When an author sets out to write a series, it’s far different than simply writing several freestanding books in a row. It’s also not the same as taking one long tale and breaking it into parts and putting those parts into separate volumes. For crime writers – especially – it’s a real challenge to keep an on-going thriller series fresh and creative, so that readers continue to eagerly await
the next book. If the series becomes routine for the author, it withers and dies. Likewise, it reads like flat champagne tastes when it becomes stale for the reader.
For my three best selling thriller series, I keep readers coming back for more by writing around strong dynamic characters. Lou Mason, Jack Davis, and Alex Stone are regular people who get thrust into dangerous and fascinating situations that cause them to grow and change as the stories progress. Of course, it’s not only the characters that keep my stories from going stale, place, dialogue, and theme are also important.
Keep Your Thriller Series at the Boiling Point
As I thought about this, I decided to ask two of my good friends (who also happen to be best selling authors) what they thought. Here’s what I asked:
- What, in general, keeps a thriller series from running out of steam?
- How do you keep it fresh and exciting for readers?
- Do you have any favorite series?
NYT Best Selling Author and Television Producer, Lee Goldberg
The first answers came from Lee Goldberg who co-authored The Heist (a New York Times best seller) with author Janet Evanovich, known for her Stephanie Plum series. Lee also wrote the Monk books and television series as well as The Dead Man Series and The Jury Series, just to name a few. Check out his other work on his website at leegoldberg.com.
Lee’s tips on how to keep a thriller series interesting:
“The key is making sure your hero always has something personally at stake in the story…not just his life being endangered or him pursuing someone who harmed a friend. Those are too easy – cheap conflicts, you might say. You need stories and situations that create genuine conflicts – moral, emotional, ethical, psychological, etc. – that reveal new aspects of your hero’s character.
“That’s true whether you’re writing Adrian Monk or Harry Bosch; whether you’re going for humor or suspense. It’s not the mystery that’s important, or the ticking clock crisis. Those are tools for exploring character. What counts is what’s at stake personally for your hero. How will this situation put him to the test, and what will his actions reveal about him?”
Best Selling Author Libby Fischer Hellman
Libby Fischer Hellman chimed in next with her thoughts. Libby most recently published, Havana Lost, a thriller that explores the affect of strife and war on the human spirit. Libby has also written a number of series including: The Ellie Foreman Mysteries, The Georgia Davis PI Thrillers, and Nice Girl Does Noir. Check out the rest of Libby’s work at libbyhellmann.com.
Libby’s tips on how to keep a thriller series interesting:
“There are definitely different schools of thought on this. One is that a protagonist doesn’t and should never change. He or she stays the course from book to book, which allows him or her to constantly face new situations without fear or constraint.
“I’m thinking examples of this approach include Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. In the case of those series, once a hero, always a hero, and readers expect it. What keeps these stories fresh are the characters they encounter as well as the changing nature of weapons, plot conundrums, and political stakes. Nothing wrong with that.
“However, there’s another way to keep thrillers fresh and that’s when an author allows the protagonist to age and change with time. For me, that is infinitely more interesting. I like to see a character learn (or not) from what’s happened to them in a previous novel.
“Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon does that to some degree; so does George Smiley in John Le Carre’s stories. Even Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski can’t drink like she used to and doesn’t recover as quickly from a brawl. I love it when the hero or heroine evolves over time and new strengths, as well as flaws, emerge. It’s more organic that way, and, for me, it’s more involving.”
Thanks to Lee and Libby for sharing their thoughts. I agree with both of them and I’ll add my own tip. If I do my job as the author, my readers will care enough about what happens to my characters that they can’t wait for the next book. Making readers care means making the characters real, full-bodied and flawed, just like the rest of us.
If there’s a recurring villain in the series, readers should love to hate him or her so much that they can’t wait to see what the villain cooks up in the next book. And if there’s a new villain each time, the reader has to worry and wonder whether and how Lou Mason, Jack Davis, or Alex Stone is going to be the last one standing at the end of the book. Make ’em say Holy Smokes when it’s all over and they’ll keep coming back for more!
Now I’m turning it over to you. What makes you continue to buy book after book in a thriller (or other) series? What turns you off and makes you walk away? Please share your thoughts with me as well as any book series you feel have stood the test of time.