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The Writer’s Craft #35 – How to keep up readers’ interest in a series

August 29, 2011
M.D. Benoit

M.D. Benoit

M. D. Benoit is the author of the popular Jack Meter Case Files (http://mdbenoit.com). She lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where all of Jack Meter’s Case Files are solved—with a few jumps throughout the universe…and beyond.


In the first book, as with any stand-alone novel, the readers should get a good idea of who the protagonist is. In my SF Mystery series, the Jack Meter Case Files, I set up the first scene of the first book, Metered Space, with this dialogue:
I unlocked my door and pushed it open. “You’d better fix it”, I said. “That dripping is murder on my hangover.”
Johnson slipped by me and I followed me in. Aplin jammed his shoulder in the opening to stop me from slamming it in his face.
“Which hangover?” he said. “I hear you’re drinking pretty heavy these days.”

Jack Meter is slowly killing himself through booze and cigarettes, following the death of his girlfriend in an explosion and a stay in the psych ward. He doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He’s simply enduring.

It would have been boring to perpetuate his condition in the second book. Instead, I have the protagonist grow, intellectually and emotionally, and introduce interesting secondary characters. Throughout the series, Jack acquires a smart lesbian sidekick, alien friends who keep track of him, a trusty RCMP buddy, a landlord who’s also a lawyer, a French-Canadian housekeeper, and a very strange cat. Each of them force Jack to grow—even when he doesn’t want to.

Another challenge is to tie the stories together across the series. I do it by feeding bit and pieces of the back story to readers throughout the novel like in my latest book, Meter Parents:

Fred had appeared in my condo one day and stuck around, despite my initial efforts to get rid of him. He acted like a cat, except when he didn’t. He had an uncanny way of following me wherever I went, although he sometimes needed props, like the last time when he’d had to eat some of the poisonous flower to follow me into Aphrodite’s dream world.

If you’re a series writer, have you found other tricks to help readers follow your protagonist’s journey?


6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 4:04 pm

    I’ve written more series than I care to remember, and picked up a few useful tricks.

    The term “series” can mean several different things. Traditionally it is a series of complete stories linked only by the main characters; for example, Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” books. In Fantasy and SF, a series is more usually a serial, where each book must be read in the correct order, and complete closure will only be found at the end—assuming that the end ever comes.

    I have mostly written serials. The problem is always how to start the second and subsequent books. You are writing for three different audiences: those who have been waiting eagerly for the next episode; those who may never have read anything by you before; and those who are catching up on e-books and working through the entire story, episode by episode. (They may know more than you do, at this stage!) How do you begin? The first gang needs to be tactfully reminded what’s going on, the second doesn’t have a clue, and the third knows it all and mustn’t be bored. Sometimes I handled this very badly. Other times quite well.

    The safest way is to begin with new characters and a new locale. I do NOT mean that you have a long recap dialogue where one character tells the other everything that has happened in Volumes 1 through 9. But you can drop reminders of previous events seen from different points of view. I used this in Mother of Lies, sequel to Children of Chaos. Marno Cavotti, the Mutineer, had been mentioned a few times in the first book. He opens the second with some harebrained adventures that should grab readers in their own right. After that we revert to familiar characters.

    But there are no fixed rules in writing. You do whatever feels right.

  2. August 29, 2011 4:41 pm

    And I have enjoyed your series, Dave. Particularly the three tricky books that interlocked with each other – The King’s Blades series. The Gilded Chain (1998), ISBN 0-380-97460-6, Lord of the Fire Lands (1999), ISBN 0-380-97461-4
    and Sky of Swords (2000), ISBN 0-380-97462-2

  3. JohnP permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:24 am

    I am probably cheating here, because I’m going to use the “I don’t know art but I know what I don’t like” ploy, while rubbing my chin thoughtfully and slowly packing a pipe. 🙂

    One way to get me to stop reading a series is to end each book on a cliffhanger. This brings each book (my limit here is two before the pattern sets in) to an unsatisfactory close and I simply stop reading the series. Now, I firmly believe (but can be corrected) that the authour is not to blame here, so I am pointing my finger at the publisher(s) for trying a cheap marketing ploy that worked when I watched Saturday serials but has long since become ineffective in today’s world of instant communication/gratification.

    Best,
    – John

  4. Lynda Williams permalink
    August 31, 2011 7:30 am

    I hear ya John. I find myself increasingly irked by ANY marketing-driven gotcha ploy on the part of story weavers. Real stories have their own, internal logic that can’t be jerked around by ratings without imploding.

  5. August 31, 2011 9:02 am

    I second that. If the characters and stories are compelling, I don’t need a cliff-hanger to get me to the next book. I think this is true of most readers from my library experience. If they like an author, they will doggedly track down every last book written by that author, series or no.

    I think a successful series can take some cues from successful television. Each book or episode should stand alone sufficiently that a newbie can walk in and be able to follow what is going on. Once hooked, then this new fan will want to go back and fill in all the details, becoming familiar with the backstory. And there should be backstory. The best-loved TV series were ones in which the characters grew and developed, and there was change from season to season. (Remember the distinction Dave makes between a “series” and a “serial”; the latter can drift into soap opera, and become a victim of self-parody, which doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t still be wildly successful.)

    The key is to keep finding something new to say, some new situation to explore, building on what has been established in previous books/episodes. But I suppose the most critical key to keeping a series fresh is the author’s own excitement. A reader can always tell when an author has stopped writing a series because she is fascinated with what she has created, and is just cranking out the books because that’s what the fans and her publisher demand.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      September 2, 2011 8:09 am

      Self-paroday. Thanks for the term Justine. That’s exactly what I’ve detected in some of my favorite TV series that outlive their story-stuff. Then there’s Lost, which fell victim to pandering to the shock factor and – I suspect – disintegration of writing integrity. I think they committed audience abuse and that’s why they had to send everyone to heaven in the end to reunite all the characters whose connections drove the series.

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