The word 'series' conjures up different emotions in different writers. Some might grin at the thought of spending multiple books exploring the world and story they've created. Others might rub their hands together at the potentially lucrative benefits of a long-running series. And still more might simply cry in horror, 'A series? Writing one book is hard enough!'
No matter which of these camps you fall into, there's no questioning the fact that the series as a literary concept is here to stay.
From Arthur Conan Doyle, Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie to J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Patricia Cornwell, writers of all genres and styles have made the series work for them.
So how can you do the same?
If you're wondering whether to make the commitment to writing a series, we've got you covered here with everything you need to know. After helping you work out whether a series is right for your story, this Ultimate Guide will help you through every step.
You'll learn how to plan and execute your series to its full potential, along with how to create plot lines, characters and themes that will make for a compelling multi-volume story.
There's a lot to cover here, so let's get started!
Table Of Contents
- 1 Should I write a series?
- 2 Planning your series
- 2.1 Step 1: Map out the plot
- 2.2 Step 2: Think about the structure
- 2.3 Step 3: Get to know your characters
- 2.4 Step 4: Work on your setting
- 2.5 Step 5: Start writing!
Should I write a series?
First things first: before you do anything else, you need to decide if a series is the right choice for the story you want to tell. There's no point setting out to write a series just for the sake of it; it needs to be the right vessel to deliver your particular tale.
Ask yourself these questions to determine whether you should write a series or stick to a standalone book.
1. Is my genre suited to a series?
Genre needs to be one of your first considerations when it comes to making this kind of choice. Not every genre is suited to a series, but some are practically made for it – in fact, there are a few genres in which standalone novels are actually quite rare.
Generally speaking, the genres best suited to a series are:
- Science Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Children's/Young Adult
If you're writing in one of these genres, it might be worth seeing whether your story can be fleshed out into a series. A lot of publishers are wary of accepting standalone fantasy novels, for example, as fantasy readers are generally used to the series format. A fantasy series tends to sell much better than a single fantasy novel.
If you're writing in another genre, such as literary or commercial fiction, a standalone novel is probably your best bet. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: literary series such as Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy or Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, and successful commercial fiction such as Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones series.
It's important to note, however, that these kinds of series (literary especially) don't generally follow the typical conventions of a series. Ferrante and Fielding's series tell the continuing story of their central characters, which is conventional enough, but series like The Border Trilogy are different.
McCarthy's trilogy is classified as a series because of recurring characters and settings, as well as strong thematic links. But each novel reads more like a standalone piece, and the three do not necessarily need to be read in order.
To cut a long story (or series) short: if you're writing in a genre other than those listed above, you must have some very compelling characters or another very good reason for deciding to write an entire series.
2. Is my plot suited to a series?
While you might believe that your story needs to be told over multiple books, in reality, your plot might not be able to stretch that far. Before you set out to write a series, you need to take a good, long look at your plot. Is it meaty enough to sustain itself over more than one book?
We'll delve into this further below. For now, ask yourself these questions from the outset to see if your plot is suited to a series.
- Does my plot follow a single narrative arc, or does it contain many separate threads that can be woven together?
- Does the timeline of my plot span a short or lengthy period?
- Is there potential for extensive character development, world-building and subplots within my main plot?
Once you've answered these, you'll have a better understanding of what kind of plot you have and whether it will work within a series.
3. Are my characters suited to a series?
Think about some of the most famous and successful book series you know. From Harry Potter to Outlander to the Millennium trilogy, every successful series features a protagonist and cast of supporting characters who are compelling, complex, evolving, endearing, or all of the above.
When readers commit to reading a series, they do it for one main reason: because they care about the characters. The reader must want to follow the characters on their journey, getting to know them like real-life friends and family, and becoming invested in the outcomes of their conflicts and endeavours.
Alongside solid plot development, a series must focus on constant character development in order for it to hold any hope of sustaining itself. Your characters must undergo significant changes throughout the story. They should not be the same people at the series' conclusion as they were at its commencement.
Take a look at the characters you have in mind for your story.
- Can you see how they will undergo a compelling journey, both physical and emotional?
- Do they have enough potential for development that can be sustained across multiple books?
If not, you must either reconsider the characters and their arcs or consider the possibility of a standalone novel.
4. Can I commit to writing a series?
Writing a novel is a big commitment. Writing a series of novels takes things to a whole new level.
Before you launch into a series – whether it be a duology, a trilogy or a sprawling ten-part epic – you need to seriously consider your commitment to the task. Once you start, you'll have a certain sense of obligation (both to yourself and to your readers) to finish the job. Is this something you're mentally, physically and financially prepared for?
The answer to this question really comes down to three things:
- How much you love writing
- How much you love your story
- How badly you want to achieve the goal of creating a series.
If writing is your passion and your dream, if the story within you is bursting forth and begging to be told, and if writing a series is a goal you're willing to work hard to achieve – then it sounds like you're committed and ready to give it a try.
If, however, you're thinking of writing a series on a whim, just to see how it goes or to try to make a quick buck... Well, it's probably safe to say that you won't be able to demonstrate the proper level of commitment to such a mammoth task.
Rather than wasting your time starting a series only to give up halfway through, you're better equipped to explore other options, such as standalone novels or short stories.
Planning your series
So you've answered all the above questions and come to a decision: writing a series is the right choice for you. But where to from here?
As excited as you may be to jump right in and start writing, unfortunately, that's not the best way to go about things. If you're going to write a successful series, there's a bit of preparation that needs to be done first.
Before we take a look at some key steps in planning your series, keep in mind that these are only guidelines, not concrete rules.
Everybody has a different writing process; some people are plotters, some people are 'pantsers', and the rest are somewhere in between. You should work the way that suits you best.
This might mean you choose not to undertake every aspect of the planning process we're about to outline. But keep in mind that well-thought out plots, settings, characters and overarching structure are the things that can make or break a series, so do at least keep the following points in mind. They'll come in handy for revision, if not for planning.
Let's get things started with the first step in the process: plotting.
Step 1: Map out the plot
The first thing you want to do is solidify the ideas you have for your series' plot. Write down a brief outline of all the key events you have in mind so far, forming a rough chronology. Don't worry too much about structure or order just yet; we'll get to those below. For now, just concentrate on mapping out the main events of the story.
The most important thing here is that you know the beginning and end of your series. Take some time to note down everything you can about
- The inciting incident, which will kick off the events of your series
- The ending, which should tie up the majority of your story's threads.
Don't worry if you don't know exactly how things will end at this stage; some writers like to let the story guide them rather than knowing everything from the outset. However, you must have at least a rough idea of the direction in which the story is heading. Otherwise, your writing process – and the story itself – is likely to be rather aimless and ineffective.
The next thing you need to do is answer the following questions about your plot:
- Does it raise enough questions? And, more importantly, does it answer them all? If not, why? Will readers be disappointed or will they understand the purpose behind any open-ended aspects?
- Does the plot have potential for creating tension? (Tension is one of the most important driving forces in fiction, and without it, your series is likely to fall rather flat. Take a look at these eight effective ways to write page-turning tension for some inspiration and ideas.)
- Is the plot driven by characters' actions? Can you spot any potential instances of deus ex machina?
These questions will help you identify any major issues with your plot outline so far. This will allow you to head them off early and save yourself the hassle of revising or rewriting later.
Step 2: Think about the structure
You've now mapped out the plot of your entire story as best you can. Now it's time to think about the structure of that story, and how it will inform the structure of your series. To wrap your mind around the overarching structure, ask yourself the following questions.
How many books should you divide the series into?
For genres like fantasy and sci-fi, it's important to know how many books you're planning to write for the series before you start. Keep in mind that each volume of a series should stand on its own as a valid novel in itself.
Each individual book should have its own contained plot that feeds into the larger plot of the whole series.
Take a look at your entire story and break it down into sections. You'll find there are natural places to break off and resume the story – natural turning points. If you look hard enough, you should find self-contained narratives within the larger plot. These will form the individual books.
It's helpful to have some sense of symmetry or balance within the series. For example, the Harry Potter series can be seen as books one through three, followed by book four as a turning point (Voldemort's return), rounded out by the final three books leading to the ultimate climax of the story.
Tolkien's LOTR trilogy, on the other hand, is a prime example of the rising and falling action structure: in Fellowship, the journey begins; in Two Towers, it meets complications and continues; and in Return of the King it reaches a climax and slowly winds down to the ending.
Structural considerations in crime/mystery novels and contemporary fiction series are vastly different. There may be a less concrete answer to the question of how many books to write. Rather than feeding into a vast overarching narrative, these types of series tends to be more episodical in nature. Each volume recounts a story that's not necessarily related chronologically to its companion volumes.
Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels, for example, can be read in any order. Each Holmes story deals with an individual mystery, and while there are threads that connect all the volumes, the structure isn't as rigid as that of a speculative fiction series.
However, this doesn't mean that structure isn't an important consideration for genres that don't follow traditional 'series' conventions. If structure didn't play a part, you wouldn't really be writing a series, after all – just a collection of vaguely related novels!
It's important to focus on your characters as the connecting threads between books in a crime, mystery or contemporary fiction series. As we discussed above, your protagonist especially must grow and change throughout the series. Use key points in their personal journey and development to decide how your series will be structured.
What and where are the climaxes?
Once you have a rough idea of how you'll break up the overarching narrative, it's time to focus on that all-important concept: the climax. (Hint: if you had trouble deciding where to break up your series, this point will probably help you out a great deal!)
There's one key thing to remember here: your series as a whole must have a climax point, but each individual book must also have its own climax as well.
The climax of the entire series will obviously come close to the end of the last book. Similarly, the individual climax points before this will usually appear towards the end of each of the other volumes.
Take a look at your rough plan for each book and ensure that there is indeed a climax point in every one. If there isn't, the book doesn't really qualify as a self-contained narrative. At this point you may need to rework the structure or plot so that a climax or turning point can be included.
What themes unite each volume of the series?
A series is united as much by its themes as it is by the events of the story. A series will usually have recurring themes that span the entirety of the story, but it may also have themes that are explored or emphasised individually in each volume. Overall, a series' themes must weave together to create a broad, relatively complex tapestry.
The overarching theme in Harry Potter, for example, is the conflict between good and evil. However, the individual books emphasise a variety of different themes such as prejudice, power, sacrifice, choice, love, and death. These themes develop and come together as the series goes on, painting a vivid and multi-faceted portrait for the reader.
In addition to plot and characters, a series' themes play a key part in ensuring readers stick with you through multiple books. The exploration of universal human themes helps readers relate to the story you're telling, which is important if you want them to come back for each volume of your series.
Themes can also encourage readers to think about aspects of the world they hadn't previously considered, especially if they're sustained over an entire series.
A word of warning, though: try not to be too heavy-handed when exploring your themes.
Give your readers some credit; don't try to spell everything out for them, and don't make recurring themes too repetitive. Allow your story's themes to emerge and develop as a natural subtext through your plot and characters.
BONUS TIP: Don't force the issue of theme too much while planning! Often, you might not realise what your themes really are until you're well into the writing process. This is completely normal; a lot of concepts tend to come up naturally as you write the story. Once you've finished writing and are reading back over your work, your themes will be much clearer. You can then work to develop and bring them out as you see fit.
Step 3: Get to know your characters
Your characters are just as important (if not more important) than your plot. The main reason readers will keep reading a story is because they've invested in the characters.
Of course an engaging storyline is vital, however readers must also care about what happens to your characters. If they don't, they're much less likely to keep reading.
Consider George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. This sprawling series began almost 20 years ago, and readers are still eagerly awaiting its next instalment. Why? Because they're deeply invested in the political developments of Westeros? No – it's because they're invested in the people behind those politics. Given Martin's rather slow writing progress, all his readers would have dropped off the radar long ago if they didn't care what happened to the characters.
With this in mind, you must put some serious effort into considering your characters before you start writing. Developing your characters and knowing them well before you jump into the story will benefit you greatly in the long run.
Start the planning process by creating a rough character profile for each of your main players, paying special attention to your protagonist. Write down everything you already know about them, from their appearance to their key personality traits to their family history.
Not all of this information will be included in the actual story, but it's vital for you as the author to know your characters inside out so you can write them effectively and realistically.
Next, it's time to consider each character's arc – the transformation or journey they will undertake throughout the series. As discussed above, character development is vital to any series; static characters just don't cut it over multiple books. At the end of the story, most of your characters (especially your protagonist) should not be the same people they were the start.
(The exception to this is a character such as James Bond, who undergoes relatively little development throughout Ian Fleming's series of novels. Nowadays, however, the discerning reader is likely to look for more complex characters to become invested in, even in the action/thriller genre.)
To get yourself thinking about character arcs, briefly note down some answers to the following questions:
- What does each character want? What are their desires, goals and motivations?
- What changes and developments will each character undergo throughout the course of the series? Will their desires change? Will their mindset and worldview be different by the end of the story? What will happen to put this change in motion?
- What are the key events or turning points in each character's arc?
- Is there any information you can withhold about a character, in order to reveal it with impact later in the story?
- How will the relationships between various characters change and develop throughout the story?
Once you've answered these questions, you'll begin to see patterns of transformation forming. These will go hand-in-hand with your plot to form the foundation on which your series is based.
A note on character consistency
While your characters must undergo a transformation, there must also be some measure of consistency in their depiction. You cannot force their development through rapid changes; nor can you advance the plot through actions that are unrealistic or blatantly out-of-character.
Consistency is something you'll mainly be checking during the revision process, but it doesn't hurt to keep it in mind while you're writing as well. It could save you some valuable time and effort at the end of the process.
BONUS TIP: Be sure to consider how and when you will add new characters to keep things interesting. While it's wise to concentrate on getting readers invested in the main characters you introduce from the outset, you can't expect them to stay engaged through multiple books that only involve the same band of characters.
Perhaps consider holding off on introducing one or two key players until later in the series, rather than all at once at the beginning.
Step 4: Work on your setting
Setting is of vital importance in a series, no matter what the genre. If readers are to stay with you for multiple books, you must create a setting rich enough to immerse them and complex enough to sustain their interest. They must want to return to the world you've created, whether it be completely imagined (as in fantasy or science fiction) or realistic (as in a crime or mystery series).
Whichever kind of series you're writing, you should start this part of the planning process by writing down everything you already know about your setting. Note down any aspects you want to include, big or small, and keep the list handy throughout your writing and revision processes.
To break things down a little, let's take a look at how setting is used in two of the most common series-based genres: speculative fiction and crime/mystery.
World-building in fantasy and science fiction
The process of creating a setting in speculative fiction is often referred to as world-building. This is because in fantasy and science fiction novels, writers are creating whole worlds from the ground up. Setting is more important than ever. Your setting's magical, futuristic, dystopian or technological elements are what sets your book apart – both from other genres and other novels.
Before you launch into writing your spec-fic series, you need to lay some groundwork for your world-building. Consider the following elements of your world and if/how they will come into play throughout the series:
- Magic or technology
- System of government/power structures
- Culture and society
- Climate and environment
Perhaps create a document for each of these elements and use it to collate your notes before you start writing in earnest. Get to know your world as much as possible so that when you do begin the writing process, you can immerse yourself entirely in the story rather than trying to figure out minute setting details.
Setting as mood in crime/mystery
Setting is just as important in a crime and mystery series as it is in speculative fiction. In this genre, however, the primary function of the setting is to help create the mood of the series as a whole. It's all about atmosphere; about a sense of place; about creating a setting so vivid and detailed that it could almost be considered a character itself.
As Stuart Evers points out in an article for The Guardian:
A sense of place is important in most novels, but in modern crime fiction, I believe, it's practically an imperative. It's something hinted at in the smog-soaked London of Holmes's cases, and in the country houses of Allingham and Christie."
To plan the setting of your crime or mystery series, think about the sort of atmosphere you want to create. For example, if you're writing a bleak, gritty detective drama, you should aim to let those feelings (bleakness, grittiness) infuse your setting. You can achieve this through descriptions of things like the weather and the environment in which your characters find themselves.
Familiarise yourself with your story's sense of place as much as possible before you start writing in earnest. Immersing yourself in the world of your story will help give your series a consistent, authentic feel.
BONUS TIP: Consider creating a Pinterest account dedicated solely to the planning of your series. Pinterest can be a great source of inspiration and a wonderful way to visualise settings and characters while you plan your series. Take a look at our video, How Authors Can Use Pinterest For Fiction Writing & Novels, to find out more about this handy tool.
Step 5: Start writing!
You've finally made it to the final step in the process – and it's the most enjoyable step of all! After all your hard work and careful planning, it's time to jump into the actual writing of your series. Let's finish off this guide with a few general hints, tips and tricks.
Tips for writing a series
- Keep a digital or physical folder full of all your notes and ideas about the series. This will be your Bible, to which you'll undoubtedly need to make constant reference during the lengthy writing process.
- Never edit as you go, and never backtrack to include new details you've thought of unless it's absolutely vital to do so. Instead, make notes of any problems, ideas or missing parts that occur to you and amend them when you've finished your draft and are conducting a complete edit.
- If you're finding yourself stuck at a particular part of your series, try to move on so as not to disrupt the flow of your writing. Remember that you don't necessarily have to write in chronological order; you can write scenes as they appear in your mind, and fit them all together in the proper order later.
- Try to avoid the clichés of your genre. In fantasy, for example, the 'chosen one' character arc is a little overdone; likewise, the tough, virtually invincible action hero is a tired trope of the crime/thriller genre. Try to turn these kinds of clichés on their head and subvert reader expectations with original plot, theme and character elements.
While committing to a series is a big step, and can be overwhelming at times, it's important to remember why you decided to do it in the first place. You chose to write a series because you have a story you want to tell, and because you have a passion for writing. Let that story and that passion bolster you throughout the process, and you'll be on the right track.
We wish you the best of luck!