27 February 2008

The Comfort of the Familiar -- Connected Stories and Sequels

Series and connected works have been with us almost as long as stories have been with us. From Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Nancy Drew, from various yarns that take place in the realm of King Arthur to any number of running series being published today, both authors and readers alike enjoy revisiting their fictional creations and worlds. Sometimes when you scan the shelves, it can feel like the true stand-alone novel is an exotic creature, shy, elusive and rarely spotted in the wild. Granted, if you venture outside the genre fiction area into literary fiction, you'll encounter more of these solitary beasts, but even in the dusty halls of lit fic you'll find books that recall one another. Alice Walker's novel The Secret of Joy chronicled the lives of some of the descendents of The Color Purple, as a more famous example, and then there are Updike with his rabbits and Roth and his Zuckerman novels. Even when novels aren't strictly connected, many authors re-use familiar or favorite settings, like Anne Tyler and Baltimore, Maryland, or Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha County.

Wikipedia claims these types of tale are particularly popular in science fiction and fantasy novels "because of the artistic importance of complex ideas and the commercial importance of brand names." I've heard writers say they did so much work developing a speculative setting that they hate to discard it after one book. Readers, too, find comfort in the familiar settings and characters while indulging in the human need to know "and then what happened?".

There are many different connections that can exist within the body of an author's work. The first type would be trilogies or multi-ogies (!) like the Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time, where none of the books stand alone but create a massive story involving many characters and plots headed towards a single conclusion. The books themselves may not contain set or even partial dénouements but instead end on cliffhangers or situations where the narrative is obviously "to be continued".

I see the second type as series like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels, where the narratives in each book are consecutive but involve the same set of characters. In most cases, the book is narrated by the same individual. Each novel stands alone, though in most cases a reader's enjoyment can be enhanced if he or she begins at the beginning.

There is a subset of this type currently very popular in urban fantasy. Let's call it 2B. Each novel set in the specific universe is part of a greater narrative, but unlike novels in type 1, the stories in the books have their own arcs -- satisfying beginnings, middles and ends. Yet while you read the book you are conscious of the fact there is a greater thread that will be continued in the next story and a seemingly premeditated conclusion the author is headed towards--eventually. A great example would be Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson novels.

Third type. More complicated are connected works like Sherrilyn Kenyon's various Hunter tales. These books are set ostensibly in the same universe, so to speak, and contain references to and characters from other novels. If there are any speculative elements, they remain consistent from book to book. However, each book tells the story of a unique character or couple while drawing upon and adding to the worldbuilding and history of the "universe" as a whole. Series of this ilk can be as intertwined as Kenyon or Ward's urban fantasy romances (type 3A) or as discrete as Susan Grant's science fiction romances (type 3B).

Adding to the jumble are shared worlds, type four, where different authors put their heads together and write stories either set in the same universe or that continue one another's overarching plot threads. Examples I can think of right off the top of my head of straight shared world would be the Sanctuary stories from the fantasy genre (Type 4A), and of overarching plot would be Dorchester's Crimson City and 2176 novels (Type 4B). Some of the authors here at Beyond the Veil created an anthology that's a mishmash of the two called DunVegas, and it's free if you like Las Vegas, paranormal romances, and lots of hot sex! I'd say it falls more under 4A than 4B, however.

I myself just got a contract from Samhain for a novella entitled "Liam's Gold" set in the same world as my upcoming novel "Survival of the Fairest". While my novel, due out in July, takes on fairies, magic and flesh-eating gnomes from the "Realm" of my imagination, the novella's subject is a leprechaun who also originates from the Realm but dwells in humanspace for the duration of the story. These works would fall under the 3B category.

To writers -- what stories have you written that would fall under one of these categories? Any other categories to add? And to readers (which is all of us) -- tell us why you love connected stories!

Jody W.
A SPELL FOR SUSANNAH--Available now from Samhain Publishing
http://www.jodywallace.com/ * http://meankittybox.blogspot.com/


Liane Manso Betton said...

As a writer I fall into the 2B category. The story is nicely wrapped with a bow by the time you reach THE END but there is a greater mystery that builds in each book.

As a reader I'm a fan of trilogies and series. I love having an ongoing connection with characters. Given a choice between reading the next book in a series that I love or a stand alone that I heard raves about I'm going to choose to check back in with the characters that have already touched my heart.

Carolan Ivey said...

Jody, did you remember to mention Dunvegas is FREE?? ;)

I'm currently working on the second installment of a 3 book series, beginning with Beaudry's Ghost. For me it's not a case of recycling the same world I've built, it's about the characters. I love strong secondary characters, but the caveat is that readers demand stories for them!

Cathy in AK said...

I have an unfinished fantasy trilogy I'd love to complete writing some day. The overall arc is a revolution, but each of the three books has a beginning, middle and end. Mostly : )

As a reader, I'll stick with a long series if the characters and plots stay fresh. I give authors who can keep me interested through 10 or 12 or more books a lot of credit for their imagination.

Marie-Nicole Ryan said...

I have a planned series of six romantic suspense novels that's a 2B as well. Each will have it's own h/h who come together and solve a mystery, but there's a runaway who won't come home until the end of the fifth book; she'll be the heroine of the sixth book and realize her own romance.

Anonymous said...

I seem to be doing both. SHIFTING PASSIONS which just came out is set in a world where at least four other novellas take place, all of which stand alone.

Then BLOODSPRITE is book one of a...multi-ology in the same world following the same character in an over-arc. Each book will hopefully stand on it's own to a certain point, but there will never be a point where you forget something more is happening and you need to go back and read the proceeding books. And something should always be left hanging in each book while the main plot is tied up and completed. (I'll let you know if that worked once I finish book 2 *grin*)