Best of Three

I’m in the middle of a series—Penny Reid’s Elements of Chemistry—and it’s got me thinking about whether all series have highs and lows, whether all the books can be equally good. Three, of course, is the magic number for most series: to structure the beginning, middle, and end of a whole arc. My own series, The Carmichaels, has five books because there are five sisters in the family (many series operate that way too—they choose a group of some kind, siblings or otherwise, and then devote one book to each member). But three is still the magic number. Yet, of course, each book is its own self too, and most are even written to function as “standalones” for readers who don’t want to commit. So how to judge each one? On its own merits? As a part of a whole? Inevitably they are compared to each other (again siblings come to mind). I’ve read the first two books of Reid’s series so far and they are equally good as books, but not equal partners in the whole. The first book is short, the second a little longer, and the third much longer. This suits the structure of the story, in which two mismatched college students first need to get together (book one), then encounter conflict (book two), and then resolve the conflict (book three, the longest and hardest part of a story and a relationship). But it’s unusual to track only one couple through a series-- the more common structure is to work through a group of friends, especially in the New Adult (NA) genre that focuses on college-age romances.

Some examples of NA series (another riff on my current reading list): Renita Pizzitola’s Crush, Cora Carmack’s Rusk University, Elle Kennedy’s Off Campus, Kristen Callihan’s Game On, Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits, Lex Martin’s Dearest, Sophie Jordan’s Ivy Chronicles, Sarina Bowen’s Ivy Years, among many others. In most cases I find the first books are the best: Kennedy’s The Deal, Callihan’s The Hook-Up, Pizzitola’s A Little Crush. These books set up interesting characters in surprising situations and handle them so neatly that the later books feel like afterthoughts. The second book in Kennedy’s series, The Mistake, is pretty good too, but the wow factor is gone. Pizzitola’s second and third books get less interesting (to me) as their protagonists leave campus and find romance at their summer jobs.

Occasionally the books get better over the course of the series—or one book in the middle stands out. For me that was true of the second books in Carmack’s and Martin’s series. Both All Broke Down and Finding Dandelion develop new romances out of an original sports or roommate circle and build on the complexities set up in the first books. In Carmack’s All Broke Down the story shifts to Silas, another football teammate, and Dylan, another college student, but raises the stakes—they are even more mismatched, even more damaged by past relationships than Dallas and Carson in the first book. When they struggle to make their relationship work the emotional issues are harder for both of them: they have more to win and more to lose. The third book, All Played Out, backs away from all that emotion though, and (intentionally, I think) aims for a lighter tone that is less memorable. Silas and Dylan stick with me; Mateo and Nell not so much.

Similarly, Martin’s first book Darling Clementine sets up the emotional background for three friends: Clementine, her twin brother Jackson, and her ex-boyfriend Daren, who is also Jackson’s best friend. They make a strong trio to build the series on, especially since their high school interactions have dramatic consequences for their college relationships. But Clementine is paired with a fairly conventional “good guy” hero in the first book, whereas in the second book Jackson gets a heroine of equal complexity and individuality. Danielle, the Dandelion of the title, is a great character and her relationship with Jackson (like Silas and Dylan’s above, or Martin and Kaitlin’s in Elements of Chemistry) is full of the real conflicts and struggles that occur between people trying to do right by themselves as well as each other. Martin set up Clementine and Jackson’s family dramas in the first book so Jackson’s story has a head start. Martin’s third book, Kissing Madeline, then moves on to Daren, but his background isn’t as developed and Madeline isn’t as unique or surprising a character as Danielle.

Which is to say what, then? In a few cases the books in a series have been so uneven that I’ve dropped them. I haven’t finished reading the other volumes. This happened with Carmack’s other series Losing It and Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits. I tried two or three books and gave up. Some were great and some were disappointing so I moved on, though I admire those writers enough to try them again with other series. In one case, Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price, the first one was so good that I’ve been too scared to even try the second volume. I’m afraid of the terrible things that could happen to Mia and Adam...(the synopsis is to blame there).

In writing my own five-part series I’m well aware of the problem of unevenness. At the moment, my second and fourth books feel like the weakest links: I’m not sure how the characters change over the course of the second book and I’m not sure there is enough conflict in the fourth book. But one thing I’ve figured out that may be useful is that I really like revisiting the couples of earlier books and would like them to have more than just cameo appearances in the sequels. I’m working on that now.