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.
In Part 1, I took a quick look at three types of book series. Now it’s time to zero in on one of the biggest challenges of series writing: creating and maintaining a coherent plot and compelling characters over multiple books.
This post is necessarily going to focus on the Single-Arc series, since that type tends to make the most demands on plot and character. However, some of this advice is applicable to the Episodic and Shared World series as well.
What Writing a Series Is
Essentially, it’s telling a single, very long story. Before books or even writing existed, storytellers wove tales in the form of epic poetry and oral narratives that were commonly interconnected–in other words, a series. The reason that book series today are published in multiple volumes instead of as a single, massive book is the same reason the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh would have been told over the course of several nights around the campfire. Splitting a series into parts helps the audience or reader absorb it more easily, not to mention increases their anticipation for the next part.
Series have an advantage over standalone books in that they allow for more story; they give the writer the space and the word count to realize ambitious, nuanced plots full of both scope and depth. Characters have more room to grow and change, and readers have more time to become attached to them and follow their journeys.
However, the challenge of balancing plot and character can be exacerbated by the sheer size of a book series. With so much narrative space, it’s easier than ever to lose the thread of the plot or forget what your hero’s driving motivation is. This gets even trickier when you account for series’ tendency to develop large casts of characters.
5 Ways to Manage Plot and Character Across a Series
Create a series bible. Outlining is your friend. I’m a born outliner: for the latest installment in my Expansion Universe series, I sketched out the scenes and beats in 120 PowerPoint slides, indexed by color, and over 100 pages of supplemental handwritten notes. While you don’t have to be as detailed as this, it will be super helpful to have a solid set of notes delineating at least a tentative plot and character arcs. Do yourself a favor and back up your memory, which can be fallible, especially if it takes you months or years to write your series.
Give consideration to character arcs over the whole series. You know you need characters to grow and change over the course of a book; this is no less true over a series, and I’d say actually more so. I’ve seen reviewers complain about books where the characters don’t change, or worse, backslide from earlier development. Your plot should throw opportunities for growth at your characters over the whole series. Ideally, these challenges should build on growth we’ve seen in past volumes–for instance, by having your character respond to a familiar challenge in a new way
Have an idea of the endgame from the beginning. Readers aren’t too fond of a story that seems like it’s making things up as it goes along; this can often be a symptom of the writer not having a solid idea of where the story is going. Outlining the whole series before you begin, however sketchily, can help a lot. Some writers even advocate writing the whole series before publishing it, so you can go back and plump up earlier volumes based on what you know of the story by the end.
Give each book its own arc. Each installment of a series inevitably builds on what came before, and unless it’s the last one, will leave the overarching story incomplete. However, this shouldn’t mean you leave the arc of the current volume unfinished. There still needs to be a recognizable beginning, middle and end to the plot of the book. And please avoid cliffhangers! It’s okay if the story finishes on an uncertain note, but try to at least end on some kind of concluding beat to wrap up the action for the time being.
Establish each book as part of a whole. Having made sure the book stands on its own, it’s also important to include some form of recap. This helps both readers who may be coming into the series not having read previous volumes, and readers who may not remember what happened. Dropping in small details or summaries is better than infodumping. My rule is a paragraph or two of recap at most. If you can do it naturally by working it into the characters’ thoughts or dialogue, that’s even better.
I want to hear from you, writers: what are some of your strategies for wrangling plot and character across multiple books? What are some plotting challenges you’ve overcome (or are working on)?