Learning how to write a book series means mastering the challenges specific to series-writing. Sustaining characters’ development over a longer time. Sustaining conflict, tension, and irresolution too. Here are six secrets to creating a successful series:
1. Choose a central idea that creates intrigue
To write great fiction series, you need an idea that can sustain multi-arc plot and character developments.
Epic fantasy series such as George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter books have central, fascinating tensions at their heart. Power-struggles between rival forces unfold alongside characters’ struggles with their own flaws and shortcomings. Along the way there are mistaken identities, surprising reversals and secondary antagonists.
Many great ideas can be boiled down to an answer to one simple question: ‘What if…?’ For example:
- What if a once-powerful tyrant could regain strength through obtaining a lost magical talisman he created? (Sauron in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings)
- What if a foreign service officer’s family was killed in a bombing in neutral territory and no country claimed responsibility? (Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books)
- What if a provincial Chief Inspector became embroiled in the lives of a small town and had to navigate professional duty and evolving community relationships? (Inspector Gamache in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series
Each of these ideas creates questions.
For Tolkien’s idea, we may ask ‘Where is the lost ring? Who can prevent Sauron from getting the ring? Who will Sauron enlist to help him?’ and more.
In the second, the reader may ask ‘Which country was responsible for the bombing? Why did they bomb neutral territory? Who survived? What will Jason Bourne do to pursue justice?’
For the third, the reader may ask ‘How will the inspector’s relationships affect their work? What secrets does the town have? What other criminals could it be harbouring?’
Writing great series starts with creating enough unknowns to fuel multi-novel intrigue, surprise, and engagement.
Complete the first step in the Now Novel dashboard and answer the step-by-step prompts to find a Central Idea that generates interesting questions.
2. Make each book self-contained to an extent
To write a great fiction series, each should be good enough to serve as a standalone novel. Here are several ways to ensure that each book does just this:
- Pay attention to the structure: Structure each installment around primary conflicts and unknowns that your series will resolve. Give each book some unknowns that you will resolve by the end. But also establish lingering mysteries you can draw out into subsequent installments.
- Develop emotional connection from the start in each installment: Part of what keeps us reading a series is feeling connected to the characters, vicariously living through their predicaments and successes. J.K. Rowling was smart in starting many of the books in her Harry Potter series with Harry’s time away from his magic school, boarding with his emotionally abusive aunt and uncle. This sets up the allure of escape from the outset. We anticipate an escape from the cruel and humdrum into the magical and adventurous.
- Leave the strongest climaxes until later: It might be tempting to give away the juiciest details of your plot in the first book in your series. Yet plan rising action across the whole arc of your series and keep the biggest peak for the end.
- Create anticipation: In a quest or adventure narrative like The Lord of the Rings, we know of an intimidating-sounding destination early. In a series like the Jason Bourne books, we know a government is up to no good and is yet to account for its misdeeds. Create anticipation in each book in your series and leave the reader somewhere between revelation and lingering mystery by the end.
3. Avoid excessive recapping
Don’t continuously remind the reader what happened previously. In some instances a little reminder may be useful. Even so, avoid treating your readers as forgetful (or even stupid) at all costs. If you feel you absolutely have to recap, here are some ways you can without becoming repetitive:
- Retell a prior scene from another character’s point of view. Did the hero of your fantasy novel narrowly escape her village being razed to the ground by a marauding army? Present the same event at a later stage through the eyes of another character for new information.
- Show new viewpoint characters hearing your main character’s backstory for the first time. Instead of making a character constantly retell what’s happened to them, you could show another viewpoint character learning about it. In David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas, a character discovers a journal kept by a main character from an earlier section of the novel. The later character (and thus the reader) realizes something awful about the journal-keeper’s doctor while reading. This twist makes a reminder of an earlier section grow and change; acquire new layers.
These are just two ways you can recap creatively. Use the act of retelling itself as a means of adding extra interest and drama to your series.
4. Keep your characters interesting and evolving
Knowing how to write a book series is knowing how to keep characters interesting and changing. Constant developments, whether great or small, sustain interest. To make sure each character in your series remains interesting:
- Write a list of character traits you have established. Is your character courageous? How might you show an exception to this in a new scene? Do they have a hitherto unseen weak spot? Gradually revealing surprises such as flaws and secrets is a useful way to keep characters fresh and interesting
- Don’t be afraid to kill minor characters off. This doesn’t need to be literal, necessarily. In a quest narrative, for example, a secondary character might agree to travel along only to the next town. When the size of the travelling party changes, this is an opportunity for new meetings (and dangers)
- Listen to your characters. In a New Yorker article on the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel, the author describes practicing an exercise in which she pictures sitting her characters down on a chair in an empty room and asking them questions. Try exercises like these that help you turn fictional characters into complex people with history and individuality
5. Create multiple conflicts
There are at least six types of conflict you can use in your series to keep it interesting. In addition to conflicts between characters, there may be conflicts between characters and their environment, for example.
Scattering scenes of tension and release throughout your novel with a light hand will keep your readers anticipating what characters do next.
As an exercise, create a simple list, book by book, for the central or main conflict of each book, and write the overarching series conflict that runs through all the books together at the top of this list. Then write next to each book’s individual conflict how it connects to (or departs from) your series-wide conflict.
6. Keep a summary document of your series so far
Even if you don’t create a complete outline before you start writing a series, it helps to summarize what you have written.
Writing your fourth or fifth book in a series is a great milestone to reach. But with each successive book it becomes more and more important to have a simplified document you can scan through that reminds you of all that’s happened so far. Otherwise, it can be difficult to ‘see the wood for the trees’. A good summary will avoid getting lost in detail, so you can focus on connecting the many threads of each book’s story arc.
Are there any tips on writing a series you have found particularly useful? What are your favourite series?
To brainstorm plot, setting, characters and more and get feedback from a constructive critique community, join Now Novel.