What makes a good series?

I’ll admit to pondering this as I continue with the revisions for the first book in my series.  What exactly makes me keep reading past the first one in what others have written.  It isn’t any one thing, but a combination that probably varies to some degree with the genre or subject matter.  I’m sure everyone has their own preferences as well.  Yet it isn’t only what makes a series compelling, but also why I read certain ones multiple times.  For instance, I’ve read the first four books of the Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost four times (and the first book six times).  I’ve also read the Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning twice and plan to go for a third (it consists of five books).  There are also some stand alone novels I’ve read more than once (to include indies), but we’ll focus on series for today.

I’m also going to admit I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy.  I fought the urge desperately because I really have a hard time getting into YA in the last couple years.  For whatever reason, it is difficult for me to keep my attention since it rarely has an adult “feel” to it.  Not any fault of the author’s, but my own.  Yet I do make the very rare exception and being plagued with the recent advertisements for The Hunger Games piqued my curiosity.  By the time this past Friday rolled around, my resolve to stay away from the trilogy melted.  I loaded the sample.  Needless to say, a short while later the entire book was on my iPad (my grandfather has my Kindle right now).  The very next day I was reading book two, and by Sunday night I began book three.  Yesterday I finished the series.

The question rose in my mind.  How on earth did this author get me to read YA???  Many best-selling authors have failed to keep my attention in this genre, so what was it about this one?  Sure, those dang commercials drew me to take a glance at the actual book, but I’m not one to read every book a movie is made for.  Yet the writing was better than I could have hoped for.  I will admit to being a bit depressed by the end.  Dang, but a lot of people die by the time the story is over.  Yet the thing is, you care about them because the author made you get attached.  I got teary eyed a few times when some of my favorite characters got the shaft (sometimes literally).  It was utterly heartbreaking.  Plus there was the ever-present love triangle thing going on.  The main character, Katniss, wasn’t trying to draw it out between two guys (thank God).  She didn’t want to settle down with anyone at all.  Yet the two guys involved were determined to win her love.  I had to keep reading if for no other reason than to find out which one she ended up with.  Too bad you don’t find out until the end (I’m trying to keep most of the spoilers out for the few who haven’t read all the books).  The love story seemed to resolve almost too quickly at the end, but I understand why the author did it the way she did.  Still, the trilogy leaves you rather morose afterward because no matter how many reviews you read ahead of time, nothing can prepare you for how tragic the story really is.  I’m glad I read the series, but it will take a while to get out of the funk that I’m left in now.

Moving back to the main subject, I’m going to list a few things that I’ve come up with that kept my attention in a series.  Things that are good to keep in mind both as writers and readers.  Remember, these are my preferences and may not be yours so don’t hold it against me too much.  I’m a romantic at heart and that makes my needs a little different from what others might prefer.  In some cases below, I will use Hunger Games as an example.  This is primarily because I know most of you have read it and will know what I’m talking about.

1) Solid back-stories– I don’t mean simply alluding to the past.  There needs to be some actual memories brought up.  For instance, in The Hunger Games Katniss talks about many different events from her childhood.  She relives her father’s death in the mines and before that how he taught her to sing and hunt.  She discusses how her mother withdrew from the world after losing her husband and left the two girls to fend for themselves.  Katniss gives a vivid recount of her first meeting with Peeta.  Plus many other memories over the course of the books.  All those things tie together to help shape her character (and the others) so that readers understand her better.  For many of the great books I’ve read, the authors use character memories to help build them.  I think it is a great tool and should be used whenever possible.

2) Romance– It doesn’t have to be the main plot, but at least a sub-plot.  Many of the most successful books and movies have some kind of love story involved.  The longer you draw it out, the longer people will keep reading the books.  If you’re a sucker like me, you can’t stop until it’s resolved (the latest Underworld movie has me on pins and needles).  It must be done carefully, though, because things like love triangles can ruin it.  Most of the fans for Twilight accept the triangle because Bella stayed true to Edward.  She might have liked Jacob, but she didn’t really mean to lead him on.  It just ended up that way.  For Hunger Games, the triangle worked because Katniss was romantically inept.  She had no desire to fall in love and refused to admit she was even when some of the signs were apparent.  In her eyes, she was only with Peeta as an act.  Gale should have been who she ended up with in her mind, but she couldn’t because she didn’t feel it was right to be in any relationship under her circumstances.  Needless to say, it gets drawn out to the end, and keeps you guessing.  Personally, I was glad she chose the one she did 🙂

3) High Stakes– A series needs to have high stakes to keep reader attention.  Some series have an overall plot that extends across books, others have a different one for each one.  Either way, you have to make the stakes high (and convincing) so people will have a desperate need to know how it all ends.  You’ll also need to make sure there is just enough mystery left hanging between so they have to pick up the next book.  I hate cliffhangers, but admit they do work most of the time.

4) Creative world-building– Every series I’ve read and liked had excellent world building and it was done through showing and not too much telling.  The reader needs to feel this world really exists, despite it being a fiction story.  There are many ways to do this, and only the author can decide the method best for their novels, but you can’t skimp on the world-building.  People need to be able to see it, feel it, taste it, and touch it.  In fact, a really good series can make me dream about it at night.  I know most of my favorites have.

5) Strong Characters– The story needs to have characters you can relate to or at least remind you of someone you know.  They need to feel real and stand out from the others in the story.  Think of any book you’ve really enjoyed and you’ll recall how different each character was.  How they added their strengths and weaknesses to drive the plot.  Imagine how different things would have been if Katniss didn’t have such a difficult time acting on camera.  The rebellion began because she couldn’t convince people she was really in love (at least that was part of it).  On the other hand, how different would the story have been if Peeta hadn’t been the nice and personable guy he was?  If he hadn’t made so many people like him then he wouldn’t have been so useful as events unfolded.  The characters’ personalities drive the plot nearly as much as outside forces.  Having strong distinctions among them is one of the keys to making a good book (and series/trilogy).

There are probably more points I’m not listing, but I’ll stop, as I think you all get the idea.  Now it’s your turn to add what you think makes a good series.  Also feel free to add your own observations to The Hunger Games if you like.  I’ll look forward to hearing other opinions!

~ by Suzie on March 20, 2012.

12 Responses to “What makes a good series?”

  1. I’m a BIG fan of series’ (I guess my own two ‘in-progress’ series’ are testament to that). I don’t think I necessarily prefer it to a good stand-alone book, but it does make it easier to read the second, third, and so on, of a series, because you don’t need to work as hard to relate to or learn about the character groups.

    Does that make series readers lazy? No, I don’t think so. But if you enjoy the first offering to the degree that you are happy to pay out for the sequel(s), then why shouldn’t you?

    Personally, I started reading way back when, with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then Asimov’s “Foundation” series, then the “Hitchhikers” series… and on and on… Later it was the ongoing Star Wars novels, Garth Nix, JK Rowling, Eoin Colfer, Terry Pratchett, Rick Riordan… Let’s face facts. A LOT of good writers have created a LOT of great books, but wherever you go, there are always a more than fair share of good series’ to read.

    I have (but have not yet read) The Hunger Games trilogy… yet… And in the meantime, I have found myself very much immersed in the world of Indie authors and their many varied stand-alone works. In the main, I have found these to be of a fairly decent quality – and probably because I am picky – I have only found the odd one or two which have been less than acceptable.

    What makes a good series? For me, it has to make an impact… a GOOD, STRONG impact, otherwise I don’t go back for the next helping. Good characters, a considered (and hopefully original) plot, and a good mix of descriptive writing to keep pulling me along with the visual and the dialogue.

    • I’m with you on the series thing, Bryden. I love them, but can enjoy a stand-alone just as much. As for indies, I have found a couple of really great series that have kept me hooked. It’s not just the trad authors.

      I also agree that a strong impact can make a big difference. Especially if there is an underlying message or lesson that can be learned. Pulling my emotional strings helps too.

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who likes to find good series to follow, though I admit to having not read any of the ones you mentioned aside from Hunger Games (which I think you will enjoy).

  2. I find series amazingly addictive, witness my pile of 5-hardbound books from GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Over 3200 pages. I’ve wondered quite a bit about this, as it wasn’t inexpensive as addictions go… and I’ve come up with the definitive single component that kept me hanging in there: Character Development. Sure, the plot threads, the settings, the action sequences were all meticulously crafted… well, most of them were… but it was always the characters that kept me coming back. They were real people, not vaporous glimpses, but flesh and blood and terribly flawed. Still, I cared for each and every single one, even the worst or the worst. The author’s attention to detail is part of it, but overall, it is his understanding the human condition so well that makes even high fantasy riveting. Over and over again.

    • Richard, the Song of Ice and Fire is a good example of a series. You’re right that all the characters are well developed. I enjoy following the good and bad guys as well. Unfortunately, the author lost me in A Feast of Crows. I know he had to split the book up, but the plot got so convoluted and the cast so large that I was having a difficult time following anymore. I may go back and finish it eventually, but for now I’m just gonna enjoy season two starting on HBO next month. That may motivate me to get back into the series.

      • I’m worried that, knowing how things unravel will make the HBO series harder to watch, but I may be fooling myself…. yes, I am. I’m sure I’ll be glued to the screen.

        • I know what you mean. Having read the novels takes some of the suspense away, but there is something to be said about seeing it on the screen. It’s been long enough I’ve forgotten half of what happened in the second book anyway. So long as I don’t cheat and go look for what happens next, it will feel somewhat new!

  3. I haven’t read all of your post but I didn’t want to forget to post this link that I was reading before coming to check in here.


    Now back to see what you posted.

    • Susan, I decided not to read the whole post. I haven’t read The Hunger Game and I’m thinking that I might wish to in the future…so I’ll stay away from this so I don’t get too much information ahead of time.

      • No problem, Lynn. I tried not to give much away, but if you want to keep most of it a surprise, it’s probably best to avoid the post. Hope you get a chance to read the trilogy soon as it is really good. I know I was being naughty to jump it up my TBR list, but I couldn’t help myself.

        • Hey, I’m not being fussy…just explaining…after all it’s your blog. I do think you’re right though I should bow out altogether on this one. Catch ya elsewhere.

  4. Well done. I agree with your list and tweeted it. I also like to read a lot of twists/turns. Things that happen that I couldn’t have guessed in advance. Unpredictability in a book keeps me interested. I haven’t read the Hunter Games yet and probably won’t for a loooong while since I have so many other series on my To Be Read list. It does seem interesting though.

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