Friday, August 9, 2013

7 Tips on Writing a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A series is an investment, both on the writer’s part, and the reader’s. 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.

It might be a series of stand-alone novels that all explore a common genre, like a mystery, or a romance. It might have a common element that ties the books together, like characters who all work at the same law firm. In some series, you can even read them out of order and it won’t matter, because they’re not building on each other for the next in the series.

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.

2. The Overarching Series Conflict

If the series is situational, like 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.

(More on keeping a series fresh)

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.

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.

(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.

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.

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? 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a monthly contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.

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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.