Series Fiction

Question: I have this idea for a novel series. I don't know; do people usually decide how many books are going to be in a series before or after they get into it? I have decided 8. And I pretty much know the result and/or problem for each book, but how do I keep my readers interested enough to keep reading, and waiting for the next book?

I also have no idea how the main characters are going to do anything, I just have little episodes played out in my mind. Like it would be cool if they got captured by pirates or they had to rely on the mercy of a crazy wizard. Or maybe all the heirs of The Seven have this huge magic duel because they don't believe that the main character is who she says she is. I have eight books to fill and there was seven because of The Seven but then I decided what was going to happen at the end of the seventh and realized I'd need another book. I'm only 15, but i have wanted to write this novel since I was 10. (Trust me it's come a long way from being a ten-year-old fantasy) So anyway, my question is: what do I do with these episodes I imagine, and how do I fill in the holes?

Answer: A lot of writers, particularly in the fantasy genre, think in terms of series from the beginning. This is probably because they are also fantasy readers, and fantasy readers who like an imaginary world tend to like spending a lot of time with it.

So, one technique is to make your imaginary world interesting and vivid enough for the reader to want to come back.

Even better, consider creating some mysteries that are introduced in the first book but not uncovered until later books, or an overarching plot that won't get resolved until later. That gives the reader another reason to read the whole series.

I know I refer to Harry Potter a lot, but it's a good example. Rowling planned all seven books in advance, and left plenty of unanswered questions in book one to keep readers coming back.

For instance, she doesn't really explain why Voldemort wanted to kill Harry until book five, even though his
attack on Harry is the event that begins book one. Nor do we learn whether Snape is really evil until book seven.

Now, you say you have a number of events or episodes in mind for your series. So why not start by treating the entire series as one big story? Decide who the characters are that fit into this story - the protagonist, antagonist, etc. Use Dramatica theory to give this story its own Story Goal Requirements, Consequences, Forewarnings, and all the other elements, as outlined on the "How to Write a Novel" page. Choose an event that gets the story started. Have events that create bigger problems for the hero. Take the reader towards a climax.

Then see if you can make each major event in this overarching plot the subject of one book, and turn them into complete stories in themselves.

For instance, the Harry Potter series is the story of how Harry transforms from an underdog into a wizard confident enough in his power to avenge his parents' death. The event that gets this plot started is Harry's meeting with Voldemort and his discovery that they have a mysterious magical connection. That is the first book.

How does Harry come to meet Voldemort and discover their connection? By pursuing a different Story Goal that applies only to Book One: that of preventing the theft of the Philosopher's Stone. So the first event in the overarching series becomes into an entire novel in itself.

This is great structure, because each book in the series does two jobs: 1) it gives the reader a complete story with a satisfying ending and at the same time 2) it advances the overarching story.

The reader of book one can enjoy Harry's success at saving the stone, yet is also left knowing this is only the beginning. The reader wants to see what happens in the next book, and whether the questions will get answered. Will Voldemort come back? And why did he want to kill Harry in the first place?

As the series progresses, the stakes should get higher. The complications should increase. The truth should gradually emerge, until the hero has to make a great decision/action that will determine the outcome (which obviously won't happen until the very last book).

Hope that helps.

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How to write a series - particularly the first book?

by Lisa
(New York)

Question: I find myself thinking of a great series yet the first book seems both the most fun and most complicated to write. In most good series and seemingly as a standard on most advice sites, the first book should be able to stand alone, as should most of the books. What is your advice on this? Also, what would be your insight on having an overall story goal which is developed and met in the series as a whole, and then a different story goal for each book in the series? I know a lot of authors seem to take this approach, but still there seems to be that stand alone book 1 standard. Just curious about your thoughts, and I have not been able to find a section on the website about series, if you even have one (which I believe you definitely should if you don't).

Answer: You're not the first person to ask about series, so perhaps you're right that the topic deserves a page. (Of course, you might check out the question and answer section to see what's been discussed before.)

Individual books in a series must stand on their own, if for no other reason than the fact that your reader, who might only ever buy one book in the series, will be very frustrated to find out that the story isn't resolved. Some readers were very annoyed when Tolkein's The Fellowship of the Ring left them hanging.

At the same time, I'm very much in favour of having an overarching story that covers the entire series in addition to each book in the series standing on its own. That way, you can give your reader a satisfying and complete story in book one (so he doesn't feel cheated), and also create the sense that this is only the beginning of a much bigger story, and so make your reader hungry for the second book.

One thing that is great about Dramatica is that the theory is recursive. Events are part of sequences, which are part of acts, which are part of novels, which are part of series, etc. So you can structure each element to fit into the bigger picture.

As you suggest, you can have a story goal for the entire series (which will probably also be the goal for the last book when the series is wrapped up). Each novel becomes a part of the big plot.

At the same time, all but the last novel has its own story goal and is a fully developed story in addition to being part of the big story.

Incidentally, I suspect that the reason the first book in many series seems more standalone than the rest is because the author didn't have a series in mind when he/she wrote it. Later, when the publisher asked for a sequel, the author started thinking in terms of a series and wrote the remaining books in that light.

Comments for How to write a series - particularly the first book?

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So if you're already planning to write the series...
by: Anonymous

Would it be okay to put that in the title or no? Like calling it a part 1 or "book 1"?

Selling a series from the get-go
by: Glen

Well, saying upfront that your book is the first of a series is like telling someone on a first date that you're interested in marriage. I think it can sound a bit pushy. And unless it's love at first sight for them, they may not be thrilled.

My personal feeling is that it's best to let the agent/publisher fall in love with the book first. If they do, they may ask if you have a sequel in mind, and then your plans for the series will be a bonus.

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Trilogy vs.series and length

by Freddi

Question: I've written my first novel, it's been edited and I am in the second re-write prior to publishing. My editor advises that it is too long (600 pages in the double spaced, one side of the page manuscript). I had planned on a trilogy, but another editor suggested I consider writing a series (with the idea I believe of dividing up my lengthy tome into more than one book- maybe two and then continuing. I'm told that as a novel it should not exceed 400 pages. Can you offer some thoughts on length please? Could my 600 page book work effectively as the first book in either a trilogy or a series? It seems like series books are much shorter. Thank you.

Answer: First, congratulations on getting to this point.

Second, if you are using standard manuscript format, 600 pages is roughly 150,000 words, which is certainly epic-length. Most novels are between 70,000 and 100,000 words.

I can't tell you what to do, because a lot depends on your writing style and how your story is structured. If this is your first book, you want to give your readers a complete story, even if you foreshadow a sequel (which has the advantage of encouraging readers to buy the next book).

Some ways you might do this...

1. Cut 50,000 words. This may sound cruel, but many manuscripts can benefit from such tightening. Obviously, you don't want to create plot holes, but you might consider if there are places where one scene can do the work of three or four, or if there are subplots that aren't essential to the story.

2. If you're going to divide the work, make sure you divide at an act break -- a place where one sequence has been completed but the stage is set for what will happen next. The most common places to divide are the end of act one or act three, but act two is also an option. The end of act two is generally the place where things have gotten complicated, relationships have deepened, and the hero crosses the point of no return. (It's a good spot for a cliffhanger.)

Of course, you have to see if your book's act breaks let you divide it easily into two novel-length sections. In some stories, the last two acts are considerably shorter than the first two.

3. A third option is to plan on a trilogy or tetralogy. This may mean developing what you have into 210,000 words or more. Notice I say "developing" not lengthening. The process involves turning single events into structured sequences of several events--the opposite of tightening. Every event should be an important stepping stone in a larger sequence, which is in turn an important part of a bigger event, etc. Never just "pad."

Done well, this third option would result in one act per book. Each act would be part of the overall story as well as complete in itself.

Best of luck.

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Protagonist Question...

by Terrell
(Columbia, MO)

Question: Hello, hypothetically speaking, if I planned a book series and it becomes a commercial success; is it a good idea to have a different main protagonist in each sequel? Or will it confuse the audience?

Answer: The problem is not that you will confuse your readers necessarily, but that you will disappoint them.

Generally, having the same main character helps tie a series together. There are many readers who, if they like the first book, will buy others in the series specifically to read more of that character's adventures. (This is why many series are named after their main character.)

Of course, it's not a hard and fast rule. Some series are tied together by a common story world (e.g. the Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series, or Star Wars books). Some are held together by connections between characters (e.g. inter-generational series). You could even argue that when publishers put out a "line" of similar books by different authors that is a paler version of a series. In all cases, the point is to get more sales for later books by attracting people who liked the earlier ones.

However, the more in common books in the series have, the more likely readers are to buy the later books. Having the same main character is a big factor, and you risk losing some sales if you deviate.

On the other hand, if the first book is really well received, some people will buy the second just because the author is the same.

You may also find, if you get to this stage, that your agent or editor may advise you based on their knowledge of your genre.

How's that for a wishy-washy answer?

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