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Setting Up a Series—A Reader’s Question

on April 27th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on April 28, 2012

This topic comes courtesy of a reader. She asked me to address writing a fiction series, point out what might be helpful for writers to know before they began a series.

So . . .

My first suggestion is that you plan for your series in advance. If you know you’re going to write a series, you’ll include teases and clues in book one that will have their resolution in some other book in the series. If you don’t plan for a series, it’s likely book one will not be as rich a source for series material as it could be. Also, you might answer too many questions at the end of book one, leaving little to bleed over into subsequent books.

So, if you have any plans for writing a series, flesh out at least some of those plans before you begin the first book. Or, if while you’re writing that first book you decide the characters or setting or story line would make an engrossing series, stop writing that first book and make some notes.

What makes you think you’ve got a strong series? Is it that the story is too big for one book? Too involved for a single protagonist? Too encompassing for one character’s lifetime?

Start your notes and follow some to their conclusions. See if you do indeed have enough story to fill several books. If you do, start planning. No, you don’t need every detail, such as character names and every event. But make notes on what you do know. And start sketching out how characters and events and locations intersect and connect and influence one another.

Consider a talisman or other object(s) that will appear in every book. Consider a wise counselor who’ll be called upon in every story or an arch villain who’s not vanquished until the last climax. Consider a series theme that will unite the stories. Consider a series goal that will not be resolved until the final story is told.

Could you decide about a series after you finished the first story? Of course. But you’ve made your already difficult job much more difficult.

If you’ve not yet published the first story, you’re still in good shape because you can weave in the elements and events and clues and characters you’ll need for subsequent stories. But don’t imagine that it’s a simple matter of tossing in a character or a reference to some event. Those characters and events have to mean something for the current story as well as being a setup for future stories.

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What specifics should you think about if you’re writing a series?

Decide if you’re writing a series based on a character, a fairly consistent one, who stars in every book. If so, learn something about that character. Realize that he or she will probably not grow a lot over the course of each book and maybe not much over the course of the series.

The recurring lead character is a draw because readers enjoy that character’s quirks and flaws and style. Readers will come to subsequent books because they want to see this character get in and out of jams. If you change him too much, you may lose your audience. That’s not to say that he can’t change. Just that readers will no doubt expect consistency.

Recurring characters are a staple of mysteries and some westerns.

If each story features a different lead, then you might have introduced all your series’s main protagonists in the first book or introduced each lead as a secondary character in the preceding book.

This introduction of the next protagonist as a secondary character is common in romance series.

Of course, maybe the emphasis is not on the introduction of a lead character but on the story world.

If your setting or fictional world is the connection between your stories, characters don’t necessarily have to appear in multiple books. You may be writing an epic or saga that spans ages and eras in your story world. What you’ll want to do in that case is let that setting, that world, be the connection. You may show what happens to a kingdom or planet over time. One set of characters may begin your epic; another set—perhaps related to the first, yet not necessarily so—may close out your epic. But even if the world itself is what connects the stories, add touches in one story that remind readers of the other stories.

Maybe it’s neither character nor setting that unites the stories in your series. Maybe it’s an event. Perhaps nuclear war or an alien invasion or a natural disaster destroys much of Earth. You could create individual stories in different pockets of the world for your series. No characters have to be the same, but there could be a meeting of characters in one or more of the stories. Or, a resolution could bring major characters together for the final story.

Other than the broad issue—character, event, setting/story world—that connects your books, what else should you consider?

Decide on connections.
If the story world is the same and books will share characters, be sure to introduce some (it wouldn’t have to be all) characters in the early books. Leave unexplained clues and mysteries in all books but the last. Do keep in mind, however, that each book must satisfy its own internal structure and its readers. That is, satisfy and at the same time tease the reader.

Teases can be as simple as an unexplained whisper or glance, the discovery of an object whose purpose is unknown, a promise unfulfilled.

Decide on the depths of the ties between stories.
Are stories only connected by place and time or by event or by a single character? Or are there lots of links? Many related events and characters? Do all characters move through all the books or is it only a few? And if there are only a few who do, what purposes do they serve?

Consider timelines.
Are stories concurrent or consecutive or is there some overlap? What has to happen when? Before what other events? To which characters? Who has to know about the events?

When events in one story have to happen at a specific time relative to events in another story, be aware of seasons and incidental events and the locations (and availability) of necessary characters.

You might want to plot out a timeline before writing the first story—determine who must be where and when. Don’t forget to include notations for scenes in which a character could not take part.

Consider high points and climaxes.
Will the climax of each story have a different flavor? What about the ultimate climax for the series? How are they related? Different? How do the early ones, the ones from each story, affect the high points and climax for the entire series?

Consider secondary characters.
Which secondary characters should be used in multiple stories? Can a character skip a story or two and be returned to the series?

Plant clues/explain clues.
Plant clues for future stories. Explain mysteries from earlier stories. Deepen mysteries across stories if you’re not ready to explain them until a later story. Make sure clues fit the story they’re in, even if they aren’t explained or explored. And if they’re not explored, make sure you’ve got a solid reason for that lack of exploration. Readers like mysteries; they don’t like big issues to go unexplained unless there are strong reasons characters can’t investigate.

Each story must be complete and stand alone.
Each book is not just one chapter in the series, though it could be likened to one.

Both chapters in a book and books in a series leave readers wanting more, with a sense of anticipation toward future events. Yet a chapter, while it may provide some answers, doesn’t provide all. There’s a definite feel of the unfinished with book chapters.

In a series, books still point to future events and a full series resolution, but each book also answers its own internal questions and story setup. You get to decide the number and depth of the ties to the other stories in the series, but you also must complete each book.

Satisfy your readers along the way so they know you can carry through with your setup. So they feel the completion of your stories.

Fulfill your promises.

Books in one series may have more ties between them than what is found in another series. There may be more unanswered questions in one series than in another. The books in one series might refer often to events of earlier books. The levels are up to you. But each novel is still a novel and subject to the rules of good fiction writing. That means a complete story.

Consider the end of the series. Decide if some event will end your series or if the series will be open-ended. Detective novels can be theoretically never-ending. Do you want to write until you run out of ideas for your characters or do you envision a stopping place? Your attitude and plans will influence the stories you write.

Creating Links.
Other than the sharing of characters, events, and story world, how can books in a series be connected?

Create related titles. This could mean a repeated word in each title. It might mean a different flower or color or make of car for each title. Titles may play on emotions or different verbs or even on the names of beers. Anything that can connect a series of stories can be used in the titles. Remember to consider a series title as well. That title may have more to do with the series setting or events or theme than the individual book titles will. The book titles themselves will probably be focused on the events in each particular story.

Begin or conclude unfinished business. Let story events leap between stories to pull characters and/or readers to the next book.

Maintain a similar tone or style. Use tone and storytelling style to link your books. Book Two shouldn’t be a lighthearted romp if Book One was murky suspense.

Connect or elaborate on themes. Each story may have an individual theme, but each should also fit into the whole. One story should not work at cross purposes with the others.

Think backstory. Rather than recapping events from earlier stories, treat that information as backstory and fold it in as you would any other backstory.

Tie stories together by using shared objects. This may mean a talisman is a help to the characters in each story. Or maybe it’s the object of the search in every book. Maybe the shared object is a mascot, a lovable or not so lovable creature or animal. Maybe the shared object is a crown or jewel, some symbol of power.

Use repetition across books. Repeat an event or a snippet of dialogue or a passage that invokes a memorable moment or image or emotion from an earlier story. But make sure it fits the current story just as well as it fit the earlier story.

You could repeat one book’s closing line as the opening line in the next book. But you could give it a twist. Put it in the mouth of another character, maybe one far from the events of the earlier story.

Present a known story event, but from a different character’s point of view.

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Books in a series, then, should be both dependent on and independent of the other books. There is wide variety in the degree of the connections, and no rule to limit your creativity concerning these connections. But if you’ve got a series, you do need some connection points.

Are there questions that might help a writer working on a series, help him decide what to include and where to start? Sure. How about . . .

Do events of early stories lead directly to consequences or events in subsequent stories?

Are the stories fundamentally different or is each a continuation of the previous story?

Are stories concurrent or sequential?

Is there a strong cause and effect between stories or can they take place at the same time without a problem?

Does it matter if stories are read out of order? It’s certain that they will be.  How does this knowledge influence the unfolding of each book in the series?

Is the point of view the same? Not the same viewpoint character, of course. But is Book One first person and Book Two third person? Is there a sufficient reason to change the POV between books in a series?

 A series holds challenges that individual books don’t bring. But the satisfaction of writing them, the fun of creating a memorable character who can sputter or love or trip through multiple adventures, is strong.

If you have a character or story world or epic event that demands a series, write it. Have fun with the crafting of related books. Enjoy the weaving of events and series threads that connect those books, that make your series a memorable and well-crafted one.

But prepare for the special needs of a series. Don’t forget what makes strong fiction; just remember that you’ve got to take a few extra steps to carry that strong fiction from book to book.

***

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5 Responses to “Setting Up a Series—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Jae says:

    Great post. You’ve outlined several points any new and even experienced author should always consider when creating a series. I think I’ll refer to this as a check up to my series.

    For me I’ve felt like it was easiest to write the first book with a rough idea of future events in mind, just so I could get to know my characters and see where the story was going. Then I haphazardly did what you suggest here (wish I’d had your list earlier… c’est la vie) with plotting out the rest of the series and rewrote the first book to include the clues, hints, subplots etc.

    For those skeptical, I highly recommend following Beth’s advice if you’re doing a series. Unfortunately gold doesn’t automatically drip from our pens and a well-thought out series is the only way to get a great series.

  2. Thanks, Jae. I’m glad you found something useful in the article. Series fiction does have needs stand-alone books don’t have. But a good series is always a draw—readers know what they’re getting.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  3. Tanja says:

    Thanks Beth, that was quick. I knew that you could be counted on without confusing. This answered all of my questions and then some. I see a book series as a string of deep square pools, connected to each other by slim waterways, each filling the other. The question which I struggled with – was how much information should be held back and saved for the book that followed. This brief tutorial clarified everything. You truly are the invisible hunter.

  4. Tanja, I’m glad you found the information you were looking for. It’s a good topic—thanks for suggesting it.

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