The Stuff Series Are Made Of
by Karen S. Wiesner

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"The disease of writing is dangerous and contagious." (Abelard to Heloise) Following a series can also become a relentless obsession -- an obsession that's the hallmark of why readers read series, why writers write them, and why publishers publish them. The mania is spreading. So how do you get started? There are a lot of things to work out when writing a fiction series.

Developing a Plan for Your Series

If a series doesn't have a "tie" that connects each book, it could hardly be called a series. Developing the ties from one book to the next prevents readers from questioning the point of the series. These ties can be any or even all of the following:

As in the examples mentioned above, what connects the books in a series should be evident in each entry. Ensuring this kind of continuity requires advance planning. Ideally, you want to start developing your series ties as early as you can. To get things going, let's consider what separates series writing from novel writing.

1) Understanding Story Arcs Verses Series Arcs

Every work of fiction has a Story Arc or a continued storyline. The Story Arc is introduced, developed and concluded within the individual book. In contrast, a series almost always has a Series Arc as well. A Series Arc is a long-term plot thread that's introduced in the first book, alluded to in some way in each subsequent book, but only resolved in the final series book. The only exception to this rule is an open-ended series in which each book stands alone, and there's no Series Arc that resolves in the last book. Examples of open-ended series include the Stapleton and Langdon series mentioned above.

Series that have a definitive end do need a Series Arc, whether clearly or subtly defined. The Series Arc is generally separate from the individual Story Arcs of each book, though they must fit together seamlessly to provide a logical progression throughout the series. As an example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the Story Arc is the sorcerer's stone plotline. The Series Arc, in the most simplified terms, is good overcoming evil -- manifested in Harry's ongoing and developing conflict with Voldemort. The Series Arc runs progressively and cohesively beneath the individual Story Arcs in each successive book.

Must a series that's not open-ended have a Series Arc? Absolutely! In a series that will have definitive closure, you've presented a situation in the first book that must be settled satisfactorily in the last. Without that, readers who have invested time, money, and passion will feel cheated. To write a series is to promise an acceptable resolution. If, in the course of Brandon Mull's Fablehaven Series, Kendra and Seth didn't defeat the evil threatening the Fablehaven preserve, Mull would have left his fans crying foul because he broke the pledge of a satisfactory resolution implied in the first book.

Spell out your Series Arc for yourself as much as you can so you can work from that premise from start to finish.

2) Evaluating C-S-P Series Potential

Readers fall in love with characters, settings and plots. They want conflict, but don't want you to hurt their heroes. They different stories, yet don't want things to change. But a character, setting or plot that doesn't change also doesn't evolve, doesn't remain life-like, and eventually becomes boring.

Series characters, settings and plots should have longevity and intriguing potential that continues to grow, rather than stagnate or wane, throughout the course of a series. Consider the three P's that make characters (and just as certainly settings and plots!) three-dimensional:

  1. Personality (multi-faceted with strengths and weaknesses, and capable of growing, being molded, deeply delved, and stretched)

  2. Problems (combining light and dark, good and evil, simple and complex -- not necessarily in equal parts)

  3. Purpose (evolving goals and motivations wide enough to introduce new and unpredictable themes into a series but narrow enough for focus in individual stories)

Without the introduction of something new for series characters, settings and plots, you'll give your readers nothing to hope for beyond the first book. The best way to plant seeds for series exploration is to evaluate your C-S-P (Character-Setting-Plot) potential. Basically this means establishing "Plants" in the first and middle books that can be used at any time during the life of the series to expand all three of these components. Naturally, the sooner you set these up, the more believable they'll be when it's time to fully develop them.

As an example, in the Robert Langdon Series, the main character frequently mentions the Mickey Mouse watch he wears -- not something most grown men would be caught dead in. In his case, it was a gift from his parents on his ninth birthday, something rife with sentimental value. And considering that much of this series revolves around 24-hour deadlines, the significance of this object is heightened. If the first time the symbolic accessory was mentioned was when Langdon was thrust in a tank of breathable oxygenated liquid in Book 3, the reader would have been figuratively drowned as a consequence. Luckily, this item was planted early enough that its appearance over the course of the series didn't feel contrived or convenient to the plots.

Most authors include numerous "Plants" in the first book in a series without realizing it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't insert them deliberately, too. When considering your C-S-P series potential, do free-form summaries for all of the questions below. Don't worry if you can't come up with much right away; simply use this as a jumping-off point as the series progresses. Go on the assumption that these seeds may be planted (and left mostly unexplored) in the early books for development in later titles:

Keeping one rule firmly in mind when you're planting series seeds will give you longevity and flexibility for the road ahead: Always leave plenty of Plants unexplored! The last thing you want to do is lock yourself in too early. In the early books in the Pendergast Series, it was revealed that the FBI agent's wife had been killed years earlier. Superficial details about this death were alluded to but kept sparse and flexible so that, when the authors moved into their Helen Trilogy quite a few books later, they could easily mold this event any way they needed to. Had they locked down specific details early on, the trilogy might never have seen the light of day.

Hints and allusions are ideal -- even required -- when you're introducing C-S-P series potential in one book and developing it in another. From one book to the next, explore the facets of C-S-P slowly, developing them as you go along instead of all at once. If you give too much detail too soon, you may find it hard to change or adapt when the time comes to use a Plant.

Additionally, keep in mind that, if no one wants to see more of these characters, settings, and the series premise over the long haul, the series is pointless. Always spin established facts on their axis so the reader will have a new, emotional and unexpected journey in each story within the series. Every offering must be at least as exciting as the one before. These are the ingredients that bring readers back for more.

Organizing Series Details

The best way to not to write a series is to have no organization whatsoever. Unless you organize your details, you'll miss countless opportunities to plant and develop seeds for C-S-P series potential as well as force yourself to backtrack to clear up issues that arise. You may even write yourself into a corner. Establishing the basics can give you numerous insights for further developments.

While established authors may be capable of outlining every book in a series before writing even one, that may not be possible for everyone. Maybe the only way for you to figure out where you're going with your series is to write the first book, then set it aside while you think about the next and those that are to follow. Which characters will take the lead? What story will be told and what conflicts will arise? What seeds can you plant in the first book to prepare readers for the next ones? The more you can brainstorm on these things, the more developed each story will be when you start working on it. Never underestimate the value of keeping a story (and series!) sitting on the backburner of your mind.

How much pre-planning you ultimately do is up to you, but I recommend attempting two things.

Blurbing the Series and Story Arcs

Building on your C-S-P potential, the next step in figuring out where you're going is to write blurbs for the series and its individual stories. Play with them and don't expect perfection the first time. You can work with them more as your series progresses.

When creating a Series Blurb, you're not focusing on individual stories but on the series as a whole to get the gist of what it's about. If the Series Blurb is done well enough, it will accurately reflect what every book in the series is about in a concise, intriguing summary. Remember your Series Ties while you're working, since they'll help you figure out what your Series Arc should be. In no more than four sentences, define your Series Arc by using "leads to" logic (note that the components don't have to be in order, nor is a resolution required since you may not want to defuse the intrigue or tension):

Introduction --> Change --> Conflicts --> Choices --> Crisis --> Resolutions

Here's an example from my Incognito Series:

The Network is the world's most covert organization. Having unchallenged authority and skill to disable criminals, the Network takes over where regular law enforcement leaves off in the mission for absolute justice. (introduction) The price: Men and women who have sacrificed their personal identities (choices) to live in the shadows (change) and uphold justice for all (conflicts) -- no matter the cost. (crisis)

Next, try blurbing the individual stories you foresee in the series. It's all right if you've only gotten as far as brainstorming one or two books. Start with what you have and go further as more comes to you. This process should help your ideas multiply.

In order to begin, you need at least a working knowledge of which characters will take the lead in individual stories and what each Story Arc (conflict) will be. If it helps, try writing free-form summaries covering the who, what, where, when, and why of each story. Now let's create a back cover blurb using this equation (if you have more than one main character, do this for each):

________________ (name of character) wants _________________(goal to be achieved) because _________________ (motivation for acting), but faces _____________________ (conflict standing in the way).

By filling in the blanks, you'll flesh out your Story Blurb. As before, you can mix up the order of the components. Let's look at an example of the Story Blurb from Dark Approach, the twelfth in my Incognito Series:

Network operatives and lovers Lucy Carlton and Vic Leventhal (Name Of Character{S}) have spent years living in the shadows, the property of the covert organization they gave their loyalty to in the lofty pursuit of justice for all. (Motivation For Acting) Disillusioned, they're now determined to live their lives on their own terms. When the Network's arch enemy secretly approaches the two about defecting—freedom for information that will disable the Network (Goal To Be Achieved) -- the couple must choose between love and loyalty. In the process, they jeopardize the Network's anonymity...and its very existence. (Conflict Standing In The Way)

Blurbing in this way will expand your series and get you excited about writing it.

The appeal of the series is obvious: You don't have to leave behind characters, place or premise in a single book. You can continue with a whole series of them! While each story should stand on its own, no series book should feel quite complete without the others since readers are invested mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The best news is, after reading the first book in a series, they'll crave infinitely more as long as each offering is an absolutely killer read.

Find Out More...

Lynn Flewelling: Writing the World of the Series - Moira Allen

Planning the Series Novel - Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson

The Writer's Marathon: Seven Challenges to a Successful Series - Victoria Grossack
Copyright © 2014 Karen Wiesner
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 106 books published in a tremendous variety of fiction genres, including three trilogies and 13 series -- ranging from three to 12 books each. Her newest writing reference release is Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas (Writer's Digest Books). Visit Karen's website at and sign up for her free newsletter to qualify for her monthly book giveaways.


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