Series vs Single Titles and that devil named “back story”.

A couple weeks ago I reviewed a book and, unbeknown to me, it was part of a series.  I was left wondering if that really impacted my review in any way, even if it possibly negated anything of value in the area of constructive criticism that would have applied to a single title composition.  And, dear reader, I realized it didn’t.  It is true a series has a different construct and if the story flows from one book to the other, a stream of plot not to be resolved until the next installment (like my serial as example) then, well, okay.  However, if a book is designed to be a stand alone but merely has a similar cast of characters as its predecessors then one should not have to READ the preceding tales to have a sense of character depth.

This does, of course, bring about some other complications.  The “In Death” series is something I’ve loved pretty much since the first book.  Fast forward to me reading the 28th book and you’d find me completely and utterly disgusted.  Yeah, the incest/rape thing is traumatic and all and it’s true there’s only so many times you can make it “fresh” but if you’re going to keep bringing it up as something the heroine is dealing with it needs to be doled out creatively.  I’m not pretending it’s easy but the truth is, after a certain point in a series, the author needs to sit down and take stock of how many “new” readers will be picking up installment twenty something and if that justifies beating your faithful readers over the head with a dead horse.  I never finished that book for precisely that reason – 100 pages of being berated with a past that haunts the heroine in EVERY book was just a wee much for my patience to handle.  There were many times within the series I felt it was handled exceedingly well and in plot relevant ways so a new twist on the issue was played out.  The flip side, of course, is that unlike the first book I spoke vaguely about there is no lacking for depth in these stories – in ANY OF THEM.

Balance.  It’s all about balance, ya’ know?  What do you think of series with character driven stories?  Have you come across any of the issues I have?  How do you know, as an author, when there is too much backstory?  Too little?


6 responses to “Series vs Single Titles and that devil named “back story”.

  • Jan

    Perhaps because I read so much in my younger years, I have to say I agree with you about how each book needs to stand on its own strengths. I would view anything else as laziness on the part of the author.
    As to the trauma piece, as a trained psychotherapist, I know that it takes more than acknowledging a trauma has happened to heal it. The awareness never leaves you and can always pop up in new circumstances. Awareness, however should mitigate the reactions to the memories if one has done their homework around the precipitating event.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Yep, the book was just a whole lotta lazy, imo. I’ve had issues off and on with that series for various reasons: author’s lack of understanding about the therapeutic relationship (boundaries that are necessary, etc), not knowing how a body would react when dealt a roundhouse kick… The emotional trauma she did well, but after a certain point it’s beating a dead horse. If you’re not doing anything NEW with it (and if a regression/flashback occurs after a few books of not happening I would consider that new as well) then leave it alone or at least don’t harp on it.

      Marion Zimmer-Bradley did an excellent job with her Darkover books but those are rather different in scope as it didn’t have the same main characters in each book. Sure, sometimes they made appearances, etc, but the focus wasn’t on the same two people throughout the lot of them.

  • Courtney Vail

    As a reader, I hate to see a retelling, but little reminders don’t bother me. In the series you mentioned, which I haven’t read, it would irritate me if a character never learns to deal with their traumatic past, remains the same. With a mystery series, each story is not so much about character arc but rather the puzzle presented, so you rarely see much growth or depth, but that’s expected.

    I’ve written two companion books, truly stand-alone. My current readers haven’t read the first and are not lost. I spill details which are important for new readers to know but with little blurbs here and there so it won’t feel like a total rehash for readers who’ve read the first. The only problem with reading the second first is it ruins the mystery of the first.

    They are different in tone because they take place almost ten years apart. The protag is 17 in Book 1, nearly 27 in book 2. I may have to self-publish book 2 because 1 would be YA (w. strong crossover appeal) while the other is adult. I didn’t write book 1 to be YA, but it’s more marketable as that, so that’s how I’m shopping it.

    You live and learn.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I totally agree with you about mystery series and, subsequently, the accepted lack of growth in the protags. Unfortunately the author also got really lazy with the mystery in that particular book as well and so I had no reason to continue reading it.

      I don’t envy you the issue of the mystery in your two books. Ultimately, if people are curious they’ll go back and read the first as long as the story is written well. At least in my opinion – I don’t mind figuring out “who done it” way before I get to it as long as the author at least makes me question that assumption somewhere along the line.

      Good call on the shopping around in YA – seems to be a good market to get into, also. Good luck!

  • Corra McFeydon

    I think it comes down to show/tell? If you can show the characters in each new series book, is it really necessary to TELL it all over again?

    I actually haven’t read a series in my life because I assume it would grate on my nerves and get dull. I like a fresh story when I open a book. (As a child of course I read Pippi and Little House.)


    Great post!


    from the desk of a writer

    • kimberlyloomis

      I think a thread through out the series is good, show evolution, back sliding when appropriate, etc but when book 28 feels just like book 12? That’s a real problem when the characters are supposed to be a big part of the draw to it.

      Generally I avoid series, too – I just used to like “In Death” because the mysteries were so intriguing! Then the villain in book 28 was the son of the villain in book x who had a history with the hero and heroine…. *sigh*

      Thanks for stopping by, Corra!

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