The Stuff Series Are Made Of
“The disease of writing is dangerous and contagious,” Abelard famously said to Heloise. So, too, can a book series become a relentless obsession: It’s why readers follow series devotedly to the last, why writers write them for years on end, and why publishers contract them in spades. In our trend-driven world, series are hotter than ever.
But if writing a novel can seem overwhelming, the idea of creating a whole series of them can be exponentially more so. Whether you’ve been pondering starting a series from Page 1, or you’ve finished a book and don’t want to let the characters go, there are plenty of simple things you can implement now to lay a strong foundation for what’s to come.
If a series doesn’t have a “tie” that connects each book, it could hardly be called a series. Ties can be any (or even all) of the following:
- A recurring character or couple (think Aloysius Pendergast in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast series, or J.D. Robb’s Eve and Roarke from the In Death series)
- A central group of characters (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Kate Jacobs’ Friday Night Knitting Club)
- A plot or premise (Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleton medical mysteries, Dan Brown’s treasure hunts starring Robert Langdon)
- A setting (Twilight’s Forks, Wash., Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry)
Series can be open-ended–in which each book stands on its own, and the series could continue indefinitely (Langdon)–or closed, in which an underlying plot continues in each book and resolves in the last (Harry Potter).
What connects the books in a series should be evident from Book 1. Ensuring this kind of continuity requires advance planning, starting as early as possible.
Story Arcs & Series Arcs
Every work of fiction, series or otherwise, has a contained story line. That story arc is introduced, developed and concluded within each individual book. Series books often have a series arc as well: a long-term plot thread that is introduced in the first book; developed, expanded and/or alluded to in some way in each subsequent book; and resolved only in the final installment of the series.
Series arcs can be prominent, or can be more subtly defined. The series arc is generally separate from each individual story arc, though they must fit together seamlessly in each book to provide logical progression throughout the series. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the story arc is the Sorcerer’s Stone plotline. The series arc, in the most simplified terms, is good overcoming evil among this set group of characters in the fantasy world of the series. The series arc runs progressively and cohesively beneath the individual story arcs in all the successive books.
Unless a series is completely open-ended, it is imperative that you pay off promises made early in your series arc in the concluding book. You’ve presented a nagging situation in the first book that must be settled satisfactorily in the last. Without that, readers who have invested time, money and passion will feel cheated. If, in the course of Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven Series, Kendra and Seth didn’t defeat the evil threatening the Fablehaven preserve and stop the plague that could have led to a hoard of imprisoned demons escaping into the world, Mull would have left his fans crying foul because he broke the pledge of a satisfactory resolution implied in the first book.
Take the time to map out your series arc as much as you can up front, so you can work through that premise from the start and ensure you’ll reward readers at the finish.
C-S-P Series Potential
Readers fall in love with characters, settings and plots. They want conflict but don’t want you to hurt their heroes. They want something different but don’t want things to change. But a character, setting or plot that doesn’t evolve doesn’t remain lifelike, and eventually becomes boring.
Series characters, settings and plots should have longevity and intriguing potential that continues to grow, never stagnate or wane, throughout the course of a series. While none of these should ever have a radical transplant from one book to the next, it’s crucial they’re affected by changes. Consider the three P’s that make characters (and just as certainly settings and plots) three-dimensional:
- Personality: always multifaceted, with strengths and weaknesses, and capable of growing–being molded, deeply delved, and stretched.
- Problems: combining light and dark, good and evil, simple and complex–not necessarily in equal parts.
- Purpose: evolving goals and motivations broad enough to introduce new and unpredictable themes throughout the series, but narrow enough to maintain focus in each individual story.
Without the introduction of something new for series characters, settings and plots in each book, your readers will lose motivation to read all the way to the end.
To plant seeds for future growth in your series, nurture your C-S-P (Character-Setting-Plot) potential by establishing “plants” in early books that can be cultivated at any time during the life of the series to expand on one or all three of these components. Naturally, the sooner you incorporate these, the more believable they’ll be when it’s time to fully develop them.
In Dan Brown’s novels, for example, Robert Langdon frequently mentions the Mickey Mouse watch he wears–not something most grown men would be caught dead in. It was a gift from his parents on his ninth birthday, and it’s rife with sentimental value. Considering that his plots involve racing against the clock, the significance of this object is heightened.
The watch becomes pivotal when Langdon is thrust in a tank of breathable oxygenated liquid in The Lost Symbol (Book 3). If that were the first time it was mentioned, the story’s believability would have been drowned as a consequence. But Brown planted the item early enough in Book 1–during an appropriate time for passive reflection–that its later role in life-or-death action scenes doesn’t feel contrived or overly convenient to the plot.
Most authors include numerous “plants” in the first book in a series without even realizing it. That’s good news for you if your first book is already well under way. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deliberately insert them. When developing your C-S-P series potential, do free-form summaries for the following questions. Don’t worry if you can’t come up with much right away; simply use these as a jumping-off point as the series progresses, assuming that these seeds may be planted (and left mostly unexplored) in the early books for development in later titles:
- How can you outfit all series characters, even minor ones, with heroic traits and habits in addition to flaws and vices that can lead to natural growth as well as interesting plots and subplots?
- How can you give them occupations, hobbies, interests and idiosyncrasies that might be gradually developed?
- What relationships and potential enemies/villains can you add to expand the potential for subplots, characters or ongoing conflicts or rivalries that might play a bigger role in a later book?
- What lessons, backstory or experiences can be hinted at for later revelation and development that may lead to suspenseful plots or emotional crises?
- What life conditions, challenges, trials, grudges, grief, betrayals, threats, heartaches or obsessions can characters face that may lead to compelling situations throughout the series? (Think romance, marriage, divorce, parents/children, illness, medical ailment or death.)
- What locations can you set the series and individual books in to expand characters and plots?
- What world, regional or local events, holidays, important dates or disasters (natural or man-made) can provide a catalyst?
- What quest–fortuitous, cursed or anywhere in between–can be undertaken?
- What item or object might become the basis for plot, setting or character development?
Always leave plenty of plants unexplored to give your series longevity and your characters and story lines flexibility. In the early books in the Pendergast series, it was revealed that the protagonist’s wife had been killed years earlier. Superficial details about this death were alluded to but kept sparse and flexible enough that, when the authors moved into their Helen Trilogy quite a few books later, they could easily mold this event any way they needed to and maintain believability. Had they locked down specific details early on, the trilogy might never have seen the light of day.
Hints and allusions are essential when implementing C-S-P potential. In real life, no one walks around with a list to show others of the people they know, the places they’ve been, or the things they’ve done. These are shared a little at a time. In the same way, from one book to the next, explore the facets of C-S-P slowly. If you give too much detail too soon, you may find it hard to change or adapt when the time comes to use a plant.
Remember: If no one wants to see more of these characters, settings and plots over the long haul, the series is doomed. Always spin established facts on their axis so the reader will have a new, emotional and unexpected journey in each story. Every offering must be at least as exciting as the one before. These are the ingredients that bring readers back for more.
Organization of Details
The best way to learn how not to write a series is to do so with no organization whatsoever. You’ll likely miss countless opportunities to plant and grow seeds for C-S-P series potential, be forced to backtrack to clear up issues that arise, and maybe even write yourself into a corner.
While some authors may be capable of outlining every book in a series before writing a word, that’s not possible for everyone. Maybe the only way for you to figure out where you’re going with your series is to complete the first book, then set it aside while you think about what might lie ahead: Which characters will take the lead? What story will be told, and which conflicts will arise? What seeds can you go back and plant in the first manuscript to prepare readers for the next installments? Even if you’re not much of a planner, try answering the C-S-P potential questions (on the previous page) as much as you can. Never underestimate the value of the key story (and series!) questions percolating in your mind.
How much preplanning you do is up to you, but at minimum, I recommend you at least attempt to build on your C-S-P potential by writing summary blurbs for the series and its individual books. Just see how far you can get. Play with them and don’t expect perfection the first time. You can work with them more as your series progresses.
For a series blurb, you’re not focusing on individual stories but on the gist of what the series as a whole is about. If the series blurb is done well enough, it’ll accurately reflect what every book in the series is about in a concise, intriguing summary. Remember your series ties while you’re working; they’ll help you figure out what your series arc should be. In no more than four sentences, define your series arc by using “leads to” logic (note that the components don’t have to be in order, nor is a resolution required since you may not want to defuse the intrigue or tension):
Introduction -> Change -> Conflicts -> Choices -> Crisis -> Resolutions
Here’s an example from my Incognito series:
The Network is the world’s most covert organization. Having unchallenged authority and skill to disable criminals, the Network takes over where regular law enforcement leaves off in the mission for absolute justice (Introduction). The price: Men and women who have sacrificed their personal identities (Choices) to live in the shadows (Change) and uphold justice for all (Conflicts)–no matter the cost (Crisis).
Next, try blurbing the individual stories you foresee comprising the series. It’s all right if you’ve only gotten as far as brainstorming one or two books. Start with what you have and add later, as more comes to you. Even if you don’t think you know enough to get started planning this way, you’ll likely find that the process of putting your ideas into words helps your concepts multiply.
Focus on which characters will take the lead in individual stories and what each story arc (conflict) will be. Write free-form summaries covering the who, what, where, when and why of each story. Then try creating a more compelling blurb using this equation (if you have more than one main character, do this for each):
(Name of Character) wants (Goal to be Achieved) because (Motivation for Acting), but faces (Conflict Standing in the Way).
As before, you can mix up the order of the components. Here’s the story blurb from Dark Approach, the 12th in my Incognito series:
Network operatives and lovers Lucy Carlton and Vic Leventhal (Names of Characters) have spent years living in the shadows, the property of the covert organization they gave their loyalty to in the lofty pursuit of justice for all (Motivation for Acting). Disillusioned, they’re now determined to live their lives on their own terms. When the Network’s archenemy secretly approaches the two about defecting–freedom for information that will disable the Network (Goal to be Achieved)–the couple must choose between love and loyalty. In the process, they jeopardize the Network’s anonymity…and its very existence (Conflict Standing in the Way).
Blurbing in this way will help you develop your series–and get you excited about writing it.
The appeal of writing a series is obvious: You don’t have to leave characters, places or premises you’ve grown to love behind when you finish a single book. While each story should stand on its own, remember that no series book should feel quite complete without the others since readers will be emotionally invested in your story even more than they would with a stand-alone novel. Keep the above factors at the forefront as you work, and you’ll keep your series satisfying for your fans–and for you.
About the Author
Creating realistic, unforgettable characters one story at a time.
Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 130 titles published in the past 20 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 39 more releases contracted for spanning many genres and formats. Karen’s books cover such genres as women’s fiction, romance, mystery/police procedural/cozy, suspense, paranormal, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, gothic, inspirational, thriller, horror, chick-lit, and action/adventure. She also writes children’s books, poetry, and writing reference titles such as her bestseller, First Draft in 30 Days, Cohesive Story Building, Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas, and Bring Your Fiction to Life: Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity. Her newest, Writing Blurbs That Sizzle–And Sell!, is available now.
Karen also runs a blurb service for authors. She’s crafted back cover and high concept blurbs for all of her own books and series as well as those for the stories in several award-winning anthologies, and evaluated, revised and crafted series, back cover and high concept blurbs for the entire backlist of nearly five hundred books in one publisher’s catalog. Visit Karen’s Blurb Service website to access a massive sampling of blurbs Karen’s written and revised, as well as information about signing up for Karen’s workshops.
You can check out more of Karen’s many books with Writers Exchange on her author page (which will include the 130 mentioned above, plus more new books as they come out).
Join Karen November 13-19, 2017 for her “Writing Back Cover and Series Blurbs That Sizzle–and Sell!” Workshop where she’ll cover the need for high-concept blurbs, back cover blurbs, and series blurbs and simple, effective ways to craft them, branding with blurbs along with creating them in a variety of sizes for different applications. Karen will also critique the blurbs of registrants during this busy week.
Author Testimony: “It’s hard to encapsulate in a few lines all of what Karen Wiesner has to offer writers. She created Jewels of the Quill, a writers’ marketing cooperative, spearheading several anthology collections from the group, organizing our ads and marketing, and maintaining the website that featured our individual accomplishments from new releases to awards. Being a member of this group for years, I was and still am eternally grateful to have had her guidance and help. Whether critiquing or editing one of my stories/books or helping me refine a blurb or create back cover material, I could always count on a quick, inspiring response. For example, I initially wrote [my paranormal romance] The Scarecrow & Ms. Moon as kind of a “Murphy’s Law” romantic romp. But, with Karen’s suggestions, I delved deeper into the characters, discovering emotions which took a humorous romance to another level. Because of the “heart” she inspired me to add, Scarecrow remains a favorite of mine. She did all this while writing multiple novels per year, poetry, giving workshops, AND writing self-help books for Writer’s Digest. Karen Wiesner is an asset I’d recommend to any writer.” ~Barbara Raffin, award-winning author The St. John Sibling Series
What can Karen do for your writing?