If you want to make the big time, learn how to write a 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, invested book audience. These 10 tips for writing series will help you plan an intriguing, addictive multi-novel story arc:
1. Know what makes writing series different
Writing a series is different to writing a standalone book for a number of reasons:
- Series have multi-novel continuity (this separates a book series from a book cycle) – characters and/or settings, and/or conflicts return
- There are often longer-term, series-wide developments (e.g. a villain’s growing strength) that don’t happen in as much detail or complexity in shorter works
- There is time between books in a series usually (e.g. when readers caught up with how far J.K. Rowling had got in writing her Harry Potter series) – this increases the importance of making sure readers want to know what will happen next from book to book
In other words, structure in series is important. Your ending for book one also needs to hook the reader to book two.
So how do you keep readers coming back for each installment?
2. Choose a central conflict that sustains interest in your series
From Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series to Rowling’s fantasy epic Harry Potter, intriguing series have conflicts and characters whose development span multiple books.
The central premise or conflict of your series is the main tension or unknown that needs to be solved. In Harry Potter, the central conflict is the protagonist’s unfinished business with the villain, first introduced as ‘he who must not be named’.
A great series conflict contains the promise of further subplots. In Rowling’s series, we encounter not only the primary villain but henchmen and supporters who work in the open and in secret. These secondary conflicts propel each book towards a larger or main conflict. In one of Rowling’s books, a cruel and vindictive teacher is a lesser villain, while an encounter with the main villain looms on the horizon. A structuring approach like this means that each book has its own, self-contained struggle – and opportunity for growth – for the characters, while larger unknowns remain unresolved for later books.
Create a compelling central conflict for your series, be it an obstacle between a character and final romantic fulfillment (in a romance series) or an inevitable showdown with a villain. To build a good central conflict, you can:
- Place secondary obstacles in your main character’s path to getting what they want that lead back to the central conflict. For example, if a couple’s conflict is the distance created by a war, secondary conflicts (leading to curfews, invasions, injuries) are additional complications that delay the main resolution.
- Turn these obstacles into subplots that provide smaller rises and falls in story tension, keeping the rest of each book interesting
- Move your characters through multiple settings as they strive to reach their goals. Make each setting present its own distinctive interests, surprises and challenges
3. Create a fictional world readers will long to return to
Readers of Rowling’s fantasy series are eager to return to her fictional world because:
- It is rich in imaginative detail: Rowling thinks of every detail, from how bank vaults are guarded (by dragons) to the woods used to make magical wands and their properties
- Her world is distinct from our own yet relatable: Rowling actively contrasts the rules and codes of the wizard world, while also showing parallel institutions (e.g. the ‘Ministry of Magic’)
- Her settings become familiar: From the magic school to the Weasleys’ ramshackle house, each setting has its own character(s), surprises, wonders, and comforts
Writing series gives you the chance to develop multiple intricate settings or a single, magical or peculiar world (like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) full of fascinating peoples and practices. Use Now Novel’s step-by-step idea prompts to brainstorm details of setting, mood and character so you know your fictional world inside out.
4. Outline your series in advance
If you tend not to plot usually, this can work for a novel. When you write a novel series, however, an outline is especially useful, as it helps you retain a bird’s eye view. You understand not just how each individual book fits together, but how each book will fit into the wider story arc.
When you are juggling multiple subplots across multiple books, organised structure will help you keep track of what happens, when. Your outline will be a guiding hand to help you reach the final page of your final book.
5 . Establish central characters early but reveal their backstories gradually
In writing a series, it’s important to introduce characters, their desires and goals, early, so your reader invests in their character arcs.
Establish your characters early so that readers know who the primary players are in your series. Your characters’ goals are the ‘what’ of your story. But the ‘why’ of their motivations can be teased out gradually. Through main events (such as brushes between your main character and an antagonist) as well as subplots you can reveal why your characters have the goals they do.
This gradual process of revelation will allow your characters and readers to keep some mysteries and unknowns. This means sequels will be more inherently intriguing, as there’s more to discover and learn.
Changing your cast of characters as your series continues is another way to sustain interest:
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. There are long-lost relatives and new guardians, love interests and minor to serious villains.
This is an important part of how to write a 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. Yet she is a powerful character and villain in her own right. She also 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. Make 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. We later see the children as adult rulers of his fantasy world. J.K. Rowling creates longer arcs by showing her characters’ development from starry-eyed children to angst-ridden teens.
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: 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
- Create 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
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: 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. Create compelling titles and covers for each book and the series as a whole
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, though this is a cycle, technically, and not a series)
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.
Think about cover design across your series. Once you’re a few books in, you might decide to do a new edition with a unifying cover design repeating design elements between titles.
Start brainstorming and writing the first book in your series now.