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.