Writing one book is hard. Writing an entire series of books, with their interconnecting subplots, arcs, and golden threads, weaving first book to last, is even harder. It’s like doing a puzzle with no opposable thumbs and a blindfold wedged over your eyes. But there are things you can do, to help you progress through your series.
Create a Book Bible
The most useful lesson I ever picked up from writing a series is to create a book bible. This is a document containing all the most important information about your plot, characters and world without including the actual 100,000-word plot!
Why have a book bible? Unless you’re Einstein, I doubt you can remember every detail, character, timeline and subplot. Having a reference guide helps prevent you from turning a thin character into a podgy one or a science tech into a teacher. It can also be handy for other people working on your novel, like editors and beta readers.
What should you include? The list below is long (and not exhaustive), but only use what’s relevant to you and your series. My book bible started with just a few lines of notes; it’s taken three books to record all of the below.
- Timelines—for each book, the series as a whole, and even events that happened before the story started, if relevant
- Brief description of EVERY character—including distinguishing features and any key plot information where they change events or create action/tension
- Key characters’ ‘wants’ and motivations
- The character’s relationship to the protagonist or other key characters (where it’s relevant to a plot or subplot)
- Family trees
- Spelling of names, locations or special words—including relevant capitalization of words and made-up words
- A map or list of key locations–for example, the fact that your character always takes piano lessons on the 5th floor of a building
- World building laws—e.g., rules of magic, both how it can and cannot be used
- Societal structures—government, judicial, royal, military hierarchies, etc.
Most readers have to start a series at book one (an entry point). But that creates reader drop-offs because not everyone will read to the end of a long series. It also makes selling the final book in your series, decidedly harder than selling the first. And that gives you a giant marketing problem. But there are ways to get creative with the series and provide multiple entry points for your readers.
Bella Forrest does this beautifully with her multi-million-selling A Shade of Vampire series. It has seven “seasons,” each told from a different family’s viewpoint and containing around eight books. This gives Forrest’s whopping 50-plus book series seven entry points and lots of opportunity to read across the seasons.
When you’re planning your series, consider whether or not you could add one or more of the following:
- A prequel
- A novella slotted between two planned books
- A spin-off series based on other characters
Decide on a Series-Long Character Arc
One of the first lessons we learn as writers is to ensure our protagonist has a character arc – that they change and develop past their flaws into a fully-fledged hero at the end of your book. But what happens if you’re writing a series? Ensuring your characters are engaging for the entire series requires a little more thought. Here are some popular types of arcs you can use over a series:
Groundhog Day Arcs – These characters never change, no matter how many books you run them through (such as James Bond or Sherlock Holmes.)
Same Old Arcs – Characters in this model take an entire series to grow through their flaw—like Harry Potter, who works on leadership and confidence until he’s strong enough to defeat Voldemort.
New Story, New Problem – These characters have to overcome a new flaw or problem in each book. Or they have a different ‘thing’ to get over in each story arc. For example, Woody from Toy Story has to get over his jealousy of Buzz (film one), move past his ego in favor of his heart (film two), and let go of the past (film three.)
Line Up the Villains
Much as it pains me to say it (because I love a good villain), most villains have a three-ish book lifespan before your audience needs closure or you lose the believability of your hero and the credibility of your villain. If your character is chasing the same villain for ten books without any resolution, the audience is going to get tired. And yes, before you mention Harry Potter, I know he chased Voldemort for seven books.
Except, did he? Each Harry Potter book had a different villain or ‘antagonist’ that needed defeating, whether it was a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher or an ethereal form of Voldemort. But technically Voldemort himself didn’t ‘come back to life’ until the end of book four. Meaning each book had a separate villain or conflict, and Voldemort was the overarching series villain.
How do you keep th villain from getting stale over the course of your series? Here are some suggestions:
- Have two villains, one for the first half of the series and another for the second half
- Have a minor and a major villain—for example, a physical villain and a more societal or intangible villain that’s not embodied in a person. Like President Snow and The Capitol in the Hunger Games
- Have a different villain for each book
A Word On Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers are like Marmite: some readers love them, others hate them. But they’re mighty useful for keeping your audience ploughing through a series. If you include cliffhangers at the end of each book consider the following:
- You need to make absolutely sure you round off every other subplot and story arc in your book.
- Readers prefer faster releases in the series if there are cliffhanger endings.
Series are hard to write, but there are lots of things you can do to make yours the best it can be. Think about your individual book arcs as well as a series arc, consider how many villains you need to keep the story flowing, and finally, remember that more entry points equals more readers and more sales.
Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.