“Sticking the landing” on the ending

Allegiant, the latest book in the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth, has been released this week. It’s the end of a popular trilogy. It’s riding right now at Number One on Amazon, and that’s all books, not just a specific category.

Please know that I have not yet read these books, so I have no opinions at all on this best-selling series. But what I did notice today was this:

Divergent Series Amazon Reviews

Ouch.

Hopefully as more reviews come in that picture will look a bit better, but it’s apparent a lot of fans were disappointed, and many of them in the reviews mention the ending.

When you have a successful series, the pressure is on for each book to “top” the last one, or at least match it. Naturally, this tends to make the last book a lot more important than the early ones. Particularly the ending of the last book, where the author really has to wrap up the whole story and then kick it right through the center of the goalposts (apologies for mixing sports metaphors).

Me, I’m old-fashioned. My personal prejudice is toward happy endings, which may not be award-winning or “artistic” nowadays, but are still a lot more fun to read than certain “realistic” or “sophisticated” endings I could name. I like endings where the loose ends are tied up, and your favorite characters come out on top with happy and interesting times ahead that you’d love to stick around and see. If the author kicks the ending smack between the uprights, the readers will wish there was another book, but still be satisfied with what they have. This isn’t always easy.

In my opinion, the epilogue to the Harry Potter series got the kick right up the center from sixty yards out. A writer can do a lot worse than winding up a long and amazing story with “all was well.”

Trapped in a world of their own making

From the Wall Street Journal: “How to Kill a Vampire (Series).”

The article details the tribulations of authors whose popular series and characters have taken over their careers. Then when they decide to wind a series up, they have to deal with legions of upset fans clamoring for more. The main example in the article is Charlaine Harris and her “Sookie Stackhouse” series.

I can imagine the unpublished authors out there shaking their heads: “Lord, please curse me with that problem!” Yeah, me too. It might be stifling to some writers to spend much of their career in one world with one set of characters (“prisoners of their own creations” as the article puts it, referring to Arthur Conan Doyle), but there are some positive angles to it, too.

In a long-running series your world-building work is largely behind you, but you can still add new places if you really want to. Your characters settle down in your mind, and in some cases practically write themselves. While many authors put their characters through “arcs” of personal growth and change (Harry Potter, Sookie Stackhouse), others write characters who are essentially unchanged through the whole series. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one example. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are the same through 46 books, and don’t even age noticeably between the 1930s and the 1970s.

There are other advantages, too, not least of which is that a long-running series builds a large, loyal audience that will reliably buy new books in the series, sometimes waiting in line to get them. This makes your publisher, your agent, movie producers, and your bank account very happy.

I still remember when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. My family was in the line at the local Borders bookstore, along with hundreds of others. When the time came for the release, and carts of the books were rolled in, there were screams like you hear at rock concerts. Imagine writing a book that does that. Imagine writing books that make you a billionaire.

Best of luck to those authors trying to move on to different things and stretch themselves, but there are worse things than a prosperous, celebrated, and beloved writing legacy wrapped around one series of books.

Crowd waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Border’s