On Writing: The Problem of Series, OR Why Isn’t This As AWESOME As The Last One?

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It's happened to all of us: we find the first book in a new series and it's awesome – it's filled to bursting with cool imagery and characters and concepts, and we race through the book and then come to the end, saying "what? But I want MORE!".

And then we get the sequel, and that's … a good book. I mean, maybe it's a really good book. But somehow there seems to be something missing, it's just not quite the slam-bang awesome you remember from the first book. But hey, authors can have off days, right, and this was still pretty good. So you get the third, and it's maybe as good as the second, but … probably not quite. But you're still hoping that somehow the next one will recapture that feeling…

This is common enough that a lot of readers remark on such a phenomenon. Often this is attributed to the author – maybe they're jaded or cynical, or just didn't have any more awesome in them?

This may be the case for some, but for others
I think we're looking at something else, especially with respect to series like David Weber's Honor Harrington, or Roger Zelazny's Amber series (some say starting after 
about the middle of _Nine Princes in Amber_, but certainly after the first five books) and has hit many other longer-running series -- 
especially if the series follows the same characters through a long 
progression in their lifetime, rather than -- for instance -- following 
them through one plotline over a number of books (although that, too, 
can lead to the same problem, e.g., The Wheel of Time).

In my view, this is really a combination of three problems: 1) increasing complexity 
based on prior work, 2) change in focus based on character experience, and
(perhaps the most commonly underestimated) 3) loss of "honeymoon"-prolonging sensawunda.

I looked at this VERY consciously for Grand Central Arena; even as a writer I was aware that I had a hell of a book to follow up on, and that if people had liked it at all, they were going to come to the second book with their expectations set very high.

The latter is actually a fourth factor; in most cases we come to a new series with at least a somewhat neutral view, even if they're recommended to us enthusiastically, so the book can much more easily clear the bar of our expectations. But if we've done that, our expectations for the next book will be set very, very high.

I'll address the sensawunda part first: In any series -- Weber's 
Harrington or Mutineer's Moon, Zelazny's Amber, the Arenaverse, etc. -- the first book is your entry into the world. Anything
cool that's going to draw you in, the author's going to try to make sure 
you get -- because if the FIRST book doesn't get you to read, you 
probably won't read any of them.

More, since it's new to you, the whole
 UNIVERSE looks shinier, better, tastier, like a car you just bought, a cake fresh from the oven, etc. When Corwin experiences -- and you 
experience with him -- his first Shadow-walk, it's a startling and new 
concept, an exciting and maybe confusing adventure. When you first step 
aboard a Manticoran vessel with Honor Harrington, you're seeing the shiny technology, the troubles of a young commander, the specifics of 
the universe for the first time.

Similarly, when Corwin first rides with Random and sees the eldritch shifting of the world when an Amberite is walking in Shadow, we're having the same thrill of awe, confusion, and wonder that Corwin's desperately trying to hide from Random. When Orphan opens a kilometers-high viewport and says "Welcome to The Arena", we experience the impact of
that bizarre alien world for the first time with the main characters.

You can't really repeat that. Even if I have some incredibly cool 
ADDITIONAL stuff to hand you in Spheres of Influence, Challenges of the Deeps, or later books, none of them can reach that
same feeling; they may be better written, the cool new stuff may be in
some ways better, the characters may have grown and become more likeable, but the sheer impact of that first blush can't be recaptured. 
And its echo becomes less and less with each additional book.

Increasing complexity based on prior work affects just about any series 
that takes itself seriously and isn't focused on wrapping up 90% of all 
plot threads at the end (and wrapping up at least a few from prior 
books), such as some mystery-focused series. Your world gets bigger, the problems that you solve in Book One probably just show you more problems 
for Book Two and Three, and those will expand outward as well.

This is of course particularly difficult for a series that wasn't planned as a series. When you write a standalone, you may introduce a whole bunch of plot threads that you hope will one day be addressed, but you focus on one major plot and leave the rest alone, since the reader's going to want to feel reasonably good closure at the end. If you didn't plan on it being a series, you may have "written yourself into a corner", with all the major stuff resolved, and no clear plan for how to get out of it.

In Nine 
Princes in Amber, we start out with a protagonist whose main problem is that
they don't know who they are. By the end of the book, he's discovered that he's part of a family of reality-benders who operate like the Borgias... and 
he's had his eyes burned out and been put into prison. Later in the 
series these events turn out to have been part of something even more 
complex.

The Honor Harrington series started out with a nice clear-cut situation -- Manticore Good, Haven Bad -- and became steadily more 
complicated and hard-to-resolve as more and more was learned about each 
side, and more sides started to show up, and the interrelationships of all those sides was not nearly so clear-cut.

At the end of Grand Central 
Arena, there are AT LEAST four major subplots, any one of which able to drive another book or even several books, that haven't been entirely resolved. While both Spheres of Influence and Challenges of the Deeps try to answer some questions, the answers themselves often lead to other questions, and I am certain that the overall complexity of the universe – and the work I'll have to do on any more sequels – is a lot greater than it was when I just created the Arenaverse out of whole cloth.

Change of focus based on character experience is one of the most
insidious. Episodic television series avoid this by effectively having a 
"reset" button, with only a very few gradual changes made during the
 series. Serials, which most book series are, have characters that can be changed by their experiences.

In Weber's Honor Harrington series, Honor 
starts out as a young, inexperienced captain thrown into dangerous circumstances which, while having political elements, are things mostly
to be resolved by Honor bashing the living hell out of it with her
ship(s) while the other guy tries to bash the living hell out of hers.

As she has -- by inevitable progression of promotion -- become more and more a strategic commander, her stories have become increasingly
political maneuvering with less opportunity for the main character to be
the driving force of the ACTION sequences. The admirals commanding 
fleets are not the people in the front lines getting shot at, in general, and even if they are they're not making the exciting 
minute-to-minute decisions, and prior to all of that they're having to 
negotiate with their own people just to get their own job done.

Thus 
compared to earlier books, the new ones just cannot have as much swift 
ass-kicking action, and if that's what you came for, the new HH books 
will D R A G.

Similarly, in the Amber series, Corwin changes a lot through the 
first five books -- to the point that the man who was once driven to 
kill his brother(s) to become king now GIVES UP the legitimate, 
justified, and probably unlikely to be debated rulership of Amber itself 
when his father offers it to him. And in the end he's created his own 
universe, and logically disappears, forcing the second series to have a 
completely new protagonist – who starts out without the awesomeness of a new universe to present to the reader.

This is the landmine I've been trying to avoid with the Arenaverse; given what happened 
in the novel, and what the reaction of everyone in the Solar System would 
be, it would have been *very* easy for this to turn into a political maneuvering festival, but *I* wanted pulp fiction adventure on a grand scale -- so I have had to tread very carefully with how
 I follow those plot threads and developments to prevent Ariane and
 company from being just players in a political game.

At the same time, I can't evade it entirely, or I risk the series becoming unrealistic beyond even the tolerance of space opera fans. I had to have significant political concerns and interactions in both Spheres of Influence and Challenges of the Deeps.

I'm now looking at that as a potential challenge for my forthcoming novel, Princess Holy Aura. Obviously as of this writing, I have no idea whether it will even sell enough to earn out, let alone enough to justify a contract for a sequel. But I had to think about it some, just in case, and that's going to be something of a challenge. I had to set up the ending of Princess Holy Aura to give closure to the reader while not giving closure to the universe. At the same time, I was thinking ahead to how I can "ration the awesome" in some fashion – have something new and shiny for the later books, if they're ever written.

It's a big challenge, and one that's not easily solved. So the next time you feel a vague let-down in a sequel, check and see if maybe this phenomenon was the cause. It may not help what you feel, but you may at least understand what you feel just a little better!

 

Comments

  1. There’s a factor going the other way though: familiarity with the setup can easily before comfortable. When you open a late in the series weber/ringo/zelazny you feel, well, at home. With people you kinda like. So there’s this nice feeling going on.

    That feeling was mostly there with Deeps, which was nice 🙂

    OG.

  2. DarkHorizon says:

    I can relate the problem of losing the “AWESOME” factor in later books. I am currently working a sequel to a book I wrote. I threw a bunch of “AWESOME” stuff in the first book and now I am scrambling to find other “AWESOME” stuff into the story to keep the readers invested while keeping up my own enthusiasm for the story. I feel fenced in by rules I have already written, but troubled by the continuing surprises of the second book. The same surprises that threaten to unseat what little sense of plot I have. I want the characters to grow–there would be no story otherwise XD–however, making that growth believable and sustaining that growth over multiplel books is a challenge.

    I read Princess Holy Aura and really enjoyed it. I can see how you’ve rationed your “AWESOME” factor over the book while still giving the story plenty of drama. I particularly liked the inclusion of a Tuxedo Mask analogue character. I’ve recommended to it a few other people. I hope the book does well enough to justify a sequel– I would get it for sure 😀

    • Thank you — I certainly hope so too, but it’ll be months before I have any idea how well or poorly it’s doing.

      While there’s tons of magical girl stuff that doesn’t have a Tuxedo Kamen type, I felt I needed one since Sailor Moon is by FAR the best known of the genre in America if not the entire world.

  3. Thanks for writing. I had read the first two Arena books some time back; when I saw the new one, I bought it and read all three together.

    Your point about HH really hit home for me and I’m grateful you avoided that path with the Arena stories.

    While you can’t necessarily do “Awesome” with the setting of the Arena much more, you still have the opportunity of pulling it off for things the people in the Arena do. For me, Sun Wu Kung pulling loose from his bonds did it. For someone else, undoubtedly something else.

    Finally, as someone who has been reading a good many years – and whose only SF submission didn’t even rate a form letter rejection – I do have a good sense of the mechanics, and I do like a neat solution to the puzzle a given writer might set forth. That (obviously) contributes a great deal to the satisfaction of the ending. On the other hand, that is also clearly a trap for a series – if/when you pull the covers off, the series ends. On the other hand, as a reader, nothing is more frustrating than a writer who seems to have some great MacGuffin lurking out there becomes distracted (cf. Game of Thrones) or quits because there’s no money in it (Ringo, Council Wars). As a reader, I almost wish you guys would escrow your finales so that I could feel assured that closure was out there somewhere.

    Anyhow, thanks again for the fun read.

    • Thanks. The problem with “escrowing the finale” is that depending on how far off the finale is, the intervening books could change it fairly noticeably. I recently posted on my Patreon the outline for Princess Holy Aura, which shows that even from the time I’d outlined the book to the point I wrote it, several significant things changed. Extend that forward four or five books and the finale, while it would still have the same general concepts and outline of events, would be drastically different in all noticeable details.

      • For example, just look how Weber’s intended demise for HH came to be–or not to be, rather. That long plotted point would have been nonsense by the time it would have occurred.

        Although I do take Scott’s point with regards to Jay Lake. I loved the short stories set in his SunSpin universe, and wish I could get my hands on whatever his notes were for the novels set in that universe. His lost battle with cancer in 2014 was a terrible shame. (Cancer–yet another case where no matter how many battles you win, you only have to lose once). There were four novels supposedly (and still listed as) ‘forthcoming’ in the universe.

        Also, given the developments in Sluggy Freelance this week (And since Ryk has made at least and homage to one of the characters) I was wondering if anyone had any thoughts on the reveal. As Scott put it above, the covers are finally getting pulled off after some 18 years in the making.

      • Yeah, I get that the finale can change. One way of looking at your work is that you are working out a problem: these people, in this setting, with these tools face this set of issues. How do they resolve things, preferably in a way that leaves the readers liking the people and feeling satisfied with the resolution? As I’m sure you’ve solved enough complex problems before, you’ve had experience with the situation of thinking you know what the end-state looks like, but as you head down the path you find complications you hadn’t foreseen and you may take detours that take you much longer, or eventually you uncover so many problems you realize that your original intended solution just won’t work. With a story, that means whoops, you need a new ending. And that’s why I only “almost” wish for that escrow thing.

Your comments or questions welcomed!