Author Karen S. Wiesner knows what makes a good series, having published at least a dozen of them, along with another five trilogies. Therefore, her advice in her article “The Stuff Series Are Made Of” is invaluable for those of us creating stories that are, shall we say, to be continued…
(Unless indicated otherwise, all quotes included in this blog are from Wiesner’s article as featured in the 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. See reference citation below.)
“…a book series [can] 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.” 1
However, there are some key things to keep in mind as you’re crafting your series-even as you’re developing your first book.
For instance, when you’re writing a number of books as opposed to just one, there has to be at least one element (but probably better if there are more) that extends into one or all of the books you write following the first one. These elements are known as ties.
Ties can include:
A character (like Aloysius Pendergast in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast series), couple (like J.D. Robb’s Eve and Roarke from the In Death series) or characters (like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Kate Jacobs’s Friday Night Knitting Club) which occur throughout the series.
A plot or premise (like Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleton medical mysteries or Dan Brown’s treasure hunts starring Robert Langdon).
A setting (like Twilight’s Forks, Washington, or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). 1
Wiesner continues, “Series can be open-ended-in which each book stands out 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.”1
Did you catch that? START PLANNING AHEAD FROM YOUR VERY FIRST BOOK. If you’ve already started it and you don’t know yet what you’re going to tie into your series or how you’re going to do so, don’t panic! Just remember to keep that at the back of your mind as you write so you can know how to properly develop your story, setting, and characters.
Another strategy that could help you would be to brainstorm a bit and draw up some sort of plan for your story and the elements therein. What’s your starting point? Begin there, and try to flesh out as many details as possible before you write. Organizing as much as you can before you begin can be incredibly valuable for you in the long run.
OVERARCHING STORY ARCS AND INDIVIDUAL STORY ARCS
One such thing to be aware of as you’re writing for your series is the overarching theme(s) for it. Wiesner writes, “Series books often have a series arc…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.” 1
She continues, “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.” 1
When you write a series, from the first book on up till the second to last one, you are promising your readers right up front that more is coming; you’re telling them that they won’t want to miss out on what it is. Your arc is a rainbow. You start at one end with a colorful beginning, with one color representing your characters, another where they are, and another being the premise that drives the story forward. You keep building up until you reach the middle of the rainbow, your climax, and then you gradually work your way down to the final resolution at the other end, keeping all your colors so vibrant along the way that your audience can’t stand to miss it.
THREE-DIMENSIONAL STORY DEVELOPMENT
The way you keep things interesting for your readers is by keeping your story and its elements “three-dimensional,” as Wiesner describes them.
Your series will only grow into something sensational if things can change. Allow me to expound on this.
Wiesner refers to “three P’s” that make the elements of a story “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
She warns, “If you don’t introduce something new for series characters, settings, and plots in each book, your readers will lose motivation to read all the way to the end.”1
Stay fresh. Stay exciting. Stay innovative and creative. This is what your readers are looking for.
Think of certain “plants” you can insert in each book to create a connection between crucial elements in your book. Plants can literally be anything. They can be “heroic traits” in all series characters, major and minor, occupations, hobbies, interests, idiosyncrasies, relationships, potential enemies/villains, lessons, backstories, personal experiences, challenges, locations, etc. 1
Find one or more things that can be used later on to hook interest and help develop your story. Give yourself a green thumb and start “planting.”
Again, it’s worth re-iterating here that organizing as much as you can before you begin writing is a smart course of action, especially if you’re envisioning a story that won’t (or can’t) be resolved in the first book (unless your book is exhaustively long, of course).
One productive way to do so would be writing what Wiesner refers to as a “blurb,” or a paragraph that sums up your story starting with an introduction, and working through change, conflicts, choices, crisis (or crises) and resolutions. 1
Below is an example from her 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).” 1
If you haven’t thought as far ahead as your whole series yet, that’s okay. Just start with your first book and go from there. After all, the only direction you can move once you start is forward, right?
Blurb. Write. Tie. Plant. Connect. Resolve. Have fun.
Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
- Wiesner, Karen S. (Year unknown.) The Stuff Series Are Made Of. In Rachel Randall (Ed.) 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (pp. 41-46). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.