Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Limited vs Open-Ended Series

I don't often get up on a high horse and talk about writing topics, because really, who the hell cares what I think? But I've run across this topic on two blogs in the past week, and it's starting to make me crazy, so I'll blather for a while.

The posts were on the topic of writing a series, and what both of them did was gloss blithely over the inherent difference between a limited and an open-ended series, equating Harry Potter with various mystery/thriller series without ever taking note of the fact that they are comparing two different creatures. And the thing that makes a limited series different is something that is very near and dear to me: THE END.

A limited series has AN ending; it structures itself around that fact. Each part of the story evolves some distance toward that point, usually with an ascending sequence of climaxes that have the same overall rhythm as any single volume. All of the plots go to the same place. Because the previous volumes are essential--it's all one--you can limit the amount of refresher information you give readers, or section it off in an introduction. It is expected that characters, even the world will suffer major changes; that is kind of the point.

An open series has MANY endings; each book has its own. Each book's climax tends to be at the same pitch, and each new volume hits the emotional reset button. Without an end to aim for, subplots tend to proliferate; killing them off becomes a major commitment, deep-sixing a resource that could be used in future books. Either every book has an all-new major antagonist, or the major antagonist is hidden in the shadows and only his or her catspaws are defeated. The main character tends to be the draw for the entire series; therefore, it's difficult to make substantial changes to the character. Since you never know when you might pick up readers, there tends to be repeated descriptive information for new fans who don't know what the main character looks like, or what kind of car is the villain's signature.

In case you can't tell, I have very little use for open-ended series; it's one reason I hate most television (major exception: Babylon 5. Guess why.) A story that has no destination is doomed to lose its way and drown in a bog, and by the time it does that, no one will miss it.



John Hallow said...

I can't believe no one has commented on this xD An excellent post. I just happened to stumble across it while I was reading about structuring different kinds of series. I was also pretty annoyed about the way everyone seems to lump limited/open series together (although I've called limited series 'closed' series xD). My faviourite kind of series is a blend of the two, which I call a half-open series. Its made up of a series of self-contained stories until so-and-so number of books where it begins to follow a solid plot to its conclusion. I'm actually writing a book series like this, and I like the freedom it gives you because you don't immediately have to decide on the end, but it's not a matter of keeping the series going until you run out of steam either.

Okay, this is getting a bit long so I'll end it here. :D

John Hallow said...

*I've always called

Herp derp cannut spell xD

Rebecca said...

Hi John! Thanks for the comment; I'm glad you found the post interesting. :)

That sounds like a very challenging structure you're working with! What genre are you writing in?