Friday, January 8, 2016

Writing a Series that Can Be Read Out-of-Order

As a reader of mysteries (and, to a lesser extent, fantasies), one of the difficulties I run into is finding a series where I don't have to start at the beginning -- like if the library or bookstore doesn't have a copy of the number I need. And, sometimes I just wanna grab a book, read it, enjoy it, and not feel either guilty or unsatisfied because I "have to" wait for the next one.

As a writer, I appreciate what a difficult task this is to accomplish.

Quite frankly, no mystery-series author I've read (including the late, great Agatha Christie) has done as well in creating recurring characters, in a single location, working together in a single police unit, than Tana French.

I know this because I didn't read her books in anything like the "correct" order. I did start with the first book, In the Woods, but then I jumped to the fourth, Broken Harbor. Followed that up with the fifth, The Secret Place, then hit the third, Faithful Place, and finished up with the second, The Likeness. I feel like I've missed nothing by skipping around like that.

"And why is this?" I ask myself.

Myself has come up with some reasons:

1. French focuses each novel on a specific character.
With the exception of The Secret Place (#5 for those keeping track) and a chapter here and there, all of the Dublin Murder Squad books are told entirely in first person. Even The Secret Place is predominately in the first person. This keeps the focus very tight on a single experience and covers a single arc. This can probably be accomplished in a strictly third person narrative, but I imagine you'd have to be really disciplined in order to avoid the siren's call of other characters taking their place on the page stage.

2. French has not repeated POV characters as POV characters.
In the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, the first person POV is always Stephanie Plum. (I'm not knocking the Plum novels -- I really dig them as a matter of fact, but you can't really read them out of order.) What this does is create a lot of self-referrential moments, so unless the reader is familiar with the previous Plum novels, they'll have a hard time following relationship entanglements and even some bad guy plot points. French avoids this by bringing a new character to the forefront every time. So, wherever you pick up, you are getting to know a new character.

3. The recurring characters become Easter eggs. 
"But," you may be saying in my imaginary conversation, "the reason to read a series is because we become invested in the characters.

Point taken.

With French's series, characters do recur, sometimes to play significant parts in other novels, but the filter changes with the POV character, which makes these repeating characters more interesting and more well-rounded. (In fact, I'm so fascinated and impressed by the effect French creates that I'm going to try to explore it in a couple different ways -- stay posted!)

For example, the most-recurring character is Frank Mackey. In The Likeness he's a stubborn, Undercover Squad legend who pushes a protege too hard. In Faithful Place he's a broken-hearted daddy with some serious family problems who deals with his high-school sweetheart's murder. In Broken Harbor he's an asshole who gets in the way. In The Secret Place he's an overprotective cop-daddy who "doesn't get it." And every facet is just as cool and fascinating as the last.

4. A single arc per book -- the story is started and completed.
Tied to the single POV character, there is only one story arc per book. It starts at the beginning of the novel and it goes through to the end. No cliffhangers.

5. French doesn't feel pressured to give all the answers.
Here's something interesting that French does: she doesn't always solve every bit of the mystery. (This epically pissed off some readers of her first novel.) Strangely enough, this doesn't make you feel like you have to read the book immediately following in the series. It feels like a fact of life. As an individual without omniscient abilities, you just can't know everything. The Dublin Murder Squad books feel like that -- and generally it's a little bittersweet and beautiful.

***Are there other series that you don't have to read in order? What makes them stand out? Do you prefer having a series move from A-Z, or do you like the freedom to move around?

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