by Jay Wilburn
The smart money is on writing a series. Maybe the smart money is on not writing zombies or not writing at all, but if a person is already hopelessly committed to writing, then the smart money is on a series. Committed readers often gravitate to a series over standalone novels because once they are connected to a story or characters, they want more. They might read the first book of a trilogy or an ongoing series and decide they are finished with that one, but they want the option for more, if they love it. That’s a lot of pressure to make that first book shine. You can’t drop them on the second or third book either though. Some fans of series reading want to be sure there are already a few books out before they dive into the beginning of a series. Some successful authors have expressed that their work did not catch on until book 4 came out. That seemed to be the magic number for many audiences to believe this author wasn’t going to leave them hanging with a book and a promise which might never materialize. This presents a number of opportunities and challenges for an author tackling an ongoing series.
Each book has to serve itself and the broader series. No one doubts that the first book has to tell a story worth continuing. This is the entry point for ever reader who might follow these characters over multiple books. These are high stakes for a story. You have to bring the audience through the book and then send them off still hungry. Each subsequent book has to work too. Readers are more likely to stick with a series the more volumes they read, but if they hit one stinker later in the series or a bad showing followed by something uneven, that can be all it takes for a reader to be done. Each and every book has to stand on its own as a strong, individual story, but leave something open worth picking up the next book to experience. Every book needs its own arc for the characters and the story contained in those covers no matter which number it is in the order. It needs an ending which makes the book worth the time of reading, but also a hint about the ongoing path ahead – one they still want to follow. Cliffhangers can be good selling points, but they can also alienate the readers, if they come off as cheap or formulaic book after book. If all loose ends are tied up completely, then the next volume becomes the invention of a new conflict without a solid connection to the previous action. It is a tough balancing act in ongoing storytelling.
There is great potential in a series which is missed in the standalones. Maybe the series developed by accident from a book meant to be its own contained entity. Maybe the author revisits the world and adds a new number when the mood presents itself or a new leg of the story comes to the author. That excitement and spontaneity can be invigorating to a series and to loyal readers. There is great potential when a series is a purposeful project though. Characters introduced early in the novels can grow in importance over the span of time and grow on the readers. The journeys take on greater significance because reader and character are walking far together – growing together. Bigger arcs and trajectories in the world can underscore the arcs of each installment. It can build to something. In the later books, the author’s creativity can be stretched, taking the characters and the world to some unusual places. There can be setbacks which make the greater struggle more intense. Losses of long-standing characters can have a greater impact; they can matter more. The world can really open up in a way that simply cannot be achieved in the same way in the space of a single novel.
Pages may be the real power of a series. A series has page space to explore deeper and to build slower and more completely. A series can be action-packed, but does not have to tell every story and complete every path by the back cover. There is time to do justice to the story in front of the reader, to touch on pieces of other stories, and then to come back to them for their own page space later. Character moments can be better earned. Well-constructed and respected histories make moments between and for characters far more significant. A skilled author can tie all these threads together over time and come to a satisfying and well-earned conclusion for all the loyal readers in the audience of that series. Once completed, a series is a permanent gift which later readers can explore in its entirety. They know this is a complete thing which will give them many pages of story for their commitment and won’t leave them hanging.
No matter when a great series ends, we can find ourselves wanting more. It mattered that we followed that long. Every new book left us happy we read it and always wanting more. No matter how the series closes that instinct to want more hits us again. Sometimes authors can be cajoled into one more book or a side series within the same universe. They may not want to leave it behind any more than you. Maybe they have a new story to tell you and have earned your trust to start a new journey with them. We have some great series and great authors on this zombie tour. Check out what may end up being your next great series obsession.