What is a series?

There’s a common piece of writing advice that encourages new writers who want to make a success of their careers to write in a series. This does make a lot of sense, and there are many successful series writers (JK Rowling, James Patterson, Anne McCaffry, Jim Butcher)‌—‌but there are also those who tend to produce stand-alone books (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson).

But what is a series, and what is a stand-alone? King’s The Shining was a stand-alone, but a few years ago he produced a sequel in Doctor Sleep‌—‌so is this now a series?

This is worth looking into in a bit more detail, and although I’ll provide many examples, I’ll focus on two in particular‌—‌the books of Mark Dawson and the Star Wars franchise.
Let’s start at the beginning:

The pure stand-alone

This can be thought of as a story that is it’s own thing, unconnected to anything else. Generally, a stand-alone will have no loose ends, reaching a satisfying conclusion without the need to continue the story.

StarWarsThere are many examples of stand-alones‌—‌Andy Weir’s The Martian, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Tolstoy’s War And Peace. In some ways, before the sequels were released, the original Star Wars film (A New Hope) was a stand-alone‌—‌the Death Star had been destroyed, and the heroes won the day. However, Darth Vader survived, and already the seeds were sewn for a continuation of the story.

The series of stand-alones

JohnMilton_seriesMark Dawson’s John Milton books all feature the same fugitive main character, but each story involves a new adventure, and by the end of the book Milton has won through. Each book, therefore, is a stand-alone tale, but they are all connected by this same character. It isn’t necessary to read the series in order to enjoy the stories, because there is no (or very little) continuing story threads.

Milton is just one of a long line of characters to feature in series like this. Think of Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, or James Bond. Sometimes these stand-alone series use groups of characters‌—‌NCIS, CIS, and so on.

This kind of series works well where the central character (or group of characters) is involved in mysteries or crimes‌—‌each story involves a new puzzle to solve. It’s worth noting that the central character(s) remains fairly consistent‌—‌there isn’t a great deal of character growth.

This type of series can work for other genres, though, and one example is Iain M Banks’ Culture books. Here, rather than a central character, the books are all connected through a shared world.

The self-contained series

BeatrixRose_seriesIn one of the John Milton books, Mark Dawson introduced the character of Beatrix Rose. She was interesting enough to spawn her own spin-off series, and this is a self-contained trilogy telling the story of her tracking down those who have betrayed her. Each book is an episode of this quest, but by the end of the trilogy it is all over, and Beatrix’ story is told.

There are many more examples of this ‘story told over a number of books/films’ type of series. For many years, the original Star Wars trilogy was a complete story, but other examples include The Hunger Games, Twilight, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.

It’s interesting that many long-story series are trilogies. The first part gives a fairly rounded story, but leaves enough open loops for a sequel (Darth Vader survives, Katniss wins the game, but the tyranny is still the same, and so on). The second part forces the main characters to face many problems, and often ‘sets up’ the ending by leaving the story off with more questions than answers (Han Solo captured, Luke with his hand chopped off). In the third and final part, the characters fight back, overcoming increasing odds to save the day.

A diversion into spin-offs and side-stories

ROgueOneI mentioned a spin-off series above, but another term often heard is side-story, and this is perhaps the start of a spin-off. Basically, a side-story isn’t part of the main series, but is connected to it in some way. It might give more insight into events only hinted at in the main series (like Rogue One in the Star Wars universe), or explore the back-story of a particular character (like Solo).

Dawson’s Beatrix Rose started as a few side-story novellas, but there was a longer tale worth telling, and so he wrote her trilogy. So sometimes a side-story grows and becomes it’s own spin-off series‌—‌Buffy The Vampire Slayer spawned Angel, both Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood came from Doctor Who, Better Call Saul came from Breaking Bad, CSI and NCIS both have a whole host of spin-offs, as does Star Trek, and there’s now talk of a Game Of Thrones spin-off‌—‌and that’s just a small handful of examples.

The evolving series

StarWarsSeriesThe stories in a series often hint at deeper stories, and series can evolve over time. So we have the growing story of Star Wars, with the prequel trilogy and the films set after the events in Return Of The Jedi (as well as all the spin-offs in books and animation).

The Dune books are another example‌—‌the first one can be read as a stand-alone, Frank Herbert originally conceived it as a trilogy but wrote more sequels, and now other authors are expanding the story with prequels and other tales.

I should mention Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books here. A series of stand-alone tales based in the same world, recurring characters have grown and developed as they’ve featured in different books. Think of Vimes, who starts off as a down-on-his-luck guard trying to cope with the likes of Corporal Nobbs, and ends up as an ambassador with links to the nobility. ‘His’ books can be read in any order, but there is pleasure in reading them chronologically to appreciate his growth. But there are also so many characters, and such a rich world, that there always felt like more stories were yet to be told. As with the expanding world of Star Wars (or, as another example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films), each adventure gives rise to the potential for even more.

The continuing series / the serial

IsabellaRose_seriesSometimes, a series evolves with an on-going arc, and Dawson’s Isabella Rose books are like this. They follow Beatrix Rose’s daughter (who originally appeared in those Beatrix Rose books I mentioned above, making this a spin-off of a spin-off), but although certain loops are closed in each book, there is a large overall story growing, and none of the books really end with Isabella in perfect safety‌—‌as readers, we know there is more to come.

These are often called serials, and they are very likely to employ cliff-hanger endings‌—‌think of the old black-and-white TV shows like Flash Gordon. Although there are many who dislike them in books (especially when unexpected), they are undoubtedly one way to garner interest in the next instalment. They’re not as common in films (where viewers still expect a ‘complete’ experience), but are still used in many TV shows.

These types of series can come to an end (as Game Of Thrones is), with the final season tying up enough of the story threads to satisfy fans. But there are some shows that keep on going‌—‌soap operas. These involve many characters with intertwining story-lines, and viewers are often following many threads at once. As one story-line comes to a conclusion, others are already rushing along, so the viewer is continually drawn back to find out ‘what happens next’.


As I’ve hopefully shown, there is no simple stand-alone/series dichotomy, but rather many ways of telling stories, and of having those stories grow over time. Stand-alones can become series, and series can spawn stand-alone tales. Stories intertwine all the time‌—‌and even in a stand-alone, there are hints of more stories.

It does appear that writing in a series can maximise success‌—‌if that series proves popular. But this doesn’t mean a series has to start as something huge. Most of the examples mentioned above started small (a single Star Wars film, the first John Milton adventure), and grew over time. And this makes a lot of sense‌—‌stories are living things, and the telling of one opens up the possibilities of more. Even if a particular story doesn’t focus on them, there are always questions. If a writer/producer can create stories to answer the questions readers/viewers are asking, then the series will grow.

Wayward Pines, Star Wars and the Structure of a Series

 

I’ve just finished reading the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (okay, so it sometimes takes me a long time to get round to books), and I really enjoyed it. I loved the way Crouch evoked the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and when the truth behind the town of Wayward Pines was revealed, it was not at all what I was expecting. The trilogy was well-paced, and although I read them fast, they didn’t feel rushed. But there was one thing in particular that I kept on thinking about, and that was how well the series was structured.

In fact, the series structure reminded me a lot of the original Star Wars films. I’ll explain this in more detail as I go on.

The first book, Pines, starts off like an amnesia thriller (with a main character coming to after an accident and not understanding exactly what’s going on around him), and for the first half things get stranger and stranger. When the ending does come, it works well, bringing the book to a satisfying close while still leaving enough open for a sequel.

This is one thing that struck me — although the book is part of a series, it is also complete in itself. If I had not gone on to read others, or if Crouch had not written them, this book would still work. It’s like that first Star Wars film (IV, not I) — the story ends, yet there is so much more that could be explored in the story universe.

Wayward, the second book, picks things up a short while after the first finishes, and it has a different feel. Where the first book is more of a mystery, as the main character uncovers the truth of the town, the second looks at what he will do now that he knows this truth. And it’s good that it feels different — it’s not like a big-budget film sequel, where the story is basically the same, but the explosions are bigger and the body count is higher. Instead, it takes the original idea and expands on it.

Where the first book comes to a definite close, things are different at the close of the second book. Although the main story arc is brought to a conclusion, there is a huge cliffhanger. The hero manages to win, but the final chapter stars to show the dire consequences of this, and it’s clear that he’s not out of danger yet — in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Back to the Star Wars trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back. In that film, Luke has survived his duel with Darth Vader, but he’s lost a hand, and Han Solo’s frozen in carbonite. We know, as viewers, that the story is not yet over.

With Wayward Pines, if this had been the ending of the first book, I would have felt annoyed. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. Unless a book makes it pretty clear that there will be a cliffhanger ending (for instance, if it is clearly part of a serial), I expect some sort of complete story, and if the story is left hanging I feel tricked. Even if the story is good enough that I want to find out what happens next, a big part of me resents paying out for this. I’ve read too many continuing stories where, a few books in, it feels like the author has run out of steam, and I’m left reading something that fizzles out to nothing.

Yet I didn’t have a problem with this ending in Wayward. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there was a full story, despite the cliffhanger. Second, it was the second book in the series, not the first. I’d read enough to know I was enjoying the ride, and I was invested in the series. I went on to get the third because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I needed to know what happened next.

So on to the third book, The Last Town. It starts off exactly where the second ends, and the initial third is pretty much non-stop action. Initially this concerned me — I wondered if the action was being used to disguise a weak plot — but the story is solid when it kicks in. And, again, it was not simply a rehash of what had gone before.

The ending of the book works well, and also brings the complete trilogy to a solid conclusion. There is a single-line epilogue that leaves scope for more books, and there are plenty of aspects of the story-world that could be developed, but the trilogy feels like a whole. Although I’d happily buy more Wayward Pines books, I don’t need them in order to feel that I’ve had a great reading experience.

Again, this is like that original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are all the other stories, either films or books, and more are planned. But the original three films work on their own. I can explore more of this universe, but I don’t have to in order to understand the originals.

The way the Wayward Pines trilogy is structured gives me something else — confidence that Crouch won’t write a follow-on simply because ‘it will sell’. If there are more books, I would imagine they will be thought-out, and will expand on rather than retread ideas.

So as a summary, what have I learnt about the structure of a series from these books? This is personal, and you might not agree with this, but for me, there are three main things:

  • I don’t like to feel tricked into buying more books, so for me a complete story, with sequel potential, works well (especially as the first book in a series).
  • If there is a cliffhanger ending, the book still needs an overall story arc that is satisfying.
  • Second and third books should not simply be ‘more of the same’, but should push into other areas.

I’ll probably write more at some point on what I think makes a good or bad series (or serial), but I’ll leave it for now.

(See what I’ve done there? I’ve come to the conclusion of this post, but I’ve left it open for a sequel. Maybe the next time I write about this topic, I’ll have to make it a two-parter.)