All authors dream of their own version of success: perhaps it’s making a living from their writing; or resonating with their readers; or receiving rave reviews… I have done all of these things and more by writing in a series, and today, I want to share my top five tips for doing just that.
What exactly is a series?
Put simply, a series is a set of connected novels or a multi-novel story that usually shares a common story arc, common characters and/or common settings.
A series can be dynamic: where the story arc spans the course of multiple books. Each book builds upon the last, following the development of one or more characters and a timeline of events.
A series can also be static/episodic: we can follow the same character, but over the course of multiple books, that character remains much the same. They don’t have a big metamorphosis as the series evolves. Instead, a static series is more like episodes or installments, where each book contains a new obstacle or adventure that the protagonist must overcome before the end of the book.
Of course there will always be outliers and exceptions to the rules, or a blend of both, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick to the above for now.
So now that we’ve got that covered, let’s explore my top five tips for writing one…
1. Do your research
One mistake I see authors make time and time again is skipping this step and jumping straight to the writing. However, doing the prep work and research prior to writing is incredibly important in order to set it up for success from the get-go.
What do I mean by research? I mean…
- Studying comparative titles (the titles that would sit alongside yours on the shelf)
- Studying the common structure of a series in your chosen genre: are dynamic or static series more common?
- Pulling out popular tropes and themes to apply to your own work
- Understanding the genre expectations (eg. a happily ever after in romance, solving the murder in a crime thriller)
Understanding and utilizing this research will place you in a much stronger position for success.
2. Understand the importance of Book #1
Your opener will set the stage for the rest of your series, not only in terms of your story arc and character development, but for your sales and financial success. The sales figures of your series starter determine the sales of the rest of the series. Only a certain percentage of people who read book one will go on to read book two; only a certain percentage of those readers will go on to read book three; and so forth. This is the nature of all series publishing.
Which means that the pressure is on when it comes to perfecting that first book. It needs to set up and meet reader expectations not only for that installment, but also hook those readers for the rest of the series.
3. Keep a series bible
This is a document where you record various details about your series as a reference point. It can be digital or in a notebook, and the level of detail is completely up to the individual author.
For example, my fantasy series bible contains:
- Rules about the magic system
- Descriptions of settings
- A list of the cast of characters and which book they’re introduced in
- Descriptions of the government/monarch
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. However, this can be as brief or as extensive as you like. The point of it is to make your life easier when you’re several books in and need a quick refresher rather than re-reading your own work.
This is something I wish I had done when I wrote my first series—it would have saved me a lot of headaches further down the line.
4. Each book should be a complete experience
Ever heard of middle book syndrome? Or someone complaining, “the sequel wasn’t as good as the original?” These are usually a sign of an incomplete arc in a mid-series book.
Although a series is an ongoing story arc, it’s important that each book contains its own complete narrative that leaves the reader satisfied.
For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book arc is “Will Harry win the TriWizard Tournament?”, which is an arc that gets resolved by the end of the book. However, the series arc, “Will Harry defeat Voldemort?” is built upon, but not resolved.
5. End each book before the finale with a hook
What draws readers from one chapter to the next? And from one book in a series to the sequel? And the next book? And the next?
After you’ve offered a resolution to the story arc of the individual book, you still need to keep your readers intrigued enough to buy the next book. How do you do this? At the core of every reader’s motivation for reading is that there’s something they want to know, and it’s the author’s job to fuel this drive with unanswered questions, clues, and hints at a future to come.
In other words, a hook. Introduce a hook at the end of each book (except the finale) in order to guide readers from one book to the next.
Of course, this advice is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing a successful series; a task that can sometimes feel a tad overwhelming. However, I’ll leave you with these final words: a successful series doesn’t come together overnight. It comes together piece by piece, layer by layer… and with solid research and a thorough understanding of the types of series in your genre.
Helen Scheuerer is the fantasy author of the bestselling trilogy, The Oremere Chronicles and the Curse of the Cyren Queen quartet. Her work has been highly praised for its strong, flawed female characters and its action-packed plots. Recently, she has also delved into publishing advice for authors with her debut nonfiction book, How To Write A Successful Series.
Helen’s love of writing and books led her to pursue a Bachelor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong and a Masters of Publishing at the University of Sydney. Now a full-time author, Helen lives amidst the mountains in Central Otago, New Zealand and is constantly dreaming up new stories.
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