This is a pondering post, and I welcome your comments on it. It’s about something that has confused me for a long time, and maybe some of you have some ideas that will clarify the issue for me.
One of the things I always want to do with linked books is have continuing story threads. I like to have an arc over the series, which comes together and culminates at the end. And when I have a lot of characters, I’d like each to have a little cameo in each book, so that we get updated on what they’re doing at this point in time. This kind of storytelling enriches the world of the books, IMO, and also makes all of the characters more rounded – each one has his or her character arc this way, not just the protagonist. This kind of storytelling makes the fictional world seem more dimensional and real to me.
If you watch television series, you’ll frequently see this kind of storytelling. For example, right now, I’m watching the first season of the new Hawai`i Five-O. Without too many spoilers, the pilot for the series shows Steve McGarrett’s father being murdered, supposedly in exchange for the release of a criminal being transported through Asia by Steve (who is a Navy SEAL). Things become murky though – Steve learns later that his dad (a cop) was working on a cold case and resolves to finish what his father had begun. So, sprinkled through the first season are references to this ongoing story – in one episode, Steve’s sister finds the father’s collection of evidence and photographs it all. In another, Steve asks for help from Chin Ho. In every second or third episode, there is a single scene referring to this overall story. It’s not resolved. It simply stands alone. And it’s usually short. Of course, as we get closer to the end of the first season, the threads begin to be woven more densely. There are other continuing plot threads as well – like Chin Ho having been accused of corruption, and Danny’s divorce – at least some of which will probably pull together in the culmination of the first season.
I like this structure a lot. It helps to keep continuing series from being episodic and their stories from seeming repetitive.
There is an idea in publishing, though, that individual books in a series have to stand alone. And the interpretation of this is that there cannot really be any continuing plot threads – other than, say, the battle against evil. The fear is that new readers will pick up some book further along in the series and not understand what’s going on – I suppose the parallel would be catching episode 7 of a given season of a television show and not understanding those scenes that relate to the ongoing story threads. While I can understand this impulse, I also want to include those plot threads.
As a reader, when I pick up book #5 in a series (often because the current title is the only one racked in my local bookstore), I assume there’s going to be stuff I don’t understand based on what’s happened in the previous four books – if I still enjoy the story, I’ll go back to the beginning and read them all. Other readers I know will only begin at the beginning, for the same reason.
Obviously there’s a balance point to be found, between weaving in those continuing stories and ensuring that each book can be enjoyed alone. And it is true that whenever I manage to include more than one scene from any continuing plot thread, there will be several readers or reviewers who complain.
What do you think of continuing plot threads? Do you think books are that different from television shows? Where’s your balance point between continuing plot threads and books that stand alone? And how do you read linked series – from the beginning? Or with the assumption that if you don’t start at the beginning, you won’t follow every little thing?
Edited to add – expectations may also be a reflection of genre. In romance, for example, the expectation is that the story will be that of the developing relationship, and that the two characters in the spotlight will be the hero and heroine. Including scenes from the POV of other characters will naturally diffuse the focus and might even slow the pacing. So, I have another question – does your expectation change based on the genre of the story or books that you’re reading?