The Balancing Act: Keeping Your Series Fresh for New and Existing Readers
I have a photograph of myself taken years ago inside a hotel room in York, England, where I’m reading Peter Robinson’s novel In a Dry Season. To this day, it’s one of my all-time favorite mysteries.
Peter had already written several Inspector Banks novels by the time I discovered In a Dry Season. The same is true of me and Michael Connelly. I was late to the Harry Bosch party and only met him in Michael’s seventh book, A Darkness More Than Night. Of course, I went on to read multiple books in the series (earlier and later) by both authors.
Now that I have a long-running series myself—the eighth Jonathan Stride novel, Marathon, is due out on May 2—I’m always on the hunt for readers like me: people who will embrace a series in the middle, even if they haven’t read the earlier books. For authors, this is the delicate balancing act of writing a series. On the one hand, we want to keep the series and its characters fresh for existing readers, without repeating backstory they already know. On the other hand, we also want to provide a full, rich reading experience that will invite new readers to discover the depth of our characters.
So what are some of the techniques we use to keep later series books as innovative and exciting as the first?
Change Perspective. After eight Harry Bosch books, Michael Connelly did something different in Lost Light. He told the story in the first person, using Bosch as narrator. This allowed new and existing readers alike to discover his hero from an entirely new perspective. If you knew Bosch well, you suddenly had a chance to get inside his head. If you’d never met Bosch before, it was the perfect way to get to know him.
This lesson doesn’t just apply to heroes or to first-person narration. In addition to my series characters, I typically use the perspectives of new characters in every book. In Goodbye to the Dead, I wrote multiple chapters from the perspective of a character named Howard Marlowe, who seems unconnected to the action of the novel. I let that mystery simmer a while before the reader finally understands the critical role that Howard will play in the story.
Adding extra voices gives series readers a fresh new viewpoint, and changing perspectives lets everyone see the characters in a new light.
Add Backstory. Think you know everything about your favorite series character? Hopefully, you don’t. Each new book gives authors a chance to tease out additional background about the experiences that shaped their characters. Yes, new things are always happening in their lives—but they also had lives before the series started.
In The Cold Nowhere, Jonathan Stride meets a teenage runaway named Cat Mateo, who turns out to have a connection to Stride’s early life as a cop. She’s the daughter of a woman whom Stride tried and failed to protect from an abusive husband years earlier. That new backstory gives existing series readers a tantalizing look at something they never knew about Stride’s past, and it gives new readers a way to embrace Stride as a complex, caring hero.
Shuffle the Deck. Ever since Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes (temporarily), series authors have been jolting readers by murdering beloved characters. Karin Slaughter did it. William Kent Krueger did it. Not surprisingly, readers hate it.
But is it worth doing? For myself, I’ve always promised readers that I won’t kill off a major series character, because it colors the reader’s ability to go back and re-read the series. Their enjoyment is shadowed by knowing that character’s fate. However, handled delicately, the death of a major character can inject fresh life into a series and allow the author to take the characters and plots in a whole new direction.
Of course, there’s a middle ground, too. I may not kill off my series characters—but I put them through hell, emotionally and physically, and the results have dramatically changed the arc of the Stride series over time. We can also add new characters who shake up the dynamics of the entire series. Cat Mateo, the teenage girl from The Cold Nowhere, has now become a major part of the Stride series, with important roles in the subsequent books.
Go Back in Time. If you check the Goodreads entry for Lee Child’s The Enemy, you’ll see the book listed as the eighth in the Jack Reacher series—but the first in the chronological order of the series. In other words, it’s a flashback book that takes us to an earlier time in the hero’s life.
Going back in time gives the author a chance to explore the characters as different, younger people—before all the seminal events of the series itself occur. It’s like a virtual standalone for new and existing readers.
I’ve gone half-and-half on that approach. In Goodbye to the Dead, I adopt a unique structure in that the first half of the book takes place entirely in the past when Stride’s late wife, Cindy, is alive, and the second half takes place in the present with Stride and his new partner, Serena. This allows the reader to explore a part of Stride’s life they’ve never seen before—and to meet an important character, Cindy, who has hovered over the rest of the series like a ghost.
These are just a handful of the devices that authors use to keep their series fresh—but the point is, series characters should keep evolving the way real people do. If we continue to provide dramatic new insights into the characters in our books, then, hopefully, we’ll keep readers happy, whether they’ve been with us since the beginning or whether they are discovering us for the first time.
Marathon, the newest thriller in the Jonathan Stride series from Brian Freeman (bfreemanbooks.com), will be released on May 2. Brian is the author of 15 novels, including the #1 Amazon bestseller The Night Bird and the standalone Spilled Blood, which won the award for Best Hardcover Novel in the ITW Thriller Awards.