Romantic serials

There is a truism among the self-publishing fraternity that the way to make money is to write a series of books, make the first one free, and watch the cash roll in. As a side note, this advice is useless to me, since I am congenitally incapable of writing series.

But there is a problem with series in romance. A romance has to have a focus on the central relationship AND an emotionally satisfying ending, whether that’s Happy Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN). So how do you write book 2, when you’ve already reached that ending in book 1? There are a number of solutions: use a different central couple in each book; write books in some other genre with a single romantic arc over the whole series (technically, these are probably novels with romantic elements, rather than romances); or write a series of books in which the same couple face different relationship challenges. This third option seems to be increasingly popular recently. Actually, I can’t think of any examples from more than about five years ago (please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong about this). Some authors who do this will end each book on a resolution, but others won’t even do that, keeping readers hanging until the next installment.

As the self-publishing forums will attest, these series are very popular. You hook the readers with the first (free) book and hope you can keep them through the whole series. I’ve read a few and been caught up in the need for the narrative conclusion. At four o’clock this morning I was ready to click buy on book 4 in the most recent series I’ve been reading, only stymied by the fact that it isn’t out yet. I needed to get to the end of the series, because the end of the book doesn’t feel like a real end. That’s the point, of course, because that’s what gets you to buy the next book. But as a reading experience, Book X of Y in a Series is completely different from Stand Alone Book.

Part of the reason I love reading romance is the promise of the happy ending. Whatever else happens in the book – whatever else is going on in the world – there is a promise that the central couple will end up together and happy. There’s a security in that ending which makes the reading experience safe for me. There’s a resolution to the narrative which leaves me satisfied as I put the Kindle down, turn the light off and go to sleep. That’s a really, really important part of the romance reading experience for me.

It’s also an important thing from a narrative point of view. A standalone romance tells a complete story: beginning, middle and end. It is the story of that couple. It’s not necessarily the story of their whole lives, but it is the story which defines their relationship. We know that whatever happened before was background, and whatever comes after will be the outworking of the events of the book. We might enjoy another glimpse of the characters if they appear in the first sort of series, as secondary characters in someone else’s story. We probably expect that they will have ups and downs in their relationship like everyone else. But we know that their story has been told.

What happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials is that the promise implicit in the ending is broken. I can’t leave the couple at the end of the book (even if it appears to be a happy ending) secure within those pages, because I know that more is coming. Whatever the ending is, it’s only going to be provisional. For me, that means it is unsatisfying. The book doesn’t give me the same reading experience as a romance novel, even if in every other respect it looks like it fits the definition of a romance novel.

The other thing that happens when you stop writing romances and start writing serials, I think, is that the books inevitably take on a soap opera kind of character. Because there is no final resolution in most of the books, there’s always a forward drive. One storyline may appear to be resolved but another one will be left hanging. Or we’ll know that whatever resolution there appears to be, something will happen to threaten it in the future. So there’s never the same satisfaction in the resolutions, or the same fear in the black moments. Plots cycle round, dragging readers with them in a tumble dryer of emotional manipulation.

It’s addictive. You want to know what happens next. But ultimately for me, it’s never a satisfying reading experience. Even if the series is completed, I find that the repeated cycles of conflict and resolution leave me anxious and cynical. And sometimes bored. There was a huge outcry last year when Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series was extended from three to five books. I’d read the first two and been looking forward to the third, but when I heard that I didn’t buy it. Partly because I thought that was a cynical move on the part of Day and/or her publisher and partly because I’d already been through enough with that couple. I wanted resolution, not more dragging out of their story.

And, of course, that’s another danger with serials in progress – they may never be finished.

So I’m going to try to avoid serials from now on, and I’m going to hope that this trend will die a quiet death before too long.


  • Right there with you. I hadn’t figured out why, precisely, I didn’t like serials even when I waited until the whole cycle was complete to read them until you mentioned the thing about “I’d already been through enough with that couple. I wanted resolution.” Usually, a main character has AN internal conflict along with, possibly, the overall novel having AN external conflict. But the constant arising of new internal and external conflicts in serials leaves me feeling as if there will never be true resolution.

  • It’s not necessarily the story of their whole lives, but it is the story which defines their relationship. We know that whatever happened before was background, and whatever comes after will be the outworking of the events of the book.

    I think of a romance as telling me the story of the beginning of a relationship, or perhaps a second chance at making a relationship work. Yes, it has an HEA or an HFN, but that’s about what they’re going through in the course of a story capturing a particular period of time. Their lifetime HEA can’t, almost by definition, be contained within it.

    An example of books that explore relationships over a longer stretch are the Thirkell books. They aren’t genre romances, obviously, but each story features at least one romantic progression to a happy ending. Sometimes Thirkell returned to a particular couple in a later book and had them experience a threat to their happiness, or a big change in their lives, something that altered the romantic equilibrium and eventually established a new one. Tracy/Teresa Grant’s books follow a single couple and while they have mysteries being solved in each installment, the couple definitely grows and changes in terms of the relationship. So I would say the romance is pretty central for the series.

    You’re right that this can’t happen in a genre romance, at least not the way genre romances work today. They tend to be extremely compressed timewise (as opposed to sagas, or clogs-and-shawls novels) and they tend to exaggerate both the conflict and the resolution (so we go from a black moment to an HEA pretty quickly sometimes).

    This may be why I am finding a lot of these kinds of novels less satisfying. I like seeing how people are doing down the road. I don’t want the sugary walk-on appearances that we get in linked books today, though.

    Great post, Ros. Made me think! And I don’t think I’d like the serials of today, because I do want some kind of resolution to the immediate relationship arc. But I don’t like books that continue to explore an earlier-established relationship, and I wish we had more of them.

    • “I like seeing how people are doing down the road. I don’t want the sugary walk-on appearances that we get in linked books today, though.”

      It’s interesting to me that I like this too – just not in romance novels. So I really like it in, say the Amelia Peabody books, when we get to see Amelia and Emerson’s marriage develop over many years. But the difference, of course, is that the books are not primarily about their marriage. They can have arguments and deal with difficult things without there needing to be a sense that the relationship is in jeopardy.

      I still haven’t read Thirkell and I really should.

      • I can see where you and Miss Bates are coming from. It’s interesting, when I want a pure romance I tend to read Harlequins. I think that subconsciously I expect single titles to be more than “just” romance, so I get frustrated when the history is bad, or the worldbuilding is sketchy, or the characterizations aren’t well done.

        For me the difference between a single-title romance and a book with a romantic subplot isn’t that big, in terms of the conditions under which I’m likely to pick one up to read.

  • Argh. In the last sentence of my previous comment, that should be “I DO like books that continue to explore an earlier-established relationship …”

  • I am just going to pipe in and say that you’ve summarized all the problems I have with serials. I too had the same reaction to Day as you did. And it leaves me pretty cold for everything else she writes because I feel manipulated. And I’m much more romance-conservative than you because even an HFN leaves me a tad deprimé and dissatisfied. On the other hand, I do love a mystery series that has a romance arc embedded in it over several/many books. I read those series for the mystery that is resolved at the end … and I look forward to the furthering of the romance narrative with its central struggling-toward-HEA couple. Even when that couple marry, I will enjoy the vicissitudes of their marriage that may come up in further books. I’m in it for them, but I don’t consider those books romances, nor do I read them only for the couple.

    I’m ready for serials to go away … but who knows? I’d certainly hate to see them take on a more and more prominent role in romance, especially when favourite authors write them. It seems to me that they’re also awfully pricey for what’s offered.

    • The pricing does vary. The series I was reading last night was priced at free for book 1 and $3.99 for books 2 and 3, but they were both pretty substantial single-title length books. I didn’t feel that I’d paid too much. But where each episode is a 20-30,000 word novella and priced at $3.99, I think that’s a rip off.

      I agree about the mystery series! See my comment to Sunita about the Amelia Peabody books as one example that really worked for me.

  • I also dislike the repeated conflict/resolution cycles, though my response is generally boredom. Every series I’ve read that focuses on one continuing couple has eventually bored me. It’s not that I don’t think it can be done well — just that it never seems to be, to my satisfaction.

    Planned trilogies bother me less, as long as you know what you’re getting when you go in. In a fantasy world, that’s sort of expected. :-)

    • Yes! Often it is just boring because the characters never grow or develop through the endless cycle – and indeed, how could they when they are repeatedly subjected to similar things?

      If the trilogy is properly planned and plotted, then yes, I guess it can work. Actually, I’m just remembering a couple of India Grey HP’s which worked like this and I did enjoy those. Book 1 had the couple getting together, but he was a soldier and in book 2, he returned from a tour of Afghanistan with a whole lot of issues that disrupted their relationship in a new way.

  • Yeah, what you said.

    I had a similar experience with the Sylvia Day books except that while I’d bought the first book, on sale, I hadn’t read it yet because I was waiting for the series to be complete. So when the extension was announced, there didn’t seem to be much point in continuing to follow it. I also felt smugly validated in my decision to wait for the conclusion before beginning. :)

  • From a book history point of view, serials and genre romance have a common ancestor. They both spring from the small-r sense of romance, the episodic adventure story like The Odyssey or Don Quijote that usually contains a love story as one of the strands. But whereas genre romance was influenced by the development of the novel over the 18th and 19th centuries–with its interest in interiority, relative unity of plot, etc.–the serial stayed sprawling. Each piece of the serial containing its own beginning/middle/end, frequently deployed cliffhangers, etc. as you detail.

    I don’t mind romance serials when they’re conceived of as serials from the beginning (and since my area of study is the serialized 19th century novel, I actually sort of enjoy them); the recent Meljean Brook Iron Seas serial was great, I thought. But when the serialization feels like a marketing technique or just to extend the number of books, it’s infuriating.

    • I think, though it is somewhat nebulous in my mind, there is a difference between a serial and a series. In a serial I expect each episode to end with a cliffhanger or some other reason to make me immediately want the next one – and I expect the episodes to be released in fairly quick and regular succession. I don’t think each episode needs a beginning, a middle and an end. In a series, I do expect each book to be self-contained in narrative terms. I do expect there to be a resolution to the central conflict, even while there are seeds sown for the next story. I don’t think that the kind of romance series I’m talking about has much to do with the 19th c. serial format, to be honest.

  • I feel the same as you about serials. Do not want. I’m just not the patient kind and want that conclusion you described.

    Rosemary Rogers’ Ginny and Steve books fit your description if one considers them rom with HFN (3 for S&G, 1 about their daughter and I recently heard there is a 4th book about S&G). There were also a couple of others whose authors/titles I’ve forgotten, also written in the 80s (one about a French female main char).

    In addition, I read Angelique as rom even if the books don’t fit my own strict rom HEA definition these days.

    I think it can be said that there were rom ‘serials’ in the early days. However, my impression is that today’s authors aren’t very good at it, with the possible exception of the Meljean Brooks experiment that seems to have gotten positive reactions from what I can see.

    I’ve been reading a lot of historical mysteries with rom arcs lately and while I enjoy them generally, I do read them for the rom arc unlike Miss Bates and therefore find the developments rather frustratingly slow-moving (Tessa Harris, C.S. Harris, Imogen Robertson, Priscilla Royal, Sharan Newman). Tracy Grant is a special case because she wrote the chronologically last book first and I have some issues with the fact that in the earlier-set books the rom relationship seems further along in its development than in that 1st written book. I’m currently waiting for her to move past the time that 1st (last) book is set.