Of Arcs and Standalones, Part 6: Cliffhangers and Conclusions
This is the twelfth of fifteen posts dealing with surprising things I learned in the course of writing a science fiction series.
Last week, we talked mainly about the cons (but also some of the pros) of series arc sequel hooks or cliffhanger endings, which are almost always part and parcel to the Overarching Series gig. Let's talk about the how readers combat the disadvantages of cliffhanger endings, make the most of their advantages, along with the role publication dates of installments play in selling series books.
Many readers generally buy the books in a series that appeals to them as they become available, re-reading the previous…or not. Things are forgotten, major and minor clues, details or nuances are overlooked, and the series simply isn't as rich as it could have been with the installments are read closer together. A lot of people I know won't read any books in a series until all of them are available, then they binge-read them one right after the other.
Publishers are very aware that readers are impatient these days and series books do tend to be released back-to-back, but what that spells from one publishing house to the next is debatable. Some release books in a series one a year, though these days that could definitely lead to bored readers who find comfort in the arms of another series instead. Two or three per year seems wiser, but that's not always doable either, since publishers now expect the authors to do the majority of the promotion and finding time to not only write new books fast and well but also to market the published ones so momentum can build while the books are still in the public eye can lead to creative acrobatics that frequently unsuccessful. Authors and publishers need to make the most of the advantages cliffhanger endings can have on story installments. For that reason, timing publication dates plays a key role in selling series books.
Two authors I talked to mentioned the crux of this issue:
Luisa Buehler: “The books have to be well written and create the word of mouth buzz every author hopes will occur. With the first book of a series, if it takes off, the second one needs to be coming out close enough to keep the buzz going."
N.J. Walters: “The advantage of releasing series books back-to-back is that readers don’t have time to forget about it. The disadvantage is the writer can’t work on anything else. It really pushes you into a time crunch and can make you sick of writing the series.”
I also talked to a number of publishers about how important the spacing of titles in a series is. Anticipation is as crucial as momentum. The author's writing pace is also a factor. Most publishers prefer to work with authors who have proven they can meet the challenge of writing quality books in a short amount of time.
The solution for me when it came to my science fiction series, which relied so heavily on series arc sequel hooks in the first three installments that would either allow my readers to anticipate the follow-up book or ditch the series altogether, was to write them all back-to-back. That way, I didn't have to feel rushed to produce a volume on a timetable that certainly wasn't my own. This also allowed for strict quality control. Additionally, I could make corrections in earlier books if something changed the further along I progressed or if a consistency issue was caught at any point.
In previous posts in this series, I talked about authors who are in the middle of a long, popular series who have left readers dangling for countless years between installments. I won't be too hard on those writers here, I promise. I can't imagine the pressure they feel that at times must reach the pinnacle of outright terror and could very definitely impact the quality of their writing. I would absolutely hate feeling like practically the whole world was waiting on me to deliver. Nothing about this scenario appeals to me, though authors who have gone through this situation have all the money and fame a writer could possibly ever wish for. Add to an already ponderous burden, what if readers are disappointed when the author finally provides series arc resolution with the final volume? If there are special types of hell for writers, that's one right there for sure.
I prefer to limit my story potential development as well as plan my series installments early enough (see my previous posts for specifics about these) with full-on outlines to be certain that each one is the highest quality I can manage and I'm sure even before I begin work on the project that I can finish the series in a satisfactory way.
I wrote my sci-fi series over the course of over 2 years and had numerous critique partners who helped me along the way. When I finally offered all four books to my publisher at once, they were all published in 2020 as close to back-to-back as editing allowed.
In the illustration below of snippets from one 5-star review received for each book in my Arrow of Time Chronicles (all from the same reviewer), I demonstrate how story and series arcs and even release date timing work on readers in the ideal:
Book 1: "I was so invested in the characters I couldn't stop. Wiesner has a way of drawing the reader in against a pulse-pounding backdrop of impending war and intergalactic destruction."
Book 2: "Continues with the same energy and intrigue as Book 1. Just finished and have already bought Book 3. I MUST see how these characters resolve their dilemmas."
Book 3: “The suspense just keeps rising and building! I found myself invested more and more. When I got to the end, I almost screamed. Then I discovered there was a final book already available. Whew!"
Book 4: "Book 4 brought a satisfyingly suspenseful end. At the end of Book 3, I wanted--needed--an ending to this story of all the lives brought into my world. Whether sci-fi or romance fan, you will love this series with all its complex plotlines striving valiantly toward a common, triumphant end."
Next week, we'll talk about random surprises (including reader expectations that aren't always met) that I learned in the course of writing my first sci-fi series.
Based on Writing the Overarching Series (or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl into Outer Space): 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection by Karen S. Wiesner (release date TBA)
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series, including the romantic science fiction series, ARROW OF TIME CHRONICLES