Yesterday I talked about plot and the concept of writing episodic books: books whose adventures or “acts” don’t necessarily connect with the ones that come before and after. Today I want to apply that concept to series fiction. Specifically, I want to talk about three kinds of series an author can write. Just like a book can be episodic or can have a genuine plot–which means that what happens in one scene causes and flows into the scenes that follow–your series can be episodic or not.
While I would think long and hard before trying to publish an episodic book in the 21st century, episodic series are very different. They’re fine.
In fact, episodic series are exceptionally common in certain genres, such as crime fiction, especially classic British detective fiction. Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple books as a series, and you’ve got a perfect example. Here’s why:
- I read the Hercule Poirot books completely out of order. It didn’t matter at all: each book involves Poirot solving a different mystery, usually a murder, and none of the murders are related. It’s not as though he’s chasing a serial killer through multiple novels….
- Sometimes Christie would write a throwaway reference to a case Poirot had previously solved, but even if I had never read that book, the references didn’t throw me off as a reader. They weren’t vital to the core plot in any way; they were always anecdotal.
- The Poirot series would not have changed substantially with the addition or subtraction of volumes.
In an episodic series, the books lack a causal relationship amongst themselves. As a result the number of books is roughly immaterial. A couple of days ago, I considered the dangers of extending a series too long. This danger is much more prominent for authors of episodic series, I would think. By nature, an episodic series is not extending toward a definite end point, and so it could potentially keep going indefinitely.
A HYBRID SERIES
A hybrid series–that is, part-episodic and part-directed–has episodic elements but is better read or viewed in order for these reasons:
- Each “episode” takes place in the midst of the protagonist seeking an overarching goal: for instance, Monk from “Monk,” who hopes to catch his wife’s killer as he works as a private investigator on unrelated case after unrelated case.
- Even though the “major” plots of each book in a hybrid series are unrelated, the slow development of the global arc from installment to installment assigns them a logical ordering that most readers will want to follow.
- While a hybrid series can extend indefinitely, there is an ostensible endpoint the author could insert at any point he or she wishes to: the resolution of the global story arc. (i.e., Monk catches the guy who made him a widower.)
A DIRECTED SERIES
The books in a directed series have a causal relationship. They have to be read in order, and can be thought of as one long story broken up into chunks. The development of one global arc takes precedence over any episodic elements that might exist from book to book.
The Harry Potter series is a good example of a directed series. Even though Rowling wrote the first three books so that readers could start at any point, the story does progress from book to book.
Each book marks a milestone in Voldemort’s fight to return to power, his eventual return, and then his demise. Voldemort regroups in the early books after each small defeat, until finally he comes back and begins his campaign to take over the wizarding world.
Each step of the way Harry and his supporters uncover more and more of the puzzle that is Voldemort, learning what his ultimate defeat will have to entail.
- While episodic books could never end in a cliffhanger (unless that specific book is meant to be two volumes), every installment of a directed series excluding the final one could reasonably end in a cliffhanger if the author so desires.
- An directed series is always advancing toward the resolution of its global arc. It ends when that resolution comes to fruition.
My Herezoth trilogy is a directed series with some hybrid elements; it’s unique in lacking a specific “end point” that you know you’re advancing toward until you get there. The series is “directed” because each installment involves a challenge and resolution; that resolution is imperfect and thus creates a new challenge that calls for resolution in a future book. I would call my trilogy a directed series mainly because of that causal element. Thinking back on series you’ve read, do you prefer one kind of series to another? If you’ve written or are writing a series, which category does it belong to? Each class of series is fine; but I do think, as a writer, that considering which kind of series I’m writing helps to focus me and keep me on track as I work toward my overall goal. Well, that’s all for today. If you’re interested in more ramblings on series, here are a few posts that might catch your interest:
- on cliffhangers
- the dangers of extending a series too long
- the challenges of writing a sequel
- why readers love series and how to maximize their strengths