EPISODE 4: DIFFERENT KINDS OF NOVEL SERIES, WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU PICK?
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In general, there are a three different kinds of book series: the series, the serial, and the spin-off.
The sequel series
Probably the most familiar kind of series to us, the sequel hops with a debut book or first installment and then proceeds to build itself through a line of books that continue the storyline. “Sequel” is the primary word here as it brings the most important meaning to our understanding of series, which means that the books follow in some sort of sequential order. There must be a common thread that links the books together, whether it be a character, the character arc, or the progression of the main plot.
The main feature of a sequel series is that, nine times out of ten, readers pretty much have to start reading the sequel series from the very first book if they don’t want to be lost as to what’s going on. Also, there is a limit to how your series can end (if you want your readers to be satisfied that is). The last book of the sequel series MUST have a conclusion to the larger overall plot that has been building up. Generally, sequel series tend to follow what we call “dramatic structure”, which includes exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and the denouement.
We’ll talk about dramatic structure as I air more episodes, but essentially many sequels series tend to use this structure. Each individual book in a sequel series is based on this structure, and the plot progression of the series as a whole also uses this structure. When we talk about dramatic structure in the future, I’ll use “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy, and the “Harry Potter” series, to demonstrate excellent execution of dramatic structure in sci-fi and fantasy. These series are prime examples of what we call “sequel series”.
The serial series
Perhaps the most famous example of a serialized fiction series is Queen Scheherezade’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, where in order to stay her own execution Scheherezade told King Shahryar stories for nearly three years. She will probably go down in history as one of the greatest and most prolific serial “authors” of all time!
The main concept connecting the stories together are that Scheherezade has to stay alive and she is the storyteller. And you’ll find this throughout most serialized fiction, that there is at least one common concept around which the series is organized. In Arabian Nights, Sheherezade and her survival is that concept. Aside from that, the stories she tells stand on their own. And that brings us to our next point about serials: each story MUST be able to stand on its own.
The point here is that the stories are self-contained and virtually unconnected with one another. With a serial novel, you should be able to pick up any book in the series and understand MOST of what’s happening. The world is relatively self-contained or to some extent, the world will be re-explained if it has become the backdrop for the series itself. There are some series wherein you will be able to see backdrops or common concepts develop. If your common concept is a character, you might show a little bit of character development. If the common concept is the world your character is in, you might show the world changing. But otherwise, stories can stand on their own, and even backdrops must be explained for your audience.
If you want some more contemporary examples of serialized fiction, check out: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum Novels, and if you really want to take it old school, you can check out the Nancy Drew series and the Hardy Boy series, written by Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon respectively. Or you can look into any of Dashiell Hammett’s or Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled noir short stories. The latter two are my favorite authors ever, and brought serialized fiction to a whole new level.
The spin off series
And then you have the spin off… Oh the spin off. Done well, it can become the BFG in your storytelling and storyselling arsenal. But done poorly, and you could end up looking like the all-time literary ambulance chaser. A spin-off is essentially when you take an existing minor character, setting, or concept from a stand-alone story and create a new plot or a new set of circumstances and write additional stories.
Some examples that come to mind include all the authors who have piggy-backed off of the success of break-out writers. Spin offs to Dan Brown’s the DaVinci Code and his other books, comedic renditions of The Hunger Games and Twilight Series, and more. Now don’t take this as a defense of these works or as a ream of support, as I don’t review fiction during informational radio casts. (If you want that, though, I will be doing a review series on my website, but more on that later!) As I was saying, some spinoffs can actually be quite brilliant and interesting. A historical or documentary spin off of a novel that reveals the deeper intricacies of the sites, legends, and and facts used in a novel can be quite compelling.
Other successful spin offs include the countless variations in storylines produced by the writers and artists at Marvel and DC. People have their own attachments and reactions to certain arcs, however, many spin offs tend to receive at least a basic amount of respect in the industry. After all, in addition to having some amazingly well-developed characters and storylines, using the spin-off model is one of the main ways that the Marvel and DC universes have been able to endure for so long. So the comic industry gets a pass, in my opinion.
In many other sci-fi & fantasy arenas, however, many spin offs can come off looking like poorly done fan fiction. Fan fiction can be very well executed, and I’ve seen it done, but usually, it falls flat on its face. I’m not hating on fan-fiction! I used to write it all the time, and I practiced honing my writing skills. Why? Well, because like a true spin off, fan fiction already has a pre-developed plot and characters, so all I needed to do was take the storyline or a minor character in a different direction. Writing fan fiction is a great way to cut your teeth on the sci-fi & fantasy writing and publishing industry behind closed doors, but if you debut with a spin off, you might look like an amateur, and perhaps even rip off artist, especially if it is poorly executed. So I’m going to send out a mass “Caveat venditor” on writing a spin off.
So WHICH series should you write? Well, that depends on 1. what your writing “style” and strength is, 2. what your sub-genre is, what your storyline entails, and where you want your story to go, and 3. what you have planned for your writing career. The key here is to “know thyself”.
So for point number 1, when evaluating your writing style, ask yourself: do I like short stories or large epics? Where do my writing skills lead me? Am I better at keeping readers linked in for a short sweet burst of time, or can I maintain the weight of a progressive plot line? If you’re more of a short story buff, then perhaps a serialized fiction series is better for you than a sequel series. On the other hand, if you like larger epics that intertwine around one common plot or theme, then you might want to go with a sequel series.
For point number 2, when your evaluating what genre you’re writing in, remember that each genre has a set of conventions. You don’t HAVE to be bound by these conventions at all, but realize that the more you stray from a convention, the higher the likelihood you might lose readers. So if you want to write an epic fantasy, for example, realize that these usually include a large cast of characters in a huge make-believe world with some magical or other worldly creatures with some lofty goal of saving or destroying the world (or themselves, for that matter). Ask yourself, what the conventions of the genre are and which kind of series would be best suited for that genre. But be aware of the diversity as well! To keep with epic fantasies as our example, not every epic fantasy has to be a sequel series like Lord of the Rings. You can also have serialized epic fantasy. One good example is the video game series “Final Fantasy”. I’m not sure which game Square Enix is on right now, but I just call it Final Fantasy 1000 because there are so many stand-alone stories along that common concept.
Also, where do you want your story to go? If it’s a never-ending tale, a serialized series is going to be your form of choice. But if your story is ultimately going to have some final battle or conclusion, then a sequel series is a better option.
And finally, for point #3, what do you have planned for your writing career? I’ll take myself as an example. I’ve known from the beginning that my style was to write a sequel series, because I love creating new worlds, new civilizations, new languages, and throw a cast of characters in to see what happens. However, I also knew that I wanted to do an homage (not a spin off) to many of the detective and mystery stories that I grew up reading as a child, and so I planned to write a children’s detective series set in a sci-fi & fantasy world. This has always been planned as a serial series as I want to take the stories in many different directions. And I’ve already started writing it by the way and am very excited! More on that in the future though! So in essence, I’ve planned for long series (at least) for my writing career that will keep me pretty busy. My career plan is only a basic one, and it is left open for other writing opportunities and goals. If you sit down and you think about what you want for your own career, you might find choosing your series style rather easy! We’ll talk more about planning a writing career in future podcasts, but we are quickly coming to the end of this one!
Keep it indie,