Wednesday 4 May 2016

Don't forget the ending!

Publishers love a series. Of course they do. Think of the saving on publicity alone. You grab your audience once but they buy more than one book from you. Where’s the downside?

And kids love a series too. Right from the moment they first show an interest in what you’re reading them, they don’t just want one Mr Men or Thomas the Tank Engine or Meg and Mog book. They want them all.


(You knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?)

It is all very well to produce a series of books in each of which a set of characters have a separate adventure. I have no problem with that. Detective story format, you could think of it as. Each book is a story in its own right, beginning, middle, end. The characters are familiar perhaps, but they don't develop in any significant way. It wouldn’t matter if you read this one or that one first, there’s none of that ‘story so far’ nonsense.

The trouble comes when there is a progression between the books, when each leads on from the last. Too often, it seems to me, the publisher and author’s desire for a series conflicts with the reader’s desire for a good read. What starts out as a rollicking adventure ends up on a cliffhanger, which, if it is a new book, the child reader may have to wait a year to have continued. It’s so unfair! Imagine the disappointment when the character doesn’t find their long-lost mother or escape from slavery or whatever. I can appreciate that if an author has planned a plot that spans a number of books it may be hard to find an appropriate mini-arc of narrative within that plot for each book, but it seems to me that if you can’t, you haven’t actually got a book at all, just part of a book, and maybe you should be labelling them ‘part one’ etc, or waiting until you’ve written the whole thing before you publish it.

And of course the trouble with the second and subsequent books in a series is that so often they start with that great wodge of what’s already happened. How dull if you already know. And if you don’t, what a way to put you off reading the first book. Notice I am avoiding damning any particular series here, but I do want to mention that I have just read a particular book in a fairly long sequence which was almost entirely made up of explanations at to what the characters had lately discovered about themselves and how that changed their mission. I won’t stop reading the series now (it’s pretty good), but imagine if that one had been the first book you’d picked up!

How hard can it be to write each book in a series in such a way that you could start reading anywhere without spoiling the stories that have gone before? I read the Harry Potter books out of order and the His Dark Materials series and enjoyed every book. Well done J K Rowling and Philip Pullman! They have managed the trick.

Ten of my favourite series:

Narnia books             C S Lewis

Green Smoke etc       Rosemary Manning

Anne books (just the first 3 really) L M Montgomery

Flambards                  K M Peyton

Discworld (especially the Tiffany Aching stories) Terry Pratchett

His Dark Materials    Philip Pullman

Mortal Engines          Philip Reeve

Harry Potter              J K Rowling

Mary Poppins            P L Travers

Mantlemass                Barbara Willard

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