Something I’ve always found interesting is how there are so many different ways to write a book series, and how there are different types of stories you can tell with each. The two main divisions of book series are “episodic” and “single story arc,” and while there are popular examples of both, I think single story arc is definitely used the most right now (think The Hunger Games).
In an episodic book series, you have the same characters in each book, but the stories are independent of one another; there aren’t any cliffhanger endings and you don’t have to read the books in any particular order. An author could stop writing the books at any given time, and the audience wouldn’t suffer for the loss, because there wouldn’t be any plotline that they’d be intent on following. This type of series, I’ve found, is more common among younger readers, in “chapter books” such as the Magic Tree House series or — my personal favorite when I was younger — Animal Ark. However, there are also books in the MG to YA range that function this same way, like the Alex Rider series. (Alex Rider only partially qualifies as an episodic series, though, because his adventures do need to be read in order.)
In each of the Alex Rider books, Alex begins by saying that he doesn’t want to work as a spy, gets caught up in some MI6 mission, saves the world, and then ends the book with the old mantra that he’ll “never be a spy again” and is happy being just a normal English schoolboy… only that then, of course, the process repeats itself the next book. The purpose of this is to enable the author — in this case, Anthony Horowitz — to be able to stop writing the books whenever he wants to. Say they’re no longer selling well or he’s bored with the series? No problem, because Alex ends off each book happy. (Except for, of course, the one book towards the middle of the series that at the end of which he doesn’t… but that’s something else entirely.)
Now, the single story arc series is just what it’s named for. While each of the books in one of these series has its own specific storyline and arc, these are just smaller parts of a whole, and there are storylines that continue from one book to the next. As I already mentioned, The Hunger Games is a fantastic example of this type of series. In the Hunger Games books, there’s no definite conclusion to anything until you get to the end of the third and final book; any form of trilogy or cycle works this same way (such as in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle).
These series allow for more complex plots and characters than episodic ones do, but are also harder to sell, especially as a debut author, because whereas if an episodic series isn’t selling well, a publisher can shut down production easily, if a single story arc series isn’t selling well, the publisher is pretty much obligated to keep pumping them out until the storyline’s wrapped up (although, of course, single arc series often sell better than episodic series because they hook readers better — like how it’s almost physically impossible to stop reading The Hunger Games halfway through, but if you can’t run out to get the next Alex Rider book right away, it’s no big deal).
These are generally the stereotypes for the two (main) types of series, but some book series manage to cross over between the two, like — believe it or not — Harry Potter. When the Harry Potter books are just starting out, they very much give the appearance of an episodic series, outside of the fact that, like the Alex Rider books, they need to be read in a certain order. In each book, Harry hates his relatives, goes off to school and has a fantastic adventure, and then goes back to live with his cousin. After the first couple novels, it would have been very easy for JK Rowling to stop writing them without leaving many loose ends.
However, then book three comes along and Harry meets his long lost godfather, and it’s suddenly looking a lot more difficult to leave off the series there.
And then: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire happens, and what once seemed to be an episodic series suddenly becomes a single story arc series. The momentum picks up and subplots stretch between the books, carrying the readers through literally thousands of pages just to see the conclusion to a certain storyline, such as if Ron and Hermione will ever get together. One thing that sets the Harry Potter story apart from an episodic series from the start, though, is that the antagonist in all seven of the books is Voldemort (yes, in the first three books, Voldemort himself doesn’t make too much of an appearance, but he is very much the villain from the very beginning).
Between the two types of series, I’ve personally always preferred the single story arc series, because I like how the plots get so complex and the characters really have a chance to grow and develop and change. However, episodic can be nice sometimes too, because you can read a few of those books without having to get intensely involved in the series. It’s the same way with TV shows — on a lot of sitcoms, you can watch the episodes in any order without missing too much information, whereas on dramas (like my current favorite show, Glee) (don’t judge), you have to watch the episodes in order or you have no idea what’s going on.
What’s your opinion on the matter — episodic or single story arc series? Which do you prefer?
Oh, and cute picture of my dog Sammy as a puppy while we’re at it:
Be looking out for the usual weekend post coming sometime in the next couple days!