and evolve it left us with a doctor that didn’t/couldn’t at risk of changing what was great about the show itself. They ran out of medical mysteries to cleverly tie into the social lives of the characters to give the brilliant Dr. his “Aha” moment, and in later seasons they forced him to change in ways that didn’t feel right as a viewer. The story wasn’t fun anymore. I’d have to say the switch started around season 4 and by season 5 they were in a full downturn which couldn’t recover for season 6 when I stopped watching a few episodes in. Amazingly they made it through 8 seasons in total, but I don’t think that was a good thing.

    I noticed the same thing happen with “Supernatural” after season 5. I didn’t want it to end, but hindsight 20/20 season 5 would have been a good place to leave it and it would have felt complete. Much like “House” the episodes in the 6th season seemed like they didn’t have a strong thread connecting them, and the surprise reveal at the end was way out of left field. I guess it’s the character development that isn’t organic that upsets me most. You can tell when a writer is forcing a character into a box that they don’t fit into.

    • I’ve never watched Supernatural, you but are dead on about House, MD. The first season drew me in because it was all about the cases, a la “Law and Order.” When it became more and more about the characters’ career advancement and personal lives I liked it a lot less.

  6. I was so surprised to see this post this morning, because I just wrote one about series in fantasy! I came at it from the perspective of why writers write series.
    I think series that follow one character or set of characters for over four books (excluding Harry Potter, of course) should probably be rethought. Most times I stop reading after that anyway, because I have outgrown the series, or it hasn’t grown enough, or, as you said, it has deteriorated. BUT I think that a writer can keep to the same world and write different characters and plots, and it will stay interesting for longer.

    • I had NEVER thought of approaching this from the concept of the reader outgrowing the series…. that’s a fabulous insight, Emily! Trying to figure out if that’s ever happened to me….

      You’re so right. Harry Potter works because the overall story arc was so tight and so engaging…. Longer series can work for some authors, for sure, but I don’t plan to write a long series myself.

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  8. I feel Bones has seriously deteriorated to a point where I can no longer watch it.

    A lot of authors seem to work in trilogies. It’s a convenient number, I guess. Enough room to have a wide story arc, but not too much space that your characters become stale.

    I’m in the middle of my second books now, and I’m starting to worry that it’s quite bitty, and I’m still not exactly sure where this book will end. This one jumps between characters a lot more. I’m worried there’s not enough to hook the reader in at this point, as it’s mostly set up for the ending, which (I’m really, really hoping) will be a bit of a surprise.

    • Best of luck!!! I had that problem with my second novel too. It’s the second in a trilogy but I chose to work POV a bit differently, jumping between characters were I stuck with one in the first installment. Some people liked the adjustment more than others did….

      When I worry there’s not enough to hook the reader, I concentrate of cutting down anywhere and everywhere I can once I’m editing. I also try to rearrange: can I move some of the “uninteresting” bits later on and move some action scenes further to the front? Once you start editing (don’t worry about this if you’re still writing the first draft) that might be something to consider.

      • It’s just frustrating because I’m trying to develop a (rather complicated) relationship between two characters, and it’s quite depressing and I’m not finding it easy to write about. I think because I know that the relationship isn’t going anywhere, and the reader knows it’s not going anywhere, it’s really hard work trying to convince my character that it might go somewhere, if that makes sense. I think I might have to pull forward the secondary storyline during editing, just so the reader can take a break from that.

        • that sounds like a great idea!!! I am having a VERY similar problem in my WIP right now…. just figuring out how to rework things a bit to make things feel more logical and throw less attention on a doomed/impossible relationship

  9. Enjoyed your post. The topic is highly pertinent. I’ve just wrapped up my Double Helix series at four books. Danyael and Zara’s story is told, and yes, I’m sure they could find more trouble to get into, but their story is essentially done. That, however, doesn’t prelude the possibility of spin-offs. I’m planning novels that focus on the side characters of the main series, and it’ll give me a chance to keep playing in that world that my readers love, while shifting the spotlight to someone else and making them interesting.

  10. I know this isn’t a TV series, per say, but I believe that Saturday Night Live has outlasted its usefulness. It’s become a mainstay primarily because there is nothing else on that competes against it, nor is there really any alternative except to shut off the TV. All other variety shows (Mad TV, In Living Color) have gone the way of the axe but not SNL.

    I think an open ended series is a good idea because you have that continuous development of the characters but not necessarily a deadline of how many is too many or not enough. You pace yourself one novel at a a time. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a great example.

    • I agree with you about SNL. I stopped watching years ago. Sadly, it’s just not funny anymore! Thanks as well for the Pratchett example! I’ve heard lots of people mention him and his books but not in that regard. I really need to read his stuff!

  11. I started reading the Stephanie Plum series years back, it is way past time to end that one. I feel awful for saying it aloud about a fellow writer. I love when people have spin-offs! I can check up on my favorite characters but I am following new ones. Love love love it. I’m writing book 1 in a series, but hadn’t thought about how long the series would be. Is it better to figure that out before you write the remaining books? Or wait and see as it grows?

    • I think that depends on the individual writer and how comfortable you are with uncertainty and with winging it and how much you love adventure.

      I originally thought my first book–well, the overall plot of my first book–would cover multiple novels and be a series in itself. Then I thought it might be four books, and it ended up at three. So I definitely didn’t really know. I did some thinking about the topic but never planned or plotted the series out on paper.

  12. I thought about this, because I worked for a publisher that originally slated a series for six books, but then dragged it out for twelve because it started making money. Some people loved the series; others disliked some of the books.

    I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, because it has several mini-series. Also, he’s such a great writer. With some writers, I don’t care how many books are in their series. If I love it, I’ll read it. But with others, when the series looses quality and just seems to be all about the dollar, I feel cheated.

    As for me, I don’t plan to write a long series. I’m writing a two-book series right now. The next book after that might be a stand-alone.

    • That sounds cool! I have my trilogy but I’m working on a followup that I don’t know yet how many books–if more than one–it will be. It will probably be at least two, I think. I’m not sure…. Have a lot to work out.

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