Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Series, Sequels, and Spin-offs

I love series books. I’ve been known to discover Book One in a series and go to the bookstore and buy the next 14 books all at once. If I start a book and realize there were precursors, I’ll put it aside and read the earlier ones until I catch up. I want to meet the characters head-on in their first appearances.

In the mystery genre, series books feature a protagonist and a group of secondary characters that grow throughout the series. People may come and go, relationships may change, but the books build on each other. By my definition, the books in these series are sequels. The same protagonists come back as the stars, moving forward with their lives.

In romance, though, ‘series’ tend to be spin-offs, rather than sequels. There might be hints and references to what happened before, but the major players in Book Two were probably secondary characters in Book One.

(I did write a true sequel to a romance, primarily because I wasn't "done" with the characters, and also because nobody told me it was against the "rules"—but that's another story.)

The trick to series, sequels and spin-offs is a careful balance of back story. I read a sequel by a well-known, big-name author that revealed so much I never bothered to read book one. When I picked it up, I was unaware it was book two, or I probably wouldn't have read it first.

Now, readers aren't all as anal as I am. Some even (gasp) will read the end of a book first. But it's important to trickle in back story so that you have moments where a reader who's read the earlier books can feel "in the know" without making those who haven't read it feel left out.

How much to reveal in the second book? For example, at the end of When Danger Calls, Dalton, who's going to be the hero of Where Danger Hides is injured. Nothing serious, but should I mention it? Is it possible to use it as a 'connecting point' so readers will remember the scene from the first book. Will it waste valuable page time to go back and explain the whole thing? Or does it matter at all?

You certainly don't want to stop for info dumps in the early chapters. (Ever, really, but especially not in the beginning.) So, this is the way I referenced Dalton's injury – it should let readers who know what happened feel like insiders, but those who haven't read the first book shouldn't have to stop and wonder about all the back story details, or feel like they're being left out of a private moment.

Dalton scanned the crowd for Fozzie's likely target. Red fingernails and lipstick on the women, red jackets on the wait staff spattered the room with relief from an endless sea of black and white. "The redhead, right?" Dalton motioned with his chin.

"You know my weakness."

"Yeah, well once in a while you might try to find one with an IQ bigger than her bra size."

Fozzie punched his arm. Dalton grimaced and sidestepped.

"Sorry, mate. Arm still sore?"

"Only when some idiot punches it." He dodged another hit. "I'll meet you on the west balcony in fifteen minutes."

Fozzie wrinkled his nose. "With the smokers? Don't you know secondhand smoke can kill you?" The twinkle in his eyes belied his dead serious expression.

Dalton rubbed his arm. "As opposed to bullets, right?"

This should let the reader presume that Dalton was shot in the arm, that it happened recently enough so that he's still sore, but it's not really important to mention that it happened in a shoot-out in Montana with Ryan, and heaven forbid, go into the who was shooting at whom and why, none of which is important to this book. As with any back story, it's important to know 1) Does the reader need to know this? And 2) Does the reader need to know this now? But with series and spin-offs, there are additional considerations: 3) Does this spoil the read for earlier books? And 4) Will this confuse the reader instead of moving the story forward?

What about you? Do you read books in order? Do you like sequels? Spin-offs? And what's your take on spoilers?

For more information about these and other of Terry's books, visit her website. She can also be found at Terry's Place blogging about writing and life in general.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Your explanation of the difference between "series" and "sequel" is a very good one. Mystery series characters do need to grow just as real life people change with time. In romance fiction, a sequel might be planned as a trilogy, for example three sisters each with her own love story.

Jacqueline Seewald

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I had a reader ask me about this same thing at a book club meeting last night. I mentioned to her that there aren't as many spin-offs in mystery series (I'm not able to do it with mine, for instance). But I have seen it happen a lot with romance and some with YA. From a reader's perspective, I think it's fun--it gives me more insight into the secondary characters from the previous book.

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - I think all characters have to grow, but definitely in a series, since it covers a much longer period of time, they do have to grow more.

Elizabeth - I think the very nature of the sub-genres dictates the framework. A mystery series generally focuses on the sleuth, while a romance shows two characters finding that HEA. In most cases, after the HEA, there's not as much room for the 'romance' framework. But there's always another crime for the sleuth.

Dorien Grey said...

Good points, Terry. After 13 books in my Dick Hardesty mystery series, I consider each one almost as a chapter in a continuing novel, and I'm deeply gratified that readers become almost as involved with the characters as I do.

Katie Reus said...

I read series books all out of order if there are more than three. I love Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series but I started with one of the last ones and more or less worked my way backward. Same with J.D. Robb's In Death series. I started with one really late in the series and only recently read the first one.

Terry Odell said...

Dorien - I "know" my characters are "real" but it's really nice when others get involved with them. Congrats on such a long-lived series.

Katie - your comment is like fingernails on a chalkboard to "Have To Start At The Beginning" me! But I know there are lots of people who don't mind more 'fluid' passages of time.

Jemi Fraser said...

That's a great example Terry - people who've read the previous story get a secret smile in - they know the story behind the injury & feel part of the club :)

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - exactly. And if it's a little bit enticing for those who haven't read the first book, MAYBE they'll go back and pick it up.Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Anonymous said...

Great explanation, Terry. I love the spin-offs but had always called them series. Thanks. :)

Terry Odell said...

Rebbie - I don't know how my definitions would hold up in the publishing industry, but they work for me.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Debra St. John said...

I do like sequels, but I tend to agree that these books usually - but not always - tend to not be romances. But I do love being able to follow favorite characters and not be done with them after only one book.

I am a big fan of spin-offs as well. In fact, I've written one spin-off (due out in November) of my first book, and am working on the third book now. It's fun to revisit the main characters from previous books, but the new stories have a hero and heroine all their own.

Terry Odell said...

Debra - I wrote a true sequel to a romance (before I knew they weren't the norm.) But if JD Robb can do it, it's not totally out of the question.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Keena Kincaid said...

I have a true sequel to a romance coming out in October.

ENTHRALLED is a sequel to TIES THAT BIND, which came out last December. Both books share the same characters and external subplot. I did this because the external subplot (a move by Queen Eleanor to kill King Henry II and rule as regent in her son's name) was too big to resolve in one book. So TIES THAT BIND, Aedan and Tess find their HEA and stop the queen's first attempt. Ami and William are strong secondary characters.

The roles are reversed in ENTHRALLED. Ami and William struggle to find a HEA and stop the queen while Tess and Aedan are the secondary couple (their story moves forward, too). It works, but I'm not sure I'd do it again. It was tough.

Terry Odell said...

Keena, that's interesting (and far more than I'd bite off). However, by "my" definition, it's not a true sequel as much as a spin-off, or a connected book, because you're using secondary characters as they main characters in the second book. But that's just my definition, and it sound more like you're straddling sequel with spin-off.

Where Danger Hides, my next release follows When Danger Calls, but although the hero of the spin-off is a secondary character in the first, and they're connected by their professions, they're not tightly linked.

However, Hidden Fire is a true sequel to Finding Sarah because Randy and Sarah are back as the protagonists, and they're still furthering their relationship.

I admire anyone who can write history-based novels.

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