If you want to make the big time, learn how to write a book series. Why? Because once readers are hooked on book one and know that books two through four are on the way, you’ll have a captive, appreciative book audience. These 10 tips for writing a successful story series will help you plan an engrossing multi-novel story arc:
1. Understand how to write a book series compared to a standalone novel
Before you begin writing a book series, make a list of the particular elements your novel series will need. For example, a story series needs:
- Continuity (there should be connecting story threads between novels)
- Long-form developments as well as development within each novel
- A macro outline that shows how each novel will relate to the others
- A central premise or conflict that sustains readers’ interest over multiple books
Once you are fully aware of the particular structural needs of a good series, you can set about writing a sequence of books that makes sense when it is read as a whole.
2. Choose a central conflict that sustains your story throughout
The central premise or conflict of your series is the main tension or unknown that needs to be solved. In the publishing sensation series Harry Potter, the central conflict is the protagonist’s unfinished business with the villain, Lord Voldemort. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the central conflict is between the world-dominion-seeking antagonist Sauron and the elves and hobbits who desire peace and freedom from tyranny.
When you look at either of these series’ central conflicts, they contain the promise of further subplots. Both series march towards grand final conflicts with objectives that are made clear early on, yet the main characters’ journeys takes them through unfamiliar territory. To create a central premise or conflict that will keep your story interesting across multiple novels:
- Place obstacles in your main character’s path to getting what they want and reaching the final climax
- Turn these obstacles into subplots that provide smaller rises and falls in story tension (for example, to overcome the villain in a fantasy novel, the hero must first overcome his crippling fear of sea travel and make safe passage)
- Move your characters through multiple locations as they strive to reach their goals (be it consummating a relationship or vanquishing a foe). Make each location present its own distinctive challenges
3. Create a fictional world readers will long to return to
In Rowling’s fantasy series, her fictional world is one that readers love to return to because:
- It is rich in imaginative detail: Rowling thinks of every detail, from how bank vaults are guarded in her magical world to how people’s lives are regulated by unique codes and laws (through the ‘Ministry of Magic’)
- The wizards’ magical parallel world is contrasted with our own, real, world. This makes the parallel world even more intriguing and distinctive
- Rowling establishes familiar locations within her world, each of which have their own geographies, inhabitants, rules and landmarks – they feel real and we can picture them
Often, a fictional world (even if the world is simply a fictional recreation of a real city, e.g. London) offers something readers can’t get from real life. In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, there is a gothic and larger-than-life quality to the setting and its characters. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the moors are a haunting place of frustrated passion. To make your fictional world one that readers love to inhabit, make it interesting above all. Do so by:
- Including enough detail: What are the customs, societal norms, histories of the places your book series will explore? J.K. Rowling’s magic school is full of portraits of previous staff and details such as this add to the sense of detailed backstory and history
- Making your world exceptional: What sets your fictional world apart from other places? What is its unique character? Imagine a lone traveler visiting it for the first time. What’s the first thing they’d tell others about your world when they return home? If your series takes place in the real world, still work out what makes these locations unlike any other
4. Outline your series in advance
If you tend not to plot usually, this can work for a novel (but increases the possibility of getting stuck and not knowing where to take your story next). When you write a novel series, however, an outline is especially useful, as it helps you see the macro structure. You understand not just how each individual book fits together, but how each book will fit into the wider story arc.
Why else should you outline your series roughly before you start?
Because sequence of events (chronology) in novel-writing can be a headache. When you are juggling multiple subplots across multiple books, organised structure will help you keep track of what happens when. As you go, you can deviate from your outline at will but it will still offer a guiding hand to help you reach the final page of the final book.
5 . Establish central characters early but reveal their backstories gradually
Establish your characters early so that readers know who the primary players are in your series. Readers should know what your characters are striving towards from early on, as they will be invested in the outcome early then. Your characters’ goals are the ‘what’ of your story. But the ‘why’ of their motivations can be teased out gradually. Through main events in the arc (such as brushes between your main character and an antagonist) as well as subplots you can reveal why your characters have their specific, personal goals.
This gradual process of revelation will allow your characters and readers to keep some mysteries and unknowns. This element of the unknown keeps us following stories to the end, and will help readers stay the course from your first book through each sequel.
Changing your cast of characters as your book series continues is another way to keep your story interesting:
6. Introduce new characters to keep your series moving
One of the things J.K. Rowling does expertly in Harry Potter is introduce crucial new characters in every book. Readers meet important beloved as well as loathed characters in the first book, but major characters appear for the first time in sequels – long-lost relatives and new guardians, love interests and minor to serious villains.
This is an important part of how to write a book series: Make secondary characters count. Don’t simply add a walk-on character because you aren’t sure how to get to the next scene. Instead, show how each new, secondary character assists or hinders your main character(s). For example, in Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling only introduces the sadistic teacher Dolores Umbridge in the fifth novel in the series. Yet she is a powerful character and villain in her own right, and this provides a subplot that creates additional story-driving tension.
To make your book series engrossing, introduce characters in sequels who either:
- Help your main character(s)
- Hinder them
- Share information that helps the reader piece together the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of your story
- Mislead the reader with false information so that you can surprise them later (a standard device of mystery novels)
It’s important that your main characters are especially interesting, so that readers hunger for further information about their future or past experiences:
7. Give each character a longer developmental arc
When you write a book series, it’s crucial that character don’t remain static or readers could become bored.
C.S. Lewis avoids stasis by showing his central characters as children at the start of the Narnia series and as adult rulers of his fantasy world in later books. J.K. Rowling creates longer arcs by showing her characters’ development from starry-eyed children to angsty teens who are driven by conflicting emotions.
To make your character arcs satisfying throughout your series:
- Give recurring characters faults they either overcome little by little or give in to more and more
- Show how changes in your characters’ environs affect them. A hobbit in the Shire is cosy and comfortable, but a hobbit thrown into the dangerous world of Mordor can discover surprising bravery
- Make a list for each character of how they could change from book to book in your series and include the reason why they change. For example, ‘Book one: Character inherits a vast sum unexpectedly; Book two: Character becomes increasingly arrogant but loses everything; Book three: Character rebuilds and finds other things to value’
8. Give each book in your series a strong central event
Remember that each book should stand on its own to a degree. A reader should be able to start with book 4 and not find the story so bewildering that they’re completely lost. To make each novel in your series work well as a standalone work:
- Have a strong central event and image for each book. In C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the discovery of a portal to another world in the back of an antique wardrobe is the central event and image out of which the entire book unfolds
- Make sure there is a secondary conflict and (at least partial) resolution for each novel in the series – a smaller rise and fall that is a miniature version of the larger rising and falling action of the entire series
- Make each book in your series stick to a smaller number of locations – keep major plot relocations for new sections or books to emphasize pivotal moments of change
9. Make your middle books’ subplots count
Many aspiring series authors struggle with messy middles. In order to make the middle books of your series move satisfyingly towards the penultimate and final books:
- Make the middle books show character development: show the reader how the main characters acquire the skill, conviction or strategy they need to reach their objectives (Rowling shows Harry mastering spells)
- Introduce tension that makes goals seem more distant than they are. Uncertainty and unknowns make us want to find out what comes next.
- Build and resolve secondary arcs that illustrate important things about your characters (such as why they have the personalities they do). Stories are satisfying when give us creative answers for all the ‘w’ words: ‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. ‘Why’ is arguably the most important.
Make the middle books of your series have their own central arcs, but also use them to illustrate important details about your characters, their histories and their challenges. This will give your series depth.
10. Tie it all together and create compelling titles for each book and the series as a whole
Series endings are challenging because they are double: You’re resolving not just the primary conflicts and themes of one book but the overarching elements of a story series. One way to make sure the end of your series is satisfying is to bring back key elements from earlier books before (or during) the climax.
To make your series satisfying, make sure that the ending of the final book:
- Resolves every major conflict and plot arc
- Uses language that conveys the sense of an ending – emotion-driven language that conveys finality, for example
- Resonates with earlier incidents: You can even bring the story full circle to the start of the first book in the series (as Tolkien does when Frodo returns to the Shire in The Lord of the Rings)
Once you have created a satisfying ending, the fun part of choosing titles begins. Think of some of the great series’ titles for inspiration:
- Mervyn Peake’s gothic Gormenghast trilogy: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone
- George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter, A Dream of Spring
Looking at Peake’s trilogy, the titles have a mirror structure: ‘ABA’. Both the first and third books start with the main character’s name: Titus. The middle book’s title is the name of the castle which Titus inherits. The titles thus echo the plot developments of the trilogy as a whole.
The titles in Martin’s fantasy series have symmetry: Most follow the structure ‘A(n) [abstract noun] of [concrete noun]’. Try creating your own Martin book titles as an exercise, following this format (for example: ‘A Song of Sirens’, ‘A Silence of Stones’). Finding similar structures for the titles of books in your series will help to make individual titles in your series identifiable as related installments. This makes it easier for readers to remember what books of yours are in print.
What’s your favourite fictional series? Tell us in the comments below.
Or start brainstorming and writing the first book in your series now.