Category Archives: The Book Series

The Series: a Definition and the Glue

The series has become popular for readers, authors, and publishers, for different reasons. Readers want to continue dwelling in a particular world, like Middle Earth, or want to continue following the quests of particular characters, such as Harry Potter. By contrast, authors enjoy expanding upon worlds they have already created, frequently making the writing of multiple books easier; they do not have to reinvent that world for each book. Publishers desire a series because it frequently translates into more book sales. One reader buys all the books in the series rather than just one book. This article defines a series and what binds the individual books together.

A series is a collection of books. To be a series, technically speaking, the collection must be more than five books. Naturally, one book cannot be a series. Two books is a duology, and three books a trilogy. Four books are termed a tetralogy, and five books a pentalogy. Although there is some disagreement over these terms, a “series” for purposes of this article refers to multiple books.

In a series, the books must have something connecting them, otherwise the books are simply independent. One connection is a cast of characters found in all the books. For example, book one could introduce a family of eight. Each subsequent book is primarily about one family member and only secondarily about the other family members. That cast of characters could also be a group of friends or group of co-workers or some hybrid of family, friends, and coworkers. Another connection is a location. For instance, a hotel. The first book could be about the clerk at the front desk. The second could be about a person working for housekeeping, and the following books might focus on various hotel guests. The cast might be different in each book, but the setting or location of every book remains the same: the hotel.

Another connection for books in a series can be the plot. The series could be about serial killers, where each book is dedicated to one serial killer. Or the series could be about treasure hunts, where individual books are about individual hunts. Notice that the location would be different in each book and so would the cast. Of course, the connection can involve more than one of these elements of plot, location, and character. A book series could have all three elements. For example, two teenage boys live in a small town, and they solve crimes. In every book, the protagonists are the two boys (characters), solving a specific crime (plot), around town (location). What might distinguish a series, however, is to find other forms of connection beyond these common overlaps of plot, location, and characters. What other story elements can serve as the thread through each book in a series?

The Series: the Arc

Perhaps one of the most successful book series is Harry Potter. What made the series so popular? Many things, but the one this article focuses on is the series arc.

The arc of a story consists of about six narrative steps. Although different words are used to describe these steps, they refer to the same concepts. First, the world and characters are introduced. Second, a significant change occurs in the protagonist’s otherwise stable existence, which defines the protagonist’s story goal. For example, Gandalf and the dwarves visit Bilbo Baggins at his quiet home, asking him to retrieve the Arkenstone from Smaug’s dwelling. Third, the protagonist resists this change until some other significant shift compels him or her to address it. Fourth, the protagonist commences his journey to reach his story goal, encountering one obstacle after the next. He loses hope, until a second major shift propels him forward to the climatic obstacle: frequently a battle with the antagonist directly—the fifth step. Sixth, the subplots are resolved.

Why call this an “arc”? The curve refers to the protagonist’s emotional state. The story starts with her more or less happy. As she progresses toward her story goal, however, she becomes more miserable, being the most miserable in the climactic battle. Providing she accomplishes the story goal, the story ends with her happy again, usually a little happier than when she started. The “arc” can also refer to the momentum in the story, as well as level of conflict. Stories frequently begin slow and the pace increases, ending in a slower mode again. As for conflict, stories often commence with a low level of conflict, which then increases, and then resolves.

A story arc is usually found in each book in a book series. For instance, Harry Potter completes another year of school, having faced a large challenge that year. Each book consequently tells a self-standing story and gives the reader a fulfilling experience. A series arc, by contrast, is the story told over the entire series, starting in book one and ending in the final book. The reader only gets part of this story in each book: e.g., Harry Potter’s increasing confrontation with Voldemort.

In a single book, the structure consists of Stories A, B, C, and D. Story A is the main storyline, whereas B, C, and D are the subplots. Similarly, in a book series, the structure can be Stories A, B, C, and D. Story A is the series arc, the story told over the entire series, whereas B, C, and D are the story arcs in books one, two, and three respectively. In this example, book four (the final book) consists of steps five and six of the series arc (the climactic battle and resolution of that storyline).

The series arc motivates the reader to continue to the next book, luring the reader through the whole series. The bothersome question of how the series arc concludes drives the reader across all the books, which provides one reason the Harry Potter series was so successful. A book series omitting the series arc lacks this particular enticement.