How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat



by Larry Kahaner


I just finished reading a terrific book, except for one thing. The ending was a cheat.

Every book must have one.

The author composed a quirky, clever main character with an animal sidekick that acts as a contract killer upon command. Very cool idea. The book moved fast, had an absorbing plot and the writing itself was workmanlike (one of my highest compliments) and even contained some flashes of wordsmithing brilliance.

But here’s the problem.

When I reached the end, the protagonist was left hanging in the middle of a predicament. Why? Because the author has a second book which he/she (I’m not giving you any more clues as to the writer’s identity) which takes up where the first book lets off.


As a reader, I deserve a satisfying and closing end to each book I read. If you want to have a second in a series, that’s great. If I like the first, I will most likely read the second and probably beyond, but I don’t want to be coerced or compelled by not having a real, honest-to-goodness ending to the first one.

I have many pals who write series, and they do it the right way. Each book stands on its own. This way, a new reader can dip into any book in the series and receive a satisfying experience without having to read the others. Trust me; if they like the book, they will read another one. Maybe the whole series. In fact, most readers are introduced to a series by the author’s most recently-published book, because that’s the one that publishers have hyped the most. This makes a complete, standalone experience even more crucial to a series’ success.

To write a successful series, an author has to insert enough backstory into each book, so the new reader gets up to speed without boring those who already know the main characters. It’s actually not that difficult, but it does require some finesse.

Respect your audience; don’t cheat them out of an ending.




Guest post contributed by Larry Kahaner. Larry is the author of more than 15 non-fiction books and has just completed a thriller “USA, Inc.”  Check out his blog at The Non-Fiction Novelist.


36 thoughts on “How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

  1. Larry, I completely agree. I write criminal romance and have each book as a stand alone plot with an eding. Though, I’m careful not to reveal more than what is necessary from the other books. My WIP is the fourth in the series, and it focuses on a character I introduced in book two.

    Thanks for bringing to light what some authors forget when writing a series.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hate that this has now become a trend for movies in recent years as well, due to studio’s incessant need to create a franchise than a decent movie. Totally self-defeating, as without a satisfying debut experience, no-one wants to return.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There is nothing more frustrating then the cliffhanger ending. While it works well in some settings, not in books. The main thread of the story NEEDS to be complete. The story NEEDS to finish on a satisfying note. Exactly how “stand alone” sequels need to be is open to debate, but there still needs to be a thread of the story that is unique to each installment.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is actually some good perspective for me because I have a completed (needs to be reedited) novel that I had to split into two for length reasons, and I was struggling with whether or not to end the first part on a major cliffhanger.

    In reading, I do like to have a legitimate ending even if there’s more to the story, and I generally think about Harry Potter. Each book had its own plot that added to the huge overarching one.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I totally agree with you. I wrote a post on this subject myself
    and I wasn’t as restrained as you – cliff hangers make me so mad!
    I write series, but each book has its own arc and ending, as well as there being an overall series arc. To me, that’s a mark of a good writer – that they don’t feel the need to trick their readers into buying the next book.


  6. What i hate even more is writers who do this, and then make the subsequent book three times the price of the first. I have refused to buy many a second book purely because I have felt coerced by a non-ending in the first book. So i don’t find out how the story ends? I’ll live.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So well said. If I see a review on Amazon telling me a book has no ending and is part of a series, I won’t give it the time of day.So sad that this trend is even out there. I enjoy reading a series, but I want each book to have a beginning and an end.


  8. I’ve read a series where the plot of that particular book ends satisfactorily for the story, but gives a glimpse of the next in the series tempting the reader, yet not requiring more commitment on the reader’s part. If you want to go to that next book you have a carrot dangling in front of you, but the current work is finished.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. I think you can have a standalone book with a distinct ending but have a slower story arc revolving around your recurring characters and use that as a device to link your books. There are many examples of this, but Stephen King’s books, Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch are prime examples of how this can be done well. Need another example, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy isn’t too shabby.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Also, Harry Potter. They school years provides a beginning and end for each book, along with each book containing an attempt by Lord Voldemort to either return to a physical body etc. You know there will be more attempts so only the last book has a final complete ending, but they work well enough by themselves to meet the 5 act structure and not frustrate the readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Don, My serial books resemble Michael Connelley’s Harry Bosch as to the stand alone factor. My plots move with twists and turns and doesn’t need the previous books to support them. Yes, the stories are different, but some of the characters are the same.


    1. Forshadowing. Dropping little tiny clues. A satisfactory ending doesn’t need to tie up every single teeny tiny loose end. The main plot point for each book should end, but you can have a minor side plot in the first book that doesn’t quite get all tied up, which can then become the main plot point for the next book.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I just read book one of a series that cut off right in the middle of the story with no ending of any kind except a “journey”. I *might* have been coerced into buying book two, but I read the reviews first. Apparently, Book SIX is late coming out and the story has been one continual cliffhanger after another. I won’t lose sleep over wondering what happens, and I will NOT buy them all. There are too many good COMPLETE books out there vying for my time.


  12. I agree with the post. There is one exception I will let slide. Graham Hancock wrote (is writing the third is not done) a three book series War God. I let it slide because he let his readers know from the beginning it would be three books.


  13. I like the cousin of the cliff hanger, which I call the “potential thread.” Basically, when I read a book I want the conflict to be resolved by the end. I feel like if I’ve spent all this time with a book I deserve a resolution to the problem they’ve been trying to solve. BUT. If the author introduces a whisper of a new conflict at the end I am totally on board. This works extra well when the potential thread whispers that the world is about to get bigger, or that you might see these same characters again and you’ve just been given a glimpse of a new problem for them but they might not exactly know about it / how to deal with it yet.
    I’m also a fan of books that have an overarching problem that spans series, but the individual books have their own beginning, middle, and end that all relate to that bigger problem.
    Cinda Williams Chima’s seven realms books were REALLY good at this. She makes it pretty clear in the first book that the Big Issue won’t be solved in Book 1, but Book 1 still has this incredible plot with a satisfying ending. But the ending definitely had those threads of “let me show you this small thing, you’ll want to come back for it…” and it totally worked. I didn’t feel cheated, but it was enough to draw me to the next book.
    The only time a cliffhanger works for me is when you’re deep into a series and you have the reader’s trust. John Flanagan had a cliffhanger ending in his Ranger’s Apprentice series, but you were like eight books at that point, and you know the readers are probably coming back. In that instance I didn’t feel cheated because I’d already gone through seven books so having a problem that couldn’t be solved in the space of one was believable to me.


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