So, You Want to Write a Series?

Series_option1_laptop-3242862__340 (002)You’re an author and you’ve decided you want to write a series. Well, this is the post for you.

A series can be great for authors because it can draw in readers and keep them. If they like your first book and its characters, they’re likely to forge ahead and buy more books in the series. This is why there are so many series out there. Today, I’m going to talk mainly serial series. So, to get started, let’s get definitions out of the way. A serial series is one that has an overarching story arc throughout the series. Think Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. The books are meant to be read in order, and build on one another. A non-serial series will use the same world or the same character, but can be entered through any book in the series. Think of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. These are more like the “continuing adventures of” types of series, and each book can stand alone. While it’s nice to know the backstory of the character, you don’t have to know it to really enjoy any book in the series.

Now that we’re all on the same page, writing a serial series isn’t that much different than writing a standard book. A serial series, at its heart, is just one really long novel, broken up into several books.

Series Length. The first thing you want to think about with a serial series is how many books it will take to tell your story. While this can change, you still want a general idea when you first start writing the series. For Harry Potter, JK Rowling always knew she wanted to tell the story over the seven years of the school (one book per school year). If you’re doing a US high school narrative, perhaps you want to cover each year of the four years of high school. Three is a fairly common series length (Hunger Games series, Divergent series, Fifty Shades of Grey Series), but four through seven are also popular.

Series Plotting. Even if you’re a pantser, if you intend to write a series, you should have some idea of the ending of your character’s journey. This can be as simple as writing, book 1: Character struggles with X; Book 2: Character struggles with Y; Book 3: Character overcomes Z to end story. That way, even if you’re a pantser, when you’re writing, you have some sense of where things are headed.

Story Bible. If you’re writing a series, it’s an especially good idea to have a story bible. A story bible is a document that can help you with continuity throughout the series. It includes the names of characters, their pertinent physical features, family histories, and any settings.

Cliffhangers. Some authors will tell you never to end on a cliffhanger, as it alienates readers, but there are several other authors who will tell you to end on a cliffhanger because it can make you gobs of money. I’m fairly neutral on this point. You have to use your own judgment on cliffhangers, evaluating the pros and the cons. The pros are that people want to find out what happens next and buy the next book. The con/pro is that people are irritated and feel taken advantage of, but they still buy the next book. A con is that they feel irritated and taken advantage and they don’t buy your next book. Another con is that they feel so irritated, they leave a bad review on the book. Some of the feelings about cliffhangers can be mitigated by proper labeling. I’ve seen some serial books billed as “episodes,” which is reminiscent of episodic television. And anyone old enough to remember the “Who Shot JR?” headlines knows that episodic television is not above ending on a cliffhanger. The term cliffhanger, in fact, emerged due to episodic films designed to get moviegoers to come back on a weekly basis. The most recent Avengers film (Infinity War) ends on a cliffhanger. This is a legitimate marketing tactic, and you have to decide if it’s one you want to employ or not. If you do employ it, know that there will be people who don’t like it and will leave you negative reviews because of it. But there will also be people who don’t mind, wait with baited breath for the next book, and plop down that money when the next book comes out. You have to do your own cost-benefit analysis. Whether you do a cliffhanger or not, all books should resolve at least one major plot point, even if they start a second that ends in the cliffhanger.

Series Release Frequency. Also decide your series release frequency. Some authors employ a strategy called “rapid release,” where they release their entire series within a short period of time. For example, if they have a four-book series, they’ll plan to write all the books and release them every two weeks in order to get a big following. Or, perhaps, they’ll write three of the books, planning to release them once a month, writing that fourth book as they release the other three. If you’re using a rapid release strategy, cliffhangers may also not be a big deal, with the readers knowing they’ll get the next book in a very short period of time. If you’re not a fast writer, or don’t wish to bank so many books before publishing, then perhaps you should have a longer release schedule: one book every six months or one every year. This will give you more time.

Marketing. The nice thing about series is that you can market book one, and with good sell-through, get purchases of the remainder of the series. If you’re working on a quicker release schedule, you should have the pre-order for book two available as soon as book one is published. That can get you some immediate sales after the reader finishes book one. Once your series is complete, you can easily offer steep discounts on book one, with the goal of getting people to buy the remainder of the series at full price.

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

6 thoughts on “So, You Want to Write a Series?”

  1. This a great topic! I’ve heard one solution to the cliff-hanger issue is to make sure the story question of each book, opened at the start, is closed at the end of that book. The last chapter can then add a twist to the over-arching series conflict. Harry Potter series is a great example; in each book, Harry solves a specific problem, like finding the Sorcerer’s Stone, but each book ends with his fight against Voldemort becoming more dangerous and difficult. My mystery series does that too, only less dramatically, since the series questions are more like how is Francis Bacon ever going to achieve his destiny? In each book, my sleuths solve a fresh mystery, but during each book, they each take a step forward or backward in their individual character arcs. I guess that approach is somewhere in between the Jack Reacher style, where he’s basically the same in every book, and the Harry Potter style, where he gains crucial new knowledge and/or powers in each book, steadily advancing toward the final confrontation.

    1. Anna, sounds like your series and mine are very similar. I make it a point to make mine stand alone, but when read in order, the reader will get a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationship. I’m not a fan of cliffhangers (being coerced into buying the next book feels manipulative to me), nor am I a fan of the TV episodic series where the character never grows or evolves. Guess the middle suits me just fine.

      Excellent overview, RJ!

  2. Great post, RJ. I’m a very slow writer so I write the whole series and then either rapid release, or release the whole series in one hit. Probably not such a great idea from a marketing perspective, but at least they’re out there.

  3. I’m with Anna Castle, above. If people hate your cliff-hanger, it’s because you didn’t finish the story arc of this episode. And they have a right to. Poorly structured serials are usually episodic and never do achieve a good story arc. The author, who obviously doesn’t understand the creation of an emotional experience, leaves the readers unsatisfied with the book. You can have a bang-up ending that solves the old problem and then slip in a new problem in the final chapter, and people will accept it. Come to think of it, that’s not too much different from appending one chapter of the next book at the end of this one, which many authors also do.

  4. Hi RJ,
    Thank you for the excellent tips on writing a series, you have some really good advice that I plan to use as I write my 1st series. I agree with you on not ending a book with a cliffhanger. What do you think if for each book you had a strong ending, but worked into the backstory and ending a teaser or hint that there is something else going on?
    Thank you very much,

  5. Great article.
    I love writing series. Working on 2 now. And having a story bible is a must when you’re now writing book 5 of the series and you can’t remember what one character’s girlfriend looks like (yup, been there, done that!).

    The nice thing about series: when you have a couple books out, the rest seem to market themselves. Your fans will greedily snap them up, read, and tell their friends to get into it.

    I do wish I could release books faster, but with my crazy farming and cheesemaking schedule, I’m lucky to get a few hours a week to write. The winters are slightly better. No baby chicks to mother, no hay to bale, and no lawns to mow!

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