Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

28 Comments

  1. I only wrote one novella trilogy, and the rest of my books have been stand alones. I wrote the trilogy because some of my readers were asking for sequels to some of my books, so I thought I would write a series. Those are some of my least selling books. So I went back to stand alones. I actually prefer to read stand alones, especially in romance, unless each book in the series is about a different couple in the same world. In other genres, I’m more likely to read series, like detective novels and such where each book has a completely different story, even though many of the characters are the same.

    So my advice is sort of what you said in the beginning of this post. Don’t let the series get stale. Know when to STOP. The only really long, drawn-out series I’ve followed without stopping is the Agent Pendergast series by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. But even that one has almost pushed the limit, I think. Almost….

    1. I agree. Some times you have to know when to stop, even when it’s hard to let go. And some books just shouldn’t be made into series at all! Thanks for your comment.

  2. storywrtr says:

    I adore series writing for characters that have so much to tell. That way nothing gets left out. But, if it’s a story where the same thing is repeated over and over, or the story stagnates, why keep going? I’ve written a series of novels, a few stand alones, and I’m not sure what I like to do more…

    I do think these tips are great. I’m pinning this post. Thanks so much!

    1. I’m glad you like them. Thanks for commenting. And you have a very valid point. Stories that repeat over and over again do tend to stagnate. Look at Scooby Doo! They added Scrappy and actual ghosts to keep the story relevant.

  3. I’ve not thought about doing a series. Then again, I intend on staying in children’s literature which doesn’t have a lot of series. But I like the tips.

    1. I’m glad you liked them. Thanks for your comment.

    1. Thank you! I’m happy you liked them.

  4. Reblogged this on The 960 Writers and commented:
    I like that this advice focuses on the character and how he/she develops in the story world.

  5. This is a great guideline.
    For keeping track of the story, I heard others refer to a story bible. A story bible grows while writing the books, it could live in a wiki for instance. It can even lead to a new book that is like a travel guide through the story world, accompanying the series.

    1. I’ve heard of authors doing that with their guidebooks/story bibles before. I think the writer of the Sookie Stackhouse books di that after the last book, and I think JK Rowling is releasing the equivalent of one in several different volumes and in Pottermore. Maybe if I ever have a series that’s really popular and has content that I couldn’t cover in the book, maybe I’ll release one. Thanks for your comment.

  6. checkasmith says:

    These tips are brilliant!
    I’m planning a series of novels set in a different world, and keeping track of everything can be difficult. But what you have written here will definitely come in handy! Especially the guide book, and immerse your reader slowly.
    Thank you!

    1. I’m happy to help. Good luck with your series. I hope it goes well.

  7. I’m a longtime reader of fantasy and science fiction (f/sf), where series are common and many of them are very good. But I’m skeptical about the pressure to turn every novel into book #1 of a series. As an editor, I recently tried to work with a writer who’s determined to write a five-book series — but book #1 is painfully thin, in part because she’s holding so much back for later volumes and in part because her world-building and character-developing skills aren’t yet up to the task. Very frustrating. I think she’d be better off if she’d put everything she’s got into book #1 and then see where it goes. If the world and the characters are well developed, there will be more stories to tell.

    1. That’s some pretty good advice. Sometimes planning for a series can get in the way of actual character and world development, so it might be better to only do a series if the first book is really good and people want more from these characters and the world they live in. Good luck with your new writer.

  8. Barb says:

    Well, I wish I’d have known these things years ago, but then I was so full of myself, I thought I probably already knew them. Good post.

    1. Trust me, we’ve all been there. And as always, happy to help.

  9. Will Once says:

    I was “speaking” (forum chatting) to someone a little while ago. They were agonising about whether to read something written by Stephen King. Their only problem was that Stephen King generally didn’t write books in series and this particular reader only ever read books when they were in a series.

    And it seems they are not alone. Apparently lots of their friends thought the same way.

    Perhaps, the series is the way to go, whether it is written or in movie football scores … Star Wars 7, Die Hard 5, James Bond 24. People like to read stories or watch films that are familiar. Like a McDonalds or a Costa Coffee, you may lose out on originality but you do get exactly what you always get.

    1. I have noticed that. But there’s a lot you can get out of a stand-alone novel. All of my favorite Stephen King books are stand-alone stories, as well as my current favorite novel Battle Royale. And I’ve read/seen plenty of series that have disappointed me for a variety of reasons, whether trying to keep things within a certain number or books or going on until the story is tired and we’re not sure why we’re still reading.

  10. I don’t mind series in a romances if each book in the series focuses a different couple (as Lauralynn mentioned above). I am not a fan of series as rule. I like the story to be finished in one book. I’d rather have a longer book (like Battle Royale) than for the books to be divided into a series.

    I went to the bookstore the other day to look for a good YA thriller or horror novel for some light reading over this summer when I’m at the pool. But everything was in a series. I couldn’t find a standalone anywhere on the shelf. It was extremely frustrating. And worse, each book seemed to end in some cliffhanger. This is apparently a big thing with publishers now. But it prevented me from buying any of those books. I went online and browsed indies who gave me what I was looking for. I won’t touch the books for months, but it’s nice to know they’re waiting for me.

    I’m still working my way through Battle Royale. I’m still editing and trying to get an anthology ready for next month. Until I can get my work done, I won’t be doing much reading. But yours is next. 🙂

    1. I can’t wait! And yes, sometimes a series is detrimental if you just want a one-and-done sort of story. It’s sad, because the industry these days seems to lean more towards stories than ever. It’s pretty crazy.

  11. kamrynwhowanders says:

    The thing I love about series is that I’m getting more of the world and characters I’ve fallen in love with. However, I have noticed that a lot of series start out strong, with a solid, well-written first book, but then start to ramble and fall apart with each subsequent volume. I feel like those were meant to but the author got so many ideas he/she wrote another book despite not having an overarching plot.

    I’m planning on writing a series myself, but I do have a strong backbone of a plot (preventing war) and several nice ribs and limbs of subplots and individual plots supporting the meaty parts of my series’ story. (That metaphor may have gotten away from me.)

    http://kamrynthewanderer.wordpress.com

    1. Oh, I hate it when that happens! That’s how I felt about the Hunger Games trilogy, good start but it kind of devolved as time went on. Good luck with your own series.

  12. bfostrickson says:

    This is definitely something that can be daunting, especially when you start with one story and it turns into many. I have one that I am sort of circling, that I imagine will be more than one. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just having the idea. Definitely a lot more work than just one story, whether it’s short or not. I’ll come back to this for help when I start. Great post!

    1. Thanks for the feedback. And you’re right, there’s more than just the idea that goes into a story. A lot goes into a series, including whether or not to make it a series in the first place. Good luck to your story. I hope it goes well.

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