But there’s no denying that certain problems become more prevalent the longer a series is. Even great storytellers suffer from these issues, so we should all learn how to address them when they arise.
Spoiler Warning: Gentlemen Bastards, The Old Kingdom Trilogy, Old Man’s War, A Song of Ice and Fire, Teen Wolf, and Temeraire.
1. Disappointing Reveals
A long series means a storyteller has lots of time to build something up. This raises tension, which is usually good for a story, but it also raises audience expectations. When the reveal comes, it can be difficult for the story to live up to what the audience has imagined for themselves.
This is the case with Sabetha in the Gentleman Bastards series. She is the final member of protagonist Locke’s old gang, and she’s never actually shown on page for the first two books. She left before the books began, and whenever there’s a flashback to before her departure, she’s conveniently somewhere else. Despite her absence, the other characters talk her up a lot, going on about how she’s a great thief and con artist. Supposedly, she was the only one in their group as good as Locke.
All this build up creates an image of Sabetha as a larger-than-life figure who can talk the money right out of a mark’s pocket. But when she’s finally revealed as an antagonist in the third book, she’s a fairly average romantic foil. She’s a competent thief, but the story isn’t about her, so she never gets a good chance to show her stuff. Her personality is mostly focused on simultaneously enticing and rejecting Locke.
It’s really disappointing when a reveal doesn’t live up to expectations. Not only does it mean the story isn’t as good as the audience was expecting, but also the previous buildup now seems disingenuous in retrospect, like the storyteller was being dishonest. A small reveal might just be an annoyance, but a big one can ruin the story.
How to Fix It
When planning a reveal, the watch word is “subtle.” If the story doesn’t talk up its reveal too much, there’s less chance of disappointment. Deep Space Nine did this really well with the Dominion, an evil empire built on conquest. For the first two seasons, passing aliens would occasionally mention something called “the Dominion,” but none of them knew much about it. This established the idea of the Dominion in viewers’ minds, but it didn’t create any expectations the show couldn’t live up to.
Another option is to build up one set of expectations, then intentionally subvert them. This contrast usually creates new interest rather than disappointment, as the audience realizes things aren’t as they seemed. In Gentlemen Bastards, Sabetha could have been established early as just another former member of the gang, one of several who left. If she were shown to be nothing special, then revealing her as a dangerous foe in the third book would have piqued reader interest. Readers would want to know how she got so much more skilled, which would be a good avenue to explore her character.
2. Anti-Climactic Stakes
When crafting a sequel, most storytellers will try to top the previous installment in some way. This makes sense, because audiences usually aren’t interested in a story with lower stakes than what came before. But sometimes the scale of a story can get so large that it becomes meaningless.
In Sabriel, first book of the Old Kingdom series, the villain wants to turn everyone in the world into zombies enslaved to his will. Those are big stakes for a conflict, and they work well. Unfortunately, they don’t leave the sequel with anywhere to go. The author tried anyway, and in the second novel, the villain is trying to destroy the entire universe.
That’s technically a bigger scale than Sabriel, but it’s a meaningless increase. To people living on Earth,* being turned into a mindless zombie is effectively the same as being annihilated in a world-ending apocalypse. Everyone’s dead either way. There’s no indication of any aliens who might count as additional casualties in the second scenario.
A novel that’s hit its scale ceiling is at an impasse. If the storyteller tries to raise the stakes anyway, the results feel contrived or silly. Audiences can tell that there’s nothing more on the line this time than last time. If the storyteller doesn’t try to raise the stakes, then the next installment will be a letdown, because it hasn’t escalated the way audiences expect.
How to Fix It
When planning a series, it behooves a storyteller to leave room to grow. If the series is meant to go for three novels, save the end of all human life for the third book. Villains in the earlier books can be trying to conquer a single nation or maybe working to find the Macguffin needed to kill all humans.
But if you’re staring down the deadline for another novel in your series, it’s too late to go back and institute better planning. In that case, I recommend a change in the type of stakes. This way your story can maintain novelty for the audience without having to top itself. For example, if you have a story where the protagonists must save the world from supernatural evil, the next installment can focus on those same characters trying to govern the world they’ve saved. The story naturally transforms into a political drama, which means it doesn’t need to turn the scale up to eleven.
A tight plot is essential in most stories. Nothing turns audiences away faster than boredom. But as a series goes on, the plot can lose crispness, meandering around as the storyteller tries to find a satisfying end.
The first two books of the Old Man’s War series are very well plotted. Stakes are clearly established, and events move at just the right pace to keep the audience hooked. The third book, Last Colony, is not so lucky. Most of the plot in this novel takes place off page while the protagonists deal with smaller problems – few of which provide any challenge. The novel feels like it’s running out the clock until events come to a head elsewhere.
Last Colony’s plot lacks any urgency because few of the characters’ actions have any effect on the big plot that’s brewing off page. The book is supposed to focus on their struggles for survival, but the dangers they face are minor at best. Oddly, the author wrote a second book, Zoe’s Tale, which covers the same events from another character’s point of view, and it doesn’t improve the matter. This parallel novel is just as meandering but with the added problem of knowing how everything will turn out.
A meandering story can occur in the middle of a series or at the end. When it happens in the middle, it’s usually a sign that the author is killing time until the real plot arrives. When the final installment in a series meanders, it’s a sign that the author has used up their setting’s reserve of story and is casting about for more. Either way, the result is boredom. Audiences may never get past a boring middle to see the end, and a boring ending to a long series is just disappointing.
How to Fix It
In most cases, a meandering story can be solved by cutting content. Just like how authors must trim the muddlesome middle from stand-alone novels, a series’ meandering installment will benefit from scaling down or outright removal. Storytellers usually overestimate how long they need to wait before introducing their coolest plot elements, and cutting out a slow middle will get the story going faster. If the problem is at the end of a series, that’s probably a sign the story is done. Either craft a new plot with better pacing, or put the series to bed.
Sometimes there’s a critical element buried in a meandering story that can’t be removed. Last Colony contains the finale to a story of galactic diplomacy that started back in book one. Cutting the novel entirely it would mean no resolution for that plot line. In this situation, storytellers should extract the critical element and refocus the story around it. If more of Last Colony had been about the wheeling and dealing of interstellar diplomats, it would have been a far more interesting book.
4. Unwelcome Additions
Attachment is a critical element in storytelling. Authors need their audiences to form attachments to characters and plots, or the story is doomed from the start. One reason long series have staying power is because audiences have such a long time to form attachments. Most people who’ve read five books in a series will read the sixth, because they want to know what happens to their favorite characters. Unfortunately, this can backfire when the author wants to introduce something new into the story.
A Song of Ice and Fire is particularly strong on the attachment front. Over the first four books, readers developed strong connections not only with characters but also with the noble houses themselves. The houses became characters in their own right, even when they had almost no members left.* This became a problem at the end of book four, when a new noble house burst onto the the scene: House Martell. Technically, Martell was around before, but it was so far in the background as to be easily forgotten.
Book five made Martell central to the plot, to the point where it crowded out some of the more established characters and factions. A huge section of the book was devoted to a Martell prince and his adventures, most of which barely feature any characters we’d met before. To make matters worse, the Martells are badly over-candied. The other houses all have one or two specialities, but Martell seems to do everything. They are terrifying warriors, cunning diplomats, and wealthy merchants. They’re even more egalitarian than the rest of Westeros, in case it wasn’t clear which house we were supposed to root for.
New additions like House Martell are annoying because they aren’t what the audience has become attached to. Readers pick up the fifth book in a series because they want to continue the adventures of their favorite characters, not learn a bunch of new ones. Sometimes, authors make these additions because they’re bored with a story’s existing elements, and sometimes it’s all part of the plan, but the result is the same: irritation at the interlopers.
How to Fix It
First, it’s important to stay interested in the story you already have. If you think the story needs something fresh to keep things interesting, that’s fine, but try using an existing element to do it. If you want your story of political intrigue to transform into a war thriller, you don’t need to conjure up an army from nowhere. One of your scheming politicians can decide they’ve had it with talking, and that they’ll get their way by force of arms.
If you decide a new addition is necessary, link it to something already in the story. One reason the Martells are so annoying is that they appear in the story with their own goals and plans, independent of existing characters. If they’d been more connected with a faction we already knew, either in opposition or support, they’d have fit better.
5. Character Overcrowding
As a series goes on, it often adds characters. Unlike unwelcome additions, these characters could be perfectly accepted by the audience, but if a series keeps adding them, the sheer number can become a problem.
Like many TV shows, Teen Wolf acquires more and more characters as it goes. After six seasons, that’s quite a lot. But Teen Wolf has an extra wrinkle. Each season has at least two villains, and those villains almost never die. The few who do always come back. Sometimes they join team good; other times they stick around as minor antagonists. So in addition to all the good guys, every season added two or three new villains to the cast.
Even after a number of actors left the show, you can see how this would create a problem. In the show’s sixth season,* there just wasn’t enough screen time to go around. By my count, the show has eight main cast members, three important supporting cast members, and two villains from previous seasons. That’s not even counting the new villains they introduced for the season. With only ten episodes, it’s no surprise that no one got a satisfactory resolution to their arc.
This problem is bad enough in TV shows, where each new character means paying for a new actor. It can get a lot worse in books, where only the author’s good sense limits the cast. This is often referred to as “series bloat,” and it has two possible consequences. First, as happened with Teen Wolf, characters don’t get a proper resolution. Second, the story’s length balloons so there can be time for every character to have their moment.
While there’s no maximum length on stories, making a work longer must be justified, and providing closure for an out-of-control cast doesn’t make the cut. Even if each character is entertaining on their own, having too many slows the story down until it’s just dull.
How to Fix It
This solution requires a bit of self-discipline. After the first installment of a story, only add a character after you’ve removed one. They could be removed through death, retirement, or going to colonize an alien planet, but they must be inactive in the story. Now you can add another character. This way your cast list stays constant, with the same number of characters that worked the first time. Any extra additions had better be critical to the story.
As in the previous section, if you feel the need for a new character, see if an existing character can fill the role instead. Let’s say that for the next novel in your series, you want a character chosen to wield a god’s weapon. Instead of adding that character from scratch, arrange for an existing character to visit one of the god’s temples at just the right astronomical alignment to receive a divine blessing.
6. Bizarre Plots
When a series exhausts the stories that are easy to tell in its setting, it sometimes turns meandering. Other times, the series becomes truly bizarre, as the storyteller grasps for anything they haven’t done before.
Temeraire is one of my favorite book series ever, but it does have a predictable formula. Temeraire the dragon and his favorite human Laurence go to a new country, learn about the dragons in that country, and probably get into a scrap with the French. By the eighth book, the author must have felt that formula was getting stale, because she decided to shake it up by giving Laurence a severe attack of amnesia.
That sounds like a joke because amnesia is so cliche, but it’s actually what happens. Laurence forgets everything that’s happened in the entire series, effectively reverting back to who he was when the books started. Not only does this feel hokey but also it’s mostly wasted time, as most of the book is spent with Laurence relearning everything we watched him learn over seven previous books.
When a series starts reaching for the truly bizarre options in order to keep going, it’s a signal to quit. Temeraire’s author managed to right things in time for a decent finale in book nine, but most series won’t be so lucky. Once things start unraveling, they’ll usually get worse, as the storyteller digs ever deeper for content.
How to Fix It
If you find yourself coming up with increasingly strange plots to keep your series going, it’s probably time to draw that series to a close. Time to start fresh and write something else. If you can’t or don’t want to end the series* consider a major shake-up to your story’s premise. If your series is about a knight who rides across the land entering tournaments, have the next kingdom they arrive in ban knighthood entirely. From there, the story can change to one of resisting a tyrannical ruler. Big changes like that might lose a few audience members, but they’re essential to find new material.
A long series is a major commitment for anyone, be they a single novelist or a television production staff. Something that takes so much work is worth doing right, so look out for these problems and others that are likely to pop up. Few things are more disappointing to an audience than investing years in a series only to see it crash and burn.
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