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Monday, November 6

6 Things to Consider Before Writing a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A great series is both popular and profitable, but it takes a little more work (and thought) than a stand-alone novel. Balancing what readers love about the series with keeping it fresh can be challenging, as can deciding how much backstory to rehash each book to get readers up to speed, or how many books a series will have.

Even if you prefer to pants your novel, a little thought before you start your series can save you a lot of hassles later. And for outliners and planners—having a solid foundation to work with will make writing the individual books that much easier.

Here are some key questions to ask if you’re planning to write a novel series:

1. Do you want to tell one story over many books, or tell one story per book?


A story that takes five books to tell requires different plotting and development than multiple stories set in the same world with the same characters. Trilogies are similar in structure to a stand-alone novel, with each book mirroring an act in the Three Act Structure. A series where every book is a complete stand-alone tale will have a contained plot every book. A series with a longer story arc that moves a little in every book will likely have more subplots and series-arcing plots that don’t get resolved every book.

This is also import to ensure your idea has enough story meat to it to become a series. Many a solid stand-alone idea has been dragged out to fill a trilogy with disappointing results (especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres). Just because you want to write a series, doesn’t mean that particular idea has what it takes to be a series.

2. Will your protagonist grow and change or stay the same?


Contrary to popular belief, not every protagonist needs a character arc, and we see this most often with a series. The protagonist has a set of skills used each book to resolve the conflict, but solving that problem doesn’t change the character in any meaningful way.

Good examples here are the classic detective, spy, or lawyer. The focus is on solving the case, not how that problem changes the character. The protagonist might learn a new skill every now and then, but they’re the same person no matter which book in the series readers pick up.

This differs from a series designed to create growth and change in the protagonist. These books are meant to be read in order to show that growth. The conflicts and problems in the individual novels are what teach the character new lessons and trigger personal growth.

Some series do a bit of both, allowing the protagonist to change a bit and learn, but stay mostly the same over the course of the series.

(Here’s more on why you might not need a character arc)

3. How big is the story?


Is this a particular character’s story or a larger story happening to many? Some series follow one character all the way through, while others use multiple points of view to tell the tale. Epic fantasies are good examples here, with a grand story unfolding over multiple books and seen through the eyes of the many characters it affects.

(Here are ten things to remember if you want to write a sequel)

4. What connects the series?


Just wanting to write a bunch of books isn’t enough—something must connect those books. Most common connections are:
The type of series you want to write determines how that series will unfold and what format it will take.

5. How many books must the series have?


Some series are duologies, while others have over a hundred books (like Nancy Drew). While it’s nice to think a story can run as long as we’d like to write it, that isn’t always true. If the story has a definite conflict arc with a beginning, middle, and ending, there’s only so much you can drag that out before readers will get annoyed that nothing is every resolved.

Think about your story idea and how many book you need to tell it, but also consider how many books you could get out of it if it were popular. Could you stretch it? And if so, how far before readers might get frustrated with it?

6. Can the series be read out of order?


Anything with a story arc will probably have to be read in the order it was written, or readers won’t understand whats going on. Series with a contained problem every book can likely be read in any order and not confuse readers.

Understanding the type of series you want to write, and how that series will unfold, before you start it will make writing that series a lot easier. You’ll have guidelines and parameters for the series, and a better sense of how you want to pace it.

You don’t need to know the specifics of every book, but a general sense of the overall series will give you enough direction to know your story has enough meat to be a series.

Have you ever written a series? Are you planning to write one?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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 Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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3 comments:

  1. I just finished the seventh book in a seven-novel series. Keeping everything straight was a challenge. :-)

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    1. I'll bet! Grats on wrapping up the series :)

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  2. I have one series that started out as a three book series, and then ended up being five (with the fifth being released in January.) This will be the end of it, I think. It is a family epic, though, and if readers really wanted, I could go on with the next generation...

    I have one three-book series that is done. No one have asked for any additions. Well, okay, I did think of one more book, but it will probably never be written.

    My next series is three books so far. Episodic, so I could see how they were received and then judge whether to write more. I will be writing a fourth in January. Not because they were hugely popular, but because it wants to be written.

    I released a single book of a PI series in August, and it has done well and readers want more. I have a second written, and am working on the third right now. I also have a backstory/prequel written, but it will probably not be released, at least not on the same basis as the rest of the series.

    Then I have a cozy series that I am just in the midst of releasing. It is going very well and ARC readers are calling for a fourth, which I have outlined and will write in December.

    The last series I am working on right now started as a stand alone, which I never intended to write any more of. But readers have begged and begged for a sequel, so I finally decided to take a run at it. I wrote a sequel, which was quickly followed by a third book, and then a fourth. That will be all. Probably. Maybe. I'll release those books early next year!

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