One of the most powerful marketing tools of our time in any form of story telling is the series. Every summer movie 2 or 3 or 4 comes out in some series. Books too, have lately been more and more series. Harry Potter, Twlight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. People just can’t get enough of series these days. Readers like knowing what they’re getting and a series promises more of the great story you love.
Yet, how do you write a series? A book is difficult enough, but three books? Four? Six? In my experience, there’s actually several ways to write a series. In considering the various ones I’ve read, here’s some categories to help think about what kind of series is right for you:
One Long Book
On one end of the spectrum, there’s a series that is basically one story, one very long story, and so it’s broken into several parts, Lord of the Rings being a good example. Reading just one book, you don’t get a full story arc. The story just stops and the next part picks it up. You have to read the whole thing to find out what happens to Frodo and the Ring, or Aragon and his kingdom.
The advantage of this kind of series is that you have it as a full idea. You know where you are going from the beginning. You have a built in hook that keeps your readers coming back, wanting the resolution of the story. But that can also be a disadvantage. If you get stuck on one book, all your books are in jeopardy because none of them can stand alone. Readers aren’t going to be pleased waiting around for the next installment because nothing is resolved. Or they may wait until all the books are published. Hearing the first two Hunger Games books ended on cliffhangers, I assumed it was this sort of series and didn’t bother to read any of the novels until the series was fully published. Or, if your story isn’t one that really needs this many words to tell it, you end up with too much padding and it will bog it down.
A series that is one long book is a big time commitment for an author. Make sure you have a story that you love enough to work that long on it, and this kind of series may work well for you.
On the other end of the series spectrum, in my mind, is an episodic series. In this form, each book is a distinct episode, complete in every way. Rather like a TV sit-com where. As a kid, such series like “The Boxcar Children” or “Encyclopedia Brown” were like this, and adult mystery series are often in this category as well. A non-mystery example would be something like “Hank the Cowdog.” The same main characters show up each book but have a different adventure. In a truly episodic series, the characters don’t change much, if at all between books. You can often read the books out of order and it doesn’t matter too much, since each one is contained.
The strength of this sort of series is you can write a fresh story each book. That usually means episodic series can last a lot longer on average than a one book series. People don’t need a long attention span to recall the overall situation because that changes each time as the characters face a fresh problem. The weakness is that the characters don’t tend to grow or change. They are fairly stagnant and after a while might feel repetitive. For those reasons, it’s harder to write deep books or great works of literature with this sort of series.
An Overall Character Arc
This sort of series takes a middle ground between the first two. Each book stands somewhat on its own, with a full independent plot and structure, with climax and resolution, but the series as a whole is following the personal journey of the main character. This culminates in the climax of the final book where themes and characters from earlier points in the series often come together for a final confrontation. Often there is a villain who has shown up in smaller contests in a couple of the earlier books who is the main problem of the final book.
Harry Potter obviously follows this format. We meet Voldemort in book one, but he hardly shows up in book 3, and while he’s behind events in books 5 and 6, other conflicts and delving into the past are more central to those plots. Another great series of this format is “The Song of the Lioness Quartet.” While Duke Rodger is young Alanna’s nemesis of the series as a whole, book 3 for example, is entirely about other challenges the young lady knight is struggling with. In a character arc series, what holds the books together is the development or inner journey of the main hero across a number of plots, not just one… and yet these encounters culminate in a larger climactic end as well.
The advantages as an author is you can have the building pressure of an overall conflict, like in one long book, but without the restriction of sticking to one plot. Your main character can take a year off battling the ultimate evil to find himself traveling with nomads, or exploring some distant area of your world. But as Rowling herself recently admitted over the Ron-Hermione romance, you can also fall into difficulties trying to keep the framework of your larger story while handling your characters developing and changing during all those side plots. If your characters change too much, some of the end you originally had envisioned won’t feel true anymore.
Historical or Generational
This is also a bit between the first two kinds of series, not all one book but also not entirely episodic. However, unlike a character arc bases series, this sort of series is centered around something other than a character. A period of history, a dynasty of kings, a family across six generations. Each book generally does stand as a separate work, with it’s own character arcs, problems, and resolutions, but then the next book is the next chapter of history or the next generation of the family, and their new struggles. Unlike a character arc based series, there often is not a building culmination to some final contest. The point is more to follow a place or people through time and enjoy the many stories involved.
I haven’t read “Game of Thrones” but I understand from my friends who have, that it is more this sort of series. The very successful Redwall series is this sort, following the history of Redwall and Salamandastrom across the ages with different heroes, different villains. Some books a direct sequels, but no hero gets more than two books before we move on to their child, grandchild, or some other young animal upon who the sword of Martin and the office of warrior is bestowed. It generally helps to read the books in this sort of series in order, but they often don’t have to be… nor are they always written in historical order.
Not having an overall building focus to the series can have a lot of advantage as an author in opening up possibilities and new directions. You don’t need to write your books in order in this sort of series either, if suddenly something from an earlier time interests you more. However, like an episodic series, it doesn’t have a clear hook and your readers may like some books considerably better than others or skip around in the series. To balance that, some authors will write several smaller series, two to four books long following one character, all set in a larger country, world, or time period, combining the two together to try to have the best of both.
Companion Books and Looser series forms
Most series tend to follow one of those four forms, but there are a few other creative ways of connecting books, such as writing Companion Books. These usually are several books that tell the same story, but from someone else’s point of view. A recent good example is Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, which both chronicle the same war, but from the point of view of a different character. The events are not exactly the same, since the characters perceive things differently and it’s hard to say which is the “true” view of the events.
Another loose series format is to take a less important character from one book and give them their own story. Each book follows a separate plot of people who all know each other. Romance series often follow this format. We’d be disappointed if the couple we’ve invested so much energy to in book one broke up so they could fall in love with different people in book two. Instead, the hero’s brother, sister, best friend, parent, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is the one to next fall in love in the further books. Sometimes these books can overlap in time, sometimes they’re sequential. Perhaps if you have several unconnected books and want to make them into a series, giving them a character, place, object or theme in common can turn them into a looser sort of series. The danger of this sort of series is that readers might not get the elements they love in your original book in the following ones and thus give on the series.
A series is a great tool as an author, so it’s important to consider what sort of series is right for your stories. Writing a straight out sequel can work, but it isn’t the only way. I don’t think there’s one sort of series that works better than any other sort. It’s more about finding what’s right for the stories you have to tell. It’s important to figure out what’s true to the heart of your story, and make a series that actually works, instead of forcing your story into a form that doesn’t.