Knowing When to End

12 June 2013

From NYT bestselling author Dave Farland:

Have you ever noticed how a television or movie series can grab you at the beginning but feel tired and “old” after a few episodes?

I loved Harry Potter when it came out, but for me at least, it became stale. I quit reading the series at book six, deciding that I’d rather see the movies, but even the last couple of movies didn’t really grip me.

. . . .

There are two reasons why tales go stale, I’m convinced. The first one is that when we first see a great movie or read a great book, we go into the story with a lot of questions. Who is our protagonist, our antagonist, our cast? What are their interesting quirks? What is the world like? What are the major conflicts? What obstacles need to be overcome?

A good writer will look for dozens of way to keep you wondering. But eventually, the questions all have to get answered. Sure, you might be able to string the audience along for a while, the way that the writers did with the television series “Lost” and “Heroes,” but eventually you have to answer the question “What’s going on?” or the audience will walk out on you. With both of those series, I felt that the writers were cheating, and I walked out early.

Once you let us know who your protagonists are and their conflicts, you enter a dangerous part of your story. You see, very often, as an author we use suspense and mystery as our draws, emotions that drag a reader into a story.

But once the reader knows what’s going on, the reader silently begins asking the question, “Do I care?”

Readers will only care about a story so long as the protagonists are likeable (what makes a protagonist likeable is a large topic in itself), and the protagonists must be going through some conflicts that grip the reader. Such questions as “Will Dan and Gina fall in love?” “Will Gina catch her mother’s killer?” and “Will Dan ever overcome his drinking problem?” all need to be answered. Once they’re answered, that story is done—forever.

. . . .

With mysteries, you’ve got a little more leeway. You can have a detective solve a crime, catch a criminal, have that criminal get released from prison or escape somehow, and then have your detective track him down again. But you can’t do it endlessly. If your killer escapes justice once, shame on him. If he does it twice, shame on your detective. At least in American fiction, the criminal would need to die after a couple of movies.

Of course, the detective can solve a new crime—as with Sherlock Holmes or Die Hard—but eventually even the most intriguing detective grows stale.

My point here is this: eventually, the story needs to be defined and the conflicts need to be resolved. Once those two things happen, your series is done. Period.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

73 Comments to “Knowing When to End”

  1. I did not suffer this Harry Potter fatigue. That’s the danger of dispensing this kind of writerly advice — it’s the writer stating his or her preference, and doesn’t necessarily reflect on the audience you’re writing for.

    • Ditto. I loved the ending of Harry Potter, even though one of the big reveals when totally against my fan theory. I think the last two movies are really well done as well. The book and the movies always get me emotional. Harry Potter is one of the limited number of series I enjoy rereading in full.

  2. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the supreme gift of the artist is the knowledge of when to stop.

  3. Endings are hard. The Lord of the Rings was one of the few books that had an ending that satisfied me. It had a proper denouement: I found out what happened to everyone, all the proper celebrations were had (and losses were mourned), and the leisurely pace ensured I had a gentle exit out of the headspace of the book. I put it down with a sense of closure and pleasure; I don’t feel the need to go back to Middle Earth.

    There are books that are served by abrupt endings, for artistic reasons, but most of the time I feel like authors stop writing because they don’t know how to end a book, or they think that tying up the plot also ties up the emotional issues. Or I feel that the author wanted to leave things open-ended, in case he/she wants to revisit the characters/books again.

    I don’t expect good endings in modern books anymore, so I’m always pleased when I run into one. :)

    • I too love a good denouement that gives a feeling of completeness and resolution. I find that too often lacking in modern fiction. Though, LOTR’s excellent ending doesn’t diminish my desire for more Middle-earth. ;)

      • I don’t know… when the elves left, it was hard for me to want to move there. -_-

        I don’t mind series books not ending properly until the series wraps up, but I do wish more books had proper closure. :)

  4. This ties back to the infamous “Eight Deadly Words:”

    “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

    Once a reader has that thought, you are done. They may read on a bit out of habit or momentum, but you’ve lost them for that series/story and probably as an author in general.

    IDCWHTTP can creep up, too, and doesn’t always come from bad writing per se. For instance, consider today’s timely “Real Life Comics” strip:

    http://www.reallifecomics.com/archive/130612.html

    SPOILERS.

    The main character says that he stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire not because of anything specific – he has just been mocking people who were mad about the “Red Wedding” on the show – but because the entire second book was so depressing he just couldn’t take it any more. That is exactly why I stopped. It wasn’t that the characters weren’t sympathetic or at least interesting, it was that I knew no matter what something dreadful was going to happen, and that evil people were going to be evil and often suffer no consequences, and good people were going to be stupid and suffer for it dreadfully. (“[N]ow you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”) I stopped caring because in a way I knew what was going to happen and I didn’t care for it. And, not to speak ill of the departed, but same thing for the Wheel of Time.

    Does that mean the books aren’t well written? Nope. They’re great. I just don’t care about ‘em.

    And don’t get me started about Weber’s Safehold series. There we have a serious case of IDCWHTTP because I can’t frickin’ keep them all straight. Dude, when a patent lawyer can’t keep your Byzantine maze of a plot straight, you have gone way over the line. There it’s more like “Why do I care about this guy again? What’s he even on stage for?” Again, good writing (although increasingly forced, back on topic of “It’s time to wrap this up”) and fun characters, just impossible to form any kind of attachment to them because the story is so intricate it’s not fun any more.

    • I admit, I couldn’t get through A Song of Fire and Ice either because of that relentless depression/cruelty thing too. When people started recommending the series to me because “the author has the guts to really torture his characters, and you never know who he’s going to kill next! It’s so refreshing!” I… just… yeah. -_-

      • I am perfectly okay with graphic depictions of evil. I am not okay with perpetual demonstrations of how evil people can do whatever they want because they are evil and good people have to just sit and take it because they refuse to acknowledge that evil people really are that evil. I have real life for that.

    • I think also it has to do with how an author handles it.

      Stephen King is notorious for killing off main characters in the majority of his books. Yet often (although not always) he has done it where it means something, doesn’t feel in vain, or doesn’t feel punitive (again, not always – he dances to the very edge and has sometimes gone over).

      I just finished reading Benjamin Percy’s “Red Moon” – which I liked considerably more than Justin Cronin’s two books (“The Passage” and “The Twelve”).

      I really enjoyed the first third of the book, where Percy developed his characters.

      But I think he became overtaken by a focus on “event” rather than “characters” by the middle of the book, and the ending was unfortunately unsatisfying – even with a potential for a follow-up book.

      I can still say I liked it more than Cronin’s stories because the first third of the book stuck with me so well, and Cronin’s stories felt (subjectively to me) too disconnected and uneven, with a few too many cliches and deus ex machina events, and overall needing tightening and focus.

      Endings can be good or bad or any mix of the two. But they need to leave a reader feeling satisfied. A lot is in the way characters are cast as well as the events they interact with. When characters are cast with an inclination toward heroism, readers expect some kind of heroic result. Characters with an air of tragedy or sacrifice or inevitable sense of doom can either transcend or succumb – the latter is fine as long as it isn’t done senselessly. King often goes the succumbing route, but usually presents a character’s sacrifice as being part of the story and a means of final resolution.

      An author can reflect the way “the world” works and bring on waves of bad things happening to good people. And an author can certainly hold a long view and be aware that the bad things will be rectified later or somehow be satisfying within the context of an entire series. But taken on a book-by-book basis, it really should feel satisfying to a reader. Hold out a little hope for the readers, in other words and don’t overdo the despair.

    • My problem with GoT was that I had a bad case of “I don’t care what happens to this world”. For fantasy, I think that’s the worst thing that can happen. Martin’s world was unrelentingly horrible and boring at the same time.

    • “evil people were going to be evil and often suffer no consequences,”

      Oh, they suffer consequences, it’s just that some of them suffer later — and more — than others. I read all the available books in rapid succession (couple of weeks) and things make sense. Thing is, the work is so huge and Martin has so many POV characters that you’re not sure who to root for at first. But heck, even Tolkien killed off Gandalf in the first book.

      Now, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where the (anti-)hero is an absolute f*king jerk when he’s in The Land, lost me less than halfway through the first book. I’d been given the series as a gift, so I ended up just reading the beginning and end of each book where he’s in this world.

      • Tolkien didn’t kill Gandalf off in the first book; he removed Gandalf from the story in the first part of the book and had him reappear triumphantly at the end!

        • He “removed Gandalf” in such as way as to lead the reader to believe that he was dead. Sure, he never showed you the body*, but the other characters all believed him dead.

          And if you’re being pedantic, then “the first volume of the trilogy”, I think actually towards the end of the second of the six books that comprise the story.

          *(As I told my sister when she warned me of the possible personal consequences to me of killing off her favorite character(s) in my books, “don’t assume someone is dead unless you see the body”. And sometimes not even then.)

          • I am not meaning to be pedantic. I’m just sympathetic to Tolkien, who wrote the book as a single book, and who intended it to be consumed that way. I wrote a big fat fantasy that was intended to be consumed as a single volume, but had to be split into two because of the limitations of the paper book as a medium, and it has been very frustrating for both me and my readers. They are grumpy that the book doesn’t seem to have proper closure; I am dismayed because I really don’t want them to STOP where I had to make them stop in order to fit the book into a paper edition.

            Tolkien said several times it was meant to be read as one volume. I have an edition of it bound that way and it really is a different experience. :)

        • Suburbanbanshee

          Fellowship of the Ring was only the first book in LOTR. (Technically, the first third of the three-volume novel, LOTR.)

          However, Gandalf had of course been a main character in The Hobbit, which came out years and years before LOTR. Soooo, he didn’t kill off Gandalf in the first book.

    • I stopped after A Storm of Swords for the same reasons, Marc. I prefer my fiction less brutal, and far less depressing. I’m a big fan of happy endings, or at least, endings where most of the characters survive.

  5. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Farland. He has the right diagnosis, wrong cure. This is how I see it.

    There are two kinds of conflict happening with every story. There is external conflict (the action of the plot) and internal conflict (the hero working to overcome his personal flaws).

    This is how a good series works. Each book deals with the external conflict of the moment, while incrementally moving the internal conflict along. When the external conflict is solved, the book is over. When the internal conflict is solved, the series is over.

    • Excellent points.

    • YES! Thank you! I’ve said the same thing, too, when a friend and I were discussing what makes for good story. She wrote screenplays, I do books, but I thought this was common to good storytelling for both genres. Interesting characters have interesting internal problems as well as interesting external problems. A good series writer in either genre should understand how that should play out (pretty much the structure you gave it).

    • You can have plot driven books where we don’t want the characters to grow and change at all. They’re fun. We don’t care about growth arcs for these characters–they’re static. Mystery detectives being one of the main archetypes here. And impossible for romance protagonists.

      Don’t generally we want the external and internal conflict to dovetail each other creating synergy? Those stories are very satisfying and memorable.

      The story where the internal conflict goes on and on, even after one or more external conflicts has/have been solved–those leave me wanting. It makes me feel like the character can’t or won’t grow. They seem to keep repeating the same mistakes.

  6. ^ This.

  7. “With both of those series, I felt that the writers were cheating, and I walked out early.”

    Agreed.

    Hey, didn’t we get attacked by a dinosaur yesterday?
    I think so. Why?
    Oh, nothing. I just wondered if that dinosaur killed that tropical island polar bear that attacked last week.

    Don’t know. Want a coconut water?

    But the fact remains. Lots and lots of people didn’t walk out early on “Lost”.

    Dan

    • But the fact remains. Lots and lots of people didn’t walk out early on “Lost”.

      And they got answers. :D

      PS There was no damn dinosaur!

      • I loved the series, but I hated the ending of lost. Very disappointing,

        • I don’t think I even understood the ending of Lost. o_O

          The new Battlestar Galactica was another series that had a ‘wait, what’ ending. It felt haphazard.

          • The plots/endings of many modern entertainments make perfect sense when you understand the base moral assumptions of the Progressives who control most of the entertainment industry. People as a whole are always stupid, usually bad, and often outright evil, and the more advanced a culture is, the stupider, badder, and eviller it gets.

            As noted in the post about the late Iain M. Banks, that was one thing which made his books so refreshing: The Culture is essentially peaceful, hedonistic, and post-scarcity, but you do not mess with The Culture*. Trying to go all Evil-Overlords-Overwhelming-Debauched-and-Degraded-Weaklings on them leaves you nothing but hungry, sorry, and sore. We need more of that. Lots more.

            *”The first rule of dealing with The Culture is that you do not f**k with The Culture. The second rule of dealing with The Culture is that you do not f**k with The Culture. The last rule is that you don’t f**k with The godsdamned Culture!

        • I loved it. I honestly have no idea why some people were so disappointed … even angry.

          • I hated it because nothing was answered by it. Making it all some sort of karmic dream seemed silly to me.
            It was one step above finding Bobby Ewing in the shower.

            • There was no dream. I don’t know why people seem to think that it was. They flat-out stated in the finale that everything happened.

              Practically everything was answered, even if people didn’t like some of the answers.

              I will say that I think it was a show that required more work and attention to detail than most others.

              • Maybe the whole thing went over my head, but I know I’m not alone in my perception of it.
                I will also never again invest a second of my time watching any TV series written by J.J. Abrams.
                By the way, Breaking Bad returns in sixty days and I cannot freaking wait.

                • I want to be clear that I’m not trying to convince you that you liked it; only that it wasn’t a dream. :D

                  I’m the opposite. I’ll give anything with JJ on it a fighting chance. But a lot of his shows do have a lot of extra non-TV stuff that enhance the experience. Lost, for example, had a couple of ARGs that really helped get deeper into the story.

                  I take it you never watched Fringe. That show was awesome.

                  • “Lost, for example, had a couple of ARGs that really helped get deeper into the story.”

                    But that’s exactly why I didn’t like the ending. It essentially turned the whole show into an Alternate Reality. If you don’t like the word, “Dream” than call it whatever you want, but the last show swerved away from what came before it, and almost nothing was directly answered.
                    All that being said, I loved the show itself. I just really hated the ending.
                    Now, let’s talk Sopranos, LOL.

                    • You can argue that half of the last season was an alternate reality, but the entire show happened (in TV world, anyway). Also, I guess I just don’t understand the contention that no questions were answered. I have practically no unanswered questions, and the ones that I do have are minor.

                      At any rate, I hated “The Sopranos.” Gave it a couple of episodes and gave up. :D

                      Vive la difference!

                    • Thanks for the great conversation, Dan, but since this article was titled: Knowing When To End, I think I’ll end it right now.

                    • Wait! I take back what I said about “The Sopranos!”

                  • Just popping in here to agree about the awesomeness of Fringe. :D

                    • I read an interview with the creators of Fringe (awesome show) and they said that the fact that the secret of LOST dragged out for so long they decided to reveal everything right away and go from there. After I read that article, I started watching the show and was very pleased with the results.

              • There was a lot that went unanswered. This is even more obvious when watching it the second time around.

                Now true, much of what’s in the final season actually was foreshadowed in the first (which was one of the surprises to me on re-watching). But other stuff? Like why the shark that swims by when the guys are on the raft has a Dharma Initiative logo tattooed/printed on it? (Okay, that was most likely just thrown in as an easter egg for the DVD/DVR viewers. But still.)

                Actually I don’t have a problem with unanswered questions at the end of a book/movie/series. I have a problem with questions that are answered badly.

                • I don’t mean to turn this into a defense of Lost, but:

                  The shark had a Dharma logo on it because there was an aquarium on Hydra island, and zoology was part of the initiative. What’s the mystery?

                  Even if, for the sake of argument, I agree that it’s an unanswered question, don’t you think that’s really minor? That’s like asking, “Hey, how did Jack keep that stubble?”

                  • It was never answered why Kate pretended to vacillate between Jack and Sawyer, thus leading to a heated shipper debate between Jaters and Skaters – while she was really dating a Hobbit.

                    Or why, now that she and the Hobbit are no longer together, she will be appearing in “The Hobbit” (parts 2 and 3). But Merry Brandybuck’s father, Saradoc Brandybuck, and mother, Esmeralda Took, didn’t appear in the first film – not even with a twinkle in their (respectively) 1-year-old and 5-year-old eyes to symbolically represent the eventual birth of their more-famous progeny who helped bring about the downfall of both Sauron as well as re-connected Penny with Desmond.

                  • Okay, the shark question was more of a joke. (But is the answer clear in the show or only in peripheral info such as Lostpedia?)

                    There are unanswered questions, like who built the various structures and when, why the wheel connects to Tunisia of all places, and the significance of the numbers 5, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 (yeah, yeah, coefficients of the so-called Valenzetti equation. Mentioned in the show where? And why broadcast them? Or use them as the serial number for The Hatch?)

                    • Jack mentioned that the room he was captive in was used for sharks (on the show). The numbers were not only the Valenzetti numbers, but they were also the lighthouse numbers for the final six candidates (also on the show). The numbers were broadcast so that the Dharma workers would know if a value changed.

                      Does it really matter why they ended up in Tunisia? Or why the numbers, which were everywhere, were on the hatch?

                      I can see we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about this. :D

      • Maybe most people just aren’t as smart as you, Dan. Because a lot of people seem to think that there were many questions left unanswered. Note: I didn’t make it past season 1 and don’t intend to watch the show. It’s just something I’ve noticed.

        • I never said anything about smarts, but thank you for the completely unnecessary snark.

  8. Margaret Rainforth

    “But once the reader knows what’s going on, the reader silently begins asking the question, “Do I care?”

    Yes! Exactly why I don’t read John Grisham or Dan Brown any more. For the former, do I even like these people? (Answer: no. Then why am I reading this book?) For the latter, come on, finish the book already!

  9. I take it McFarland is not actually a mystery fan. How does he explain the unending success of very long, stable mystery series?

    As with Holmes, the writer tends to get sick of the series and character LONG before the audience does.

    However, he does put his finger on one problem even for the long, stable series fan: and that is when the author cranks up unstable tension — things that have to change the world and the characters fundamentally — to get “ratings.”

    Whenever a series does that, they get a short bump from people who aren’t really interested in the series — just that short term tension — and then they lose all their audience when it either doesn’t go anywhere, or they wrap it up.

    • The thing with series mystery is that it’s like hanging out with your friends and seeing what’s happening with them, while you also get a brand new story with brand new characters.

      That’s why most people don’t want to see Really Bad Things happening to series detectives all the time. If the main characters don’t struggle it’s no fun; but if it’s depressing to visit them, you don’t want to read their books anymore.

      • I have this problem with series fantasy/science fiction. I feel like a lot of authors are under the false impression that they need to make the bad guy in the next novel EVEN WORSE THAN THAT, and have the hero/heroine suffer EVEN MORE (and consequently, get EVEN MORE AWESOME POWERS). It feels less like visiting friends and seeing what they’re up to and more like watching a D&D campaign progress from level 1 characters to level 25+ epic god-like heroes. That’s not quite so interesting to watch as it is to play. :,

        I was really pleased when David Weber headed that off with Honor Harrington. She was on the whole “powering up to goddesshead” track, to the point where I wasn’t sure how he could keep writing about her… and then he retired her as a main character and started pulling the secondary characters she’d been mentoring into the spotlight. Honor still shows up, which is good because we love her and still want to know what’s going on. But she’s no longer the focus, and it keeps her from becoming annoyingly overpowered where we can see it and be irritated.

        • You’d probably hate George R.R. Martin’s shared world anthology, Wild Cards, then. I stopped reading it for precisely the reasons you state above: It seemed like the authors tried to outdo each other in the sex and violence departments.

          After a while, it gets extremely boring. Like when I tried to watch the HBO series “Rome” during a marathon. Hump, hump, hump, kill, kill, kill, hump, hump hump. That’s the series in a nutshell. I expect GOT is about the same, only with some fantasy elements added.

          Plus, I have zero desire to see a series that now has a scene being touted as the bloodiest scene ever to be shown on television.

          Pass.

      • Suburbanbanshee –

        Yeah, and that is true with a lot of classic TV series too. I think modern writers and TV producers have forgotten how those series used to keep fresh.

        And that was, very often, to let the guest characters carry the threat and struggle and life-changing stuff. As the narration goes: There are a million stories in the big city.

        One of my favorite cozy series — the Mr. and Mrs. North books by Frances and Richard Lockridge — used to combine the cozy detectives (the Norths) with a touch of police procedural (Lt. Weigand) with a Guest character who lead a “protagonist-in-jeopardy” plot. As a matter of fact, Agatha Christie used to do this too. So did Erle Stanley Gardner. (As well as the TV writers who did the Perry Mason TV show.)

        It can be a nice variation if your character occasionally has one that’s a little more personal. (I love Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters books when he has to come through for his brother or ex-wife. These don’t change his life — they just matter to him.) It’s also not bad if the detective matures as long as the central premise of the series remains, but yeah, the “hanging out with your friends who happen to be guardian angels to a threatened world” is a very good basis for a long running series.

        (Hmmm, I did a blog post on the premise of a mystery series – http://daringnovelist.blogspot.com/2011/06/thoughts-on-premise-of-mystery-series.html )

      • “I take it McFarland is not actually a mystery fan. How does he explain the unending success of very long, stable mystery series?”

        Exactly. McFarland does not seem to understand the difference between mysteries and everything else. In other types of novels, the “hero’s journey” is at least as important, if not more important, than the plot. In many novels, it IS the plot. The Harry Potter series is about a young man’s coming of age, so if you start to lose interest in him, you lose interest in the rest of the story, which is only there to provide context and background anyway.

        But mysteries, at least the classical ones, are never really about the hero. Yes, we love Holmes, and yes, by now we read Sherlock Holmes for the character and not the lame plots. But Holmes does not have a “hero’s journey”. He doesn’t have a character arc. Most classic detectives don’t, because the focus of the story is on the crime and its solution. Mysteries are all about the PUZZLE.

        Those that rely primarily on character usually fail on the main level of plot resolution. I recently read an Ed McBain 87th Precinct police procedural which actually did not solve the case, but left it hanging. As a reader, I felt cheated and betrayed; McBain apparently cared more for his cast of characters than he did about the puzzles. On the other hand, Rex Stout wrote seventy-odd Nero Wolfe mysteries, and Wolfe hardly changes a bit over the forty year span of Stout’s career. He’s a great character, really quirky and interesting, and his assistant Archie Goodwin is one of the best sidekicks ever invented. But Stout NEVER let his focus stray from the case, and every single one of them was satisfactorily (heh) resolved. Which is why I can read them over and over and over again, even when I remember their endings.

        It’s all about the puzzle, not the detective.

  10. I think most writers of series would do well to remember the sage advice of Bill Watterson, the author of the brilliant comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.

    When asked why he quit writing C&H at a time when it was still extremely popular, he said: “It’s better to leave the party too soon than to stay too late.”

  11. I love the nuggets of gold in this discussion. Thanks to everyone for participating. For this series writer, a lot of good insights and ideas.

  12. General Hospital has been on air for 50 years, telling story day in and day out, 52 weeks a year. It’s true none of the characters they started with are still there because it’s been so many years they’re dead now, but it’s possible for clever writers find a way to broaden the canvas.

  13. I’m actually eating popcorn while reading this discussion. Fun and fascinating. Thanks!

    • They just handed out huge bags of kettle corn at work. I need to be rescued from myself, because I’m not in control of my body right now.

      What does this have to do with anything? Nothing. :D

  14. My point here is this: eventually, the story needs to be defined and the conflicts need to be resolved. Once those two things happen, your series is done. Period.

    Interesting post and particularly relevant for indies given that writing a series of books can so often work as the basis of an indie business plan.

    Speaking from personal experience, readers don’t have to love the MC if the suspense and unanswered conflict in the series is strong enough. Of course it would be best to have both, characters that readers grow attached to and a conflict strong enough to support a series of books, and then possibly to move on into books with individual plot arcs, but of course it would also need a continuing character arc. I feel DF is both right and wrong, perhaps too large and fascinating a subject to cover in a short post.

    • “Of course it would be best to have both, characters that readers grow attached to and a conflict strong enough to support a series of books,”

      I would not be interested in reading a series of books in which the conflict is not resolved. In fact, when I get wind of any “series” in which the plot is not resolved, or only minimally resolved in order to force sales of a sequel, I get mad. I don’t read those authors any more.

      I think a lot of writers are fooled by “Lord of the Rings” and its imitators. JRR Tolkien did not write three novels called “Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers”, and “Return of the King”. He wrote ONE humongous novel called “Lord of the Rings”, which his publisher, for non-literary reasons, chopped up and published as three volumes. Those three volumes are not independent stories and Tolkien never intended them to be.

      Worse, the long lag time between the US release of “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King” built up such demand and stimulated such high sales that other publishers took note and started chopping up long novels into “series”. A series is a set of standalone, loosely linked novels. Otherwise, it’s one long novel delivered in installments. And frustrating as hell.

      I also blame TV for this trend. Starting with “Hill Street Blues” one of the first series to have “story arcs” that extended more than two episodes, we’ve been inundated with “series” both on TV and in bookstores that blur the line between finished stories and soap operas, with their never-ending, never-resolved story lines. It’s getting increasingly hard to find a TV series or a collection of works by one author that don’t deliberately link in a specific order, which deliberately avoid conflict resolution in order to manipulate readers into buying the next in the series.

      • It’s not about manipulation or short-changing the reader. That would be insane.

        Series have always been popular in certain genres and many readers (myself included) enjoy engaging with characters and worlds over a longer series arc. I enjoy writing over a longer arc as well. DF’s post is interesting because it reminds series writers to be aware of these issues and that it is important to also cater for the readers who are more motivated by finding answer to questions and reaching a plot resolution. But in the end I enjoy writing and reading series and I’m happy to wait for a resolution as are many readers.

  15. I’ve published a fantasy trilogy with a complete arc – love story, adventure, and world-saving all coming to closure – and am now writing the NEXT set of books based on the repercussions of the closure of the first arc, using secondary characters from the third book.

    I get to stay writing in the world I’ve created (where a computer game is a gateway to the Realm of Faerie) but branch out with different characters and conflict.

    As a reader, I like linked series/worlds, and so that’s what I’m writing. Closure, but new possibilities with other characters/scenarios. :)

    • Ooh, that reminds me of another style of series I rarely see: generational fiction! I love series where Book 2 picks up with Book 1′s children, and Book 3 with Book 2′s children, etc. The characters from preceding books are still a part, but as parents and later grandparents and then ancestors and legends. Jennifer Roberson did a great example of it with her Cheysuli Chronicles, tracking a prophecy toward its completion seven or eight generations later. I wish there were more series like that.

      • I wonder if self-publishing might be a little friendlier to the concept of generational storytelling. If a writer doesn’t have to worry about sales on one book impacting their publisher’s ability to publish the next book in the series, anything’s possible.

      • That reminds me of something that Agatha Christie experimented with — actually aging her characters.

        Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot stayed the same age throughout their careers, like so many long running mystery series.

        But Tuppence and Tommy Beresford aged significantly with each of the four novels. They were wild young things, then settled adults with kids, then middle aged, then elderly. I was disappointed at first, having been hooked by the short stories which were still in the wild young thing stage — but I have to admit, it was also enjoyable to watch them age.

  16. When I was younger, almost all books were singular in that the story ended when the book did. Over the last decade or more, I think the story worlds have evolved to be part of a series, a multiple volume set, which is great if the series is great. But now I am kind of hedging back to finding stories that end when the book ends.

    I still love a good series, but I don’t really have an interest in writing a series nor reading a series these days (too many of them end up being lame or boring after a few books).

    Love the Watterson quote by the way.

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