Series vs Serial

A lot of people will tell you the only way to make money as a author these days is to write a series. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve neither made much money nor written a series. The concept is sound – pull people into your world and keep them there, buying book after book. Before you go out to become the next George RR Martin, there is something you need to know.

What a series is and isn’t.

A series is a collection of books which string together to make a greater whole. Whether it’s Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, each book builds on the ones before, making the reader wait anxiously for the chance to spend money on the next book. But there is something else they did brilliantly, they create a comfortable space for the reader to wait. Each book, especially the Harry Potter books wraps up the action for that particular book. Voldemort is foiled (or not) and the characters leave the school. Each book begins with preparation for Hogwarts, and closes with the end of term.

Think of a series as pearls on a string – each is distinct and self contained, but they are connected by an over-arching thread. The plot of the book is concluded, but the series is still open, questions unanswered.

There are two reasons why this self-contained plot is important. The first is in the nature of story arcs. They don’t rise up in a straight line of ever building excitement. Even within a book there are peaks and hollows in the arc, so the overall direction is to greater tension and higher risks, there are moments when the characters relax and get to be human, just a little bit before the next crisis. In your series the overall plot is even more essential, and those bits of reflection are of vital importance.

Think of the ending of Twin Towers by JRR Tolkien, where Peregrin is riding with Gandalf toward Gondor. He imagines they are standing still while the world turns beneath them. It is a wonderful image and it bridges the second and third book for us.

A good series will use those moments of ephemeral peace to create a conclusion for each book, which brings me to the second reason why the self contained plot of each book is vital.

You need to prove to your readers you know how to write a conclusion. I’ve read more than my share of books which left me staring in dismay as the closing words left me feeling cheated. It is bad enough to have read a book for that sinking feeling of ‘That’s it?”, but imagine working through five or six or more books to arrive there.

I often get the feeling the author didn’t know how to finish their story, so they just quit. Other times they are trying to be avant garde and show the futility of conclusions. Neither is satisfactory as a reader. If you are going to get readers invested in your series, you’d better show you can write a humdinger ending to make their loyalty pay off. The longer the series, the bigger the pay off should be.


There is something which disguises itself as a series, but is very different in execution. That is the serialization of a novel. Where a series has a number of stories strong together with an over-arcing plot, the serialization has one story and just takes a whole lot of books to finish it. Where the series wraps up the minor plot and points to the remaining questions of the major plot, the serial stops in a place which appears disastrous for the characters. A serial is one long wire with no distinction between one book and the next.

This is the cliff-hanger ending. Cliff-hangers come from the old serial westerns, when more often than not, the hero literally hung off the edge of a cliff. The idea was to entice the reader to buy the next magazine to learn what happens next. Now in case you think a cliff-hanger is easy, just stopping while the hero is in peril, it isn’t. There are a few things you must keep in mind if you are going to pull off a good cliff-hanger.

The first is that the peril must be real. If your character is hanging out an airplane door, fighting to hold on, you’d better not reveal in the next book that it hadn’t taken off yet and he’s in no real danger.

The second is a continuation of the first. The hero must be alone in their danger, or if their sidekick is present, they must share the same level of danger. Think of the old Adam West Batman programs. Robin could be in danger without Batman, but never the reverse.

Even if the side kick isn’t right beside the hero, there needs to some peril or problem which is keeping them away. Part of the real peril is nobody is standing off stage to immediately resolve the issue.

A good ending deserves a good beginning.

Just as series and serials have different ways of concluding each book, they have different ways of beginning the next installment too. In a series you are picking up the untied threads from the last book. One great way to do that is to show the cost of the previous book’s conclusion. What has changed for the characters? Now you’ve not only reintroduced your characters, but you’ve begun the work of building tension for this book. Unfinished business is not just for ghosts.

But as each book has a distinct ending, you want each book to have a distinct beginning. So while you pick up those threads, you add new ones which will be the plot for this book in your series. While this particular book may be number two or three or whatever in the series, you want to be able to bring new readers on board without sending them to buy the earlier books. You will write such a good story they will want to, but if they feel forced, they may just put the book down. As a reviewer, I read a lot of books in the middle of series, and the ones which impress me are those which pull me into the world of the characters, without feeling I’m on the outside of a clique telling inside jokes.

A serial novel starts differently, just as it ends differently. You have that cliff-hanger to resolve right? Only you don’t start with the resolution of the cliff-hanger. The cliff-hanger ending builds a lot of dramatic tension, you don’t want to let it all go right at the beginning. So you have a couple of options.

One is to go back to the cliff-hanger and instead of resolving it, you ramp up the tension further. Instead of the hero dangling by her fingertips out the door of an airplane, her hands slip and she has to grab the landing gear or fall.

The other is to resolve whatever issue is holding up the sidekick first. We see them get out of their relatively minor jam, while we’re dying to find out how the hero is doing. If you take option one, you go to the sidekick before you resolve the issue with the hero.

Now just as setting up a cliff-hanger takes planning and care, getting them out of the situation does too. Back to Batman, remember how he always had the solution to their problem in his utility belt? That’s called Deus ex Machina, which is a latin phrase meaning the author cheated. Remember I said the peril needs to be real? If your hero had a parachute in her fanny pack all along, the peril isn’t real.

So how do you get him off that airplane? You should have thought of that before you put him there. There are two possibilities.

The first is a mistake on the part of the villain. A thug is sent out to dislodge the hero and make it possible for the hero to get into the plane or off safely. Let’s say not only is the hero handing on by her finely manicure fingernails, but there is a bomb on board and the autopilot is taking the plane to its target. After the villain sets the autopilot, he jumps out of the plane. Our hero climbs into the plane resets the autopilot for a harmless destination then jumps out of the plane after the villain. Cue mid-air fist fight.

The second is the ingenuity of the hero. He does something which will force the airplane to land, or is able to signal for help from the now free sidekick. Again the resolution needs to be real and not easy.

All the element of the escape need to be set up ahead of time. Not pointed out to the reader with flashing arrows, but slipped in so the reader has an ‘aha’ moment, not a ‘what?’ moment.

A quick summary, series is a collection of stories which build on each other to come to a final conclusion, but the stories are distinct and have their own beginnings and endings. It should be possible to pick up any book in a series and enjoy it without having read all the previous books, though if you’ve done your work right, they’ll want to.

A serialization is one story spread over any number of books. They may or may not use cliff-hangers, but there will be less of a conclusion at the close of each book and less introduction of character and world at the beginning of later books. It really is better to read a serialization from the beginning.