Three Categories of Series: What class does your favorite series belong to?

1170824_archivum__old_library_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.

EPISODIC SERIES

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:

Advertisements

30 responses to “Three Categories of Series: What class does your favorite series belong to?

  1. Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” series is my favorite, which is a hybrid series. Each book stands alone as a mystery, but the individual novels are part of an overall story arc. As I said in my reply to you last post about episodic vs linear stories, I think the most enduring works tend to be a blend–a macro story arc composed of a series of micro story arcs, as it were.

  2. Nancy Drew is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of episodic series. I read the old ones all out of order when I was a kid and it made no difference, except that Nancy didn’t have a boyfriend in the first few. I loved those books… I wonder what I’d think if I read them now.

    I like directed/hybrid series, but I HATE cliffhangers. I much prefer some resolution in each volume, but with continuing momentum in the overarching plot (ie there are problems left to solve, but at least SOMETHING has been resolved at the end of each story). It’s definitely a single story, but doesn’t feel like each volume was chopped off where it was just because the page count seemed right. Most series are pretty good about this, but some leave cliffhangers that drive me nuts and make me want to stop reading out of protest.

    • I’m totally with you: I can’t STAND cliffhangers. I know some people use and like them, but to me they feel dirty and cheap and lazy. Gimmicky. Bah! 🙂

      And that’s a fantastic point about Nancy Drew! Man, I devoured those books as a kid.

  3. I haven’t read a series in a while. The last one was Ranger’s Apprentice, which was directed. My own series, Legends of Windemere, is definitely a directed series. You have to go in order even though each book has a contained subplot that ties into the major plot. I think with longer series, you can have books that only briefly touch on the major plot while handling a sudden distraction. For example, a hero leaving the group due to a break in confidence and the story is the others following him. A few small things can happen with the major plot, but you have the option of tying in a character growth story from time to time. Again, this is for series that are longer than a trilogy. I would say at 6 books, you can get away with one character-development story that only skims the major plot.

    • That’s an interesting point! It could definitely work. I wouldn’t write that kind of book that myself…. it’s a risky concept, especially if it barely touches on the major plot arc and doesn’t substantially, obviously (as you’re reading the book) advance it in some way. I couldn’t pull it off. And I can’t imagine a “Harry Potter” book entirely focused on Ron (Spoiler alert)

      after he leaves Harry and Hermione in Deathly Hallows, for instance. But depending on the series that could be a viable option. I would never have even considered that an option. There truly are no rules to fiction! Everything has to be judged by the author and the series and how it meshes.

      • You bring a good point that such a book would be character dependent. Harry Potter is a series with an ensemble cast revolving around a solitary main character. As important as the others are, the series couldn’t go on without Harry.

        A series where it’s an ensemble cast that are of equal standing can pull it off. In my series, I have 6 main characters and the death of one can shake things up, but the series can continue. I’m not saying they aren’t important to the plot, but the story is set up to allow for character demise. If one of them loses confidence and believes they shouldn’t be involved then their status as focal character helps with the transition. They take the bulk of the book’s story while the others are shown trying to either trudge on or looking for him. The trick is to make sure the main plot moves forward in some fashion, but it’s more of a subtle or single step thing. It could even be the villains gaining something that will be used in the next book.

  4. Lika Misha, the first responder, I like books that stand alone, but are part of an overall story.

  5. you know to me episodic (in TV) is a show that develops this ongoing subtext filled with the same angst found in soap operas. I want a plot, a direction, not who loves who today and infighting etc…

    • I too like a plot and overarching concept that things are heading in a certain direction.

      That’s why I love “Parks and Recreation” on TV. Each season has a plot: they are putting together a Harvest Festival they need to be successful, Leslie is running for public office, she gets elected and has trouble adjusting and makes gains but then the town wants to recall her.

      The stories stand alone but they are also related.

  6. I’m always learning something new from here. Thanks Victoria!

  7. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a hard one to categorize. Hybrid then? He has several mini-series within this series. Some should be read in order (like the Tiffany Aching books and the City Watch books, which have a progression).

  8. I love Monk! I also had no idea JKR intended the first 3 books that way. Coolio. Let me make sure I understand directed v hybrid. So HP is directed because the overall arc of the story is stronger than the episodic story within? Since you said the first 3 were written a bit differently I can see that. Then the last ones were all about defeating Voldemort. So, I should look at books 4 – 7 as examples of directed and the first 3 as hybrid?
    I like all three types of series, but enjoy the hybrid and directed the most. In thinking about my series right now in my mind it’s a hybrid, but I’d like it to be more directed.

    • I like how you break that down! It makes perfect sense and that’s a great way to look at it 🙂

      It’s not that JKR intended people to be able to start at any point. But her publisher knew the second or third book might be the first one people picked up, so they had her write them so that backstory is explained in each of those, so that if you happened to read that one first, you wouldn’t be lost.

  9. This is a great summary of the three kinds of books series. I was a little confused on these lines:

    “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,…”

    Why would you think long and hard before trying to publish an episodic book? Because they are different? If you wouldn’t suggest publishing them, how are they fine as book series? And, what are they different from? It feels like a line or two was inadvertently erased. I was just curious what your take on them was all about.

    Great stuff. I enjoyed reading this. It got me thinking about where my WIPs fit.

    • An episodic book is different from a episodic series. An episodic book is just one single book but composed of episodic adventures that don’t relate to each other, could happen in any order, and don’t really progress any main story arc.

      A book can belong to an episodic series without being episodic in structure. Every novel Agatha Christie wrote about Hercule Poirot is about him solving a crime, and each scene advances that plot arc and contributes to its resolution. So even if the books in the series relate to each other in a way that is episodic, no book in and of itself is episodic.

      In contrast to Hercule Poirot, the chivalric romances of the middle ages are episodic, and they’re not things we typically read anymore. Don Quixote is a bit episodic, mainly to make fun of the chivalric romance’s structure.

      I hope that makes sense and explains my reasoning a bit better…. Let me know if you still have questions!

  10. I love episodic series, because I get attached to the characters but I don’t feel obligated to read a whole stack of books. As soon as I see a novel is part of a long series I’m not interested in starting it.

    • That’s good to hear, and something authors would do well to take note of. Of course, not every person is going to be part of your target audience–ever–but it’s good to be aware there are readers who won’t be interested, on principle in a long directed series.

  11. Pingback: SERIAL OFFENDER? Not likely! (The Most Fulfilling Reasons to Write Series Fiction) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  12. Pingback: AUTHORS: 3 Signals It Might Be Time To End Your Series | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s