Jilly: Cast of Thousands

Do you read series? What do you expect from the final book?

This week I happened to read the last book in two different long-running bestselling series, one urban fantasy and one straight-up fantasy. In each case the series ran to ten or more books, plus novellas and other related stories in a complex world with a large cast of characters.

To my surprise both grand finales left me underwhelmed, for the same reason. About a third of each book was devoted to wrapping up the series story arc in a high-stakes, satisfying manner. The other two thirds made sure that every single significant character across the entire series (barring those who’d met an untimely end) reappeared and contributed to the story resolution in some way.

It reminded me of the final number in a musical, where the entire cast is on the stage together, giving it full beans. Big finish. Rapturous applause. Curtain. Followed by individual curtain calls for the principals.

I was quite pleased to see some of the characters again, but after a while the whole setup became predictable, even tiresome. It distracted me. I started placing bets with myself about which character would appear next and how they’d be shoe-horned into the final confrontation.

These aren’t books written by newbie writers. They’re traditionally published titles written by skilled authors with proven track records. This can’t be a mistake. It must be what readers (or most readers) expect and enjoy.

When I’ve finished my Elan Intrigues prequel books I’m planning to write a long-ish series with the same protagonist (Alexis). At the moment I think it will be six books, set in various locations and with a hefty cast of supporting characters. If best practice would be to make the final book a kind of ‘greatest hits’ experience for the reader as well as saving the world and giving the H&H a happy ever after, I should try to get my head around that now. It might make a difference to the way I write the earlier books.

What do you think? Do you like to see all your favorite characters lend a hand at the end of a series, or do you, like me, just want the author to draw the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion?

14 thoughts on “Jilly: Cast of Thousands

  1. Some series have a ‘contractual obligation’ feel to them; there’s one series where I just pretend that the third book doesn’t exist (it isn’t needed in the plot anyway, and there’s Too Much Walking).

    Why not give each character one or more short stories? Honestly, you could issue them between novels (partly to keep readers engaged, and partly for additional income, if you chose to charge for them) then put all of them in a book at the end. Nobody could complain about missing their favourite minor character, and you could use up some backstory that would interrupt the flow of the novels. I’ve bought (or read) these in the past, when I wasn’t quite ready to let go of that universe.

    Just my suggestion, but yes – that book sounds irritating! I hope it isn’t sitting in my to-read pile 🙂

    • I’ve been pretending that these books don’t exist for a while, because I thought they had a whiff of ‘contractual obligation’ about them–or just that the authors need a drumroll and curtain to make it clear to their readers that the series is done and it’s time to move on. There was Too Much Talking in one of them, too, so I hope it’s not in your TBR pile.

      I was wondering whether I should be thinking of important secondary characters as a kind of Chekov’s gun–if in Book One I have an important character then I must be sure to use him/her in the Last Book. I’m definitely going to bear that in mind. The more I learn, the harder this writing gig becomes 🙂

      I really like your idea of short stories. That would be a much better (plus commercially useful) way to say goodbye to the best minor characters. Thanks for this!

      • Jilly, I’m glad you like my suggestion. Karen Chance, for example, has been writing short stories in between her novels, and now that she has ‘parted ways’ with her publisher, is trying different things including a printed book compilation of all her short stories, with a few extra. She has also written a couple of novels from the point of view of major characters. Mark Lawrence has also published a compilation of new and existing stories set in the Prince of Thorns world.

        And if you read the Divergence series, there was a book of entirely new stories – I think there is a novella and some short stories – around Four, and what happened afterwards.

        Yes, thank you! I am in Melbourne, although I’m in the outer east, where there aren’t many cases, and I only really go out about once a week. I turned 60 on Saturday – you may have celebrated my birthday 😉 – so I’m careful. It’s the middle of winter here, so it’s far more pleasant inside than out!

        I’m surprised we got in the media, as it’s not as scary here in Melbourne as, say, Arizona (with a population slightly larger than Victoria) – which currently has over ten times as many cases each day as we have had, and 69 deaths yesterday, while we have had four deaths in the last week. We have an excellent Premier (=state governor) who, while he is constantly criticised by the press, is careful and cautious, and listens to our Chief Health Officer, who has worked on Ebola pandemics in Africa; not many epidemiologists advising government have real-world experience. We have 20 hotels used to quarantine returning residents, and out of those 20, two hotels had staff who caught the virus and spread it into the community. It just shows how, despite planning, the virus can so easily escape.

        Stay safe, and be careful 🙂

        • Double bonus, thanks! I never read Karen Chance, but I just looked her up and am about to change that 🙂 Looking forward to a fun Sunday evening.

          Happy Birthday for last Saturday. Hope you managed a suitable celebration, especially as it was a landmark birthday. I’ll be 60 later this year and my party plans are on hold for now, until I see which way the wind’s blowing.

          I think the media coverage is about time zones. The BBC has rolling coverage, so they start the UK day with stories from Australasia, then move on to Europe, then close the day with the US. You’re lucky to have people in charge who are both competent and experienced. Things seem reasonably ok here for the moment, but I worry that it’s a lull. The economic pressure to open up is huge, the borders are open (not wide open but close), and a swathe of the population seems to think it’s all over. If only. Hope I’m wrong.

          Take care.

    • Also, apologies if I’m wrong, but are you in Victoria? If so, hope you’re ok and that the reality is not as bad as the news coverage makes it look.

  2. Sounds like Fan Service for me. A lot of people who are very invested in a series will write the author (or come up to them at a convention) and say, “Yeah, but what happened to X who had a walk-in part in Book 2, page 47?” And for a lot of authors, it’s like, “Um, you know I wrote that 15 years ago, right? I’m not sure I remember X.” Awwww.

    So, on the one hand, it must be really, really tempting to wrap it all up in the book so you can talk about other things. Plus, super-fans LOVE that kind of stuff.

    It’s kind of like in a romance series where the hero and heroine of Book One pop into Book Five to say, “Hi, we are still happily ever after!” But in SFF fandom, it is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s something you discuss with other fans, you “ship” unlikely partners, and all sorts of reader-centered things go on that are totally out of the control of the audience.

    I think the closest thing romance has to a fandom is Jane Austen’s cult (and she totally deserves a cult) — there are cosplayers, people who do historical research, people who write fanfic.

    Writing and wrapping up all of the characters gives a lot of control to the author, and in a sense says, “This is MY sandbox. Everything else is Alternate Universe.”

    Or at least, that’s the feeling I get. I do love a well-delivered bit of Fan Service. 2/3rds of a book of it? Well, Fan Service is never really as satisfying as the author’s characters doing exciting things that move the plot forward.

    • Fan Service. Exactly. I suppose by the time you get to the end of a long-running and best-selling series, you can expect that many of the people who buy the book will be superfans.

      Ilona Andrews definitely have a fandom. In one of the recent chapters of their excellent ongoing serial Ryder (see my blog post a couple of weeks ago for more info and a link), there were more than a thousand comments below the post. Ryder is a continuation of their Kate Daniels stories, and debate raged over the different colors of magic a sensate might see, and what they all meant. Speculation over where and why the werewolf had changed size and color. Whether the wolves around him were with him or if not, what they were doing. Whether he recognized the heroine (if so, why? if not, why not?) What the magical nature of a secondary character’s child, which was mentioned in passing in a book early in the main series, might be. And so on. Intelligent debate, with references. It made me wonder how the authors feel when they read those comments? I think I’d be thrilled that my readership was so invested, but also a little under pressure not to make mistakes with my world-building. Oh–and they have cosplayers too. Kay and I went to hear them speak when we were in Orlando for RWA a couple of years ago, and there was a girl in the audience in flawless Kate Daniels costume, complete with braid and sword strapped to her back. She looked amazing.

      I really like Zuleikaa’s idea of a collection of short stories. Maybe sell them or use them for individual giveaways, but also give them away with the last book of the series?That might be a nice way to offer great Fan Service without clogging the arteries of the Big Finish.

      • I do like that idea! It does seem like the best of several worlds to have a “souvenir book” of sorts attached to the last book — kind of like multiple afterwords that a reader can choose to read, or not. Plus, if they are their own short stories, you can pay more love and attention to THOSE characters rather than having to worry about picking up every single thread.

        It’s good that you are following Ilona Andrews so closely — what do they do when they goof on the world-building? A lot of readers will find reasons to excuse you — a difference in POV means a slight difference in remembering the facts (bring in a little Rashomon, in other words). Or others will just let the author roll with The Better Idea. (See also: retconning.)

        Lois McMaster Bujold has been very generous with her fans. She drops in from time to time. ONCE in a while, she drops down the Authoritarial Word (I think I made up that A-word), but in general, she prefers it if fans get to speculate and work things out for themselves. It is said that once a book is published, it’s not really the author’s anymore, but the readers. Lois seems so gifted in knowing when to drop in a tidbit or factlet, and when to sit back and let readers build the world themselves.

        OK, going off on a tangent and fandom now, but some of the YouTube drama series get a bit like this. A True Fan will check up on Twitter accounts that characters have, and watch the YouTube series, and catch up with the spin-offs. Remember when one of Jane Austen’s books got updated and serialized? I think it was Pride and Prejudice, but it might have been Emma. It was entirely too much for me to keep track of, but I can see how some superfans would scour the internet for content between episode releases.

        My point, I guess, is that there’s a warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with fan service, and I think to some readers, that is even more important than a clean and slick plot. However, like Zuleikaa says, you CAN do both — fan service in short stories, and the best fan service of all — a clean and slick climax to a wonderful series!

        (Although, authors do finish a series, and then come back and do “just one more”. Busman’s Holiday, for example, for Dorothy Sayers fans. That’s very much fan service, too.)

        • I really like Ilona Andrews’ blog. Firstly because of the Ryder serial, which I’m loving. Secondly because I learn a lot, from them and from the fandom. I read the Ryder chapter after the worldbuilding debate chapter I mentioned above, and I was amazed at how right the fandom guesses were and how closely they’d read the story. I tend to treat the external/adventure plot as a framework to support the characters and emotional interactions. That’s what I read for, so I never waste brain cells on all the fantasy details.

          I can’t remember them ever making a major goof on worldbuilding. I remember a while ago they put up a post apologizing that some kind of historical error or anomaly had slipped into in their latest book (I think a paragraph got overwritten or something and nobody noticed until it was too late). I wasn’t worried (it was mythology, so I didn’t care). They were mortified and corrected it within a day or two. I have no idea whether somebody noticed it and contacted them, or whether they spotted it for themselves.

        • LOL, something about SFF brings out the nitpicker in some fans. They’ll tell you if the moon is in the wrong position during the love scene, which I imagine can be really dismaying for the author who wrote a damn fine, emotionally resonant love scene!

          Some authors just shrug, others correct their mistakes, others are nitpickers themselves, LOL.

  3. That’s an interesting question, Jilly.

    It definitely feels like Contractual Obligations plus Fan Service are likely to play a part, whether it is the wrap of of a book series or the finale of a popular TV show (the show M.A.S.H. being an example of how *not* to do a wrap up, if I remember correctly).

    I really dislike the “we’re going to wrap up every story thread we ever mentioned and give every single character we’ve ever named a part in this finale” type of ending. As you say, it feels like one long curtain call and often leaves me thinking that the writer didn’t really have a story idea, but felt the need to close out the series for one reason or another.

    I’m currently reading what I think of as the “ending” book in a favorite series. The book is #9, but the series is at 15 or 16, so it’s not really the end, but I’ve always felt that it made a good ending point and, if it had been the end, I would have walked away satisfied.

    The book wraps up a story arc that had been building through the past several books, as well as the major arc that was there, hovering in the background since the very first book. Most of the major characters are there, but not all of them, and no one seems to be there just as a walk-on to take their final bow.

    The story itself is very strong and could, for the most part stand on its own without the rest of the series. I think the most important thing—from a satisfaction standpoint—is that the story leaves me with the feeling that the characters are going to go on to live long happy complicated lives and that, although bad things may happen, they are well-equipped to deal with them.

    So, my two-cents would be to wrap up your series with a strong story that leaves your characters where you want them to be, with whatever major arcs you’ve introduced along the way resolved or left ambiguous, as appropriate.

    Those bits an pieces that are left over and/or those characters that you’ve introduced along the way that don’t have a real role in the wrap-up could be good novellas or story-snippets or whatever to use for giveaways or whatnot.

  4. In Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series (the one they created the TV show “True Blood” from), she’d always said she’d have 13 novels in the series. When the last book came out, it was a wrap-up of all the characters, each playing a small bit, getting their bow, so to speak. However, that approach and the fictional outcome for Sookie generated an enormous negative backlash from her fans, so strong that Harris and her publisher agreed that she wouldn’t go on the customary promotional book tour that she’d had for the first 12 books. I read the Amazon reviews at the time, they were abysmal, something like 1.5 stars on 1,000 reviews. I just checked now, and the book has come up to 3.4 stars on 5,500 reviews (compared to the first book in the series at 4.4 stars on 2,100 reviews). That response made me think about how I’d end a series if I ever wrote one, that’s for sure. Although I guess if those 5,500 reviews were all verified purchasers, Harris is laughing all the way to the bank.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: A Series of Thoughts – Eight Ladies Writing

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