Many writers dream of creating a successful series. The books are easier to write, as you already know your characters, setting, genre, and voice. Readers who are happy with the first book have an easier time buying the second, so you have a built-in market.
But creating a series is challenging. In this article we’ll discuss whether you’re ready, whether your project has potential, and some odds and ends about series.
Are you ready to write a series?
- Do you have the writing experience to tackle this? If not, start with smaller projects, or at least start with a book that could lead to a series, but does not have to be a series – see discussion below.
- Do you have the time and energy? Writing a series takes years, sometimes decades, with hours devoted to the project. If you’re a mother with several small children, or the CEO of a start-up (or vice versa), you may simply not have the time.
- Do you love this stuff? First, you have to love writing. Second, you have to love this particular line of writing. You’re going to immerse yourself in this story-verse, so you need to like your characters, setting, plot and even the voice.
- Do you want to be known for this? If fame does come, will you be happy and proud to be known for this story?
Answering “no” to any of these questions does not mean you must abandon this dream, but that you should consider adjustments. Get experience, find time, and tweak your project until it’s one you love.
Does your project have potential?
Not all stories should continue forever. Romances, for example, usually reach a point where they should move on to the happily-ever-after stage. Too many twists and obstacles are frustrating, and what starts as a great story morphs into a soap opera full of dysfunctional characters.
Every genre is different, but here are some steps you can take to increase your project’s sequel possibilities:
- Setting. Design or pick a story-verse where plenty can happen. For example, you can make your settings rich, as Joss Whedon did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the school was on top of a Hellmouth) and Firefly (the solar system was full of planets and moons).
- Young characters. Agatha Christie, who wrote most of her mysteries from the 1920s to the 1960s, regretted making Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple elderly in their original appearances. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, sensibly started with Harry Potter’s 11th birthday.
- Multiple protagonists. One way to continue a series is to change the focus from one character to another as you move from one novel to the next. This can be done by continuing with a son or daughter, and works best if you make your future stars intriguing sidekicks in earlier works.
- Loose threads. You can end your story with a cliffhanger, in which case you owe your readers a sequel, or you can leave less important questions unanswered. For example, in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, the fate of Will Tanner Senior is not resolved but left for a sequel.
What makes a series?
There’s more than one type of series, but the formula dictates that the books are written by the same author, with more or less the same characters, in the same genre and with the same voice.
- Tight connections: In some series, the story continues from one book to the next, such as in the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games had especially brutal cliffhangers, so I am relieved that I did not start reading until after all three books were written (I like instant gratification).
- Loose connections: Many mysteries series use this approach, with the same characters detecting from one novel to the next, such as Donna Leon’s series featuring Guido Brunetti in Venice or Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series.
- No connections. Other series are comprised of novels that are standalone but similar, so readers can read in any order but still experience the same flavor and mood when moving from one book to the next. For example, I write mysteries using the settings of Jane Austen’s novels. My mystery based on Pride & Prejudice has different characters than my mystery based on Emma, but the two books can be considered part of a series.
- Exceptions exist. The above are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Some series have books written by many different authors (consider Star Wars novels); sometimes authors shift genres when moving from one novel to the next. What you do with the formula is up to you. Just remember, the formula exists for a reason and deviating can be risky.
What if the first book flops? The sad fact is that you’ll probably have more trouble selling the second. This is especially true with stories that are tightly connected. In fact, you may not even be able to get promotional outfits, such as Bookbub, to run promotions for any but the first book.
If you truly love your story, you may choose to continue writing anyway, and hope that somehow that sales will happen. If you’re motivated by more traditional definitions of success – financial or number of readers - you may decide to abandon the series and move on to something else.
Undertaking a series is a big commitment, but a successful series is incredibly rewarding, both emotionally and financially. This article has pointed out ways to prepare yourself and choices to consider in order to create a series that keeps both you and your readers returning for more.
Levis Keltner •
Andrew Knighton •