How to write a book series.

Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Book Series06 Jun

If writing a book is a difficult and laborious experience writing a series of books can only be doubly (triply, quadruply) hard. Despite this, it is becoming commoner and commoner each year. And there are a multitude of reasons.

In this age of instant streaming and binge watching, audiences have come to expect depth in their stories. They like to stay with a character, a setting, a universe, much longer than before.

Series readers are loyal to their fandoms, and set high standards for their favorite authors. Their favorite characters inspire fan-fiction and thought-pieces. Not to mention, in the age of the franchise, book series are often favored over stand-alone novels when being considered for film-adaptation. Though writing a series may be harder than writing a single novel, it is also doubly (triply, quadruply) rewarding.

Before you get started, mind the dos and don’ts.

Do: Plan plan plan. A series needs to be planned much more extensively than a single novel. It isn’t required that the author know every single action, reaction, and minor character before beginning, but they should know a lot. They should know the story-arch from start to finish. They should know the plot twists (and there should be plot twists). And they should know the main characters extensively.

Don’t: Ignore the importance of setting. Novels are an escape from our world into another. That doesn’t mean the world created by the author needs to be a school for witches and wizards, or a wild dystopia (although it very well can be), it just means the setting must be vivid. Hogwarts is vivid. Stieg Larsson’s Sweden is vivid. Don’t treat the setting as an afterthought.

But beware of long paragraphs describing surroundings. Drop it in with occasional, striking, descriptors.

Do: Stay consistent. Series readers will catch mistakes. It may pay to have a notebook, or spreadsheet, with character details: ages, histories, personality traits.

Don’t have a character say something they wouldn’t, if it’s not without reason (growth, pressure etc). Don’t forget little things, like letting the character have preferences and quirks, or letting them age. Harry Potter is not the same boy in book seven, as in book one. In fact, by book seven he is no longer a boy but a young man.

Don’t: Choose convenience over reality. Deus ex machina literally meaning ‘God from the machine’ is the curse of the writer. Inserting the hand of God (you!) into the story. Always choose reality over convenience, even if it’ll be messier. If it’s too messy, more time needs to be spent on tying up loose ends in a realistic way that doesn’t rely on coincidence. Your characters need to get themselves out of trouble, solve their own problems. If their problems are solved by chance they have not grown, or learned anything, they have merely been saved.

Do: Let your protagonist be misunderstood. One of the strongest, and most heartbreaking devices in the writer’s arsenal is letting a character mean well, and do bad. Or be mistaken for doing bad. Or do their best, and end up hurting someone in the process. Let your characters make mistakes, and allow them the long journey of redeeming themselves.

Don’t: Forget to give your character a mission. This is what drives the continuation of a series. The challenges will differ from book to book, but your protagonist is essentially on the same journey throughout. Defeating Voldemort, catching killers, solving mysteries, or babysitting local kids. These are the throughlines of some of our favourites.

Do: Make your characters distinct. Matt Groening once said that good characters are recognizable in silhouette- and there are none more recognisable than the Simpsons.

Lisbeth Salander is distinctively gothic, Harry has his wire-rim glasses and a crooked scar. But series writers are free to take this advice more subtly….so long as the protagonist, and surrounding characters are memorable.

Don’t: Forget to tie up (most) loose ends. It is tempting to end book one on a cliffhanger- and some plotlines should absolutely be left open. They need to be in order for the series to carry on! But you must give your readers some reward for the time they’ve invested in your work. If everything is undone, and nothing solved, readers will begin to wonder if the answers will ever come. Answer most of your readers questions by the end of the first novel, and the rest will niggle away at them. Get this balance right and book two will fly off the shelf.

Here’s to beginning (or continuing) your series! What tips would you add?