Friday, November 16, 2018

7 Tips on Writing a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

 This week's Refresher Friday takes another peek at things to consider before your write a series. Enjoy!

A novel series is an investment, both on the writer’s part, and the reader’s. Most of the time, it’s designed from the start to span multiple books—either open-ended or with a predetermined number of books planned. It’s a commitment to live in the same world with the same characters for years—or decades in Sue Grafton’s case.

The series might be a collection of stand-alone novels that all explore a common genre, such as a mystery or a romance. It might have a common element that ties the books together, such as characters who all work at the same law firm, or romances between a common group of characters. In some series, you can even read the books out of order and it won’t matter, because they’re not dependent on each other to understand the overall story.

If you're planning a series, it's worth spending a little extra time to determine the broader strokes of the series and how you plan to maintain and sustain it.

1. The Concept or Hook Behind the Series

A successful series is more than just a lot of books about a character or world. There’s a concept behind it that ties the books together and gives readers a reason to come back book after book. It could be as simple as a detective doing his job, a unique person dealing with recurring situation only she can handle, or a fascinating world connecting a group of characters.

This concept will be at the heart of every core conflict. It will likely be the thing you say first when describing your series to people, as it will define what the series is about.

(Here are five ways to hook your reader)

2. The Overarching Series Conflict

If the series is situational, such as a mystery with a detective, each book will have its own goal and there might not be a bigger issue hanging over the protagonist's head (though there might be a larger character arc goal to work toward as the series develops). But if the series is designed to feel like an ongoing character in an evolving world, there might be something larger at stake that slips into each book.

The series conflict will be more than just one problem that never gets solved. The world and characters will have a variety of problems and issues that can be tapped at any time in any book so it always feels like things are happening. There will be multiple conflicts to drive multiple novels.

(Here's more on determining where your conflict comes from)

3. The Characters

If the series will follow one or two characters, knowing who they are and what they have to gain is key to knowing what each book will be about later. If it’s a common world with common characters who each take focus in different books, then you’ll likely have common secondary and support characters as well.

Your genre can also play a role in how you create your characters. Some genres expect character growth while others don’t want the protagonist to change. James Bond is the same in every book, while Stephanie Plum learns and grows from her experiences. If the characters are all part of the same world, they might learn from each other’s experiences or have one plot affect another in the series.

The main characters will also need enough conflict to sustain a series. They’ll be connected to the core conflict of the series, and have reasons to solve all the problems that will be encountered over the course of the series.

(Here's more on knowing if you need a character arc or not)

4. The Series Timeline

Your series might take places over a few weeks, or it could follow a family for generations. How long the story will take to unfold can affect how you choose to write it and what characters will be part of that world. If it takes place over years, you might choose to have the characters age. If you want them to feel timeless, you might write it as if time passes slowly.

You’ll also have to decide if the series has an end date or if it’s open ended. Series where the protagonist never changes are often open ended, because the individual book conflict is what draws readers in (like a mystery). They want to see the protagonist solve the problem and they enjoy seeing it over and over. Series where the protagonist changes and evolves often have predetermined events that signal the end of the series. They might even be designed from the start to only run a certain number of books.

(Here's more on dealing with backstory in a series)

5. The Series World

No matter what the setting, your series will take place somewhere, and that world will appear over and over. Determine the rules and common elements, and how that world might change over the course of the series. If you’re writing a genre with special rules (magic, science, history), establish those rules before you write to ensure you won’t break your own rules by accident later.

The more inherent conflict in your world, the more plot options you’ll have over the life of the series. It’s worth considering the types of conflict you want to write about as well, and design a world or setting that gives you the deepest pool to drawn from.

(Here's more on researching and worldbuilding a series)

6. The Reader’s Investment

A series asks a lot from readers. You want them to invest time and emotion in your characters and your world. Think about how you plan to reward then for their commitment. What they can expect from the series and how it will be worth their time.

You might also consider what readers expect from a series in your chosen genre. If readers are accustomed to a happily ever after, and you never give them one, they’ll likely lose interest and stop reading. Conversely, if they prefer the sexual tension of a romance, getting your characters together too early could rob them of their enjoyment.

Readers might also lose interest if the series drags on and never resolves anything. Always having things go wrong so the protagonist never wins and never gets ahead can be tiresome. Design a series that dangles the carrot, but offers other treats as well.

(More on revising a series here)

7. The Series Bible

Keeping track of the myriad of information in a series is a challenging task. Having a series bible will help you remember all those critical (and mundane) details and provide an easy reference guide to check when you forget (we all forget after a lot of books). It might seem silly to write down the color of your protagonist’s eyes in Book One, but by Book Six you actually might not remember.

(Here's more on keeping a story bible)

Writing a series can be a lot of fun and a lot of work, but with a little planning on the front end, you can make it a whole lot easier--and a whole lot richer.

What are your favorite series? Is anyone here writing a series?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I just finished the first book in what I plan to be a trilogy, but I can already see how the story arc could lead to more books. I like my characters well enough to keep going with them... hopefully readers will too.

    You made a great point about writing down certain details, so that you can remember them as the books go by.

    Great post!

  2. The Thief quartet, by Megan Whalen Turner, Narnia, anything by Tolkien, and lately the Shifter trilogy! Artemis Fowl was another series that I quite enjoyed.

  3. I'm writing a series. The first book, Fallen Redemption, came out last month. I'm only on the second book, but I have four large binders filled with information about the world and its characters. I'm hoping to transfer this to some computerized program soon. (I'm debating whether Scrivener would be the one to use. Does anyone have any suggestions on writer software for a series?) If I don't it's quite possible that by book five, my husband will not be able to find me amidst the binders. ;) Great post. -RB Austin

  4. Great tips, Janice. I'm writing book 1 of a series and realize I need to figure out the whole story ARC better before I get much further. Your suggestions are helpful. And a story bible sounds like a good idea. Sometimes I put down a manuscript for awhile and it's hard to remember all the details.

  5. Leslie, thanks!

    Rachel, aw, thanks ;) I need to pick up The Thief Quartet. I've heard good things about that one.

    RB, I started using Scrivener about 8 months ago, and I like it. It makes it very easy to keep notes and whatnot organized. You can try it for free for 30 days (counts a day when you open it) and see if you like it. Save those binders! lol

    Natalie, the bible is so helpful. There's a fantastic post over at YA Highway about color coding it by book as well. Sheer genius. I don't have the link handy, but I'm sure you could search for color coding bible on their site and probably find it.

  6. Wow, this post is exactly what I needed today. :) I have an on-again-off-again book I dug from the depths of my drawer that may be the first of a series. You're right about the whole commitment thing being something to consider when you start!

    As for series I've read, I love the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. He does such an amazing job of building his hero emotionally.

    I also love Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest, and the Rowan of Rin books. They're really different in how they're laid out. Rowan is mostly connected by taking place in the same little town with the same characters, while the Deltora Quest books have a massive overarching plot with lots of tricks and twists to keep you guessing.

  7. Hi Janice, thanks for all these very useful tips. Especially the series bible - great idea! I like Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series :-)

  8. Great tips! I'll pass it along :)

  9. Every story I write, I leave a door open for continuance. Guess I hate leaving my characters forever.

  10. Chicory, oh good! Those series sound cool. New authors to me :)

    Eisen, two of my favorite series :)

    Julie, thanks!

    Dtkrippene, sounds like you're a natural for a series writer :)

  11. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm in the midst of writing a series (a prequel followed by a set 3 books), and this brought quite a few things to my attention that I was missing. I've got a lot more work to do, but that's exciting - thanks!

  12. Sarah, most welcome :) That's why I love pulling from the archives. Someone always needs that old post :) Good luck on the series planning!

  13. Love the idea of a Series Bible. I just finished a sequel and handed off to my publisher, with possible 3rd to be written. I refer to my character worksheets as well when writing a series, and I add to their worksheets as the characters transform over time.

    My fave series I'm reading right now is the Ranger's Apprentice. It's YA and written in 3rd person, which I enjoy as I get to know other characters I've fallen in love with. There is definitely an archetype hero plot theme across these books, and I enjoy watching the characters transform from book to book.

  14. Donna, ooo fun series. The transformation is one of my favorite parts with a series. It's great seeing a character grow.

  15. I'm currently writing book three of a series and this article was very helpful.

    As a reader, my favourite--thus far--has been Louise Penny's mystery series.

    1. Glad it helped. I haven't read those, but I'll have to remember the name next time I'm in a mystery mood.

  16. My favorite series is the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

    I'm writing the first book of a series which will be interlinked stories about characters and a world which I have done a TON of world building on. Haven't thought about an overall arc, I was meaning them as companion books, not an in-order series. But maybe there ought to be an overall arc. I'll have to give that some thought as I begin the actual writing phase tomorrow for Nanowrimo!

    1. Love that series.

      You can play around and see if one comes to you. You might discover something really cool that ties them all together. If not, don't worry about it. Better to have a series of strong stand alones than a weak but connected series.

  17. Thanks for the article.
    I'm on book 3 (4 if you count the prequel novella) and currently working on the first of a companion series, with the general idea that arcs in the companion series will affect the understanding and resolution of the main arc in the main series.

    1. I love when different series connect like that. You get to see things from a whole new perspective.

  18. For each book, I want it to have it's own individual Lie, but then have an overarching lie for the whole thing? Is that right?

    1. That's a common structure, yes. You *can* break up one big story into multiple books, but it's harder to sell that as a new writer. Making each book in the series stand alone makes it more accessible to readers.

  19. Hello, Miss. Hardy. I'm the aspiring author of a high, epic fantasy series and I was wondering if you could help me with something. The first book of this series (which I am currently working on) is outlined to have 36 chapters. 26 of these chapters are for the main storyline, and the other 10 are flashback chapters that give background and show the origin of the main character.

    This is my problem: I don't want to or think it's unnecessary to incorporate flashback chapters into the next installments of the series. Again, the purpose of these flashbacks in the first book was just to give some background and explain the origin of the main character, as well as explore the world a little, and I don't think they'll be necessary.

    Is this bad thing? Should I stick to the same formula as the first book and try to incorporate flashback chapters into the next books, or am I totally free to do whatever I want as long I stay consistent and it makes sense?

    Thank you for your reply, Miss Hardy. It's greatly appreciated.

    1. It's hard to say for sure without knowing the story, but any time you say "the flashbacks are there just to provide background and explain the character's origin" that's a big red flag they're not necessary. There's a good possibility those chapters will read as backstory and infodumps and stop the novel cold.

      The goal is to have that backstory and origin unfold naturally in the main story, allowing readers to figure out or learn these details as they relate to what's going on in any given scene. For example, if the main character is afraid of dogs and the plot needs her to face a dog, you don't stop and go into a flashback that shows where her fear of dogs came from. You'd just show her fear and her dealing with the problem, and if it fit, she could think or say something that refers to that past, such as "sure, dogs are great until they take a bite out of your thigh."

      You'll have to decide if the flashback chapters work or if they're infodumps and backstory. If they have their own plot, grab the reader and pique their interest same as the main storyline, it could work as a subplot. But if they're just explanations so the readers "gets it," you're probably better off cutting them.

      Either way, if you wanted to dump them completely for book two, sure, you can do that. But that's also a clue that they might not be needed if that flashback aspect of the story isn't integral to the entire series.

      You could take out those ten chapters and let someone who doesn't know the story read it. If they're okay with it, or only have a few minor questions that would be answered by adding in a little of that history here and there, you'll know the story works at 26 chapters. If they're totally lost, then the the extra chapters might be needed.

  20. I've just started a series. It kind of goes from the different character's view points. The first book is in the view point of Hattie, the next by Moon, after that I'm not sure.

    My persona' fav. series are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergent. I'm just a preteen fan girl.

    1. All great books :) I like series that change POVs like that. It's fun to see the world from different perspectives.

  21. Hello Miss Hardy,I've just read your tips and they've been wonderful in helping me to plot my series which lasts nearly seventy years over five books, in which each book has different subplots but the main plot with the main characters will remain the same throughout and also I'm planning to end each book with a cliffhanger - is that wise though? Also a lot of historical events touch my characters, changing their lives and personalities or simply killing them, will the readers forgive me for doing that to them? I've only just started planning them, only advice or tips, would be hugely welcomed,
    thank you, Jordan

    1. Opinions vary, but I've never been a fan of books that end on a cliffhanger. It always makes me mad as a reader, because I've invested a lot of time in a story and then that story doesn't end. There's no resolution for me, and usually I have to wait years before I get the ending.

      But you can still leave things hanging to move to the next book in the series if you wrap up the main problem of each book. So for example, book one might be about rescuing the prince, and they do that, but by the end of the book, a much larger problem has been discovered and that is the cliffhanger. (does that make sense?)

      Readers will love you for having events touch and change your characters :) That's the goal.

  22. Hello, I just found this article and it's really helpful. Thank you. I have a question that I was wondering your thought on. I am a first time writer and I'm working on a series that initially began as a trilogy. It is in the romance genre. Each book is about a different couple, but the setting is all the same place. Each book also has it's own "happy ever after" ending and the basic plot is wrapped up without a cliffhanger as it relates specifically to that couple. However, there is one much larger story plot that each couple's smaller plot ties into and it will not wrap up until the final book. As I have been outlining and plotting this series, I've had several characters reach and demand their own stories and voices. Thus, the trilogy has officially gone from 3 books to a 9 book series. Do you think this is to much for a first time writer? Should I maybe try to get my name out there first with more single novels, or just go for it and try my hand?

    1. Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on this.

      It's really up to you. There's nothing stopping you from writing it, but be aware that it's highly unlikely you'd sell all nine books as a new writer. So you'd want to weigh your publishing plans against the series. If you want to go traditional, perhaps keep the original trilogy, but leave enough clues and details so you can take it further if those books sell and do well. But let the trilogy work on its on even if that's all that ever gets published.

      If you plan to self publish, your options are wide open.

      Depending on how new you are to writing, you might consider doing a stand alone book as a training novel to build your skills before tackling a long and complicated project. That way, you'll have the skills needed to make your series work well and stand the best chance of success.

  23. Janice Hardy,
    My characters live on a fictional planet. For fighting scenes is that suppose to be a paragraph when Leilani fights the last thing she does is she uses her abilities that she has creating a barrier, water or storm only when she is angry or enraged. Leilani’s journal is in first person. It is about her life first being a mermaid princess then a goddess. Book 2 being a mother and also giving her son up because she had a vision of him becoming evil.
    Right now I am writing about her fighting her husbands estranged brother.