All series – even truly great series – end. Sometimes they end with the author’s passing. Sometimes they end because the author has moved on to other projects. They can also end when there’s no longer enough interest (or sales of the series) to continue it. When it comes to ending a series, there’s always a dilemma. If the series is well-regarded, continues to stay well-written and generates lots of sales, it’s quite hard to walk away. That’s especially true if the author’s got a lot of fans and has created a niche for her or himself. On the other hand, we all know of series that have gone on for too long. Such series become tired, pale imitations of their former selves. That’s not good for an author’s reputation, and it’s certainly not fair to readers, who at the very least deserve well-written, interesting novels. One effective way to resolve this dilemma is to plan the number of novels in a series from the beginning.
There are some real benefits to a planned series. One is that the author can develop characters, plots, stories-across-stories and so on so that the series remains interesting throughout. At the end, the author can move on to another series. This can make the prospect of writing a series much less daunting to an author. Readers know the series is limited, and this may make the series that much more appealing, especially for those who start the series later and don’t want to have to “play catch up” with twenty or more books. And if readers become fans of the author through that series, they’re likely to at least give the author’s next series a try. There’s a sense of closure, too, to a series that’s purposefully limited. Quandaries are resolved, truths are discovered, and so on.
That said, though, planned series have their drawbacks. Suppose the series really becomes very popular, and readers want more, even knowing there will only be, say, four or five books in that series? This means that publishers risk losing the sales they’d have made if the series had continued. Authors risk losing fans and royalties. Limited series can restrict the author’s creativity, too. Even if it’s the author’s idea to write, say, only five or six books, if her or his ideas change, it’s hard to act on that creativity if one’s committed to a limited number of novels.
Even with those shortcomings, limited series can be an effective way to make and keep a series fresh and interesting, so readers will truly enjoy them. They can also free the author for other projects and free readers to enjoy other books by the same author (or other authors). One of the best-known limited series is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-novel Martin Beck series. Beck is a Stocholm homicide detective whom we first meet in Roseanna and whose last case is The Terrorists. Throughout the series, we see the evolution of the characters, the changes in their personal lives and other stories-across-stories. We also see the sociopolitical themes that Sjöwall and Wahlöö explored throughout the novels. There are also, of course, the individual cases that are the focus of each novel. All of these (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) come into sharper focus because the series is limited.
Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series is also a limited series (of six books). In these novels, we follow the lives of Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson and police investigator Anna-Maria Mella. They’re first drawn together in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) when Martinsson returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help a friend who’s accused of murder. Mella is the head investigator on this murder and each in her own way the two sleuths get to the truth of the matter. As the novels go on, we learn Martinsson’s backstory and we see her character evolve and develop. We also follow Mella’s personal and professional life. Several of the secondary characters develop throughout the series, too, and Larsson ties events in the stories together. Each novel in the series is focused on one particular case or set of related cases, but the series has stories-across-stories as well. Four of the novels (Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), The Blood Spilt, The Black Path and Until Thy Wrath be Passed) have been translated into English. I’m eagerly awaiting the translation of the fifth, Till offer åt Molok, and the publication of the sixth.
George Pelecanos has written more than one limited series. One is his three-novel Nick Stefanos series. When we first meet Stefanos in A Firing Offense, he’s the advertising director for Nutty Nathan’s, a Baltimore chain of electrical-goods stores. One day, Stefanos gets a strange call from James Pence, a Nutty Nathan’s customer. Pence’s grand-son Jimmy Broda works at Nutty Nathan’s warehouse, but he’s disappeared. Pence has asked around and been told by a salesman at his local Nutty Nathan’s that Stefanos is good at finding people. So Pence wants Stefanos to find his grand-son. Stefanos is reluctant to get involved, but agrees to at least meet with Pence. That meeting leads Stefanos into a major East Coast drug operation – and ultimately to a career switch into the world of private detection. The other two novels that focus on Stefanos are Nick’s Trip and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. However, he also makes appearances in other Pelecanos novels.
There’s also Dicey Deere’s four-book series featuring American ex-pat Torrey Tunet. Tunet is originally from Boston, but has relocated to the Irish village of Ballynagh. She travels extensively for her work as a translator and uses Ballynagh as a “home base.” Throughout the series, we get to know Tunet and bit by bit, we also get to know the other villagers. We see how their lives intersect, and we see the ongoing friction between Tunet and Inspector O’Hare, who resents what he sees as Tunet’s “meddling” in investigations. This series, which includes The Irish Cottage Murder, The Irish Manor House Murder, The Irish Cairn Murder and The Irish Village Murder works very well as a limited series. We see how some stories-across-stories evolve, but the series isn’t overly long. That’s effective because the setting is a small village, where it wouldn’t be realistic to have a long run of murders.
There are other examples, too, of authors who’ve planned a limited series of books. Ann Cleeves has done this with her Shetland Quartet, for instance. Other authors such as Agatha Christie may not have specifically planned the length of their series, but instead, plan their end. Christie wrote the last novels in her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series during World War II and stored them safely so that no-one else would be able to continue the series if she were killed in the war. Limited series do have their advantages and despite the drawbacks to that kind of finite planning, they can work well. But what’s your view? As a reader, do you enjoy limited series or do you prefer not to have your series end after a set number of books? If you’re a writer, have you planned the length of your series? What are your thoughts on this?
Now…we all have read series that should have been more limited than they are. Wondering if you’re reading a series that has gone on too long? Check out these…
Signs That A Series Has Gone On For Too Long
You know exactly on which pages the first, second and third bodies will be discovered… before you’ve even started reading the newest release.
The series, which started out as a “village cosy” series, now features aliens, vampires and evil “Dr. No” – type characters because the author has used every other possible plotline.
The sleuth has now gone through four marriages, innumerable lovers, half a dozen hospital stays and a series of stints at rehabilitation clinics… and you couldn’t care less any more.
You’re on page 32 of the newest release when you suddenly realise this is exactly the same story the author told in the fifth novel of the series… and the tenth.
Every one of the sleuth’s friends, colleagues and relations has at one point or another been trapped, abducted, caught in a gunfight or otherwise put at grave risk.
Ordering the series back catalogue, even if you wanted to, would cost you half a year’s salary.
While I remove my tongue from my cheek, do you have any signs you’d like to add?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Piña Colada Song).