Skip to content

Writing the Series Novel: The End–or Is It?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Before we can consider how we move on into a second, third, or sixteenth book in our series, we need to be able to successfully end the first book. The advice that most editors and agents will give is that, in the CBA especially, while editors like to look at series—to know that an author they’re about to invest in has more than one novel in them—they aren’t necessarily going to immediately dive into purchasing a seven-book series from an unproven author. Their advice: make your books read like stand-alone novels, even if it’s a continuing story throughout. For spinoff and serial novels, this is much easier than it is for sequel series where the main conflict of the story arcs over all of the volumes.

Ending Spinoff novels is just like ending any other stand-alone story. The first novel 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. However, spinoffs can be tied together by having a continuing minor subplot thread through all of them—such as Meredith, in Menu for Romance working with Anne (heroine of Stand-In Groom) to plan Anne’s wedding. Or the continuing story of Jennifer’s cancer in the O’Malley series—a seemingly minor subplot which doesn’t have to be known by the reader to enjoy the books individually, but which actually sets in motion the events of the final book in the series.

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 original Indiana Jones movies. 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. 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 with another POV character—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.

For Discussion:
How much closure do you want at the end of a series novel? How much do you think can be left hanging and how much needs to be concluded? What will make you want to read the next book in a spinoff series? a serial series? a sequel series?

  1. Thursday, June 19, 2008 10:00 am

    For me, I need the main plot tied up. You can leave all or some of the subplots hanging for future books, but don’t cheat me on the main plot!


  2. Thursday, June 19, 2008 10:56 am

    From “main plot,” can I extrapolate that you mean the plot that’s driving the narrative of that particular book? Or do you choose not to read sequel-series that have one main plot for the entire series of books that doesn’t get wrapped up until the very end?


  3. Thursday, June 19, 2008 5:39 pm

    I love an arch-nemesis, or an open-ended relationship, in a series. The case, issue, whatever, needs to be solved, but the romance or the catching the bad guy behind the bad guy can be left open.


  4. Thursday, June 19, 2008 8:01 pm

    OHhh, I was just contemplated this very thing!

    I think it depends on the book. When I read Francine River’s Mark of the Lion series, I about had a heart attack at the end of book one. Seriously, I probably cried for an hour since the second one wasn’t out yet. I was probably the first in line to buy book 2 when it came out. This is NOT my preference, but for her particular story, it was a necessity and definately made me buy the next one.

    For normal series though, I like closure. I’ll read the second not because I *need* to, but because the writing was good, it was a good story, and I’d like to see what comes next.

    So, here is a question. (I ALWAYS have a question!) I did the ‘evil’ leave the reader hanging at the end of my first novel (it is potentially 3 series as well). But the conflict in the book is complete closed and the reader is satisfied. In the Epilogue, I jump forward eight years, and show a happy family. Then there is a knock on the door, and there stands one of the previous supporting character’s who is the heroine in book 2.

    She announces she is pregnant. Everyone is dumfounded. Book is done.

    The conflict has been resolved, but in the last paragraph, there is the teaser for the next conflict. Is this bad? Is an editor ok with this if second book is written or at least started? Or should I take it out? I have to tell you, I am pretty attached to my teaser.

    Book 2 can be read without having read book 1 easily. Book 1 readers will be like, “Ah HA!” and new readers will be like.. “Ohhhhh…”

    Sorry for this long comment:-) It is funny thought because this was on my mind today anyway, so your post was timely!


  5. Thursday, June 19, 2008 8:09 pm

    Krista, because it’s in the epilogue, I would say keep it–and leave it up to an editor to decide if they want to leave it in there or not. That way, it leaves the choice up to them if they want to publish the book as part of a series or just buy the one book. But they’ll also see that if they do decide to do a series, you already have a great setup for it.


  6. Friday, June 20, 2008 11:00 am

    Kaye, I guess I’ve never read one like that. They really exist? Even the mystery series I’ve read have at least the main case for that novel tied up in each of them.


  7. Friday, June 20, 2008 11:02 am

    I mean something like the Lord of the Rings series or JM Hochstetler’s American Patriot series. While each book has an ending, there’s still a part of the story that remains unresolved until you get to the end of the series.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: