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.