“Series”: What don’t you understand about the word?

When “The Fellowship of the Ring” came out a few years ago, I was enthralled by the film.  But as the lights came up in the movie theater, I began hearing some astonishing whines from some people in the audience:

“What?  THAT’S the end?  What a load of crap!”

“There’s no ending!”

Then I got home and went onto Yahoo to post my glowing review of the film, and encountered comments from other moviegoers echoing what I’d heard in the theater.  “He didn’t finish the story?!!”  “This ending sucked!” 

Were these people born stupid?  Or were they just raised that way?  How could they not have understood that “Fellowship of the Ring” was the first installment of a TRILOGY?

I encounter the same sort of obliviousness all the time, from readers who complain that I left loose ends at the end of book X.  Or they ask: how were they supposed to know the history behind Maura’s twisted family?  Readers are mad, mad, mad when I don’t tie up every single niggling question or don’t resolve a dangling romance.  Do they not understand the concept of a series?  Are all the conflicts in their own lives neatly resolved at the end of every day?

And just like in real life, when you start reading a series midway through, you can’t expect to have every event that’s happened in earlier episodes explained to you.  You have to pick up what you can, and go from there.  Or you go back and read the earlier books, to find out the back-story.  That’s what happens when you meet a new love in your real life.  Of course you don’t know everything about him, so you have to ASK.  You learn bits and pieces as you go along.  You don’t mope and whine that you’re in the dark about his earlier life.  You weren’t present at his birth, so you have to play catch-up.

This is one of the dangers of writing a mystery series.  Of course you can’t explain everything that happened in the earlier five books.  You can’t tie up all the loose ends and you can’t resolve all the conflicts at the end of a single book.  Once you make everyone happy, the series is kaput. 

Remember the TV show “Moonlighting”?  Remember the romantic tension between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd? I watched that show faithfully, swooning over every hungry look, every double entendre.  But once those two consummated their lust, the series was over for me.

That’s why the “X-Files” was successful for so long.  Mulder and Scully never did consummate their romance.  I kept watching and waiting for it to happen.

That’s the secret of keeping a mystery series going: the conflicts never really resolve.  A series is like real life.  Your characters encounter problems in their lives.  Sometimes they can solve them within the span of a book.  Sometimes it takes several books.  One of my sub-plots is the romance between Maura Isles and the Catholic priest, Daniel Brophy.  They were introduced back in book #3, THE SINNER.  But only in THE MEPHISTO CLUB (Book #6) does the romance progress to sex.  And when the book’s over, you still don’t know whether they’re headed for happiness or doom.

I’ve gotten so many letters from readers telling me how unhappy they are that the loose ends weren’t tied up.  “You call that an ending?” they complain.

All I can tell them is this: “It’s a series.  It’s like real life.  You have to stay tuned to find out what happens.”

 

16 replies
  1. Dru Ann L
    Dru Ann L says:

    That’s why I like series, because I know once I finish a book, there’s another book coming to continue the story.

  2. Rikkesoft
    Rikkesoft says:

    You’re absolutely right about sub-plots and series. As a reader you should start with book one.

    But sometimes that’s not possible, and I can understand the readers point of view too. What if the first books are no longer on sale? Or what if the person is not a regular reader and bought (or was gifted) the book without knowing it was a part of a series?

    Some weeks ago, I had the same problem, when I received book number 18 for reviewing. In fact, I should read the 17 other books first before even putting one letter on paper, but, due to the time needed, that’s not possible.

    Personally, I like reading series, because after a number of books you feel like home in those books, because you start to know the characters. Here in Belgium is a successful writer who produces two books a year in a series. And I read them all with great pleasure, just because of the “soap” effect. I’m quite sure that if those same books were standalone novels featuring other characters, he never would have had the same success.

  3. racewife22j
    racewife22j says:

    Your endings are what keep me coming back for more! This series of stories involving detective Jane, her family, and friends is just wonderful. I can not wait for the next book in the series to be released!

  4. raylene056
    raylene056 says:

    Series drive me crazy! When i sit down to read it’s because I need to get away from real life and enjoy a story. If there’s no ‘ending’ per se then it’s one more thing that’s on my mind, “what’s going to happen?!”

    Now, that only stands true really on things like Lord of the Rings when it was so abrupt [and unexpected, as I hadn’t read the books]. But I won’t buy any of Nora Roberts Trilogys until they’re all written and then I buy them all together and read them all together.

    On the flip side, I hate it when an author spends so much time recapping what happened in the first book they use up a quarter of the next book just so people feel caught up. I say make them go back and read it first. 😀

    …raylene

  5. raylene056
    raylene056 says:

    Let me clarify that I DO read series and enjoy them, I’m reading yours now, I read the Perri O books, and I like getting to know a character … I really don’t mind it.

    …raylene

  6. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    there are series and there are series….some series like LOTR really have to be read in order-others don’t necessarily have to be-even within a series there can be variation-Mephisto Club really requires some familiarity with the series characters-Vanish not so much-some mainstream series of novels can be read in order or as stand alone books-the same applies to films-there are no hard and fast rules on this-as far as endings which don’t tie things up neatly,just try reading some novels by Cormac McCarthy-his stand alone novels often leave many questions unanswered,just like life does-yet I find them excellent,maybe for that very reason

  7. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Tess,

    I think part of the problem is that not all series are created equal. Some have progressive subplots interwoven between installments, and others are stand alone volumes where the main character has a new adventure independent of anything that happened before.

    Think of the Nancy Drew stories which are formulaic with a protagonist who never ages, and never winds up getting married to her boyfriend Ned Nickerson. As a young girl I didn’t realize that fact and I kept thinking that the *next* volume they’d get engaged.

    Ellery Queen series was the same thing. Different week and a different murder case that the hapless Inspector Queen couldn’t solve and so his son would come in and crack the case.

    When you look at other media series such as television, some shows have progressive storylines with character development and subplots while others don’t. “Seinfeld” had a little progression, but mostly it was a different day a different kvetch. “The Simpsons” may have anything happen including space aliens abducting the entire family at the end of the show, but next week’s episode will start with Homer back at work at the Nuclear Power Plant in Springfield as if nothing transpired the week before.

    Then there are the movies. I would suggest that most movie franchises are created due to box office receipts rather than a plan from the beginning to tell a story in multiple parts. Look at most movie sequels, they were made because the previous movie was a success and so the studios wanted to capitalize on its audience wanting more of the story.

    The Star Wars franchise is kind of a mixture of planned series as well as sequels due to success. If the initial movie of “Star Wars” later retitled “A New Hope” had not been successful, none of the other movies would have been made. So it was absolutely necessary in order to establish the franchise that the initial movie have a satisfying ending, yet allow enough loose ends to allow for a sequel. (Darth Vader escaping death and able to come back to vex our hero another day.)

    That is what most movie audiences expect: a satisfying ending to a movie, but leaving things open for a sequel. They are not used to a story being told in multiple parts where the endings are truly open ended. Which is why many audience members complained about the ending of LotR I. It did not “satisfy” their expectations of a stand-alone movie.

    Overall, I don’t think it hurt the LotR franchise since the audience grew with each installment.

    So, getting back to mystery series and progressive subplots, I think part of the confusion you have gotten in feedback from some of your fans might lie in the idea that they were unaware of your series or other series as being constructed in a sequential manner. It would be helpful for authors writing progressive subplots if on the spine it had a number to tell someone that the book the overall placement of that volume in a series. Then if they proceeded by starting with volume 3, they should be aware that they might not understand everything because they had not started at the beginning.

    I hope that helps to give you some new perspectives about people being confused about series, because they aren’t all created the same.

    Linda

  8. Barbie Roberts
    Barbie Roberts says:

    It seems my favorite authors write series books. Not that that’s all they write, but in most instances, I became a fan of their work through their series. I love knowing that when I finish one book, there will be another coming. Even with stand alones that have a nice, tidy ending, I still wonder about where the characters go from that point. With a series, I’m almost guaranteed to get another installment at some point in time. And while I may have to wait a year or so for the next book in a particular series, because I read a number of different authors on different publishing schedules, it seems like I have something new to look forward to every month.

  9. Frank Hood
    Frank Hood says:

    Tess,

    An old pro screenwriter once told me “Make ’em love, make ’em hate, make ’em wait.” Good advice. It’s how you keep them coming back for more. If you make them wait, of course some will complain, but if you don’t, most won’t come back. Tell them gourmet meals are meant to be savored, not devoured.

    Of course if you make them wait forever, a lot of us will abandon you too. The X files to me was all promises (the truth is out there) and no delivery. By the time I hear they got there, I’d left the building and forgotten the question.

    The recent TV miniseries, “The Lost Room” did it nicely. The hero gets his daughter back (the main plot driving force), but the magical objects are still out there. LOTR was difficult because it was written as a single work, but to publish it (or make a film of it) in a reasonable size, they split it up.

  10. Jaye Patrick
    Jaye Patrick says:

    Bah humbug: let ’em bitch!

    The best series are those that satisfactorily wrap up the main plot point (the crime), but leave some other plot dangling – like Maura and Daniel. I still can’t decide whether they should or shouldn’t get together, and it’s to your credit that I’m wavering and will keep reading.

    It’s a hook that I appreciate, even if some readers want instant gratification between the book covers.

    As for LOTR, not one of those whingers would have sat through the complete trilogy if it had been made as one movie – it would have been far too long to hold their attention.

    I’ve read your books since your Harlequin days and you’d have to write at least three spectacular disasters for me to stop now; and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    You’ve every right to be pissy with those readers who want to be spoon fed their fiction. Luckily, your fan base is expanding so we can ignore them. Name names, we’ll send them e-mails explaining how a series works; it will be an education for them.

  11. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, I don’t know how many times I’ve recommended others to read the Rizzoli series in the right chronological order, I’ve lost count. I mean, it would really spoil the romantic tension between Rizzoli and Dean in The Apprentice if a reader ‘discovered you’ in Vanish or The Mephisto Club, and worked backwards from there. But while I think of it, why did you stop calling Rizzoli ‘Rizzoli’ and suddenly refer to her as ‘Jane’? As Rizzoli she sounds exactly like the way you shaped her for us. As ‘Jane’ she comes as…….well, like a Jane I guess! Please call her Rizzoli in future – even when Dean’s talking to her in the kitchen (or maybe in the bedroom) he should call her ‘Rizzoli’, it sounds so right! Sexier, even…

    As for LOTR, this was the only movie series in which I literally fell asleep three times – in each one. And from what I’ve seeen, heard and read in the media, I’m not the only one. Impressive at times, but sooooo boring at most of the other times. It’s one of those trilogies which, if one of them was on TV, I would not know if it was 1, 2 or 3 playing. But The Godfather trilogy? There’s no way you could confuse any of them. You would know.

    Since you mentioned the consummation of the Maura/Daniel love interest, I have to say that, having waited a couple of years for this big event to take place, it does seem strange that it happens within hours of Maura’s discovery of a gruesome corpse….I thought this to be rather odd timing! If I found someone I knew savagely hacked to death, I don’t expect I’d be in bed with a priest later the same day, even if I was a medical examiner! Unless I was the killer asking for forgiveness maybe. Still, who says fiction has to reflect reality?

  12. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess:

    I’ve discovered two things. One, endings are the most critical part of the book. The reader wants a big explosion to go off in his/her head. They want to be Wow!ed. The quality of the ending is usually how they judge the book. Knock their socks off in the last few chapters and they will leave the book satisfied.

    Second, readers want loose ends tied up. They want to know that the author wasn’t just bluffing, that the author was actually smart enough to inject a sub-plot, or a question, or a character, and then show that it was there for a purpose as opposed to just filler. They want to know what happened to Character X back in chapter 4–did he die, or what?

    IMO, a “series” writer can satisfy both of these (give a Wow! ending and tie up loose ends) by then injecting the next huge question at the end of the book, which of course leads to the next installment.

  13. Tess
    Tess says:

    Struggler,
    this is a good example of “different strokes for different folks”. I can’t imagine being bored by the LOTR! In fact, I’ve watched all three of the movies at least three times.

    Re: Rizzoli vs. Jane — I made the conscious choice to use “Jane” after she started getting a lot more likable in later books. Suddenly she didn’t seem like a cold hard Rizzoli anymore.

  14. Charissa
    Charissa says:

    Mulder and Scully! *smiles* Before you mentioned them they were a couple that came to mind. 🙂

    I started reading The Apprentice because I didn’t know you had a series. But I wasn’t to worried I started from the beginning and caught up to my Nanny within a few weeks. (I read all your books haha.) Most the time I read books out of chronological order because I get them from the library until I can afford them, and people have the next one in the series hired out etc. It’s so, so frustrating! Yours are so popular the copies the library has aren’t in very often. Not many people know about using the online service to put them on hold. *evil smile* and I did, so I put each one on hold while I read the one before hand, and I got them all in perfect timing without having to wait at all!

  15. J007
    J007 says:

    I have never read any of your other books. I just recently grabbed the Mephisto Club on CD to listen to while commuting. I liked it well enough that now I plan to see what else they have of yours when I return this one. (Just finished it this morning). A good writer can make a savy reader want to go back and catch up with the series. When I heard about the ME’s mom being a serial killer it made me want to go back and get that book next. Not whine that you didn’t tell me enough.

    I just wanted to tell you that I did enjoy my first reading of you and intend to now go catch up on the rest of your work!

  16. Jane O.
    Jane O. says:

    I love to read books that are series. If I start a book and realize it is part of a series I’ll stop reading it and get the first in the series. Of course I especially
    love The Rizzoli-Isles series. One thing though I tend to find little discrepancies in the series, like Mrs. Rizzoli was celebrating her 59th birthday in the Apprentice and then in the last book she’s 57. But hey, what woman wouldn’t want to lose a few years.

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