Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes characters and worlds are so brilliant they demand more than one novel, but writing a series presents very different challenges to writing a single book. Every good book has well-developed characters, an engrossing plot, and a healthy dose of conflict, but a good book series demands all of that and so much more.
A series makes a promise: it promises that readers will enjoy a richer, more evolved experience as it progresses. Get it right, and you will end up with a fiercely loyal readership (J.K. Rowling and Hugh Howie can attest to this), but get it wrong, and you can kiss your readership goodbye.
So, how do you get a series right?
Accessibility, consistency and escalation (easily remembered as ACE) are the main ingredients in your secret sauce, so make sure you have a generous portion of each when writing your series.
The first book sets out your characters, their motivations and personalities, and makes the reader care what happens next. But what if your reader misses the first book and begins with the second? Are your characters still compelling if your reader only meets them in book two? And how much time should you spend fleshing out characters many readers will already know?
You don’t have to obsess over recapping what’s gone before. Only a few past events are going to be vital to what comes next, so try and identify what a new reader really needs to know. What went before might have been integral to the story in the first book, but resist the urge to frogmarch your new reader through everything they’ve missed.
If a reader is swept along by your story, they won’t care if there are some references they don’t understand. Take Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as an example: the students of a magical school are being picked off by a giant monster; no-one’s stopping to wonder what Harry’s life was like before he became a wizard. While your writing should make readers want to go back and find out how something happened, if you’ve made the consequences clear, they shouldn’t need to go back.
For things the new reader needs to know, consider introducing a new character who wasn’t around for the previous book’s events. Returning readers will be intrigued by a fresh face and new readers can catch up alongside the character. Terry Pratchett utilizes this device in his incredibly accessible Discworld series, establishing Sam Vimes’ bad temper with lines such as:
You know how you feel when you wake up if you’ve been [drinking] all night, Nobby? Well, he feels like that all the time. (Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!)
Readers are a clever, experienced bunch and they’ll infer a lot of backstory on their own as long as your series has consistency.Readers are a clever, experienced bunch and they’ll infer a lot of backstory on their own as long as your series has consistency.Click To Tweet
Every world and character you create has its own set of internal rules, the consistent application of which allows readers to accept them as ‘real’. Readers are willing to trust the worlds you create and the characters you introduce as long as the facts and rules are consistently applied across each book in the series. Readers will accept flying, purple, singing horses before they buy a pathologically honest character lying for no other reason than to serve the plot.
Consistency applies to character behavior, story events and even themes. In Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series, the protagonist is a sociopathic serial killer who harnesses his urges to knock off other killers. The reader understands Dexter’s world to be just like our own but in the third book of the series, Dexter in the Dark, it’s revealed that Dexter’s urges are the influence of an ancient demon named Moloch. The inclusion of a mystical theme is jarring not because it’s unusual but because it’s incompatible with the world Lindsay created in the first two books.
Consistency becomes more difficult across multiple books, as the story takes the author to places they didn’t anticipate when they initially designed their world and characters. Many authors write themselves into situations which can only be resolved by contradicting already established facts, so make sure you recognize the rules that define your story and don’t lose sight of them as you continue with each book.
In Stephen King’s Misery, the terrifying Annie Wilkes rages about a chapter play which altered established events to resolve an impossible cliffhanger:
This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! (Stephen King, Misery)
Your own readers won’t be much more forgiving. Knowing why your rules apply will help consistency; if you know what your cynical character went through to make them so jaded you’re less likely to throw in a jarring moment of optimism.
Consistency most often goes out of the window when an author hasn’t planned their series’ escalation.Consistency most often goes out of the window when an author hasn’t planned their series’ escalation.Click To Tweet
Your story needs to evolve and develop from book to book. This might be in terms of how much your reader knows or cares about a character or in the importance of events that happen in the narrative. Just as you wouldn’t reveal everything about a character in the first chapter of a book, you can’t have your characters face their greatest obstacles in the first book of a series.
The Harry Potter series has a very direct escalation of obstacles:
- Troll and depowered evil wizard
- Huge, venomous monster with death glare
- Werewolf and army of soul stealing ghouls
- Dragons, mer-people and reborn supreme evil wizard
- Supreme evil wizard, army of evil wizards and army of soul stealing ghouls (again)
If you’re telling a romantic story, then a character can meet their love interest, break-up, get married, have children, as long as events build. Planning your escalation is essential to a good series; if you just keep upping the stakes without thinking ahead, eventually you’ll have to subvert the series’ consistency to either present or overcome an unrealistically big obstacle. Harry Potter’s main villain is unable to touch the protagonist until the end of the fourth book. Building in advantages or allies that can be stripped away as the series progresses gives you lots of opportunities to escalate.
As always, there are exceptions
As is the case with all writing advice, there is always the addendum ‘…unless it works’. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire successfully trades accessibility for intricacy. The complex plot makes it impossible for Martin to continually reiterate the vast array of character relationships and motivations without slowing the story to a crawl.
Of course, you don’t need to obey the ACE principles slavishly, but keeping them in mind when plotting your series will help avoid common problems and give you as many choices as possible as your series progresses.How To Write A Book Series That People Finish ReadingClick To Tweet