There’s no denying that series rule the roost at present when it comes to romance publishing, but not all series are the same. How boring would that be? Part of the appeal of a series is getting something the same, but different, whether it’s new adventures with beloved characters, getting farther into an overarcing puzzle or following a family through generations, more of the same can’t be the only factor; if it were, we could read the same book over again (which, let’s face it, is a pleasure all its own) and be done with it. So, what makes a good series? That question may not be as easy as it appears on the surface, so let’s do some digging.
For some readers, “I know it when I read it” is a perfectly good answer to this question, but, for the rest of us, there may be a few factors that affect how likely we are to make a return engagement after book one. Let’s take a look at a few of those.
Characters: This is a big one, especially in romance, since romance is all about the characters and the relationships among them. If the chemistry between the inaugural pair isn’t up to snuff, some readers may have second thoughts for sticking around to see if their preferred secondary couple (if the love interest is present in the first book) finds a HEA. Since this is romance, we know that the happily ever after is going to happen, so we want to make sure the people with whom we make the journey are people we want to spend that time with; pretty easy math. This doesn’t always mean we have to “like” either the first pair of lovers or the supporting cast, but we do have to find them interesting. A hint of an interesting character arc can entice readers to stay around for three, five, or even more books, to ensure they get to see what finally happens to the squad leader, eldest sibling, or crochety duke. When written well, we can pick up tidbits along the way, see characters learn and grow, feel their losses and wins as our own.
Continuity: This can be another big one (okay, they all can be big ones) and one than can spark spirited discussion among dedicated readers. Did Character A have blue eyes in book one, but brown eyes in book two? Unless Character A has access to colored contacts, or received a corneal transplant, which would be enough to drive a whole book, for sure, readers are not going to let something like that go. Same with characters who were in the same grade at school, but now have a wide age gap, or the other way round, horses that start out a chapter as a mare and end up as a gelding (?!?) or a character who has been established as an orphan in one book, who suddenly goes home to their big, extended family in the next book, without a story of adoption reunion or admitting they hadn’t been entirely honest about their background. Writing connected books can be a daunting undertaking for even the most skilled author, and there are some details which are going to slip between the cracks, but readers are going to notice when they do. On the other end of the spectrum, solid continuity can contribute to the verisimilitude of the story world and enhance the entire reading experience.
Connection: Some linked books are connected by recurring characters, which can either be new adventures for the same lovers, or going through a friend, family, or other group, until everyone’s story is told. Other books are linked by time or location, as in occupants of a stately home over years, decades or centuries, who may or may not know each other, or have unrelated characters who live on either side of the Scottish borders. Perhaps a contemporary series focuses on military heroes and/or heroines, with one book centered on a particular branch of the Armed Forces. A magical talisman might make its way around the world, and pass through time, without the different people whose lives it affects ever once being in the same place, from book to book, to encounter each other. Maybe it’s even something else. While some readers have distinct preferences, as in only friend or family groups in the same generation, thanks, others take a more open-ended approach; as long as it all hangs together, it’s all good.
Count: As in count the individual books that comprise the series. Some readers have strong preferences here. Three to five books may be quite enough, and more may feel like wandering too far afield, but for others, as long as the author is willing to keep writing them, the reader is happy to keep reading them. Mutually beneficial arrangement there. There’s no right or wrong answer on this one, though most readers will know if things start to go “off” at some point. Some readers may have their own saturation point, or stick around until X’s story, the pomegranate harvest or unicorn rodeo, because that’s what they’ve been waiting for from book one. Some might bow out after a certain number of books, but keep an eye on the series’ progression, because they’ll be back when it’s time for the mage war.
No matter what it is that keeps a reader coming back for, or brings them back to, a favorite series, knowing the kinds of stories -and series- we like can help us pick out new stories to read in the ever widening field of romance publishing. With romance series, there’s something for everyone. What’s your pleasure?
With that, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What sort of series makes your reader’s heart go pitty-pat? Are you sold at the mention of special forces? Werewolves? Regency sibling groups with a crochety eldest sibling? Generational sagas? (More of these, please!) Something else? How many books are a comfortable read to you for one story world? Is there a point where it gets to be too much? Ever bowed out of a series and then bowed back in again? What enticed you for a return visit? If you’re feeling some serious series overload, we’d love to hear about that, too. Pull up a seat in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.