(No spoilers this time. At least, I’m pretty sure. Proceed with caution just in case.)
You know, I find myself growing weary of the series. Specifically, I think I’m worn out on epics, where the author takes hundreds of thousands of words to tell a single story. The more I study the craft, the more I feel that telling a complex story in a shorter framework demonstrates a higher level of skill. I think I’ve just read too many stories relentlessly padded into trilogies because trilogies are cool, too many first volumes that feel like barely a first act, too many books that read like game manuals with only the most tacit of nods toward structure and plot. Perhaps my attention span has just been rotted by social media, but I find that I’m just not willing to commit to half a million words of my life just to see if there’s a point to all of this.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. For my money, a perfect series is one where the individual books still feel like books in their own right; not necessarily something I could pick up cold or out of order and have it make sense, but something that gives me the same sense of satisfaction as a standalone book. This is probably easiest to pull off in an episodic property like Artemis Fowl. Each installment of that series is a contained caper: someone makes a nefarious plan, geniuses try to outmaneuver each other, and everything gets wrapped up by the end. They’re not completely interchangeable, because continuity carries over, the fallout of major events gets explored, and characters develop and change. But the overall arc is one of character rather than plot, charting Artemis’s development from devious child to responsible young adult.
The Miriam Black books have a similarly episodic feel, in that each book has Miriam presented with a problem early on that she’s resolved by the end. But as has become clear by the third book, there’s a definite plot arc having to do with the forces of fate and change that Miriam finds herself caught between. This element drives the story forward from book to book while remaining subtle, a contributing element of each individual battle rather than the main focus. It’s not that there aren’t teases and even cliffhangers, but they come well after the climax has been sorted out so you still get a feeling of accomplishment. A bad dude has been introduced, battled, and overcome. There may be a whole lot of that larger story left to tell, but the individual books don’t feel like a holding pattern.
The Lunar Chronicles is probably the closest of these to epic; the overarching story concerns Queen Levana’s plans to conquer the Earth and the plan to find the rightful heir to the Lunar throne to supplant her. Unlike with the previous example, this bigger plotline is a major component of each book; other characters and subplots get introduced, but the bulk of the action drives the main conflict forward. However, the series benefits from the conceit that each installment is a fairy tale retelling, so each book has a built-in arc and climax. Cress, the most recent main novel at time of writing, probably strays farthest from its folkloric blueprint, but the plan to infiltrate the palace still provides a satisfying crescendo. The key to the overall flow of the series is in that structure: we get a climax, then our heroes are given time to regroup, reflect, and plan for their next move. It’s all building to one big huge grand finale, but each book makes significant progress toward that goal while still resolving its individual dilemma.
With this, as with so many things in life, it’s all about balance. Very large stories are fine, but it can try the reader’s patience if you’re spending, say, an entire book just touching base with each main character because there are too damn many of them and they’re scattered all over the damn planet. (Not that I’m bitter about that one.) Making each part of the larger unified whole feel unified in and of itself will help keep people coming back for more. I want to be eager to read more, not frustrated that I didn’t get enough. It’s a fine line to walk, but for me it’s the difference between reading the next book and reading the summary on Wikipedia.