towards some thoughts on series

I’ve had discussions with other writers about how there’s tons of advice out there on writing novels, but very little on writing series.

File this one under “stuff I know how to do, but don’t know how to articulate or explain.” But this one will be less polished than the pieces I wrote on the structure of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, because I’m really thinking out loud as I go here.

Step one, I think, is to take a look at what a series is. A set of interconnected books, okay. But there are ways and ways of connecting things, and they’re not all going to operate the same. After chewing on this for a while, I’ve decided that you can very roughly sort different types of series into a spectrum from discrete to linked (with two semi-outliers that I’ll note as we pass them.) So:

The Non-Series

At the absolute discrete end, you’ve got books whose only connection is that a single author wrote them. Not actually a series; ’nuff said.

The Setting Series

In this type, the connection between the books is that they take place in a single setting, but otherwise they share no connection of character or plot. (They may not even share authors.) I’m having trouble thinking of any pure examples of this; most often this tends to be a superset of other series, e.g. Discworld or Valdemar being settings that contain both stand-alone novels and series within them, or a shared world like the Forgotten Realms. If you can think of an example that is purely stand-alone novels, whether written by the same author or different ones, let me know. (I think it would need at least three books to serve as a good example; two books in the same setting is a series by the most technical definition, but I’d like something stronger.)

The Cast Series

This is the type of series you commonly find in romance, where each book follows a different set of protagonists and a different plot, but characters from one book appear in another. (Romance often sets this up by presenting you with a group in the first book, e.g. a set of siblings, with the implicit promise that you’ll get to see each of them get their own story eventually.) These naturally share a setting as well.

*The Reset Button Series

As the asterisk indicates, I think this one’s an outlier. It’s the Nancy Drew model: each book shares a setting and a core cast with all the others, but in between books the slate gets wiped clean, which means they have less plot continuity than the Cast Series. Nancy will always be eighteen; Ned will never graduate from college. I’m not sure this is very popular anymore, except maybe in children’s fiction — and maybe not even there?

The Episodic Growth Series

Closely akin to the Nancy Drew model, this has a core cast and a new plot with each installment, but there’s no reset button. As a result, change and growth do happen over time. You see this a lot in mystery novels and police procedural TV shows, because it’s very well-suited to those genres: each installment starts with a crime and ends with the crime being solved, while in the background there might might be some ongoing character-based subplot about the detective’s marriage falling apart or whatever.

The Episodic Arc Series

This one is a hybrid between the previous and the subsequent types. It has self-contained episodic plots, especially early on, but there’s also a longer-term metaplot that those episodes may be helping to set up, and the episodic structure tends to fall away toward the end. Examples include Harry Potter and each season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and yes, I realize the creators of both those works are not exactly looking great right now, but they’re well-known illustrations of the model). Many trilogies feel at least a bit like this, because it’s sensible from a business standpoint to write a more or less stand-alone novel that can serve as the foundation for the later two installments.

*The Perpetual Motion Series

Our other outlier, which I think I’ve only seen in soap operas on TV. Here there can be many arcs going at once, such that while an individual plot may end, the series as a whole doesn’t (until it gets canceled). This would be an extraordinarily hard trick to pull off in traditional novel publishing, I suspect, though it could work in indie.

The Metaplot Series

Here there’s no real attempt to wrap up a self-contained plot in any particular installment. From the start, you know you’re getting a long-term story, and unlike that trilogy approach I described above, the first volume doesn’t feel like it could stand on its own. A Song of Ice and Fire is a prominent example of this, along with TV shows like Lost.

The Single Book

And to cap off the other end, we have our other form of non-series: a single novel that just happens to have been published in multiple volumes, i.e. The Lord of the Rings. The difference between this and the Metaplot Series is that in theory the author of the latter type gives each book its own satisfying structure, even if that structure doesn’t end in resolution; the author of the Single Book non-series just whacks it apart at the necessary intervals.

I think that covers the whole gamut. Obviously some things are going to straddle the divisions, because no system of categorization is ever perfect; the goal here is to distinguish what shifts of interconnection happen along the way, rather than to make clean boxes that absolutely everything will fit neatly into. And series can change over the course of their lifetime, e.g. what the author intended to be Episodic Growth sprouts an arc plot along the way. I’ll chew more on those bits of the concept later. But for right now, I think this is a decent framework? Is there anything significant I’m missing?

7 Responses to “towards some thoughts on series”

  1. Anurag Sahay

    I’m trying to understand where you draw the line between pure setting series and cast series… Do you consider the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers to be a cast series?

    • swantower

      I’m not directly familiar with that one, so I can’t say. But in general, I’m not going to claim there’s a super-sharp line between them. I point to the romance genre as the exemplar of the cast series because it’s so common there, but not everything is going to operate on the model of “here are five sisters and I will write a five-book series, one per sister.” Sometimes it’s more like “there was this tertiary character who’s connected to this other bit of the setting and I want to write about that bit, so the tertiary character will also appear in the other book without being the protagonist.” The actual takeaway I’m trying to set up is that a series whose components share a setting and one or more characters is more interlinked than one whose components only have a setting in common, i.e. the slider’s been tapped along just a bit.

  2. Abby Goldsmith

    I *love* series (and I’m writing an epic one–currently on Book 7, the final volume). I would be inclined to call a lot of my favorites something like a Megaplot, or an Epic/Saga. They build upon the story with each book–same ensemble cast, same setting, same stakes and plot–but each book has its own story arc. The main priority is the overarching story arc for the whole series, which ties it all together.

    Examples: The Wheel of Time, ASoIaF, The Demon Cycle, First Law, Lightbringer, Mistborn, Galactic Football, Superpowereds, etc. Even though Lord of the Rings is commonly described as one big book, and it sort of is, I don’t think it was randomly chopped. So I put it that same category of epic/saga.

    • swantower

      I wouldn’t say LotR was randomly chopped, no — the divisions were clearly made according to some logic. But that isn’t the same thing as writing with the intent of having the story being divided into separate volumes, the way your other examples are (the ones I recognize, at least, as I don’t know all of those series). Those are definitely on the Metaplot end of the spectrum, though.

  3. Jaws

    This can get even more interesting when stepping away from category fiction; it was a huge argument in mid-20th-century English “high literary” fiction, with inebriated arguments in clubs over whether A Dance to the Music of Time was a series or just an incomplete novel when first published or something else entirely, let alone Dos Passos. You’ve remarked before on Dorothy Dunnett. Then there are the never-completed series, especially those with artistic-style breaks in them (if one goes back and actually reads Orwell’s papers, 1984 is a middle book in an intended series) and, umm, retconning.

    Which leads to the problem of spin-off series, where something from the main line is granted an independent publishing life of its own… and may generate an independent fandom life of its own. Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire (aka 1632) series is a good example.

  4. Anthony Docimo

    I think the Setting Series was…if memory serves me, both the planet Genji (my first thought, though wiki says this is a novel), as well as the planet Epona (which had multiple novelettes published in, I believe, _Asimov’s_)

  5. Mike Reeves-McMillan

    Robertson Davies (Canadian literary author who often includes speculative elements) was an interesting practitioner of a kind of setting/cast hybrid approach. Each of his trilogies is named after a city in which it’s set, and generally a minor character in one book will be the protagonist in the next, while the protagonist from the first book may disappear entirely or just be relegated to the background.
    For example, in one book, the protag (a ghost) is absolutely obsessed with a young man who he believes, despite his mistress’s assurances to the contrary, to be his illegitimate son. But in the book in the same trilogy in which the young man is the main character and narrator, he never mentions the older man even once; he’s such a complete nonentity in his life that he never comes up at all.
    I set out to write my main series inspired both by Terry Pratchett and Robertson Davies, and predictably didn’t end up being quite like either of them. I find I tend to write pairs of books with linking characters, events, or time periods, sometimes with the same main characters, but sometimes with minor cast members becoming more important in the second book and vice versa. But you could pair the books in other ways than the way I usually pair them in my head. It’s all in a single setting with recurring characters, and events from one book having an impact in others, but it doesn’t quite add up to a meta-arc.

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