I just finished Tiamat’s Wrath, the eight novel in the Expanse series. Meanwhile, I’m working my way through the seventeenth volume of the Dresden Files. There’s quite a few long running series out there, while some trilogies are cut short after two novels. What voodoo allows series to keep going?
Let’s start with a couple of examples. I already mentioned the Expanse and the Dresden Files. Of course, as long stories go, the classic is Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings — actually a short one among the rest of these, and a bit weirdly split, but officially six volumes. Then there’s The Wheel of Time (14 books and a prequel), The Dark Tower by Stephen King (7 books and 2 related stories), Discworld by Terry Pratchett (41 books), and let’s not forget the Laundry Files by Charles Stross (10 books so far) and of course, the unfinished Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (5 books so far).
All these series don’t have a lot in common. Well, these examples are all fantasy or science fiction, but, for example, the 21-part Aubrey-Maturin series is historical fiction. And don’t forget the 14 spy novels that are the James Bond series. So, it’s not just fantasy and scifi.
However, you can see some broad categories in these long-running series.
The first category is the groups of novels that are all stand-alone stories that happen to be in the same fictional setting. The Discworld novels are a good example of these. They feature various characters, and have no continuity. You can even read them out of order and not miss much. James Bond are similar, with James having adventures that don’t really have much internal continuity.
The second category is that of the series that feature separate stories, but all forming a greater whole. The Dresden Files are a good example of these, as are the Laundry Files. The Dresden novels all contain separate stories, but over time, bigger plots emerge (I won’t spoil any). The Laundry Files evolved the same way. You can read these novels more or less out of order, but I wouldn’t recommended it.
Finally, there’s the series that feature a single story spread over a number of books. The Wheel of Time is the longest of those, and is probably the record holder for longest single-story work of fiction (if that record existed). A Song of Ice and Fire is also in that category, as is the Lord of the Rings. If you tried to read them out of order, you’d be completely lost.
What makes them tick?
I’ve read quite a lot of books, and have encountered quite a lot of longer running series that just could not hold up over time.
One of my favorite books ever is Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson, and I loved the first five books of his Malazan Books of the Fallen series it’s a part of. However, the last couple of novels in that series were so repetitive and uninspiring, I barely got through them. I also got stranded partway through the Spiral Wars books by Joel Shepherd. They were okay, but three books in, I got really bored.
On the other hand, I love the eighteenth Dresden novel so far, and the Eight Expanse novel is a real page turner. So what gives?
Part of it is how well-written the story is. That magical quality writer’s hunt for, but is so hard to achieve. That high-wire act of balancing characterization with description and plot to achieve something that is both suspenseful and easy reading while leading up to a powerful climax.
For longer running series, I think that is actually the easy part. There, you need more, though.
More of the same
When something is popular, fans will often demand more of the same. Of course, what people want is not always what they need. In fact, that emotional kick people got out of something the first time, will be less the second time, and even less the third time. More of the same can become really boring, really fast. But something completely different is also not what people want.
Take the Highlander movies. I love the first Highlander movie. It is freaking awesome! The second one… well, it’s different. Highlander 2 is a dystopian science fiction story. It’s really not very good. For the third installment, the writers decided to go back to the original… and copied the plot almost verbatim. Highlander 3 sucks (and I’m keeping the fourth and fifth movie out of this). So, change isn’t everything, and neither is keeping things the same.
Or sometimes it is, as happened with Thor. The first one was okay, but the second one was more of the same and one of the worst recent Marvel movies. Thor 3 took a completely different direction. It is very popular. So, what didn’t work for Highlander, did work for Thor. Sort of. I was more ambivalent about it myself, and my wife hated it. You will lose some fans, and may gain new ones.
Star Wars 7, 8, and 9 are another example. The seventh Star Wars mirrors the fourth, but there are subtle differences; it was a good way to start a new trilogy. The eight movie (The Last Jedi) changed things up. And I loved it, because it was Star Wars but taken in a new direction. The characters were brilliantly set up for a final climactic showdown. Then JJ Abrams, well, made things non-offensive in The Rise of Skywalker. He copied episode six, badly.
The escalation ladder
Instead of more of the same, something needs to change, but not too much, apparently.
To keep a series fresh over a longer time, I think you need to change the world, but keep the characters and type of story the same, although the characters should grow. The Dresden Files is brilliant in this, pitting the protagonist Harry Dresden against stronger and bigger foes, while changing Harry as well. The Harry Dresden in the eighteenth book is nothing like the one in the first book. Or rather, he is, but he has been changed. And he has changed the world around him.
That change is the key. If the characters of a series have no impact on the world around them, their stories will eventually grow stale. The Expanse is brilliant in this regards as well. The story starts with a conflict between Earth, Mars, and the Belt inside our Solar System, and by the eight novel, humanity has spread across the galaxy and faces an alien threat of unknown magnitude.
Keeping a single-story arc fresh over dozens of books is even harder. The Wheel of Time manages, but I sometimes wonder if that is also because Brandon Sanderson took over, and managed to tie everything up relatively rapidly after Robert Jordan died. We’ll never know.
You see George RR Martin changing things in a Song of Ice and Fire, but really, it’s same plot over and over: hero almost wins and is then tortured and killed. So my prediction is the complete Song of Ice and Fire will be a too long boring slog, with maybe an interesting ending. If we ever reach it.
Long-running book series — and tv shows — need to walk the fine balance between changing and keeping true to form to stay relevant. Only a handful is truly able to keep doing that.