Fiction publishing, both indie and big publishers, has become very series oriented over time. This is especially true in certain genres, which include Fantasy, Romance and Mystery.
This is not something new, though it has evolved into a business model in the twenty-first century. In Fantasy, it really got started in the 1970s when Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy hit a sudden wave of popularity, despite having been published between 1937 and 1949.
Suddenly every Fantasy writer wanted to release a trilogy. Some were braver and went for longer series, like Roger Zelazny who wrote the ten stories that comprise The Chronicles of Amber and the partnership of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman who wrote the seven books of The Deathgate Cycle, many of the Drangonlance novels and many other books and series.
Mystery readers who have been around a while will be more familiar with series of stand alone stories, often featuring the same character, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Each of the stories comes to a tidy conclusion, yet the reader can go on another adventure with their favourite character and solve a new mystery. The important aspect of this is that the end of each story leaves the reader satisfied. The mystery is solved.
Romance, when I was a teenager, mostly consisted of stand alone books as well. Often books were grouped together as the same sort of stories, but each story came to a full conclusion. This changed with the self-publishing boom of 2010 and some bad or misinterpreted advice to young writers to hook a reader with the first book and keep them going so they buy a never-ending series. When this is done with cliffhanger endings, the reader has effectively bought an incomplete story. If they want to see how it comes out, they have to buy the subsequent books.
To be fair, this wasn’t unknown in older writing, but the nature of it has changed. When I read The Deathgate Cycle and The Chronicles of Amber, I knew from the start that the serials followed an overall arc and I would hunger for the next books. Everyone knew The Lord of the Rings was effectively one book split into three volumes.
What is different in the more recent series in all of these genres is that it is blatantly used as a sales tool. The writing skill that went into the series I’ve cited is too often missing in the plethora of serials added to the market every day. Novels get cranked out once a month by some writers and the contrast to those that benefit from the author taking the time to develop story detail and nuances of language after the first draft is gargantuan, yet many of these quickly churned out serial books find a readership with compatible expectations.
As a reader, I find this abhorrent. I’ve made sure in my own series books that each one comes to a satisfying conclusion and that is a quality I look for in books I choose to read. The series I’ve enjoyed most all have one aspect in common; you can stop after any book in the series and feel you’ve read a complete story. The only exception was The Lord of the Rings, which like everyone else, I accepted as a story in three parts and bought a full set.
Mary Stewart’s Merlin series is a good example. I thoroughly enjoyed The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, one book at a time. Each a complete story but with an overall arc that fit together. Two more books were written for the series. I didn’t enjoy The Wicked Day as much, so when it came to re-reading, I didn’t bother with it. I’ve never read The Prince and the Pilgrim and still don’t feel I’ve missed anything in the series by stopping at the Trilogy.
Some modern Fantasy series books are satisfying individually as well. The Rebel of the Sands series by Alwyn Hamilton was particularly good and I read all the books because I wanted to, not because I felt anything missing. Same with Shanna Lauffey’s Time Shifters Chronicles, aka The Chronicles of the Harekaiian. This one is technically SciFi because it’s time travel, but reads much like a good Fantasy or Mystery. With ten books in the series, each one still came to a satisfying conclusion.
In the realm of Mystery, a good modern series is The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. Like the other series I’ve mentioned, there is an overall arc, but a reader can stop any time and still feel like they got the full story they paid for.
Romance is especially guilty of the never-ending cliffhanger serials. However there are some exceptions. Helen Harper is one author I would recommend to those who enjoy a little Paranormal Romance. Sarah Maas brought her fae world in A Court of Thorns and Roses to a conclusion I felt gave me the choice whether I wanted to continue or not.
As writers, I feel we have an obligation to finish our stories properly. If I pay for a book, I feel cheated if it finishes with “Buy the next book to find out!” I’ve read many first-of-series books that used this ploy and I refuse to continue those series. How about you? As both readers and writers, what are your feelings about cliffhanger serials versus stand alone books?
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