Six impossible things

Series flaws

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been rereading a couple of different series recently, even though I gave up on both of them somewhere between book 8 and book 12. One was a mystery series, the other science fiction…but both of them had similar problems. When I stopped to think about it, I could come up with several other series from assorted genres that did the same thing, and a couple that didn’t.

In all cases, the series started off focused on a central protagonist – the detective, in the case of the mysteries, a main hero in the case of all the others. Each book was a stand-alone, though as all the series went on there were occasional multi-book plot arcs in addition to the central problem of the individual volumes. Each book, from the first one on, had a slightly different setting as well as a different central problem; as a direct consequence, each book introduced a lot of new characters who were involved in some way with that book’s murder or adventure. Inevitably, some of those new characters were interesting and appealing, and often one would develop into a continuing character (one that appears in every book). Sometimes one or more of the new characters popped up three or four books later, becoming recurring characters.

In the series that eventually lost my interest, a couple of things happened. First, the authors developed a habit of “checking in” on all of the major continuing or recurring characters who would likely be around. This was especially obvious in the mystery series, as the detective had made friends with many clients and suspects who lived in the same city. After a while, the entire first half of each book was spent catching up on what each of these folks had been doing since the last book, even though nine out of ten of them had nothing whatever to do with the current murder mystery.

Second, in an effort to justify the presence of all these favorite characters, the authors started giving them subplots of their own in each book – subplots which often have little or nothing to do with the central problem of the volume. This works all right for a book or two, but then the books started getting fatter and fatter as the number of characters (and thus the number of subplots) increases and the reader gets more and more distracted from the main storyline.  Eventually, the author reaches the point where the central plotline is completely buried under the weight of the subplots.

What might have helped at this stage would have been to change the series from a central-protagonist-with-supporting-characters type to one that was more of an ensemble cast, making the core series novels into braided plotlines using the “top” three or four characters and giving other favorites their own spin-off books. Another alternative, which has been used to excellent effect by both Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey, would be to structure the series in groups, with new protagonists for each trilogy or quadrology within the main storyline. The effect of either method would be to reduce the scope of each individual book, while allowing the series to spread out and cover additional interesting ground.

The alternative is to keep a tight rein on the characters and plot. A lot of the good examples of this I could think of were written in the early-to-mid-1900s, when book length – especially mass-market paperback book length – was strictly limited. Authors had to keep their plots and subplots focused, because they only had 60,000 words to cover them in. New characters still appeared, and still became continuing or recurring characters, but you don’t see the murder mysteries of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s begin with the detective having a series of family dinners, teas, dates, and conversations with a dozen characters both author and reader have come to know and love.

I love Dorothy Sayers’ character the Dowager Duchess of Denver, but much as I’d have liked to see more of her, she simply doesn’t belong in most of the Peter Wimsey books and short stories. Most of the novels are about murders that have nothing to do with Peter’s family or social position, and a subplot involving them would distract from the main plot.

Another place where series writers – most especially science fiction and fantasy series writers – get into trouble is by attempting to treat their favorite settings in the same way as their favorite characters. That is, if they have come up with a particularly interesting place/culture/society that isn’t the central one that their hero belongs to and spends most of his/her time in, they find some way of giving it a cameo in every novel of the series after its first appearance. This is uncommon in mysteries, Westerns, thrillers, and other books set in the real world, possibly because authors are slightly less inclined to display how good they are at research than to flaunt how clever they are at making up neat places.

All the series authors who lose my interest have lost sight of a fundamental writing principle:  the writer gets the best effect by putting into the story the things that need to be in that particular story…and only those things. Subplots aren’t independent stories that have been dropped into the main story; they support, compare, and contrast to the main plot, enriching it. That is why they are called subplots. Unless the story takes place in one of those tiny “Population: 6” hamlets, the writer is not going to include every person in town as a character in the story, even though many of the folks offstage may be fascinating people. This kind of restraint is just as useful when applied to one’s imaginary characters and worldbuilding as it is when applied to real-world people and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

  1. The other problem with series that include too many subplots is that it makes the books less accessible to new readers. Mysteries, especially, should be fairly easy to pick up a book in the middle of the series and still follow along. This definitely is not the goal of all series, but if there are too many subplots, you run the risk of decreasing your audience with each book, rather than increasing it.

  2. Perhaps OT, but speaking of the Wimsey series, what did you think of Walsh’s continuations?

  3. Silly call-backs to the earlier works bother me too, and too much stuff ends up being clutter.

    When I read Changes, I concluded that Butcher really wasn’t fooling with that title. Much of it was dumping clutter, so he could go on without it.

  4. @houseboatonstyx

    Oh, cool! I read Thrones, Dominations and liked it very much, but I didn’t know Walsh had written more. I’m going to check them out. Fingers crossed. (Because I’ve re-visited Busman’s Honeymoon once a year since I first read it, and always wish there were more Wimsey stories!)

  5. I gave up reading one particular fantasy series because fully one-third of every book after the first was taken up by pointless discussion of the lineages of all the major and minor characters. My heads up to the author: Genealogy is fascinating only when it is about one’s own family; it is less so when it’s about fictitious people.

  6. I read the OZ books in a big lump when they were reprinted a few decades ago.
    After a bit, they all seemed to end with a big party to which all the other characters who hadn’t featured in the plot were invited, including the occasional reformed villain and Santa Clause (who was in a separate series by Baum).

    The latest Peter Wimsey seems to bring in a lot of characters from the whole series of novels. (I think it’s the third by Walsh). They do have function in the plot.

  7. I do hope I haven’t done this with my Prussian series

  8. Poor Baum — he kept pleading with people to read his other books, and finally sighed and just dumped all the characters he liked into Oz. (…I did a 20-page paper on the series in college; I remember the nigh-constant forewords and afterwords where he was going, “And I have this other book…”) I wonder if he was hoping that the backlist would sell if the Oz-fans read about other characters in an Oz book.

  9. Patricia, which series were those, please? I have just gotten into Sue Grafton’s “[Letter] is for [Word starting with Letter]” series. I have only read two of them and part of a third. If this is one of the series you mentioned, I would like to see where she got it wrong. If not, how she keeps it right. And, of course, whether I agree with you and why or why not.

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