Book publishing Series writing

How to write a series: 10 tips for writing smash hits

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:

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.

How to write a series - infographic | Now Novel

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:

George Eliot quote - writing series | Now Novel

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 GroanGormenghast, 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.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

17 replies on “How to write a series: 10 tips for writing smash hits”

Excellent tips! They have sparked all kinds of ideas in my head, and have helped me see that what I thought would be a four-book series needs a fifth book to complete it. I’ll be spinning ideas from this article for weeks and months to come.

Thanks so much Lisa! Really glad you found this useful. All the best for your series.

Hey Bridget. I just downloaded lots of the expert guides. I was hoping to download this article as I really like it – should I just copy and paste or is there a PDF version? It’s great to read your guides. I’m laughing to myself in the coffee shop. I have spent the last month or two researching information relating to my central idea. It’s all so exciting! Thanks for all of your support.

Thank you! We don’t have it as a PDF but feel free to copy and paste it to a doc for offline reading as you like.

thank you so much! this is the most important info at the moment for me… I plan a fantasy-pirate trilogy aaaaand I feel I have to create a large outline with characters, history, locations etc. this is awesome.

That sounds fantastic, Chaosbender. I hope your outline is coming along brilliantly!

I found this very useful! My series is about a man who protects his city while the army fights a decade long war, and his revelations when he gets news that his long-lost friend is suddenly being celebrated as a God elsewhere, and the hero ventures to find out if it was true. Your ideas on turning it into outlines is proving really helpful.

Hi Vin,

That’s great to hear, thank you for reading our blog. It sounds an interesting premise, good luck with your story!

Thanks or the help! My series is about a princess who found out she is lesbian. You can already picture the drama, arguments, comfort, and just so much more. I’m only 12 so it’s hard to write a decent series but I’m trying!

It’s a pleasure, Elli! It will get easier with time and practice, I’m sure. It’s good you’re working on your writing so young. Good luck with your series.

This was most helpful. I started with one book, which I published the December of 2019. It took 3 months to write and publish. I knew I wanted to continue that story as the ideas had been flowing for the 2nd book. I started writing January 2020. Then I lost my job, had to move back to my home state, then COVID hit, and I’ve been taking care of my 93 year old father. So, book two has taken me almost two years, which has made me sad. I didn’t think or expect it to take me this long. But, I now hope to get it published and printed this month, January 2022. (I guess keep my fingers crossed)

I just started working on book three which of course continues. Not sure if there will be a book four, but it’s possible. How do you know if you should call it a sequel or a series? I’ve read different articles, and sometimes it’s confusing. I don’t know which way to go. Also, on my cover, would I add that it’s Book 2… Or Part 2… etc.? (I’m an Indie Author) There are sooo many things to think about, and work out, and then the cost, and who to use for publishing and printing? And so many articles telling you do this and don’t do that. You are we to believe?

Hi Trish, thank you for sharing your personal journey with working on your current series (I’m so sorry to hear about the difficult times COVID brought). I also commend you for writing through all of these setbacks, that is impressive perseverance and such an important trait for any creative person.

We have a webinar where Now Novel coach Romy Sommer discusses the differences between series and sequels you may find useful. Essentially, the core difference between series and serials (where each book is a sequel) is that serials tend to give the whole arc of a story broken up into smaller pieces whereas in a series proper, each book can stand on its own and be read in isolation without the sequel necessarily needing to be read to fill in more of the ‘total’ picture (e.g. the primary conflict with the main anatagonist in a serial might be left for the final book, with each book building in a little more of the tension and complication en route to that showdown).

Usually which book in a series a title is would be shown in the accompanying text more than on the cover, although the cover may refer to the series’ name. Here is an example of a cover design choice for The Lord of the Rings that makes the serial or cycle-like nature of the books abundantly clear – both by referencing the cycle’s overarching name in quotation marks, and with the smaller text saying ‘Part X’ on each respective book.

Alternatively, Sarah J. Maas has text on the lower portion of her cover stating that her book is ‘A Crescent City novel’ (this works if your series or serial has a shorter title).

For costs there are a few useful resources, but what I’d suggest is getting quotes from multiple professionals and seeing samples of their work and keeping this in a spreadsheet and then deciding from there based on a combination of cost/budget and whose work you enjoy cover-design-wise. I hope this is helpful!

Hi!!! First I would like to say, what a great and informative article!! I can’t BELIEVE I’ve never heard of this website until now. I can’t wait to show my other writing friends!
Secondly, I’m looking for a bit of advice. I’m writing a children’s series of at least 6 books, possibly 7…and, well, I’m stuck. I’m not too much of a planning person but I want to plan out at least guidelines for each book before I write them, just so I sort out the general flow of things and know which direction to start writing in.
Unfortunately, that’s where I’m getting stuck. I have all of the ideas; I know all my characters, sub plots, main antagonists – the beginning and the ending, and most of the stuff in between – but I just don’t even know where to START converting all of those ideas onto paper in a intelligable way that flows naturally and in an inviting way for readers. The prospect of trying to sort all of those ideas out is incredibly daunting to me. Any time I try to start, a million new ideas hit me and then I get side tracked ad start pondering all the different possibilities of my plot line. How do I focus my thoughts and ideas and actually plan the base for my story, as someone who struggles immensely with planning? Do you have any tips?
(I’m so sorry for the big long rant. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, as you can probably tell, haha. I hope you are doing well 😊).

Hi Maggie, thank you for your generous feedback. Please do, we always welcome new readers and members.

It is immensely challenging to avoid being distracted by the bright and shiny ‘new idea’. Some options would be to:

– Write each book as a one line, one paragraph, then one page synopsis first, forcing yourself to keep to this more rigid structure. Think of it as creating the scaffolding for something as tall and complex and many-roomed as a skyscraper to stand on.

– Put aside asking of your first draft to flow naturally and be inviting – first drafts tend to be much messier things, and things really come together in the rewriting for many authors (if not most). So for the first run, I would rather suggest boiling it down to the elements of an engaging story. For example:

  1. What is the main character’s primary goal, motivation (reason for said goal) and a main potential conflict or obstacle in their way?
  2. What are some contextual elements (e.g. setting(s), era, ages of your main characters (and target readers) that can begin putting parameters in place?

If you are stuck, I would recommend working with a writing coach who is experienced in resolving these challenges in writing series themselves and can brainstorm with you until you’re out of the woods (you can read more about our coaches here).

Good luck and I hope you find a way forward that encourages further perseverance.

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