Every series has to start somewhere. Not only does a series starter have to stand on its own as an independent story, but it needs to set the foundation for all the books to follow, whether the series has a finite span (such as trilogy, quartet, etc) or is open ended, for potentially never-ending adventures. While the story of the first couple needs to take center stage, there also has to be room for future heroes and heroines to plant their roots, and dangle teasers for stories yet to come. Slant things too heavily in the direction of the series, and the first love story may feel lost, yet slant it too heavily in the other direction, and readers may not pick up that there will be more stories still to be told. Is there a happy medium? Let’s talk about that.
The first thing we have to keep in mind is that not all series are created equal. Where one series may be clearly laid out to have three, four, or more entries, with an already determined endgame, another may start out open ended, and take as many turns in the road as the author and/or readers desire. Yet another series might have started out as a standalone, but readers latch onto a secondary character or two, or that character won’t leave the author alone, and next thing you know, those supporting characters are forming a queue.
That’s only taking the series’ origin into consideration. The type of series can matter as well. If the series is based around friends or siblings, and the intent (which, as we all know, can change at any point) is to remain in a single generation, then the first book is more than likely introducing the whole cast, or at least one half of each of the rest of the couples. If the series is generational, then it may be only the progenitors -mom and dad, if you will, or grandma and grandpa- who actually take the stage in the first book. At least as adults, that is, which poses its own challenges. Introducing future heroes and heroines as small children, or even babies, may make the transition to seeing them as adults, with desires and intimate lives, at least a little difficult. On the other hand, when we get to see the characters grow from little ones, that adds another layer of understanding who they are as grownups, so there can be benefits as well.
As the popularity of series has grown, so has the amount of series, and the definition of same. Perhaps a popular series becomes so popular that it grows offshoots, kind of like the book version of a hydra. Beyond sequels of sequels, a sub-series, or spinoff series, has two jobs; to please longtime readers of the original series, and entice those who are coming into the spinoff without benefit of the original. If done right, the first book in a spinoff series can ground the new reader in what is, for them, the start of their time in this story universe, and give them a thirst for all that came before this part of the story starts.
Which brings us to yet another sort of series starter, the prequel. If a story comes out that takes place before book one, often labeled as book number .05, or similar, does that count as the real start of the series, even if it was written after several of the other books? What about when the author goes back and starts a spinoff series that spins in the other direction, as in that of previous generations? Think about a contemporary cowboy series, for example, where the author goes back and writes a story about the current generation’s great-great-grandparents (or whichever generation is appropriate) who founded the town and started the ranch, but this comes out after the contemporary series has wrapped. Where should that lie in the reading order?
As if that weren’t all confusing enough, there are series that switch subgenre in the middle of the stream, going, for example, from paranormal romance to urban fantasy. Does the first book that definitely crosses the line count as the middle of the original series, or is it the start of a new one, even if they bear the same series name? If a series begins as medieval historical romance, sticks with the same family, following them through centuries, up to the modern day, is that all one series, or does it need to be broken into smaller chunks? In that case, does the start of each sub-series need to recap all the ones that have gone before? Carrying that to a logical conclusion, does there need to be a reboot if the contemporaries flow into futuristic? Maybe one of the futuristic characters finds a mate from another world and it now turns into science fiction romance?
The answers may vary from reader to reader, and that’s part of the fun. A good series starter, no matter what genre, be it brand new or the start of a new branch on the family tree, needs to make a first impression that will satisfy the casual reader who may only stop by for this particular tale, and make the dedicated fan settle in for the long haul. When done right, both sorts of readers can close the cover with a satisfied sigh, and maybe, just maybe, the casual reader might come back for another peek.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What do you look for in a series starter? Do you have different expectations if the book is for a closed or open ended series? How about when the series is an offshoot of an already existing series? Do you need to read the first series before an offshoot, or is the offshoot its own thing, because that’s what you read first? If series starters are a non-starter for you, because you don’t read in order, or don’t like series, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.