Should you read a fiction series in order? The answer is…

A wide expanse of river with foliage on the banks that's just beginning to turn color and a blue cloudless sky

This photo of the Kennebec River in Augusta has nothing to do with my topic, but it’s a nice shot from a walk I took earlier today and thought you’d enjoy it. Because we love Maine!

So, I somehow just binge-read a 23-book series over the last two months. I’m not sure  how — or even why — and don’t want to delve too deeply into that part of my psyche right now, so this post isn’t about that.

You’re welcome.

The books take place in a period of time quite a while back. Though they were written over the past two decades, each book is set about a month apart. Until you get to number 20, which takes place five years before the first book. There’s a big cataclysmic event that precedes the first book in the series, and the 20th takes place right before that event and as it unfolds.

[This series is not by a Maine Crime Writer, or even a New England one, in case you’re wondering.]

You know I’m usually not coy, but I’m not going into the details of books, who wrote them or what they’re about, because this blog post isn’t specifically about these books and I don’t to distract from the point.

And the point? I came across a post on the internet, long before I got to Book 20, that suggests readers read Book 20 before they start the series, since it takes place five years before the first book.

The post was not by the author, but by a fan. Or maybe just a blogger who hadn’t even read the books. I don’t know. But it bothered me when I read it, and I had that in mind as I plowed through the series.

I admit, I’m a linear person. The first book I read in the series was actually number 19. I liked it. The next one I read was number 1. Didn’t even have to think about that. I always do that when I find a book I’ve just read and liked is part of a series.

When people ask me whether they should read my three-book Bernie O’Dea series in order, I tell them each book is written so it can be read out on its own, but I always suggest people start with the first book.

Most series have a character arc that expands and evolves through the books. If you hadn’t read earlier books in a series — any series — it’s hard to get the same satisfaction as a reader out of the later books that you’d get if you had.

When I read Book 20 in the series I binged this summer, it underscored that. Even though it’s a “prequel,” there’s no way readers new to the series would read the same book as those who’d read the previous 19.  It’s not only because knowing what’s going to happen later adds layers to what people say and do, but also it adds emotional heft that those who don’t know the characters as well won’t get to experience.

I tried this in a way with my second book, No News is Bad News. I felt the urge to do a prequel, but instead of a full-blown prequel, I interspersed scenes from before the series started with what was happening in “real time” in the book.

As I wrote those prequel scenes, I couldn’t help but write them with a foundation of what I already knew about the characters. Not that readers have to read the first book, Cold Hard News, to understand the scenes, but if they have, they’ll have knowledge that makes the scenes more powerful.

Most of us who write a series try to manage the tightrope of referring to things in previous books without spoiling them or being too distracting for new readers.

On the other hand, you have to mention previous book stuff. I mean, most of our protagonists, or other major characters, go through things that would cause major physical and emotional trauma to people in real life. While the books are fiction, that element of being affected by past events is still necessary.

When I did those prequel scenes in No News is Bad News, I didn’t think at all about this issue. But looking back, and knowing what I wrote, it’s obvious to me now that those scenes likely would’ve been very different if they were the first thing I’d ever written with those characters in them.

If a writer travels back in time, she’s doing it with the acquired knowledge she has of her characters as she’s grown to know them by writing about them. As much as a writer may try to make later books in a series OK to read as a standalone, they can’t help but write them in a way that’s informed by what came before.

If it has an impact on the writing, it also will have an impact on how the books are read. Reading books in order makes each subsequent one better than it would be on its own.

You’re going to do things your way. I know that. Don’t even get me started on people who read the last page before they start the book (with mine that won’t tell you who the murderer is, it’ll just spoil the emotional payoff #sorrynotsorry).

But if you’re wondering whether to read a series in order, the answer is don’t wonder, just read them in order.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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5 Responses to Should you read a fiction series in order? The answer is…

  1. bereksennebec says:

    A perfect example would be Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Sir Thomas Covenant, read out of order would confuse the hell out of anyone.

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    • Julianne Spreng says:

      Recently reread that series. And you’re absolutely correct. Some collections are okay like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, Lizzie & Diesel, Fox & O’Hara, Knight & Moon or Full Tilt. You can read them and still enjoy the story, but you’ll always get more out of the story if you have the background developed in previous volumes.

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  2. itslorrie says:

    Must Read In Order! I understand the need to refer to events in previous books. It helps me to keep track. I do get frustrated with authors that seem to be including a synopsis for the readers who are reading out of order. So annoying. I am awfully curious which series you just read Maureen. I am always looking for series with lots of books. Please share.

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  3. Amber Foxx says:

    Since I’m not a fan of big chunks of backstory, either as a reader or as a writer, I agree with you. Read the series in order. But I still try to write as if someone, somewhere, won’t.

    Like

  4. Julianne Spreng says:

    I’m currently rereading some of the Cat Who… books. They are a series but mostly stand alone. She does a great job of adding just enough detail to create informative bits when necessary, but mostly treats her readers as if they are perfectly capable of following the plot without lots of back story. As to the previous reference to Stephanie Plum, if you have read them in order, the humor and her indecision about her relationships builds more depth. The laugh out loud bits are even funnier because you have the history. Kinsey Millhone is another excellent example of just enough info to read one or all.

    Thank you to all authors who do create series. I think of each book as a chapter in a huge book that continues on and on.

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