Last week during a book club an author said, "I just signed to do three more books in the series..." and the room erupted in small cheers and a few groans. That may surprise some authors and publishers because series are a long beloved vehicle for most readers. So it's surprising to hear when readers aren't happy when a series continues. It's an argument many readers go over again and again. When is it time to kill it all off?
This whole conversation got me thinking about what I like and don't like in a series.
And beware, there is always an exception to every case.
Two flavors of series exist in romance novels: the one with a common universe where the focus of each book is on a new set of lovers, and the series which follows two primary characters through their adventures. Most romances are of the first flavor, although some authors try to have a relationship between two characters drag out over a period of books while showcasing other primary personalities in each. If handled properly, this can be successful in stretching out the long story, or it can cause the reader to skip over the boring bits of two not-as-interesting primary characters struggling to find their love match to get the pair of characters the reader really wants to push to a conclusion. In many ways this situation is similar to a television series where two characters dance for seasons on end before consummating their relationship and the series dies.
The most common series is just set in the same universe with little to no character overlap. Occasionally characters whose stories have been told in previous books will show up at a meal or event, but for the most part they are just part of the woodwork. In fact, if a previous happy-ever-after couple seems to break up, it has a tendency to make this reader queasy and a little angry. After all, reading romance is to get your happy ending fantasy—not to face the real-life negatives.
I love series, especially when the secondary characters are colorful and intriguing. Not when you think, "Oh, I missed a book," but more on the line, of "Ooh, can't wait for XYZ's story." When the setting is still new and we're learning all about the characters and their motivations, each new book is a red-letter day on the reader calendar. Around book four, however, many authors hit a limit on possible stories, especially when there are recurring main characters. It's sort of like, "Okay, let's do it," no matter the "it." And if the recurring characters are just in the background and if the action isn't moving, the reader becomes distracted wondering what is going on with the protagonists. I mean, seriously, they should be getting to the sexy stuff.
In my estimation, the most successful type of series is the ongoing relationship of Dallas and Roarke in the In Death books. And perhaps it's because this is really a mystery series, not a romance. Dallas and Roarke have a very hot relationship, but it's not really the focus of the story. That was settled in book two or three and now we concentrate on uncovering the nasty murderer, enjoying the interactions of Peabody and McNabb and wondering about Mira and her husband. Fortunately, the annoying Mab was married off quickly too and she only pops up now as a crowd figure. But the true strength of the books is the storytelling. And book 36, Calculated in Death, which will be released in March, manages, as always, to hit the mark.
In historical romances, it's more common to have a family or group of comrades go through their stories with each book focusing on just one couple. One of my favorites is Mary Balogh's Bedwyn family. I waited forever to get to the Duke's story in Slightly Dangerous, and it remains the only book I still reread in the Slightly series. Every glimpse of the Duke just made the wait a little more delicious.
Another historical romance series I really enjoyed was Stephanie Laurens Black Cobra quartet: 2009’s The Untamed Bride, The Elusive Bride, The Brazen Bride and The Reckless Bride. In this series, all four books have two main characters working towards a common conclusion—a race to England and the uncovering of a traitor, and finding their love. Each book was a separate journey from Colonial India to Regency England with a different couple. Not only was the story fast-paced but it all managed to take place in the same time period, and the points of view never overwhelmed.
But unfortunately, at least to me and apparently some other readers, adding more books into a popular series tends to run the story into the ground, rather than whet the appetite. And how does the reader know when this is happening? Oh, well, there is the contrived "disaster erupts and what was a happily married couple stops communicating and is BREAKING UP!" Or what started as a small town is now populated with more characters than it could feasibly contain. Or a family goes on through every possible relation branch possible and then adds a few more. It verges on the fantasy saga trees of characters. I might just be a picky reader, but I think a story should end so another one can begin.
What do you think? Are you a fan of romance series? Which ones do you think pull it off and which ones have definitely jumped the shark?
Sara Reyes is the founder and partner at FreshFiction.com, a popular fiction web site for today's reader with new titles, contests, over 50,000 genre fiction author profiles with backlists, and permanently archived reviews, plus all the industry buzz. Fresh Fiction has a biweekly segment (Buy the Book) on WFAA Channel 8 Good Morning Texas to talk about new books not to miss. Believing face-to-face interaction is as important as virtual communities, Fresh Fiction sponsors an annual readers conference, monthly literary events, and book clubs. It's an adventure worth taking. Follow Sara at @FreshFiction on Twitter or Facebook.com/FreshFiction.