How Does a YA Series Remain Whole as it Grows?
As a reader, it is instinct to wish for one’s favorite series to go on forever. It’s always one more chapter, one more scene, one more adventure. Afterall, finishing a book is almost like saying goodbye–and nobody enjoys goodbyes. Amid this quiet wish to hold on, however, there remains a very old question: what keeps a series whole as it grows?
While wandering the ever growing YA sections of bookstores especially, it can be difficult to believe how expansive its series have become: shelves flush with novellas and prequels and spinoffs where only one plot used to be. For some, this growth is a dream come true–a reunion of fond characters after the last page has fallen. Others, in contrast, worry about the weight of these books on already sagging shelves–about whether these stories are simply manufactured for profit. And while many feel very strongly about this debate, one way or another, the correct answer does not lie within any single reader. Because there is no single answer, no expiration, for when every series should precisely end.
Just like the authors that write them, every single series is too nuanced for such generalizations. Only by looking at each series closely–taking the time to trace the complex branches beyond their original trunks–can one understand how strong these branches really are. In finding the enduring heartbeat that keeps any YA series alive, one must consider the motivation behind all of its pieces, their contributions within a series, and how they uphold the integrity of the story itself.
The Spark Behind the Story
Before there is ever a story, there is a dream that guides it. There are snippets of characters and scenes floating around in one’s mind before they are bound together in paper and ink. Many who criticize the extent of a YA series fear that this dream is replaced with something else–by something selfish, hollow, false. When a series has steady footing, it can be easy to wonder if its extra content is bound by dollar signs rather than spirit. In passing such judgment, however, every reader must consider why a book was brought into existence.
Yes, there are contracts that require a certain number of books per year. This is often the case with authors who have signed on to publish with one great idea, but are then asked to turn it into many great ideas. Yes, it is impossible to fully rule out that some authors may see each new spin-off as a chance to capitalize on a tried and true tale. But beyond these pessimistic assumptions, it is important to glance every angle from the author’s perspective as well.
Writing a story is a labor of love–it can take years, the work of blood, sweat and tears. One cannot speak for all writers in a single article, but it is hard to believe that any novel that makes it to press lacks all heart completely. When asked to give advice to aspiring writers, Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, responded that “You have to be compelled to write. If you’re not, nothing else that you do matters.” (Riordan). Upon gazing at YA works such as Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass series–totalling to eight books and over 5000 pages–it’s hard to imagine what could have driven such a marathon of storytelling other than Riordan’s described need to write.
Before there is ever a story, there is a dream–one so powerful it gives writers the strength to trek 5000 pages, each one a step closer to bringing a whole world to life. Often, this dream is a restless thing–one that doesn’t necessarily opt for the linear path. But in a way, it is this restlessness, this instinct to grow, that gives each inch of growth within a story a sense of authenticity. Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass is an epic that began with one assassin: Celaena Sardothian. Part of the story’s great pull is the need to unravel this protagonist’s past, to make sense of her place in the magical, dangerous, fractured world she exists in. But even through rich story building, through each glimpse at Celaena’s old life within the first two novels, Maas paused. The story paused, all to make room for a prequel just before the release of the series’ third installment.
In her own description of where The Assassin’s Blade falls, Maas identified that “this collection of five novellas explores the history of this cunning assassin and her enthralling–and deadly–world” (Maas). If one is looking for Maas’ motivation behind this additional content, one need look no further than the word “explore.” Just as every story is a new adventure to a reader, the same can be said for the author who is writing it–they just embark on the journey first. From the reader’s shoes, it can be easy to question the magical appearance of more books alongside already beloved tales. But more often than not, these books are no matter of question for the authors who wrote them. They are a necessity, a new source of life, for the story they are a part of.
The bond between author and story is like that of a sailor and the sea. It is a love for traversing the known and unknown alike in search of something beautiful–meaningful. Some author’s know exactly where every page of their books will go–they know where, when and how. But the same cannot be said for every author–every story–because no two literary voyages are alike. These differences, however, are not what make a series unspun or halfhearted–they are the very thing that make every family of YA novels unique. The Assassin’s Blade was Maas’ way of giving space and title and details to Celaena’s slowly unraveled past. It was a way of giving depth and understanding to a world that reader’s jumped into headfirst–and halfway through–upon the opening events of Throne of Glass. What many reader’s forget to look for when trying to see what holds a very long series together is the fire that drove the author to write it. Through searching for this motivation, one might be able to see each set of content for all it is meant to accomplish within the entirety of its story.
The Light of Each Contribution
When finding what connects every piece of a YA series, it is also important to consider the contribution of all content beyond the motivation that put it there. It is rare for a reader to finish a book without a strong set of opinions: how they felt about the ending, certain characters, choices of the author. Above all, though, readers will often wonder if each book they’ve read was worth the read. While books can be pass-times–a source of escapism or inspiration–they are also a commitment. For what little time people can carve out of their lives to jump into the life of a story, it is a common wish for this time to be spent well–not on a wild goose chase of counterfeit purpose, a hollow echo of a series they already adore. As a result, many will ask whether the extent or extra content of many YA series is really necessary. Is that prequel a true pillar of the overall plot? Would the entire story truly crumble without the dull moments of book six?
In a way, these are all valid questions–ones that can be difficult to avoid. In another, they miss the great point of embarking on a literary journey in the first place. Most read to get away from the deadlines and rules of the real world. Even the brutal universe of dystopian fiction provides a step away from one’s own dystopia of bad days. Seeing the value of every broad stroke in a YA series lies beyond the asking–it lies in the looking. If one searches only for why certain stories or plot points shouldn’t be there, that is all they will find. In the end, each reader only takes from a story what they are willing to. Evaluating what all pieces of a story have to contribute gives readers a greater picture than closed doors and closed minds ever will.
Marie Lu, author of the Legend series, threw readers for a loop with Champion: the final book in this acclaimed dystopian trilogy. Its ending had a pointed, potent, heart-wrenching kind of beauty–a contrast to the “all-wrapped-up” happily ever after that most readers have come to expect. But for Lu, this novel wasn’t quite the end. After writing two other novels in a completely different series, Lu took one last jump back into the world of Legend with Rebel: the finale this series had been waiting for all along. Set ten years after the first trilogy, told through the voice of the former protagonist’s younger brother, one might easily expect confusion from this series’ original readers: those who wanted immediate answers to the characters they had come to know. One might wonder whether this book was cut from the same cloth as those before it–whether any binding thread could really connect the great space between them.
But the act of writing is a very human thing. At times, its most unexpected and unknown paths can lead to the most important destinations–or literary contributions. In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Marie Lu herself admitted that while “returning to Legend was a matter of when, not if,” she wasn’t completely sure of how to bring this final installment to life upon finishing Champion (Lu). At its heart, though, Rebel was intended as anything but a shortsighted tack-on. It was Lu’s ending, the finalization she found for her characters after stepping away–all the way into another series.
In this final installment, Lu “says she found real closure” within her series (Lu). And with a little looking, a tilt of the head, Rebel stands to offer its readers the same sense of closure–if this is what they seek upon opening its cover. There is a sense of peace in this single book that Champion couldn’t give its past characters–a peace that came with time, just like the time Lu needed to write it. It’s hard to know what anybody will take away from a book–and it’s an impossible thing to predict. But one’s attitude along the way is what makes all the difference. An author is simply a person who speaks the language of paper and pen. They cannot be expected to wave their wands and cast the ideal series into existence. Bringing a story to life may be a kind of magic, but the complex process behind it requires time, work, patience.
It is easy to believe authors are perfect, to place unfair demands for a flawless story in concise packaging with a pretty bow. But a series, a story–it is alive. It is a current of back and forth, original and prequel and sequels with a few rippling novellas in between. Some authors have mastered the clear standalone or duology or trilogy–because this is how they write. But every story asks something different of its author. And sometimes, it is difficult to predict when and how those stories–every bit of them–will eventually take shape. Seeing this shape in its entirety–appreciating every cog in the delicate clockwork of a series–relies solely on a reader’s ability to look for all that every piece of a story can give to its whole.
Integrity: A Tale’s Inner Glow
In rationalizing what gives life to a lengthy YA series, a final lens to look through lies in assessing each extension’s integrity to its roots. After a YA series gains ground–and a steady base of readers who tread it–the world that its author is writing within begins to change. On top of the already roiling seas of plotting a plot, a new storm comes when the influences of others–demands, critiques, expectations–seep in. The more notoriety a story gains, the more difficult it can be to hold true to one’s own course–the course authors begin with only a pen and a whim and a hope. On this course, some see each extension of a story as a dilution, a compromised version of a series’ true voice. Some look at stories with the idiom of “quit while you’re ahead.”
But in the end, how long a story is or when it occurs or how it fits into the original plot are simply details when held up against the integrity of each chapter. In the end, the key to determining a series’ strength depends on how strongly it adheres to where it came from. In a world of tropes–where the guy gets the girl, where the butler is the killer–people are quick to assume that every author will eventually fall prey to the industry of writing over the art. But such an assumption underestimates the power of what it means for an author to build a world, to create a character.
By the end of a series, some writers often claim they know their characters better than they know themselves–that their characters are a part of them. Readers often feel pretty similar after reading a series–in a way, this may be the root of their quick jump to suspicion when those series’ continue to grow. But through this bond, one is given true sight into whether each step in a series holds true to its origins. A series only really lives as long as its characters do–not necessarily in the literal sense. The biggest difference lies in the little details.
The choices characters make, the growth they experience, the way they laugh. This is where the integrity of a story lies–not in the sturdiness of its spine or the wear of its cover, but in the pulse of its literary world. It lies in the melody that rings through every inch of a series–every bit of content to accompany it–that comes from wherever that story began. The integrity of a story depends on its motivation and contributions alike. But there is something deeper to this quality as well, something human. And that very quality if found every time one asks if a chapter rips a hole in the delicate threads of its characters, or if it patches a rift readers may never have even realized.
The Maze Runner is a cornerstone of today’s dystopian library. It is a series that began with three novels, but has since become a maze in itself–one comprising these three, two prequels, a book of novellas, and a new sequel set ten years after the original trilogy. Say that ten times fast! This series could be prime grounds for one to ask what left there is to add to a story that simply began at the center of a maze. But with such an outlook, one has already lost all these stories stand to offer. A story has a life in its own right. For all a series can say in its first round, there is often more work waiting to be done. It just may take the author a little while to realize it. In the end, it doesn’t really matter where a story begins for it to have a home next to those that came before it. What matters is whether they are carved of the same wood, sprung from the same trunk.
A series that began with a couple dozen amnesiatic kids stuck in a maze is founded on the unknown–in a past even the main characters don’t have access to. Much like the situation with Maas’ Throne of Glass, James Dashner’s The Fever Code gives readers a long awaited glimpse into the lives of those trapped within the maze before it was even built. Before that, The Kill Order, showed readers a sun scorched apocalypse that called for such a maze in the first place. But the binding that connects these stories is stronger than the stone in any ivy covered wall because they hold true to all readers learned in the original trilogy. These books simply add more pieces to the map; they provide glimpses of a history that reader and character alike were desperate to unconver.
Both The Fever Code and The Kill Order are steps beyond the main plot readers knew in the original series: they have their own characters, their own struggles–all heavily influenced by the evolutive disaster they are trying to survive. At the same time, these novels also set subtle foundations for familiar characters like Thomas and Teressa and Newt that The Maze Runner is founded on. No matter how many cliffhangers they build, plot twists they weave, any author must know one truth. As James Dashner himself claimed in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, books “become sacred to its readers” (Dashner). For all the excitement that comes with watching a series grow–all it gives readers that await more of a literary world–such excitement comes with a responsibility too.
This responsibility is to the characters authors have written, the readers that have come to depend on them. In a world of rapid change and uncertainty, readers would immediately reject any Maze Runner prequel that painted Thomas as a disloyal coward with no stakes in his own broken world. But in planting seeds of bravery–seeds of purpose–for Thomas in books like The Fever Code, this series’ prime protagonist is given more time, more pages to run across. Just as with any extension of a series, staying true to what gives each series its heart is the only sure way to make each step across these pages something meaningful.
Plotting the Vast Seas of Story
One of the most miraculous things about literature–about the series readers bond so deeply with–is the feeling that they are endless. For some, such vast seas of stories are a daunting thing. One is brought to wonder whether every inch of it holds true to the plots they hold dear. But in the end, this truth lies beyond a reader’s immediate reach–beyond a cover’s surface.
Each series has its own journey to plot, its own world to explore. Whether they escape such a voyage unscathed–are made better by its vastness–is never a guarantee. But in assessing each journey for what it is, readers might find its motivation, contribution and integrity a good place to start. The YA genre especially comes with its own set of connotated pitfalls and dangers–the more a series grows, the more room there is for fluff and cliches and tropes to take the wheel. But before one blindly believes that such disingenuous forces will always win, they must take a closer look at the delicate stitching that holds a series together.
Yes, sometimes these threads get messy, sloppy, lazy. But just as often, more material is simply more room for beautiful patterns. It is room for characters to grow beyond whatever seemed possible–space for new arcs to rise like a new sun. The merit of a YA series–or any series for that matter–is not and never will be determined by wingspan alone. It is determined by how far a story soars on these wings–the reason it takes flight in the first place. Sometimes, such reasonings are a difficult thing to unravel. But isn’t that part of the journey? Isn’t that part of the adventure in hoisting one’s sales, gazing out at the sea, embarking on an evergoing plot wholeheartedly? One can only know if they take the time–the chance–to leave shore and find out.
Dashner, James. Interview by Patrick Sproull. The Guardian, 10 Oct. 2014, www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/10/the-maze-runner-james-dashner-interview. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023.
Dashner, James. “The Maze Runner Series.” James Dashner, jamesdashner.com/books. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023.
Lu, Marie. “Books.” Marie Lu, marielu.com/books. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023.
Lu, Marie. Interview by David Canfield. Entertainment Weekly, 8 Aug. 2019, ew.com/author-interviews/2019/08/08/marie-lu-rebel-legend/. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023.
Maas, Sarah J. “The Throne of Glass Series.” Sarah J. Maas, sarahjmaas.com/books/throne-of-glass-series/. Accessed 19 Jan. 2023.
Riordan, Rick. “Advice for Writers.” Rick Riordan, https://rickriordan.com/about/advice-for-writers/. Accessed 19 Jan 2023.
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