I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.
So, who am I to talk about writing a book series? My soon-to-be-released novel, Absence of Blade, is the first volume of the six-part Expansion space opera series. This story has gone through many permutations, but I always knew it would be a story I’d have to tell in multiple volumes. And that’s one defining characteristic of a series: the story has to be big enough to warrant multiple books.
There are different ways to do this. To figure out if your story idea would best be served by a series, it might help to look at some common types of series below.
Types of Series and Considerations for Each
The Single-Arc Series
This first subtype is probably the most common type of series. An example that’s likely familiar to anyone reading this is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones. What do I mean by single arc? Essentially, there’s an overarching, plot-driven story that begins in the first volume and is more or less tied up by the last volume.
Pros: A single-arc series works really well for giving your story the same sense of urgency and stakes of a standalone book, while the series format gives you leeway to craft a more ambitious plot and larger cast of characters than is workable for a single book.
Cons: With a single-arc series, you run the risk of reader fatigue; especially if readers have to wait a long time between installments, they can grow impatient waiting for the resolution and may well decide to move on to a more productive author.
There are a few ways you can mitigate this, such as planning out your series beforehand so you can write it more quickly, writing shorter series that are quicker to produce, or having two or more series going at the same time. That way, if you ever find yourself needing a break from one, you can switch to the other and still keep up a regular output.
The Episodic Series
The second-most common type of series is what I call the episodic series. The story follows a few main characters through a series of standalone adventures that take place in the same universe. A good example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, which can be read in any order. Although the novels do make reference to what came before, it’s not necessary to have read the previous installments to understand the current one. Instead, the series is held together by its focus on Miles and other recurring characters.
Pros: One obvious pro of this approach is the standalone nature of each installment. If readers don’t have to have read what came before, they can dive in at any point of your series, enjoy it, and come back for more. Some of the longest running and most popular book series, such as Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, take advantage of the episodic series’ newbie-welcoming format.
Cons: The flip side of the coin is that you must do a greater amount of worldbuilding and setup with each new book. Single-arc series offer considerably more slack, with the assumption that anyone who’s read the first one or two volumes more or less knows the characters and plot arc by book three. In contrast, with an episodic series, every new book must be treated as potentially the first time your readers are encountering your universe.
The Shared World Series
The last major subtype is what I like to call the Shared World series: while this type of series may have recurring characters, typically it follows a new cast for every book, with the unifying factor being that the stories take place in the same universe. An example is Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: each volume takes place in the Culture universe but starts fresh with a new story and characters.
Pros: Shared world series give the writer even more freedom than episodic series, since they only have to establish the existing world with each installment. This kind of series offers a lot of opportunity to create a sprawling universe while avoiding the danger of overly repetitive storylines that can come with the episodic series.
Cons: On the other hand, the writer of a shared world series has fewer shortcuts available to get readers invested in the story and characters. Since the plot is not a continuation from earlier volumes, and the characters aren’t people the reader might be expected to know, the writer has to do all the work of both plot setup and character setup just as they do with a standalone book.
Standalone Novels Are Still Okay
With all the hoopla about series these days, writers might well wonder if it’s even worth writing a standalone novel. My answer is, absolutely! Your choice to write a single book or a multiple-volume series should be determined by one factor above all–the needs of your story. If you think the story can be told effectively in a single volume, listen to that. You don’t serve yourself or your readers by cramming the narrative with filler to stretch it over multiple books just because “series are hot right now”. Write that one book. Many readers enjoy the change of pace offered by a standalone. Plus, you may find that one book inspires ideas for more in the future. Some of the best series are those that arise organically.