Book series occur in all genres, especially fantasy and sci-fi, but how does one write a series? It may seem hard, having to come up with more plots for the same characters (in most cases) who you have to develop over the course of more than one book. If you like to plan things out before you write them, you may feel as though it’ll be impossible to organize the content of however many books you plan to write. Or may be wondering about the basics of writing a series.
Some people like to plan. Some don’t. Some writers plan out every detail and keep characters, scenes, plots, and even dialogue organized. Others have simple outlines for each book. When writing a book series, it’s best to plan it out. It’s more time consuming than writing a single book and it takes a lot more work. However, free writing the first book may be a good way to get your series started and to see where it’s going.
Before you begin the initial planning process though, decide what your book will be. Decide on an idea and expand it. Try writing a few short stories with characters you have in mind to get a feel for them. While my story takes place in another world, I used to take my characters and write a few hundred words about them in situations we face in our world (like getting a flat tire in the rain). It really helped me flesh out my characters and develop how they would react to emergencies.
Try free writing about your central idea. This may open up subplots or plots for more books. Keep a journal, or anything else you can document your thoughts in, with you to write down any ideas that may come. Play with these ideas and keep in mind that coming up with an idea doesn’t mean you have to use it. Even if your ideas don’t have anything to do with your main idea, write them down anyway. You may be able to find a way to incorporate them in your series.
- Characters: Know which characters will be in what books. Know the role your characters play and how important they are to the story. If you have two minor character who can be mashed in to one, do it. It’ll make for less characters and therefore less work on your part or confusion to the reader. Your protagonist(s) is a different story. That character, or characters, has to be one whom readers will love. This character has to be the best you can make if you want your readers to read an entire series about this character. For all your characters, keep track of them. Keep a list of their names and any important information. I’m extremely detailed when it comes to my characters and I even have birthdays picked out for each and every one, no matter how minor, even though only a few characters reveal their birthday within the story. Keep track of their appearance, even the smallest blemishes if you mention them.
- Plot: If it helps, make a chart of all the plots and subplots. Make a timeline, even. Or you can try a thought web to keep track of plots and how they roll into other subplots and such. I would recommend bubbl. What makes a series a series is the plot arc. This encompasses all the books within the series and connects all the main plots. Your first book will usually define this, but it does not have to be obvious right away because plots lead to other plots.
- Setting: This is especially important if the setting takes place in another world. Draw a map first and keep track of where your characters are. Readers will notice if in book one you mention that the fireplace is made of dark brown bricks in the first book and gray stone in the second. Draw out floor plans of homes and buildings. Add in details, such as the location of doors and furniture.
- Cause and Effect: This includes plot and character decisions. What happens in the first book will affect the second book and so on. If you plan out the entire series and change something in the first book, you might have to go through the other books and change that too. That’s why you shouldn’t completely write out all the books in their entirety before editing. Keep track of all the causes and effects in your series (again, using bubbl is good for this). You also need to keep track of how your characters change in regards to factors around them. Have they acquired scars? Have they gone through a significant change?
- Foreshadowing: Plan small elements of foreshadowing that lead to other books. Perhaps mention a character that hasn’t been met yet in casual conversation or point out an unmet region on a map. Sirius Black was mentioned in the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, but didn’t show up until the third. However, keep these light. Don’t make it so obvious that the character will start looking out for it.
- The End: Have a sense of how the series ends while writing the first book. The ending could relate back to the first book or it could parallel the ending of the first book.
- Motifs: Will you have any motifs throughout your book series? Why?
Writing the Rough Draft:
Don’t worry too much about the technicalities when writing the rough draft. Just write what you have planned (if you have a plan) and see how it feels. Keep track of any changes you made to your outline. If you don’t like it and decide to rewrite most (or all) of your rough draft, don’t delete what you first wrote. Keep it for reference.
Don’t worry about the length, spelling, or grammar. The rough draft is called a rough draft for a reason. It’s just a sketch. You can erase it. However, if something feels very wrong (mostly big factors such as POV) when writing your first draft, trust your instinct and stop. Don’t waste your time on something you don’t like.
And really, do not worry about length. I promise you the length of your novel will change as you edit and rewrite.
The First Book:
The first book is the most important, especially if you’re a debut author. This book will be the first glimpse readers have to the world and characters you’ve created. It has to be good enough that readers will be willing to read more. It’s the hook.
It should stand alone, but the ending does not have to be definite. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta arrive back in District 12. There are no cliffhangers, but there is room for more. The ending does not guarantee a sequel. The reason for having the first book stand alone goes back to selling your book. If the first book doesn’t sell, publishers won’t want to waste money on more books. When self-publishing, you can do whatever you want, but it would be smart to make the first book stand alone in case the sales are bad.
- Don’t feel like you have to explain everything in the first book. Only put in what is necessary. Spread out the information throughout the series when that information is needed or relevant.
- Leave some blanks. Don’t give away everything about your characters. Give them secrets. Keep their back stories light if they show up in later books.
- Focus on what is important to the first book. Don’t mention anything that might be in the second book (unless it’s very light, such as mentioning a name of a future character in dialogue). The characters who are only in the first book need to be fleshed out while main characters who spread out over the series don’t need to reveal everything about themselves.
- Again, the plot should end in the first book. Of course, subplots may carry over in other books and the main plot may be part of a larger plot arc, but all the major questions need to be answered in the first book.
When writing a query letter, do not mention that your book is the first in a series. Instead, say it has the potential to become a series, or that it is part of a possible planned series. Don’t say you already have all the books written and ready to go. Though you may write all the books first if you feel more comfortable with having every detail down, just don’t mention they’re all ready. Because they’re not. You’re probably going to change some things in the first book during the final editing process, and those changes may have an affect on the later books. Don’t set everything in stone.
Companion novels are not series. They are books which take place in the same universe as other books (no, this doesn’t mean all books that takes place in England during the twenty-first century are companion novels). These books may have the same characters in one or more books that are not meant to be a series, or they may have completely different characters. However, there may be a series within companion novels. For example: Of six books, three are part of a series and three may stand alone, but they all take place in the same universe. You can also look at video games for another example. To play The Elder Scrolls series, you do not have to play all the games to understand the latest one, Skyrim. The Hobbit can be considered a companion novel to The Lord of the Rings, as it is not necessary to read one to understand the other and they can both stand alone.
In short, the setting, not the characters, bring your stories together. Plot may bring them together too (such as something that affects that universe, like war), but setting is the primary connection.
Keep in Mind:
Characters shouldn’t go through huge developments in each book. Some may not change in one book at all, and that’s okay because that character’s story is most likely not over.
Plots should connect to each other. All of the main plots in the Harry Potter books had something to do with Voldemort whether directly or indirectly.
The writing style should stay the same throughout the series, but the tone may change.
Determine other elements of your series:
- POV: Will the story be told in first person? Third person limited? Will the POV switch between chapters or will you primarily focus on one character? Remember that when writing a series, you’ll be writing like this for the whole series. If you’re not too fond of first person, don’t write in first person. If you think third person is boring, don’t choose that either.
- Characters: You’re generally stuck with your main characters throughout the whole series. Unless you’re experienced and talented enough to able to pull off something like A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t write character that bore or bother you. Maybe, if you really like you protagonist, but don’t like writing them in first person, you can use another main character (the sidekick) as the main POV. Imagine how differently Harry Potter would have been if the story was told from Ron or Hermione’s POV.
- Continuity: Don’t mess this up. One of the greatest examples of continuity I’ve seen has been in Arrested Development. The detail of it is amazing.
- Information: Keep track of what information you let out and when. This will help a lot in later books when you’re trying to remember how much the reader knows about certain characters or places.
- Structure: The structure of yours books should be similar. If the first book is split up in parts, so should all the other books. If all the chapters in the first book range between 4,000 and 6,000 words, so should the chapters in the other books. Keep the exceptions to this rule small. If your chapters get longer each book, don’t have the first two books go from 3,000 words a chapter to 8,000. Even something like that can take away the feeling of reading a series.
- Does it Work?: Make sure your series works as a series. Most YA (without any elements from other genres (with few exceptions such as romance)) series take place in school and center around a group of friends. MG series are more often on the comedy side with soft plots (see: Diary of a Wimpy Kid). But do your plots work? Can they make a good series? Or would your series run dry of plots and elements to keep interest? Imagine if Looking for Alaska had a sequel. Would it work? Probably not. What else is there to know? What else does the reader want to know? What would the plot arc be? However, a companion novel could probably take place at the same school in that book.
- Don’t Get Too Attached: One drawback of writing the entire series before submitting the first book for publication if getting attached to the other books. If the first book doesn’t sell, you’ll be more upset about the other books. If you think your book will be exactly the way it was when you submitted it, you’re wrong. Agents and editors will probably have you change a few things and that may affect the other books. Remember, your editor is trying to help you. Be open to changes and suggestions.