When is a series over?

by Tess Gerritsen

When the movie "Fellowship of the Ring" was first released, I was among the first waiting in line at the theater to see it. I was completely enchanted by the film, but I also dreaded for it to end, because I knew it was only the first installment of the epic Lord of the Rings, and there'd be a long wait until the next one came out. As reluctant heroes Frodo and Sam slowly made their way toward the horrors of Mordor, the film ended. And a man sitting behind me blurted out, "That's the ending?  What a stupid movie!  What the f!*k happens next?" 

He had no idea that "Fellowship of the Ring" was the first part of a trilogy.

I encounter similar bewilderment from readers when they first pick up an installment of my Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series. Among the Amazon.com reader reviews are these complaints:  The author left too many threads hanging! The love story wasn't resolved!  What the hell happens next?  Does Maura end up with  the priest or what?  Where's the damn ending?!!  

What they don't understand is that a continuing series lives and breathes because of those hanging plot threads. 

I think that a good mystery series is actually one long, continuing saga with characters who grow and change over time. Yes, a particular crime may be solved in the span of one book, but that investigation takes up only a few weeks in a character's life. Do all his problems get solved in that same span of time?  Does he catch the bad guy, find true love, and pay off his debts in 400 pages?  

If your hero manages to accomplish all that in a single book, then you're not writing a series; you're writing a stand-alone novel. And you might as well kiss that character good-bye because there's nowhere left to take him.

I'm often asked, "how long will you be writing the Jane and Maura series?"  And this is my answer: "Until both my characters find complete happiness.  Because once they're happy, the series is over."

My biggest challenge while writing this series isn't about dreaming up new and more grotesque ways to murder people.  It's not about being the first to use some cool setting or forensic detail.  It's about finding believable ways to keep tormenting my main characters. The engine of any good plot is conflict, and I want Jane or Maura to always be in conflict with someone.  

In The Surgeon, which was the first book in the series, Jane was only a secondary character. She was, in fact, supposed to die in that book.  But she refused to surrender to me, her creator, and she survived the story — physically scarred, and psychically wounded, but she did survive because she was a ferocious creature. That was what I liked most about Jane Rizzoli, the fact she was so often in conflict with her colleagues and her family.  

Which made her the perfect star of a series.

As the series progressed, Jane found love, got married, and had a baby.  Naturally, none of it came easy.  (Who else but Jane Rizzoli would give birth while being held hostage at gunpoint?)  But by the time I started writing Mephisto Club, I had a bit of a problem.  Jane's life was happy and settled — which meant Jane's story was winding down.

That's when Maura's life took a sudden turn toward misery. I had introduced Maura Isles in The Apprentice, not realizing that she would later become an integral part to the series. By the third installment, she was front and center in the plot.  Which meant it was her turn to be tormented by her creator.

In the span of seven books, these two women have known heartbreak and tragedy and terror.  They've fallen in and out of love and made decisions they've come to bitterly regret. They are like real women with complex lives and complicated families.  Even if at one particular moment everything seems to be going fine, you just know that somehow, something is about to go wrong. It could be Jane's father walking out on her mother, or Jane's partner Barry Frost having a marital meltdown, but it's always something.

Just like real life.

There are dangers, though, in drawing this out too long.  Throw too many crises into the mix, and the series eventually jumps the shark. How many times can you kill off a lover?  How many times can a character be arrested and accused of murder?  How many nervous breakdowns/head injuries/stabbings/bullet wounds can a hero endure before he turns into a mere cartoon character?  I've watched several good series spiral into silliness because the heroine is no longer believable — or has become so tortured and morose that I can't stand her any longer, and I want the author to put the poor sleuth out of her misery.

When to close off a series is probably the most difficult decision an author will ever face.  Your editor, your fans, and your accountant will all try to talk you out of it.  If you've been earning a good income from your series, then abruptly ending it to start something new could prove to be a career killer. 

But books are more than just about money; they're also about creative integrity.  Dennis Lehane, when asked why he stopped writing his popular Patrick and Angie series, said: "Because the characters stopped talking to me."  He just couldn't force it, so he abandoned them.  For nearly a decade, the series has been dead to him.  He moved on to other projects, for which he's received wild acclaim.

Then something miraculous happened, something he didn't expect.  Dennis says that recently Patrick suddenly started talking to him again.  Now Dennis is writing another Patrick and Angie book.

A series that had ended has been reborn.  

21 thoughts on “When is a series over?

  1. caite

    Sadly, I can think of several authors, who for whatever reasons, did not seem to realize that a series should have been long over. And it will work, if by working you mean selling books, for awhile. Bad books, by a famous and successful writers, will still sell it seems. Maybe I am harsh, but one bad, really bad, book in a series that I have enjoyed before and I am outta there.

    Too many books, too little time,(too little money) to waste on a series that is just a shadow of itself.

  2. Julie Kramer

    Excellent insight into series characters. The second book in my series will be released this summer. I’m currently working on a third. This advice came at a good time. Thanks, Tess.

  3. Flash Bristow

    When I heard you and Dennis speak at a book signing, one thing I found fascinating was you saying that Jane refused to die. Hang on, I thought – you created Jane! You can make her do what you want! If she is taking more of a life than that, it’s a thin line from there to schitzophrenia!

    But I guess this is why I’m not a writer. I remember being ticked off by a teacher for writing a story about a talking tomato sauce bottle. She said I could do better. But honestly, I thought for ages and nothing else was in my head.

    Are writers really “inhabited” in the way that you and Dennis suggest? Is it something you can learn, or something that just comes upon you whether you like it or not?

  4. John Dishon

    If the characters are compelling enough, I think I would be willing to stick around even if they were retreading the same thing, just to be with them again. But they would have to be really good characters.

    I think it would be cool if an author of a popular series, instead of ending the series, just killed off the main character and continued the series with a secondary character (maybe his partner or something) as the main character. How awesome would that be?

  5. Jude Hardin

    I have an HEA ending in my book on submission, but there are menaces lurking to shatter that happiness somewhere down the road (i.e. in book two). So I think it’s possible to close a book with contentment and still continue a series. In fact, a crushing blow to what appears to be Nirvana might be all the more devastating.

    Great thought-provoking post, Tess!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for that story, Tess! I’m a die-hard Rizzoli fan and I never knew that she evaded her own death by author in THE SURGEON. What a comeback! That’s my girl!

    I also think your series is always fresh for me because you let other characters take center stage. I found Lily a hugely compelling main character in MEPHISTO CLUB, and was fine with Maura and Jane being more secondary characters in that story.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Flash, it took me a few years growing up to realize that other people didn’t have all of these characters and voices in their heads. I’m lucky to get to write them instead of some other century when I would’ve just been locked up for crazy.

    It would be difficult to end the Bobbie Faye series, because I love those characters and that crazy world, but the moment I’m re-treading a previous story, I’m outta there. Besides, I doubt my characters will keep talking to me about stuff if there’s no new story going on.

  8. Jake Nantz

    I guess to keep it fresh you could do what Michael Connelly and Deaver have done…start a second series and alternate (of course, Connelly has already said his Bosch is getting older and probably coming to a close).

    Oh, and Toni, it’s not just the writer’s gene.

    You are crazy.


  9. J.T. Ellison

    Tess, great topic. I struggle with this all the time – as I finish the fifth Taylor book, start the sixth, and plan for the 7-9th, I’m constantly trying to grow the series, to make the characters believable, to allow them heartache and pain, joy and happiness. I don’t know where I’ll end it, but all good things do come to an end. Glad Jane and Maura will be around for a while longer, at least. ; )

  10. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Tess,Great topic! I’d much rather a writer end a series then have me, the reader, lose interest because it’s gone on too long. That happens to me a lot with Traditionals. After all how many times can the average shop owner find a dead body:D.

  11. Jen

    It is hard as a reader to say goodbye to the characters you have grown to know and love over the course of a series, but it can also be more painful to watch them devolve into caricatures of themselves.

    I look to TV for examples, such as Gilmore Girls. I watched Gilmore Girls to the bitter end, even though the series creator left. The show was sometimes painful to watch that last season. It lacked the spark, the verve that Amy Sherman-Palladino gave her Gilmore Girls. And I probably would have continued to watch further seasons, but with less and less interest, until it was hard for me to watch the good seasons on DVD.

    My current WIP has a happy ending, but the villian will resurface later, so it has continued conflict to be a short series. I hope never to torture my readers the way I was tortured as a viewer of Gilmore Girls.

  12. tess gerritsen

    mary-frances,that’s the challenge of writing an amateur sleuth series — how many dead bodies can you possibly encounter while running a bed and breakfast? You end up getting “Jessica Fletcher” syndrome, where every one in your immediate circle ends up dead. That’s the big advantage of having a cop or homicide investigator as your series star. At least it’s their job to deal with dead bodies, so you’d expect them to encounter a lot of them.

  13. Allison Brennan

    I’ve thought about this alot. I like writing very loosely connected stories–essentially stand alones but with some recurring characters–because I don’t have to worry about burn out. I think I’d get tired of a series, particularly if my characters aren’t growing.

    I’ve stopped reading most series after nine or ten books except JD Robb. There’s something about those stories and characters that keep me coming back and looking forward to the next book. Some series I started reading mid-series and I still like them (Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, Jack Reacher, among others.) I still love Jane and Maura, but that’s largely because I love the stories and the author’s voice. And, dammit, I want Maura to realize that Anthony Sansone is the right man for her and realize she deserves happiness. I can’t wait until another “Mephisto Club” book. 🙂 (hint hint hint)

    As far as Jane not dying . . . that happened to a couple characters of mine. Dr. Hans Vigo, a secondary character in most of my books, was supposed to die in KILLING FEAR. He didn’t. Another character who I didn’t expect to die, did, and my agent was so mad she asked if I could bring him back as a ghost. Hmm, sorry.

    My seven deadly sins series is seven books, no more and (hopefully) no less. There are only seven deadly sins. I can’t make up a new one, however much fun that would be.

  14. Christine Cook

    Thanks for this post; it came at a good time. I am currently in the final revision process of my fourth d’Arcy W. Carter series book, and I have a continuing bad romance thread that’s been going on for all four books. She dumps him in this book, but he’s going to stick around, stalker-style, for the next few books.

    A lot of my readers have told me they know she should just realize another character is really the guy for her, but I know if that happens, it’ll be the end of the series. There’s nothing more boring than watching two happy people go through a book together.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    You make some very interesting points, particularly about happiness – ie, lack of conflict – being the kiss of death to series characters.

    I worried a little that I am constantly putting my series character through the wringer, and I think the ending for the latest book is in many wayt the most brutal to date for her. We’ll just have to see how much more of this she can take …

    Oh, and Flash – yes, it’s true, you create these people and then, dammit, they grow and take on lives of their own. I had a character in my third book who was conceived purely as one of the villains of the piece. I styled him after one of the little toerags who stole a motorcycle from me and wanted him to suffer as a result. But when I came to the writing, he just wasn’t guilty of the crime, however much I tried to frame him.

    I just had to settle for having him beaten up instead. (But, sadly, only in print …)

  16. Jill James

    Tess, I love Maura and Jane as if they were real people. I’ve followed along with every story eagerly awaiting what happens next. That is a talent that can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t, the ability to make people love your characters as much as you do. Nice to hear Maura and Jane are still going strong.

  17. Jen

    Your series is one of my favourite exactly because of this ongoing nature, and the way that I am never really reassured that there will be a perfect ending. I must admit that when I read “How many times can you kill off a lover?” up there I blurted, “Oh no, please don’t kill Daniel!”


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