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It’s Not Over Yet–Ending a Series Novel

Monday, April 23, 2007

Originally published in 2007

Ending a stand-alone story—like a romance novel—is all well and good . . . but what if your story doesn’t end with the end of the novel? What if it’s just one part of a longer piece of work—a series of two, three, four, or a Gilbert Morris-esque fifteen or twenty books?

I have only recently tried my hand at writing something that is truly a series—a trilogy—purposely. Since I first seriously started studying and pursuing fiction writing as more than just a hobby, I have written stand-alone romances . . . which included characters that could then have their own spin-off novels. But there’s quite a difference between sequels and spinoffs.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines sequel as: “Something that follows; a continuation.” It defines spinoff as: “Something . . . that is derived from something larger and more or less unrelated; a byproduct. Something derived from an earlier work, such as a television show starring a character who had a popular minor role in another show.” Let’s add one more term to this discussion—serial: “Published or produced in installments, as a novel or television drama.”

Now, what’s the difference in these?

Spinoffs: A series of novels that take an existing minor character, setting, or concept from the first stand-alone story and create a new plot/situation for additional stand-alone stories. Examples: Susan May Warren’s “Deep Haven” series and Dee Henderson’s “Uncommon Heroes” series; Christine Schaub’s “Music of the Heart” series that has as its continuing thread the novelization of the stories behind some of the greatest hymns of all time. Spinoffs are very common in the Romance genre—or in TV, though without as much success as in novels (e.g., Joni loves Chachi, Joey, or Frasier or the “Avonlea” series that was a spinoff of the Anne of Green Gables setting).

Serials: A series of novels that follow one particular character throughout many different, mostly unconnected episodes. Each novel is self-contained and could be read as a stand-alone title, though each successive title reveals more about the continuing character(s). Examples: Tony Hillerman’s novels featuring Navajo tribal police officers Leaphorn and Chee; Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels; Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels; Sherlock Holmes; Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys . . . are you sensing a genre pattern? Serials are seen most often in Mystery/Suspense and Action/Adventure. This is also what makes up the bulk of TV programming: the CSI and Law & Order franchises are prime examples. If you’re addicted to them, you watch every week and pick up on all of the tiny hints about the continuing-characters’ lives outside of the cases they’re working. However, the driving force of each week’s episode is the self-contained crime they must solve. Non-addicts can come in at any time and watch an episode and understand 95% of what’s going on (the other 5% being information about the characters that have been built throughout the series, such as Bobby Goren’s mother’s schizophrenia and cancer, or Horatio Cane’s relationship and short-lived marriage to Eric’s sister).

Sequels: A series of novels that contain one continuing story in a finite number of volumes. While each volume has a beginning, middle, climax, and denouement, the main plot/conflict of the series continues throughout the series and finally comes to a climax and resolution in the final volume. This main plot/conflict must be introduced early in the beginning of the first book. It cannot suddenly appear three chapters from the ending. While, if well-written, sequel-series books could be read separately, it is usually necessary to start with the first volume and read them in sequence to truly understand the entire storyline. Examples: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (whether taken as the original trilogy or the full set-of-six films), Tracie Peterson’s “Ribbons West” series. Sequel series are most common in Science Fiction, Fantasy (just do a search for “trilogy” in the books section of!), and Historical Fiction/Romance. In television, these are shows such as LOST or Alias where each show builds the story upon what happened in the show before, and it’s really difficult to come into the middle of it and really know what’s going on without going back to the beginning to catch up.

Ending Spinoff novels is just like ending any other stand-alone story. It is a self-contained unit, even though you may have already started planting the seeds for the spinoff story of a secondary character. What’s important to remember here is that the spinoff series typically features characters who are not POV characters in the originating story. They are usually a secondary character—sometimes even a minor character. Or, if it’s the setting and not a succession of characters (a family, college sorority sisters, coworkers, victims of the same crime) that the series is built around, you must ensure that each successive title, while building on the richness of the stories that came before, is whole and complete in and of itself. While the main characters from the originating novel(s) may come into play in the spinoffs, they are no longer POV characters and any role they play in the spinoff should be minor, or else you have a sequel or a serial and not a spinoff.

Ending Serial novels is very much like spinoffs and stand-alones: hardly anything is left hanging at the end . . . though there may be a thread or two left dangling—but no major cliffhangers. The questions that could remain at the end of a serial novel would be along the lines of a continuing will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between the heroine (Stephanie Plum) and a recurring male character (Joe Morelli). The POV character is going to have some kind of job or life-situation that continually puts them in series of conflicts—solving mysteries, chasing bail-jumpers, becoming mired in political intrigue, etc. Many times, serials will feature an “arch-nemesis” such as Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes serials or the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movie franchise. It is someone or something that the hero will come up against time and time again, and, though each book will end with a victory for the hero and a satisfying ending, there may be a stalemate between the hero and his arch-nemesis that will come to a conclusion only with the end of the series. The arch-nemesis does not always appear in every story—or, as in the case of the Indiana Jones films, it is an amorphous enemy/society against which the fight will be continual, with different faces put on it in each successive story—which keeps it from being a Sequel.

Ending Sequel novels may be the hardest skill a writer ever acquires. Of course, the final book in the series will be least difficult, as you’re finally wrapping up all of the threads/plots/conflicts you’ve created throughout the series. But when ending the first and middle books, you must find a balance between giving the reader a satisfying climax, resolution, and denouement, and keeping some questions unanswered and conflicts unresolved so that they’re anxious to read the next installment. (Have you preordered your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet?) In fact, many sequel-series writers will say that they wrote the ending of the final book at the very beginning of the writing process—some even before they began the first book.

The important thing when writing a sequel series is to figure out the entire story from beginning to end, then determine the main events that can become the climaxes of each of the novels in the series. What is going to happen to your characters before they can get to the ultimate resolution? Stories centered around a war are easiest to use as examples. Which important battles must the soldier hero survive and what atrocities at home must the heroine make it through before the two can finally come together at the end? Sequel series typically feature more than just two POV characters, and definitely more than one plot. There should be multiple subplots. The main plot of the novel is your over-arching throughline. It is the story of the entire series. Your subplots are those which drive the narrative of each individual novel. For example, in my Ransome Trilogy (historical romance), the over-arching question posed in the first novel is, “Will William and Julia fall in love and have a happily-ever-after ending?” Now, by the end of the first book, they’ve gotten married. Both have also realized they love the other—though have not admitted it to each other. However, there are enough threads still hanging, and hints at conflicts to come—in addition to a subplot left hanging wide open—to set up the action of the second and third novels. But there is satisfaction in the ending. They’ve fallen in love and now they’re married and getting ready to embark on the next leg of the adventure, where the hanging subplot will take center stage and drive the narrative of book 2.

What are some spinoffs, serials, and sequels you’ve enjoyed? How did the author handle the endings of them?

What are some spinoffs, serials, and sequels that completely frustrated you by the way they ended? How would you have done it differently to give a satisfying ending while also setting up the future books in the series?

  1. Austin Field permalink
    Monday, April 23, 2007 11:38 pm

    This is awesome information! I never thought about different types of series. But you make it so clear. I think what I’m writing is a serial series according to this description. My main character is a former Army Ranger who moved to Idaho to get away from the world. But his best friend from childhood works for either the NSA or CIA (I haven’t decided yet) and keeps calling him in to consult on major cases. Because his top-level security clearance is still active.

    I guess my question is…now that I know how to wrap it up…is how to start the next book? How much information should be given about what happened in the first book?


  2. Tuesday, April 24, 2007 7:47 am

    I fall into the serial category. I will (when it’s all said and done) have 7 novels with my main character. Each novel works as a stand alone, yet has some added depth to it if you’ve read the ones that came previously.

    I have to say that the first two in the series border on being a sequel. Abby finds out information in the first novel and then discovers the answer/truth in the second novel. So you are left with questions…that was a tricky part to write. How did I end it so that the reader was satisfied, but left wondering.

    I agree that writing the end to a sequel is harder than any other ending…having semi done it once before there’s a lot more work that goes into it.

    Austin–just some thoughts from my experience of writing the 2nd novel in my series…don’t give too much at first. My first chapter was like that and I ended up ditching the entire chapter except for maybe a page. Jump into the story first, then worry about adding the background information that new readers will need. Add the key/important points in the beginning. But focus (when writing) on starting the story off strong and not worrying about background/details. Just my suggestions.


  3. Tuesday, April 24, 2007 11:47 am

    I loved the Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers. That is one of my all-time favorites, and the only series I’ve ever re-read. Although book 3 did seem like more of a spinoff, now that you’ve explained the difference. Good post.


  4. Tuesday, April 24, 2007 2:14 pm

    Boy, I’m betting a lot of writers don’t know the difference. Very educational.

    A lot of series are really a set of spinoffs. One of my long-time favorites is Little Men and Jo’s Boys by Louisa Mae Alcott, which stem from Little Women. Although Jo is a main character in Little Women, I think these are spinoffs because the focus is primarily on Jo’s life, and her sisters become secondary characters, unlike the balance in the first novel.

    I haven’t ordered my Harry Potter yet but my son and I are planning our usual reading party. In the past, we’ve waited for the paperback (usually a year later), buy it within a week of release, and then read it together on consecutive nights until we’re done. But with this being the last book, I think I’ll spring for a hardcover. (I’d love to get the entire set!)


  5. Tuesday, April 24, 2007 4:00 pm

    Favorite series are Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books and Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody books. Thrillers and mysteries.

    One series ending that felt anticlimactic was the Lord of the Rings books. The ending was so protracted as he tied up all the loose ends. I think the series should’ve ended with the crowning of the king with a very brief prologue about Frodo and Bilbo sailing away. JMNSHO.

    I’m trying my hand at two different series right now, one tied together by a family/location through various era’s of history, and another with the main character who appears in each book. We’ll have to see which works best for me.


  6. Thursday, April 26, 2007 1:52 am

    Ditto on Mark of the Lion.

    What I totally expected, though (I read them out of order, 2, 1 than 3) was that there was going to be some 4th book coming along to finish Haddasah’s doctor-friend’s storyline, as book 3 worked the gladiator’s.

    Then I learned it was just a trilogy. {shrug}


  7. Thursday, April 26, 2007 1:56 am

    Oh about HP, I’ve got a reserve in at my Library.

    Last time we were something like #20 on the reserve list, so we sprang for the hardback. Got a call about 3 or 5 days later, b/c most of the people in front of us appeared to do the same.

    I’m so waiting this time for the Library (my husband likes our series books to match, so we now have both the hb and the pb. I’ve learned my lesson.)



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