Six secrets to writing a series


Writing a series of books can be difficult to manage: Not only do you need to sustain your plot and character development over a longer arc. You also need to consider the time-line of how often you will release new books in the series and how you will keep readers sustained and eagerly anticipating each new release. Writing a series can gain you recognition, plaudits and above all a loyal following. Some of the most successful series writers (including J.K. Rowling, J.R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin) have had their work optioned for TV and film.

How do you write a book series that continues to attract readers (as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ work has done posthumously)? Here are the 6 secrets of successful series writing:

Make certain the first book in your series can be read as a standalone

Your first book – in fact all the books in the series – should be good enough to serve as a standalone novel that is satisfying in itself. Here are several ways to ensure that the first installment of your story does what it needs to:

  • Pay attention to the structure. In addition to making sure that your story has a compelling beginning, middle and end, set up longer trajectories that the reader wants to see completed. Think of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and how nearly every one ended with an encounter with the arch-villain Lord Voldemort. Consider also how with each subsequent encounter is fraught with more mortal danger as Rowlings characters (and her initial readers) grow older. This creates a series of climactic scenes that leave the reader anticipating each new conflict.
  • Between sections of your novel that are taut with action, take time to write scenes that develop an early emotional connection between the reader and your main characters. Think of Harry Potter and how Rowling intersperses adventure and Harry’s awe at the magical world he finds himself in with details about his miserable life with his adoptive parents, his aunt and uncle. Personal background such as this makes a fictional character more relatable. By stacking up Harry’s adversity early on, Rowling gets her readers to root for her unlikely hero from the outset.
  • Leave the highest peaks for later. It might be tempting to give away the juiciest details of your plot in the first novel when writing a series. Give your reader small moments of climax and resolution. Yet keep the greater climaxes for later in the series. This can surprise readers satisfyingly. You may find your readers saying things such as ‘I thought it couldn’t get any more suspenseful but then x, y, z happened’.
  • One way to create a sense of anticipation is to vary place within the first book in your series. Consider having your character end up somewhere new towards the end of your novel. You can use this tactic to suggest that there is an expansion of your series’ character cast, central conflicts and plot-line waiting in the wings.

Avoid Excessive Recapping

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas cover - writing a series and recapping eventsMany beginning series writers make the mistake of constantly reminding their readers of what happened in previous books in the series via flashbacks, dialogue, or simple narration. In some instances a little reminder may be useful. For example, if there is an event that seems insignificant at first, you can make it take on a more foreboding sense simply by revisiting it. Even so, avoid treating your readers as hyper-forgetful (or even stupid) at all costs. If you feel you absolutely have to recap, here are some suggestions for how to refresh readers’ memories creatively:

  • 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. It could be another survivor she encounters on her journey, for example. This is better than writing, for example, ‘She had fled her village as the last houses vanished into flame.’ If the reader already knows this, they are unlikely to have forgotten. Retelling the scene from another viewpoint, by contrast, lets you introduce new details that bring home the enormity of the event or other consequences that can be plot departure points.
  • When writing a series you can also have other viewpoint characters hear your main character retell their story, or there may be other characters who find journals written by a POV character earlier in the book. This juxtaposing of personal time and historical time can achieve striking effects, adding surprise or pathos. For example, in David Mitchell’s genre-hopping novel Cloud Atlas, a character discovers a journal kept by a Point of View character  from an earlier section of the novel. The later character (and thus the reader) realises something awful about the journal-keeper’s situation that is not apparent to the reader while reading the same course of events through that previous character’s perspective.

These are just two ways you can recap creatively and use the act itself as a means of adding extra interest and drama to your series.

Sustain your own interest in your series’ characters

One thing that can happen as you write a series is that you can grow tired of the characters you have travelled with so far. A sagging middle in your series might deter readers from persevering and picking up the next installments. Here are some ways you can work to sustain your own interest in your characters:

  • Write a list of character traits you have established so far. Is your character courageous? How might you show that this isn’t always the case through a new scene? Real people have flaws. Often what makes it hard for writers to keep feeling inspired by their own characters is their lack of multi-dimensional characteristics.
  • Don’t be afraid to kill minor characters off. This doesn’t have to be their deaths. It could be a natural parting of ways between your main characters and smaller bit parts. This opens up the possibility of new relationships being forged, and this in turn can open a new vista of possibility for your plot and character development.
  • 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. The idea behind the exercise is that easing up control in the storytelling process lets your own characters influence the course of the story, as real people do in their lives. This exercise helps you tap into your subconscious creativity to reinvigorate your characters.

Don’t be scared of creating tension or conflict 

Book cover for Lemony Snicket books - writing a seriesIf your series features a romantic relationship, you might want to milk the potential for conflict to create suspense and anticipation in your readers. Scattering scenes of tension and release throughout your novel with a light hand will keep your readers anticipating what characters do next. The amount of tension you include in your series will likely depend on your novel’s genre. A crime or fantasy novel is generally more likely to feature scenes of high tension than a comic or ‘chick-lit’ novel, for example. When writing sex scenes, you can create much of the action and the sense of sexual frisson through dialogue: characters simply contradicting each other or having opposing wants and needs can create much of the engrossing drama of your novel.

Keep an overview of previous developments in your series

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 that you note down plot events and important details in summary form. This can help to avoid plot or character inconsistencies that leave readers confused and frustrated. When writing a series, it is good idea to work at an outline before you even begin writing your first draft. Having the bare bones of a succession of story scenes will help you to fill in the blanks without contradicting yourself. Having an outline also helps you have a clear idea of where you want your characters to end up by the end of your novel in relation to their objectives and personal relationships.

You can finish writing a series earlier

Have you planned to write a five-novel fantasy epic series along the lines of David Eddings’ Belgariad and found that you’ve lost steam midway through the five-novel arc? There’s nothing to say that your series has to span five books. Many novel series are uneven and have instances where two books in the series could be cut considerably and combined into one for a tighter pace and better overall shape. While reaching the prolific output of a J.K. Rowling or Robert Ludlum might seem appealing, remember to put the quality of your books and their ability to attract readers over quantity.

Are there any tips on writing a series you have found particularly useful? What are your favourite novel series?

If you want to improve your writing and start planning your own successful series, go here to start.

Image from here, here and here


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