Serials vs. Series – There’s a Difference

I used to be a voracious reader. I devoured books like crazy, and needed to visit the bookstore regularly to continue feeding my habit. The more I read, the more I felt inspired to write. I was happy.

My reading consumption has tapered off over the years, as work, kids, emotional and relationship issues, household care, and a hundred other things took over my brain cells and free time. When I did have time to read, I would become drowsy and usually nod off after a few pages. Such a sad state of affairs.

Now things have settled into a more functional type of chaos, so I’m trying to get back into reading. My Kindle helps me have reading material at my fingertips no matter where I am, and I love love LOVE visiting Half Price Books to find some new stuff. I’ve become a fan of Brandon Sanderson (my introduction to him was Warbreaker, which I really liked) and just finished Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (which I also liked).

It feels good to read again.

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Being the picky reader I am, not to mention obsessive researcher, I spend hours looking through reviews on Amazon. I like to check out the negatives first, because the higher ratings sometimes sound suspect—5 star reviews can be bought and requested from well-meaning family and friends to artificially raise the perceived quality of a book. Money is tight and I don’t want to waste it on a book that doesn’t deserve its gushing praise.

Some things in reviews I overlook, such as technical issues. If all the reviewer can complain about is the formatting or occasional grammar goof, I spend a little more time checking it out. I can overlook a misplacement of a semicolon if the story’s good.

What I cannot overlook, and utterly HATE, is the now-common practice of ending books on “cliff-hangers”. I don’t mean that feeling that there’s a bigger story that’s slowly revealed over a number of books, I mean the author has ENDED the book in the middle of a scene or adventure. They are essentially splitting the plot of one book over two. (Or more!)

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I’ve seen some reviewers claim this is what series authors are supposed to do, that the book should end with a “hook” to get you to keep reading the rest of the series. I completely and whole-heartedly DISAGREE with this claim. It is incorrect and insulting to the readers. And it’s a cheap trick by the author to try and sell more books.

If you, as the author, haven’t grabbed your readers and made them care about the characters and curious to keep reading about them and the world you’ve built once this adventure is over, then you, the author, haven’t done your job properly. People have given you their hard-earned money to read your story. Don’t insult them by giving only half of what they paid for and expecting them to fork over MORE to finish it.

A “hook” is a short piece produced specifically to raise interest–think of a movie trailer or preview. It’s that tiny bit before the opening credits of a tv show—just enough to get you interested, and encourage you to stick around to watch the rest.

A full-sized book is NOT a “hook”. It should be a fully contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. There can be elements that hint at a larger threat or bigger story going on, but in this book, there is a specific plotline, and it is wrapped up at the end. Not leave the reader hanging.

I do not want to read an entire book (and that includes novellas and short stories as well) just to be FORCED to buy the next one to “see what happens”. Additional books in a series should be further adventures of the characters, not a continuation of that first story’s plot.

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Think of the Harry Potter series. Sure there was an overall theme–Voldemort’s return–but each book had a specific storyline that was completed and resolved at the end. If a reader did not move on to the next book, at least the plot and story in the book they just finished was wrapped up. If the writer did their job properly, they created characters that the reader would want to follow into their next adventure. And in that next book, the author can embellish a little bit more on that bigger storyline. World building is a great way to keep readers coming back.

But each and every book needs to have its own story, its own plot. And that plot needs to be resolved at the end of the book.

Now, a series is different from a serial. Each book within a series is an individual, self-contained story within a common theme, while each part of a serial is like a chapter of a larger story.

Think of those shorts theaters used to play before movies. You know the type—there’s usually a lot of action and car chases and gunfights, and the short ends on a cliff-hanger, like a car goes careening off a cliff or a building explodes. “How will Captain Incredible get out of this one??” an announcer booms. “Tune in next week for the next exciting adventure of Captain Incredible and the Crime-Stopper Kids!”

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Soap operas are also serials. They take weeks, even months, of daily “chapters” to wrap up a storyline. Whereas a show like Buffy or Supernatural is a series. Each episode is its own self-contained story, although there’s a bigger storyline that overshadows each season. (Yes, I know shows can have multi-episode arcs, but that’s not the norm, and usually reserved for special storylines or season end/starts.)

I have nothing against serials. I enjoy them, actually. It just bothers me that so many authors (and readers) seem to think ending a novel with the equivalent of “Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion” is okay. It’s NOT. It disrespects all the time your reader has dedicated to THIS book. They’ve spent money, time, and attention on this book, and haven’t even gotten a complete story out of it.

That’s a pretty crappy deal, if you ask me.

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What say you, Dear Reader? Do you like books that have a definitive ending, with worlds and characters that intrigue you enough to seek out the next in the series? Or do cliff-hangers act as that extra tease and make you hungry for more?

What are you reading these days? I’m always up for new suggestions and recommendations!

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