This post was originally published at Booklights on September 7, 2009.
Two Types of Series Books
Continuing my post on favorite series from last week, I've spent a bit of time thinking about two types of series books. The first type of series consists of multiple books that follow one primary story arc. Examples include the Inkheart series, the Percy Jackson books, and the Lord of the Rings series. While there are, of course, multiple plot streams within each of these series, the books are meant to be read together, to tell a single, epic, story. Clues are planted in one book that aren't explained until the end. There are sometimes major cliffhangers between books. When I wrote about series books last week, I limited my discussion to series with more than three titles, to keep the number of favorites under consideration manageable. But obviously, most trilogies fall within the spectrum of these single story arc series. In general, many fantasy titles fall within this single arc, multiple-book format.
The other type of series is more episodic. Susan alluded to this in her original post, when she talked about kids who need to read even the Magic Treehouse books in order (even though there's no strong continuing arc across the books). An episodic series (like the Captain Underpants, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown books, to name a few) might have dozens of titles. While the books generally all feature the same primary characters, each book has an independent storyline. This is commonly observed in mystery series (for kids and adults). The same characters solve each mystery, and the story is usually wrapped up within the course of each book.
Of course the difference between these two types of series is not always black and white. For example, in many episodic series (though by no means all) the characters experience personal growth and/or changes in their personal lives from book to book. This keeps the series from becoming flat, and adds an additional incentive for readers to pick up the next title. Still, there's nothing stopping a reader from picking up and reading a title from the middle of the series - the plot won't be confusing.
Also, just because a series ends after a few books doesn't mean that it was a single arc series. All of the books might be only loosely connected, and able to be read out of order. The end point of the series could be arbitrary. It's also not uncommon for something to start out as a standalone book, and then have one of more sequels added. By definition, such books weren't originally published to tell a single story. I don't think that we can expect them to hold up together as one, consistent story arc when they weren't planned that way (though the books may still be wonderful as individual books).
Still, despite some blurriness in this classification, I do think that this breakdown of single story arc vs. episodic is helpful in thinking about series books. The different formats serve different needs. Episodic series are a huge part of various markets, from early readers to adult mysteries. There's something satisfying about reading bite-sized books, at one's own leisure, and then having new books, with familiar characters, become available later. But there's nothing like a tightly-connected continuing series for generating excitement among readers. Harry Potter and Twilight together have created thousands upon thousands of avid readers (not to mention the Hunger Games Trilogy), in part because of the suspense from book to book, the compelling need to know how the series will end.
I've always remembered something that Rick Riordan said about this. He wrote on his blog, on the eve of publication of Harry Potter 7: "The series is still wonderful and I will be sad to see Harry go. On the other hand, I hope Rowling sticks to her guns and ends the series at seven. Nothing should go on forever. Even the best series must have a solid, strong ending. Again, I know many would argue with this. There are readers who would happily buy Harry Potter #28 years from now, but I think seven is plenty."
It seems to me that Riordan is talking more about the single story arc series than about episodic series like the Magic Treehouse books. For new readers who want to read 50 books from the same series, I would argue that it's great to have those 50 books available. And for me as a reader of adult mystery series, I hope that my favorite authors will keep those new mysteries coming.
But for series based on one primary story, like the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, I think there's real value in limiting the number of books. One of my favorite things about the last Harry Potter book was the way that Rowling hearkened all the way back to events from the first book. She made it clear that she had planned out the whole series in some detail. Stephenie Meyer did the same thing with the last Twilight book. This approach makes the reader feel cared for and respected, in a way that a more haphazard approach to ending a series can't.
What do you all think? Have you noticed this divide in series books? Do you favor one type or another? Or do you like different ones for different times? And do you have any suggestions for a better name for these single story-arc series that I'm talking about? ("Epic" arose in the comment discussion on the Booklights post. Does that work?)
This post was originally published at Booklights on September 7, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.