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Types of Book Series

This question is part of the GRAB(ook) Club, an online book club open to anyone and everyone.  It contains a few spoilers for The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series, so read at your own peril.

This is the first time that I can remember where I left a book in a series feeling as if I couldn’t understand major points in the current book until I read the next book.  And I’m not sure how much I liked that despite being very interested in The Hunger Games and prepared to read Catching Fire soon.

All series leave plot elements unfinished that are developed in the next book, but none that I can think of left this many questions unanswered by the last page.  Why did Cinna choose District 12? (This needs to be answered because a big deal was made about the fact that he chose her district.)  What role does the Avox play in the larger story? (I’m assuming something about that relationship will come back to haunt Katniss down the road or else why draw so much attention to that character?)  Why did Madge give Katniss a mockingjay pin specifically, and really, why did Madge get involved at all?  And beyond that, why did Katniss take Madge’s item vs. something from Prim or Gale?

See, a lot of questions.

I’m not sure how much of it was sloppy writing, leaving frayed edges to the story (as opposed to something like JK Rowling’s incredibly tight storytelling in Harry Potter) vs. untied threads that will be knotted in future books.  If those questions aren’t answered by the end of the third book, it’s sloppy storytelling because the reader was asked to focus on the wrong things.  If those questions are answered by the end of the third book, they better be really mind-blowing answers because the reader has been asked to wait additional books to discover their meaning.  The general rule is that anything that the author drags the reader’s attention to purposefully needs to be well-explained (or for the reader to believe that it was well-explained) by the end of that book; somewhat an extension of Chekhov’s gun.

I prefer books where I don’t know what I don’t know.  I mean, take the Harry Potter series: I didn’t even question that Voldemort didn’t technically die when the spell bounced back on him.  I figured the weakness of the spell in secondary form was enough to damage him beyond human recognition but not enough to kill him entirely.  Which meant that when the horcruxes came around, my mind was blown because I got the answer before my brain even realized there was a question.  Can you imagine if JK Rowling had dropped horcruxes into the first book and asked you to wait for their purpose to be revealed until the sixth?  But that’s sort of what Collins did with The Hunger Games.  She drew our attention to these moments or characters in a big way.  And then didn’t wrap up the book so it could stand firmly on its own.

Do you prefer books in a series to be capable of standing alone while working together with the other books, or do you like books like the Hunger Games trilogy, which is truly just one long book cut down into three equal parts?

After you answer my question, please click over to read the rest of the book club questions for The Hunger Games.  You can get your own copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins at bookstores including Amazon.

11 comments

1 Rach { 09.12.13 at 8:17 am }

All those questions are answered in book two and book three…so don’t worry. And they are pretty gigantic too, so I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. However, I felt the same way when I read the books too. I felt like they were unfinished. Although I loved the Hunger Games series, I won’t reread them like I do with HP. They’re a little loose and a bit scattered in writing style for my liking. I definitely prefer books that can stand alone and work together!

Also, if you’re interested in a challenging read, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is very intricate and well written … But it’s a tough read.

2 Vivian { 09.12.13 at 8:26 am }

I agree with Rach, all very good questions and indeed they are answered in the remaining books. I think because the series was only three books, it was possible to ask big questions and leave the answers to books two and three.
It seems like everyone is writing serial books and some do it quite well. I enjoy reading those serials that can truly stand alone as well as those that require reading the entire series. However, I can’t stand to read a series that is more than three books long and you have no idea what’s going on in book 5 without having read books 1-4.

3 Delenn { 09.12.13 at 8:59 am }

I had similar issues with this book. I often feel that writers cause themselves problems if they are writing as if it is “in a series”.

4 Kasey { 09.12.13 at 9:04 am }

I just wanted to state that I hated the ending of that trilogy. I can’t wait to see your take on it when you get there.

5 a { 09.12.13 at 9:18 am }

I don’t mind sloppy storytelling sometimes. Plus, it helped that I knew there were 2 additional books when I started reading, so I must have thought that all questions would be answered eventually.

However, I don’t know that you can have a series in which each book is truly independent. Even Harry Potter – if you picked up a book in the middle of the series, I think it would be fairly clear that you were missing parts of the story that happened in previous books. You might not feel like you need the next book to resolve what really happened in the current on you’re reading, but you would notice that the previous book(s) would help you understand better.

As to The Hunger Games…while I felt there was more to the story when I finished it, I didn’t feel like there wasn’t an ending. I could have been content stopping there, unresolved questions or not. And when I read Catching Fire, I didn’t really feel like it was a place filler merely designed to get me from book 1 to book 3. You know – like the The Matrix 2, where nothing really happens and it’s just a set-up for the third movie?

Anyway, I assumed Cinna chose after he saw Katniss volunteer – he recognized a resolve in her that he thought maybe he could exploit. It was clear to me that he was somewhat rebellious. The Avox thing, I guess I assumed it was something that got edited out for expedience.

6 Gail { 09.12.13 at 1:34 pm }

Don’t know if you saw this, but it is about new content from Harry Potter’s world.
http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/09/jk-rowling-returning-world-harry-potter-new-film-series/69339/?fb_action_ids=10151867887313556&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={%2210151867887313556%22%3A568362663225178}&action_type_map={%2210151867887313556%22%3A%22og.likes%22}&action_ref_map=[]

7 persnickety { 09.12.13 at 6:50 pm }

I don’t know- I found that Rowling did put a lot of stuff in that had impact later, or on rereading had more impact.
from memory Suzanne Collins was a (tv i think) scriptwriter, so some of the factors in those books reflect a way of thinking about story arcs that is perhaps different. I noted the avox, but didn’t feel the absolute need to know why it wsa important right there.
One of my favourite series is the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold – she actively tried to make each book able to stand on its own, which means that it is possilbe to start quite late in the series and work randomly through (you get more out of reading them in time sequence, but it isn’t always needed). I appreciate that, but at the same time, she does bring back characters and actions in later books, but from different points of view, and they are different. For example, in the latest book she revisits a (traumatic) birth scene from a book published in 1991, and tells it from a different perspective, with a different slant. It suddenly illuminates at least one character’s actions for the past books. I didn’t feel the lack of her motivations before, but it explains them.

8 amelie { 09.12.13 at 7:40 pm }

Interesting questions. I read from a different perspective – as a STEM professional rather than from a English/ literature background – and I did not find the “gaps” at all troubling. The questions you posed are answered though probably not as dramatically as you would expect. I found that the real power in the book and the series was that they are often no easy answers, that actions have consequences (clearly an important H. Potter theme too. Those books are practically memorized in this house), and that trauma doesn’t just disappear. My own coddled children threw the last book across the room in anger at the ending, while the kids I work with from refugee camps totally got it and felt that it rang true and carried it with them for weeks. What is important varies with experience. Perspective is everything.

9 Jessie { 09.13.13 at 12:01 am }

I love epic series, especially in fantasy; one of my favorite series (serieses?) is the Wheel of Time. However, I want to know that it’s a series that builds on itself, and I want a decent number of books in the series to be done before I start reading so that I don’t have to wait. One of my biggest pet peeves is waiting for the next book in a series to come out to find out what happens next. As a result, I studiously avoided ALL Harry Potter movies and spoilers until Deathly Hallows was not just out, but easily available. I figured there were plenty of already-completed series that I could read while I waited.

10 loribeth { 09.13.13 at 12:00 pm }

I agree with most of the others above. I like books where there is a self-contained story, even if the book is part of a series with the same character(s) & there are certain plot threads that run from book to book. For example, the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley — you could probably pick up the latest book & read and enjoy it on its own merits, without having read any of the others. But you would probably have a deeper appreciation of the characters & pick up on more of the little details if you’d read all the books in order. As Jessie noted above, it’s hard enough waiting for the next Flavia book without cliffhangers (although the last book ended with a biggie!! — arrrgghhhh…!!!).

I knew that if I read this book I would probably have to read the other two, if only to find out what happened next. And yes, there were a lot of little details thrown out there that raised unanswered questions. Hopefully they will all be resolved eventually!

I guess it’s nice to have both kinds of books out there, so you can pick & choose. ; )

11 Kathy { 01.28.14 at 6:13 pm }

I read this book and started Catching Fire the next day, so I wasn’t left hanging for long. I like series, as I really get to immerse myself int he lives of the characters (whether they are books, TV or movies). But then when I am done I really go through withdrawal, as I don’t want my relationship (though fictional) with them to end.

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