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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More Than A Character Arc

The time has come to discuss quitting. Not quitting writing, but quitting reading. Specifically, feeling so ambivalent about a series that you can't possibly be bothered to buy the next book.

I almost wrote that I'm a tolerant reader, and we all know that's not true. I'm a very demanding reader. When I pay for a book I expect the author to put time and effort into making their book flawless. And while a picky reader can find a flaw in the sixth or seventh read through, no reader should find glaring errors in the first three chapters the first time they read a book.

If I'm reading a series, it's safe to assume that the author wrote book one and two so well that I didn't have any major complaints. I rarely drop a series at book three. Book four seems to be the breaking point.

There is a stack of unfinished Book Fours on my shelf. Series after series hits this crucial book four, the transition out of the land of Trilogy, and fails. Why? I'll give you a hint: it isn't about the book.

It's about the author.

During a book or series I expect to see a character arc, the natural growth of the characters as they change over time. Even if the book only spans a few days, there will be a character arc in a good book. Underlying that is a much more subtle Author Growth Arc.

The more an author write, the better the author becomes. The more finesse they have, the fewer mistakes they make, the surer their voice becomes... all of this is part of the Author Growth Arc. And this is possibly the strongest argument for not publishing the first book you write.

Book four is where the lack of Author Growth Arc becomes a glaring error. Book four should be better than book one, it should be richer, more layered, and simply a better book. After writing and editing four novels, the author should be well enough versed in their craft to improve. If book four is no better than book one there's every likelihood that book four will also sound like a dull repeat of the previous three books. As the author makes their routine mistakes, the characters will make the same mistakes and repeat the same tiresome plot.

Over the summer I gave up on two series, both on book four. One was a self-published series, the other was traditionally published. In both cases I felt the authors were coasting on previous successes. In both cases book five is coming out late this year or early next year, and I have no intention of buying the book.

What's your deal breaker? What makes you give up on a series?


  1. I give up on a series when it feels like it's bogged down. Sometimes I think it's because the author is simply dragging the story out and didn't really have it plotted out. Other times there's just too much filler or too many side plots going on that the main story gets lost.

    What surprises some of the people who know me is that I'll describe popular series that way. For instance, the Belgariad series was one I could never get through. Even now, all I remember is feeling as if I was slogging through pages and pages without anything really sparking my imagination. I know I didn't get past three chapters in the first book.

    I did read the first four books of the Wheel of Time series before feeling like the author was simply turning out novels to cash in on the success of the first books. The story line became heavy and predictable so I stopped reading them.

    Now I have read other books by David Eddings but the thought of trying to read the Belgariad still makes me shudder. However, the Lord of the Rings, described by many people as being too descriptive, remains one of my favorite series.

    Just my opinions of course but that's the way it works for me. :)

  2. I give authors two books. If an author can't hook me in two books, I'm done. I'm insulted by simple characters, simply plots, and simple dialog. And, that's why I don't read Nora Roberts or James Patterson. I've read them, I know they are popular writers, but they present no intellectual depth. If an author cannot challenge me or entertain me in interesting and though-provoking ways, I'm done.

    Douglas Adams entertained me in new and unique ways with his imaginative writing, sarcasm, and wit.

    The Belgariad Series appears frequently. I got through it, but only because I had momentum. I remember reading the Chronicle of Thomas Covenant (9 books, I think; there may be 12, actually). The first 6 were brilliant - at least 30 years ago they felt brillain - but the remaining three were tough.

    I wonder if there is a problem in series beyond 4 books, both from the reading and writing sides. I recently read all of Lee Child's Reacher Series (17 books) and each is a self-contained story with one main character. Some later stories refer to events in early stories but knowledge isn't requisite.

    Finding imaginative "hooks becomes harder without being trite. JK Rowling may have succeeded where others fell short as kids lead dynamic lives, growing physically while also growing intellectually. "Ender's War" series by Orson Scott Card is a series which presents characters who naturally evolve from children to preteens to teenagers over the course of the books. Those books were brilliant, and will stand the test of time, in my opinion.

    Adult characters never seem to change or grown, or adapt or evolve, and that may be something to think about. Adult characters don't seem to have the "Ah-ha" moments youth have. I had to let "Dragonriders of Pern" go after a few books simply because after 3-4 novels, everything was already known, and honestly, I got bored.

  3. Interesting take on four book series or series in general. Usually I give up on a series if I don't like the first book. If it's horrid, I don't look for the sequel. If it's so-so I am not excitedly looking for the sequel and usually forget about it in a couple of weeks and therefore don't read anymore in the series.

    1. In both the series I quit I liked the first three books, but book four was blah and I didn't buy five. It felt like the author didn't have the chops to pull it off.