Series Fiction

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. In my last post, I spoke of story length. Today we’ll discuss writing a series of books.

First, let’s talk about serial fiction versus a series. Serial fiction is released in installments. This type of fiction became popular in the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers was released in nineteen installments and published over a twenty-month period. Series fiction is okay if you like cliffhangers and don’t mind waiting months or years for a satisfying solution, but many readers don’t like being left without an ending. Personally, I’m not fond of serial fiction.

A series is a collection of books that are connected in some way. The thread that holds them together could be the same lead character, the same location, or the same theme. These books all have a conclusion and often can be read as stand-alone books.

Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet” series—A is For Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc., followed the same lead character throughout. Several of our Story Empire authors have written series fiction. Mae Clair’s Point Pleasant series and Staci Troilo’s Cathedral Lake books were set in the same location, but each had different lead characters. Craig Boyack’s Lizzie and The Hat series features the same lead characters but with different adventures each time.

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I tend to think of a series as having at least three novels. However, there are some with as few as two. As far as a maximum number, it seems almost anything goes.

Sue Grafton wrote twenty-five Alphabet books and planned to write number twenty-six before her death in 2017. An author I recently began following, William Kent Krueger, released the nineteenth in his Cork O’Connor series yesterday.

The question for today is, “How many books should be in a series?”

I don’t think there is a simple answer. As long as readers are still engaged and there is interest in the books, keep writing. Here are a few things to ponder about whether or not to continue.

  • Has readership slowed and sales of each subsequent book decreased?
  • Is there an overall disinterest in the stories?
  • If using the same lead characters, have they stopped growing?
  • Have I done all I can do with my characters?
  • Am I virtually rewriting the same story?
  • Is the plot and ending of each book becoming too predictable?
  • Am I out of fresh ideas and just keep writing for the sake of writing?

If you answered yes to any of these, it may be time to quit, or at the least, take a step back. Put aside the project for a while, then look at it with fresh eyes. It doesn’t matter if you still have a dozen more books planned. There are ways to weave new excitement into the stories, but if readership has fallen off, the damage has likely been done. In some cases, readers can be so soured that they won’t care to read any of your other works. Keep in mind that not every book needs a sequel, especially when the sequel is poorly written.

Of note, the television series MASH was still near the top of the ratings when it went off the air after eleven years. The writers and producers felt they were beginning to “recycle” stories than had already been done. It’s okay to discontinue a series if you feel you’ve come to that point, no matter how popular the books are. Eventually, reader interest will dwindle. Move on to something else and strive to write something better.

Do you enjoy reading or writing a series? How many books do you think should be included? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

67 thoughts on “Series Fiction

  1. I love a good series. I’d say, personally, that four books is optimal, five maximum. There are exceptions of course. But I don’t think I can follow beyond 10books. I’m very partial to trilogies coz they seem to strike the perfect balance when written well; not too long but long enough.

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  2. Sorry I’m late in commenting, Joan, but it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy this post, believe me. You’ve touched on things I’ve been considering for some time. I have two series out, and have been contemplating where I wanted to go with each. My Wake-Robin Ridge series has four novels to date, and while I know how many people enjoy reading about Rabbit and what he’s up to with his special gift, I wanted to do something a bit different. I decided to write a spin-off trilogy of novellas, to give a new “shape” to the stories, and because I’d be able to finish them in a more timely manner. I haven’t been able to write much in the last couple of months, but I do think I’ll move ahead with that idea.

    My Riverbend series currently stands at three and a half novels. I was happily writing the 4th (12 chapters done to date) when I realized something I’d always planned to work into the series was sounding like something trad publishing is pushing writers toward, and I rebelled. (I don’t much like jumping on a trend, and am glad self-publishing lets me be flexible.) I put the book on hold for now, but will probably get back to it, with or without making some drastic changes in parts of it. Either way, I feel like I could tell several more stories about folks who live in that sleepy little Florida town, but would angle away from the brothers who’ve been the main focus for two of the three novels that are already published. Like you say, it would still be a series based on location, even if the main characters to date faded into the background more, right?

    So much to consider when writing series fiction. Sometimes I think a few complete stand-alone books would be refreshing to work on. Do many authors write both?

    Thanks for a great post, Joan! Very thought provoking for me at this point in my writing. 😀

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    • I like the idea of rebelling against trad publishing. I’m a bit of a rebel myself. I would love to write a stand-alone novel, and have an idea for a couple of them (once I finish my current series). I enjoyed your Riverbend series and could see more coming from it. Thanks, Marcia.

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      • Rebels, unite! I just don’t like anyone presuming to tell me what I should or should not be writing about. Glad you agree! Hurray for the freedom of self-publishing, extra work or not. We can write what we like and hopefully it will sell (or not) based only on the merits of our work. That’s a plan I can live with! 😀 ❤

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  3. I LOVE reading books in a series! It gives me more time to enjoy the characters. Some of the series I read have over 20 books, and I always look forward to the next one because I get to revisit my book friends. Great post, Joan! 🙂

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  4. Interesting topics, Joan. I think most readers would find serial fiction frustrating in an era when we expect to have everything at our fingertips when we want it.

    As to the correct number of books in a series, I think this is primarily up to the author and, of course, the publisher if someone isn’t self-publishing. The reader may also have a say simply by the law of supply and demand. When I was about in 5th grade, I got hooked on my first series. (The Hardy Boys) Should the characters age over time? I’m not sure, though many authors choose to leave their characters in the same place. Even as a ten-year-old, I used to think, “How can Frank and Joe still be the same age and in high school after solving another mystery?” In fact, it seemed they were frequently on vacation or summer breaks. When a kid recognizes those things as an issue, I think that’s cause for concern.

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    • Good point, Pete. In the series I’ve been reading this year, the characters age. I hadn’t thought about those books like The Hardy Boys, but your right, if a kid recognizes something, it’s time to take a fresh look.

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  5. I enjoy serial stories and a series of books. I have three books in the series I’ve written, but I have other ideas. I’m asking myself these questions now – thanks. What about a spin-off? Is it part of a series if other characters emerge?

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  6. What an excellent post, Joan! I do enjoy writing a series (thank you for the shout-out), but three books is probably my max as an author. When i comes to reading a series, I have tired of some after a handful of books, while others, I stick with because the stories are fresh and the lead character so intriguing. The longest series I follow will be releasing book 22 in January of 2023—and I can’t wait! Kudos to authors who can keep their readers invested that long!

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    • I also enjoy writing, and reading, series fiction as long as each can be a stand-alone book. I’m not fond of cliffhangers that make the readers wait for the next installment. Twenty-two books? Wow. My longest to read (and I’m still in the process) is the Cork O’Connor series that I mentioned in the post.

      You deserve the shout-out, Mae!

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  7. You’ve given many a question to ponder, Joan. I’ve not created a series–yet. I have read a few that I’ve enjoyed. I have an idea (and a loose outline) for a sequel to Jazz Baby, though it’s a sequel and not a series. As for the number of books in a series, I suppose that would be up to the author. You’ve made many valid points on that subject. I read most of the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles series. It got redundant and quite boring long before she stopped. But something like Sue Grafton’s series kept readers entertained pretty much throughout. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.

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  8. Great post and information, Joan 🙂 I enjoy a good series but prefer they can be stand-alones too. I’ve noticed in many series the first book does well and it loses steam with each added book. I don’t plan to write series and like the surprise of the original story. My angel series wasn’t planned, I just kept coming up with stories that included the angels. I prefer not to read serials, but have if they are good.

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    • I have noticed that about series books as well, Denise. Too bad because often an author’s writing improves as the series goes on. One of these days, I’m going to write a stand-alone book. 😉

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  9. I love series. I read a lot of mysteries, and I’m always happy to find characters and a writing style that I enjoy. I know what I’m going to get when I read a Hercule Poirot or Lady Darby novel. I wish there were more Louis Kincaid stories. To me, standalone books from the same author can become just as predictable as a series that’s gone stale. It’s all a matter of the author’s skill with each book. If the characters grow and the stories are fresh, a series can go on for a long time.

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    • My father loved Louis Kincaid books. I think he read every one of them. I’m like you when it comes to a well-written series, and of course I love mysteries.

      You have a good point about an author’s skill and how they can become predictable even with stand-alone books. Thanks, Judi.

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  10. Great post, Joan. I love your questions about whether to continue with a series. There are definitely authors I’ve read (Clive Cussler, for example with 26+ books) where I thought the series went on too long and I stopped reading. I’m also not a fan of serials, mostly because I don’t like the stop-and-go feel to the story – I’d rather get fully immersed and keep reading. I think trilogies or the like (2-4 books that tell a single story and can’t stand alone well) fall in the middle, and I never know what to call them (aside from duology, trilogy, tetralogy). These are very common in fantasy, but by no means limited to the genre. Something for me to think about. 🙂

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    • As a rule, I don’t like books that make you wait until the next installment to find out what happens. Interestingly, I’m reading a book now that picks up where the first left off, but it’s a rarity that I’ll continue reading something like that. I did a three book series a few years ago, and have three more for my current series planned. I can’t see writing more than that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Diana.

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  11. I wrote and published a science fiction novella based on one of my short stories. It was meant to be a stand-along book, but I enjoyed writing the characters and the adventure, so I decided to turn it into a trilogy.

    All three novellas together are a novel length, but putting them out one at a time gets them into the hands of readers quicker.

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  12. I like the checklist, but more as a guideline than a rule. None of my tales set the world on fire. I keep having fresh ideas for the hat series, so I keep releasing them. They amuse me, and I hope there are people who share my strange sense of humor. Most of my tales are stand-alone books. When I read, I prefer the solo titles, but will read a series that catches my attention. Shout out to the short story collections that are gaining in popularity, too.

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    • These are guidelines and thoughts, not rules. I’m against many so called “rules” in writing. “Don’t start with the weather, don’t start a book with dialogue, etc.”

      If you’re still enjoying writing the books, and people still read, I don’t think there’s a set number to stop at. If sales and readership drops off, then I would have to ask myself if the time I’m spending on the writing is worth it. (Although I’m certainly not in this for the money.)

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  13. I enjoy both, as a reader or writer. I have read several successful series and a few that I have abandoned. I loved them when they first came out, but then they got stale and the author started repeating. I hate starting a series and having to wait a long time between books. I don’t mind a cliffhanger if the next book in the series is available for me to continue.

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  14. Pingback: Series Fiction | Legends of Windemere

  15. I think the answer to the question isn’t a simple yes or no for me. I experienced writing my first series of three books and enjoyed it immensely. But I also felt it was done. However, in the example of Lizzie and the Hat, I’m always excited for their next adventure. Craig keeps it fresh and interesting while both characters undergo changes. I know some authors who have 12 to 13 books in a series. As a reader, I don’t have the time investment required to read that size of a series. I think it’s totally up to the author as to how many books a series can have. But I also think it’s equally important that each book in the series be a standalone. I’m not a fan of books that end with a huge cliffhanger. Great post today, Joan.

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    • I’m with you on the cliffhangers, Jan. I also knew that it was time to end my Driscoll Lake series. (However, a couple of characters made their way into my next series.) These are ideas to think about, but by no means and end all list of reasons.

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  16. I’m not a big fan of series. I think after a few books no matter how hard the author tries, things become a little stale. I’m especially not fond of authors who use cliffhangers to move readers to the next book. When Ian Flemming did his 007 series I thought he did a great job of crafting a collection. I tried Sue’s books but fell off after three. Super post. I like the checklist on when it is time to stop.

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  17. Great points, Joan. I have a series half written that I’m not sure if I’ll get back to. Life kind of got in the way. All my published stuff is standalone. I love reading a series as long as it doesn’t get repetitive or stale. On the whole, though, I’m a standalone book reader. For a series to hook me and keep me reading, it has to be good. But I prefer to binge-read a complete series published already rather than having to wait for the next book. By the time it comes out, chances are I’ve forgotten what happened before! Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

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  18. Pingback: Series Fiction | Jeanne Owens, author

  19. A writer draws me in by both writing style and story content. Sometimes their story stretches into several books, other times it finishes with just one. Your points, Joan, have given me much to think about because I’ve not reflected on how long a series should be or when it’s time to move on. Very helpful!

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  20. Excellent summary, Joan! Often the plot draws an audience, but it’s the characters that entice them to stay loyal to a series. Keeping things fresh with relatable characters, intriguing plots, and universal themes can lead to long-lasting storylines. Several additional examples in the comments.

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  21. So many good points here, Joan. I agree with you that a series can be any length as long as it doesn’t become stale. Sadly, I’ve followed quite a few authors in the past whose later books didn’t live up to the thrill I felt reading the first ones. I was a fan of Cornwell’s Scarpetta series and couldn’t read them quickly enough, but after a while they began to seem almost formulaic and the plots became increasingly far-fetched. I don’t know if the TV series Fawlty Towers reached your part of the world, but they stopped making it at the height of its popularity after just 12 episodes and they’re still popular today. There are series from this community on my Kindle that I love – Craig, Staci, Diana, Sally, your own!, Mae – all still fresh and fascinating. I’ll keep on reading as long as they give me pleasure!

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    • I’m not familiar with that series, Trish. Twelve episodes doesn’t seem like much, but if they’re still popular they did something right. Mash went on for eleven years (more than three times longer than the Korean War, which is the time period it was set in). The reruns are still popular today and it went off the air in 1983.

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  22. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy stories are written in a series. I like the way Terry Pratchett wrote the Discworld series. The 40+ books are all set in the same fantasy world, but the characters come and go, so there is always a fresh perspective. There are mini-series within the overarching series, as well as standalone stories. Sometimes there will be a gap of ten books before a character reappears. Reading them, you never feel like a character has been shoehorned into a plot just because they were popular.

    Also, the world developed over time. It started off quite medieval, but then went through an industrial revolution.

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  23. Hi Joan, I must admit that I love Dickens and enjoy his style of writing. I used to read series books as a girl. All the Enid Blyton series like Famous Five and Mallory Towers, Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series. I think series works really well for children who enjoy the continuity. As an adult, however, I don’t really read series. I’ve read Mae’s series and a few of Craig’s The Hat books (I will read them all eventually) and I have a series of Staci’s that I will be reading over my December holiday period, but it is unusual for me to read a series. I mainly read standalone books that have a good solid and final ending. I have never written a series, but I’ve only written two novels for adults. My Sir Chocolate books are a series for children.

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    • I agree with a children’s series. There are several that I was fond of as a child, and they still stick in my memory. I never set out to write a series, but it just happened. I’ve challenged myself to write a stand-alone novel one day.

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  24. I enjoy reading and writing series. If I find people and places I love, why wouldn’t I want to return to them? That said, I also enjoy single titles. A story is over when it’s over. Standalone or saga, if it’s well written, I’ll keep going. If it’s not, I won’t. Great post.

    And thanks for the shout-out, Joan.

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