Creating a Book Series: Great Idea or Think Again?

This guest post is by Fiona Ingram.

Creating a book series is both rewarding and taxing for the author. It is not an exact science and neither is it a guaranteed road to writing success. Many authors might think, Aha! Captive audience. They’ll just keep coming back for more. In fact, many agents and publishers advise against it. However, when either the story or the characters take over, sometimes a writer has no choice.

There are three types of series:

1. The standalone books

2. The closely linked books

3. A combination of both

 

Let’s have a look at standalones and examine why they succeed. Some familiar examples are usually detective series such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple; the Midsomer Murder books (Caroline Graham); the Inspector Çetin İkmen books (Barbara Nadel); and the Inspector Rebus books (Ian Rankin). Standalone books have a background that creates a definite world, a world in which various events or crimes take place. The main and secondary characters interact, solve the crime, and wrap up the story. In each book, the reader discovers personal elements of the character(s). They may have work, family, and personal crises that help the reader like and appreciate the character(s). However, they are secondary to the actual event, although their personalities may influence events. The characters have a particular history or set of circumstances to retain the familiarity for readers although the external events change constantly. Readers keep coming back for more action.

A prime example is how the wildly successful television series Midsomer Murders retired Tom Barnaby and appointed his cousin John in his place. The series continues because events in a familiar setting define it more than actual characters.

Closely linked books in a series are usually more emotionally intense and have a finite story arc. Each book takes the reader closer to the conclusion. The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. One wonders if readers would be interested in Bella and Edward’s marital problems, or whether Harry Potter (now grown up) can cope with a job in the Muggles’ world, or if Katniss can live happily ever after with Peeta. The skill demanded here is for the author to create an ending in each book that satisfies, while still keeping the reader hooked on the major story. The author must also avoid big, clunky info dumps about what happened before as each new book begins.

A combination of the two will suit sweeping epics, historical romance, or family sagas. A prime example is the Georgian historical romance, such as the Roxton series by Lucinda Brant. The first three books delve into the life and loves of heroine Antonia Roxton, while the fourth book brings secondary characters to the fore, to begin a whole new family drama.

Can a writer tell if the story has the potential for a series?

The plot will evolve naturally if the characters are appealing, and if their personal growth and development hold the readers’ attention. Again, appealing characters are not worth anything if the action and conflict are not compelling. There has to be a perfect marriage between plot and characters to sustain the strength of a series.

Why do people love exciting series?

A gifted author will be able to create characters readers can relate to and either love or hate. The readers get to know the characters well as the action evolves and, as each book comes out, can explore something new about their heroes.

Characters become friends to the avid reader

The reader shares in the hopes, dreams, and choices the character makes. Readers are amazingly loyal to their favorite characters, even though they may often disagree with the character’s choices. A good writer can explore these further, enabling readers to begin to make their own choices, especially in a moral dilemma or emotional conflict.

Sensible advice

There are many good reasons why a first-time author should not start out with a series. The biggest pitfall is a writer’s inability to sustain an intriguing plot and compelling characters over several books. Perhaps writers should not set out to “create” a series deliberately, but rather let an original good story develop, allowing the characters and plot potential to determine the end result.

Tell me your opinion: Will your book be part of a series?

About the Author: Read more about South African children’s author Fiona Ingram and her middle grade adventure novel The Secret of the Sacred Scarab by visiting FionaIngram.com or secretofthesacredscarab.com. The Search for the Stone of Excalibur (Book Two) will be available in late 2012, and Fiona is working on The Temple of the Crystal Timekeeper (Book Three). PS: Fiona did not set out to create a series…

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. One thing I can’t stand, with few exceptions, is a novel that is nothing more than a set-up for a series. If there is no closure at the end of book one, I’m likely not going to read any more books by that author. I’m not saying there can be no doors left open for a new story to emerge, nor that the first book can’t be intentionally part of a series. But it needs to have a complete plot arc, like The Hunger Games. The initial story in THG *finishes*, but then another story door opens at the end. I’ve read other books, though, that truly did no more than set up the characters, world, and conflict, but never actually told a *story*. That irks me.

    I wrote my first novel with the intent of it being a stand-alone. I knew that as a first-time author I could not expect to sell an entire series–that I’d be lucky to sell a single book! But as the story progressed, I had ideas for a second, and third. STILL, I wrote a complete story arc in the first, that finished out completely. Then, at the end, I opened a door. So far, that has worked. My readers are happy with the story and are curious to find out what adventure comes next :).

  2. I agree that each book needs a complete story arc. I hate when a book leaves me hanging, so I prefer to read a series after the author finished writing it.

    I never set out to write a series, but when I finished my first draft and started editing, I needed to make sure the historical clues my protagonist uncovered made sense. I started outlining the sequence of events that happened 200 and 400 years prior and I fell in love with the characters that were coming to life in my notebook. I started writing their story too, backwards in time. Each story is complete on its own, but they allude to events that happened in the past. And these events, along with the world I created, tie the books together.

  3. Thanks for sharing with us today, Fiona! This is an important subject that raises a lot of questions among authors branching out into the wide world of book series.

  4. Great points. And even a good series can get old. As a reader, I’ve noticed that what works for two or three books may not hold into five or six. I like your suggestion to start with a well developed single story rather than a focus on a series. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Yes, having a complete story arc in each book is important; though, I think the range of how many subplots and hooks are left open differs a great deal. Certain genres are more tolerant than other.

    For me, series come upon my writing no matter how I try to force a story into a single. At least, I’ve gotten better about giving each book its own plot arc.

  6. I know that a lot of Kindle authors swear by series – they really bring in the money, especially if the first one is less expensive than the rest…

    I must admit, as a writer, it’s quite a discipline to stay in the same world for more than one book. I like variety 😉

  7. I am working on a series of short stories that are all in the same universe. With a few exceptions, I have tried very hard to make sure that each story, though connected to the rest of the universe, stand alone. I get frustrated when I read a story and have to wait for the next one to come out to finish the story. I hope I am / I will succeed in not doing that to other readers.

  8. I have to say the majority of authors that I have read in the science fiction and fantasy category started out with a book series and that put them on the map. Victor Correia who wrote Monster Hunter International for example started out with one book and built up from that with the books Monster Hunter Vendetta and Monster Hunter Alpha and there are more books planned Monster Hunter Legion, Omega etcetera in the series. That was his first attempt submitted as a self published work before taken grabbed up by Baen. And one of those books became a New York Times Best Seller. Some authors shoot for the moon and they pull it off with ingenuity, talent and a discipline that is there from the jump. The reality is not everyone can pull it off but that does not equate to that one should not try to do so. One should embrace challenge and decide to not to shoot the moon because the barrel is an easier target. I am attempting it in fact right now with my current work in progress. However, my intention is to write each book so they can be read as standalone so that no matter if you read Book Two or Book Three first it would be just as compelling and intriguing as if you read Book One.

  9. It’s so interesting to hear what authors say about their own experiences. I agree with Kat that a big pitfall is thinking too far ahead, a situation that can leave the reader ‘hanging.’ No one wants to finish a book only to find too many loose ends. One gets the feeling the author plans to tie all the ends up in the next book, almost as if the author is saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll answer all your questions in the next book.” I am busy reading a YA book for a review. I know it’s the first in a planned dystopian series because that info is in the back cover blurb. However, the plot is already sagging because the author is scurrying to the end, leaving stuff to be ‘fixed’ later.

    Re Marji’s comment: I have also just read a review of the seventeenth (yes!) book in a family saga series set in New Zealand and the reviewer openly expressed dissatisfaction that the series had become ‘tired.’

    Laura mentions genres: Fantasy is a genre that can be very forgiving of a number of books, as long as the author can sustain readers’ interest in the created world.

    Just reading the comments of authors who find their work growing into a series makes one respectful of the creative process. I would say go with what you feel, and let the story develop, as long as the credibility of the characters is intact, and the storyline gripping.

  10. …before being taken and grabbed up by Baen publishing. But you can see that I both obviously and respectfully disagree with the line of thought of today’s post.

  11. I have two series, both of which started as a single story and blossomed from there. Each serial book finishes the plot it started, with a few clues the story is not over yet.

    Savage Worlds is a complete story, the introductory book of the space series, but it ends with the primary aliens joining the team, thereby promising more. Pirates from Gnorlon is the first adventure to include them, and it too is a complete story. But it does imply more involving taking several displaced aliens home. Later this year, I will publish Why Do the Heathen Rage?, which continues the basic story but does not complete it. That’s reserved for Book 4.

    Each story stands alone, yet it’s part of a series. I totally agree with everything you said.

    ~ VT

  12. I don’t think it’s too difficult to write a novel that has a resolution without any loose ends, and yet at the same time remains open to a sequel that continues the story (rather than being another “episode” as in the above-mentioned Midsomer Murders). My own debut middle-grade fantasy novel (The Serpent in the Glass) was deliberately written that way, and I’ve had enough feedback to confirm that, in that regard at least, I got it right 😉

  13. Delightful of you to mention my Roxton Series, Fiona! Thank you. What an interesting question to ponder. I didn’t set out to write a series. NOBLE SATYR, Book 1 in the Roxton Series, was a standalone. But later, while writing another book, the characters from NOBLE SATYR kept playing on my mind and I wondered what Antonia and Roxton’s son Julian would be like. So I wrote Book 2, MIDNIGHT MARRIAGE. This too could be read as a standalone, and if readers were interested in how Julian’s parents got together they could go back and read Book 1.

    I had no intention of writing a third book. But as happened before, my mind eventually turned to the question of what happens when Roxton (the hero from book 1) dies? Antonia is much younger than her husband and he is ill in Book 2. The reader knows he hasn’t got long to live. I felt compelled to write Antonia’s story after the death of her beloved Duke, to give her that happy ending she had in Book 1 but was about to be taken from her in Book 2, and so I wrote AUTUMN DUCHESS. In Book 3 of the Roxton series, Antonia, as a widow, inhabits her son’s world, peopled with relatives and faithful retainers from the previous books making appearances and contributing to the plot.

    The series has become a family saga of sorts as I write the stories of the next generation. It seemed a natural progression, driven by the characters themselves. All my books (not just this series) are set in 18th Century England and France, a world I am very comfortable inhabiting, so it is not so much building that world (because it has been with me for a very long time) as populating it with interesting characters and compelling plots.

  14. I’m in the process of writing a novel (set now) where a family are dealing with the events that have happened in the 1980’s. A couple of people have suggested to me that I should write the story of what happened 25years ago. Perhaps have that as the first novel, hence creating a follow up with the novel set now.

    I think I’ll stick with my original decision 🙂

    X

  15. Mine will be a stand-alone. I loved this post. So informative. Thanks for doing this one.

  16. You forgot to mention the all-time top TV series “MASH”. It is just as popular today as it was in the 70’s, maybe more-so.
    I am keeping the option open for my novel. I could easily write the prequel and a sequel could be very interesting. We’ll see!

  17. Every story I’ve written has been stand-alone. But I have been asked by readers to write sequels to a few of them.

    Thanks for a few tips for creating a continuing series, Fiona. 😀

  18. Great post! Like Kat, I initially wrote my book, Unison, as a standalone. It ended up turning into a four book series, but it has definite closure and can be read as a standalone. I’ve all ready plotted and outlined everything and have found other areas for possible exploration; however, I’m stomping on the brakes at four…for now.

    I totally agree with Fiona’s sensible advice. Writing a series is way more exhausting. I’m constantly having to think about continuity between four books and how they’ll all tie together. Keeping up the momentum I liken to running a marathon. Not a far stretch! I’m glad I didn’t know my book would end up as a series as I might not have started it. This is one of those cases where ignorance is bliss!

  19. My first book will be a standalone. In fact, my first book may end up being the only book I do in it’s genre (YA fiction-tough stuff). But it is a story I know I want to write, so I’ll do it anyways.

  20. I originally had decided to write my novel as a stand-alone, but then it began to feel too epic and overwhelming for me to just stick to one book. Something that will help I believe is my novel is a time travel novel set in the past and the future (with an absent present). The first book will handle the time travel to the past. The second novel will be set in the future with a different main character. And I feel a subsequent novel(s) will probably combine aspects of the two with some time-traveling back and forth. I hope this will leave my readers wanting more, especially if the first novel is left on a cliff-hanger (or is that too cruel?) and I proceed to tell a different story in the second book shedding light on some of the events from the first, and then picking back up with the first main character in the third. Any thoughts? I’d welcome ideas and suggestions.

  21. @becominghiseve: I would advise against leaving the main story/character in the second book (especially if you end the first one with a cliffhanger and/or major unresolved elements), since readers are likely to be much more interested in continuing with the story/character they’ve already fallen in love with. I would suggest finishing the main story arc before branching out into other characters’ stories.

  22. Ok, thanks for your thoughts, K.M.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I am writing my first novel, and do want a trilogy of some sort. But this got me thinking, why don’t I just make the book longer so it’s standalone?
    But if it’s a teen audience, they obviously won’t read a 600 page book in comparison to a 300 page book. And if authors do a standalone rather than a series, they would rush too fast through the story, most likely missing key points.
    I would say a series is necessary as long as it makes sense throughout the series, and it’s a story arc. Series are also a good idea for teenage audiences, because as a teen myself, I would prefer several books of 300 pages rather than one huge 900 page book. How am I supposed to take a monster like that to school?
    Also, does anyone have advice on writing a first novel?

  24. When writing for kindle it is suggested not to have the book too long. I know I have purchased several and I lose interest around the 80 pages stage.

    I have written a longish children’s book that I want to make into smaller books – is this a no no or is it acceptable in the new format of digital reading.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Actually, there’s no “rule” that e-books have to be any longer than print books. Follow genre guidelines foremost when considering word count. But, at the same time, there’s no reason you can’t split a longer work up into smaller books. If nothing else, it gives you the ability to earn more per book than you would if they were combined into a single volume.

  25. MikeyTheWarrior says:

    I’m planning on making a series of books. It is about a super cat that is blue. In the 2nd book if i do plan on making a book 2 will introduce a team of 3 ninjas that has fire powers. In the 3rd book will introduce a kid that can make fire balls from his hands. In book 4 it will have the ultimate conclution of the series but will lead to the prequel of the series. Then it will lead to the series sequel. The main part of the series is called Team Formation. The prequel of the series is called The Team’s Past. The sequel of the series is called Team Formed. When Team Formed series end will be a time gap from the end of that series to the next series begining.

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