Series. Love em or hate em, they take a single book and turn in into a network of interconnected stories and characters. For my part, I absolutely prefer series reading. Since I’m prone to getting very attached to characters, unwilling to let them go after one book, the ability to follow their growth and development is absolutely wonderful. And that’s not even to speak of the ability to observe detailed and complex world building, epic story arcs, and narrative style that constantly evolves.
But is there a limit to that? Is it possible to have too much world building, too many character development, or–gasp-a de-evolution in narrative style? Is ennui an eventuality that any given series will be up against at some point? One might imagine that there’s a whole constellation of factors that could influence how to answer those questions. So don’t expect answers here (which would probably require a whole book of its own); just musing on these factors that will hopefully get you thinking of theories and explanations.
So I’ll use a few anecdotal examples, instead (very scientific, I know). There are, of course, different types of series structures one might encounter. For example, (1) those that follow the same protagonist and extended cast; (2) those that switch protagonists but generally stick with a specific set of characters (as is often the case in romance series); and (3) those that take place in the same universe but follow completely different stories across multiple timelines.
Group one might include series like Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, or the Stephanie Plum mysteries. Both are near or just past the 20-book mark (not including short stories and novellas). Both series are apparently open-ended; they’ll keep going as long as there’s still material to write. Usually, only fans read later installments since there’s a lot of pertinent story development that directly impacts later tales. But it seems like both are slowly falling out of favor with many fans. Heck–even A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series ended up killing off Sherlock to shake up what the author thought was the doldrums. So by the precedent set by the aforementioned series, does it mean that a (currently) shorter series like The Dresden Files will also become stale within a few more books? Or is there not necessarily an inevitable Past Due date (exhibited by the very excellent example of J.D. Robb’s In Death series—thank you Aurian for bringing that up!!!)
Group two series would include things like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter books, Lynsay Sands’s Argeneau Vampires series, Christine Feehan’s Carpatians, and Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changelings. Obviously, there’s no shortage of long-running romance series, particularly in the paranormal genre. And in many cases, some of the most popular, hotly anticipated books have been the later ones–as with Acheron in Dark Hunters and Lothaire in Immortals After Dark, or even Tohr in Black Dagger Brotherhood. Perhaps there is something invigorating about being able to follow your favorite characters peripherally, but still have a variety of narratives, of tone, and of antagonists. And perhaps there’s something to be said for suspending payoff in order to build anticipation. As with Acheron (for sure!).
The third group’s best example, to my mind, is Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series–39 novels and still going strong. It’s such a fascinating subject too, since the Discworld books remain some of the most commercially successful, critically-acclaimed, and beloved books around, from start to end (or current end, at least). So what makes this series maintain its longevity? Is it the fact that it follows various characters with only the loosest of ties; that the universe created is malleable and ever shifting; that it seems to jump sub-genres a bit from time to time? Perhaps that the books’ publication order has little connection to the series’ chronological order–making it possible to jump in at, say, book 33 (Going Postal)?
Questions galore! But the fact remains that certain series types seem to maintain popularity and critical regard, while others amass amounts of disgruntled fans. There seems to be a common length after which some cross that line, too.
So I pose questions to YOU: do you have any theories as to what makes a series able to last? What erodes their popularity and steam? Do you prefer reading from a particular series type from the three groups listed above? Do you have certain requirements for new series that you find (no longer than X books; must not be open-ended, etc.)?