Book series are the norm for today’s writing culture as opposed to the exception, much like it is in the gaming and film world. The reading public overall seems to crave long-term stories as opposed to single flashes these days, so we as authors are often eager to feed that craving. It helps, as well, that writing in a favorite series can be like snuggling down in a warm, cozy bed, bringing with it a sense of familiarity and ease that makes our work that much easier. Of course, like any other writing methodology, series writing has its own needs and its own pitfalls. Today, I want to talk about a particular pitfall that I have run into both as a writer and as a reader: balancing the story arc of a single volume versus the story arc of the whole series.
As with most literary problems, this one seems a simple thing on the surface. Obviously, it is important for each volume of a series to have a complete story arc that is properly explored while also advancing the overall arc of the series. The problem comes most often in the implementation of those ideas. From my reading experience, the most common issue is when the author leaves the story of any one volume rather anemic, instead focusing on the overall story of the series. In essence, the author turns the series of novels into one giant serial novel.
What’s the difference, you might be asking? Serials are one continual story, broken into chapters; series are a series of individual stories all with a common theme. To be honest, most modern book series include dashes of both, leaning towards traditional series, but often with an underlying serial plotline as well. That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a ‘series’ as a serial, as long as you are clear about that upfront.
However, one vital thing to consider in this ‘serial vs. series’ debate is the length not only of each book but the overall series. Think of it like this: the longer each book, the greater the need for self-contained story arcs, thus the greater likelihood you need to balance more towards series writing. Not many readers want to read three hundred pages and have no dramatic pay-off and no real resolutions! However, if each installment is, let’s say, only a hundred pages, you could easily string together a six-installment serial or more. A reader will understandably expect more of a pay-off as your works grow longer.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have long-term series storylines! Naturally, the core concepts of character arcs and continuity call for it. There are quite a few huge, famous book series with only the loosest of continuities and overall story arcs (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Mack Bolan, The Destroyer, among others), but many modern readers have come to expect continuity in modern books. Again, this goes along with trends in both film, comics, gaming, and other related creative arts.
What I suppose this comes down to is this: for each volume in your book series, ensure there are some dramatic pay-offs and resolved story arcs, even if you do go full serial or full series. The more you trend towards series, the more self-contained each book should be, the more serial, the more chapterish each book should feel. Whichever you decide to do, be clear about it in describing and marketing your book and then stick to it!
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!