Serials: the Good and the Bad


by Raymond M. Coulombe

Once again, I return to a pet peeve of mine.

As readers you may have noticed that a lot of writers crank out serials. There’s a lot of pressure to write them. A good part of that is commercial. If a writer has a successful book, the thinking is that those readers will want more of the same. Publishers will push a writer to repeat the formula that worked last time.

Writers themselves usually have good reasons for going back to the same well. The commercial pressure is there, but that’s only part of it. Writers become attached to their characters. Often they want to develop characters more than they could in a single book. Characters take on a life of their own and demand to come alive in another book or two -or a dozen.

Not only are writers attached to the characters, they get to reuse a world that they’ve painstakingly built. That can save a lot of time, especially for those who write speculative fiction. Someone who writes something like mysteries have to set things in the “real world.” A S/F or Fantasy author has to create whole systems of physics, technology, or magic. It’s a shame to let all that effort go to waste.

There are two general types of serial. One type continues the story from previous books, but each book pretty much stands alone. Another type ends every book in a cliff hanger. The whole series is basically one large book that doesn’t resolve until the very end -if at all. Sometimes the story outlives the author and it never gets finished.

Then there are a few hybrid types. I recently started a series where the author makes clear that the first four books end in cliff hangers. However, that arc is resolved in book five. Every book in the series after that are stand alone stories. I appreciate the warning before starting.

Serials can go on too long. I never finished Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. At some point I started to hate all the characters. Sorry Martin, but I also gave up on Game of Thrones. I know that’s blasphemy, but with his high body count it’s better not to get attached to the characters or story lines. That’s just the way I feel.

To sum up, serials are neither bad nor good. A serial should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story. When it starts to go on just to be a cash cow, it’s time to put a fork in it.

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