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Planning the Series Novel
by Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson

Return to Fiction Tips & Techniques · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

You've just finished your novel and a strange thing has happened. You don't want to let the characters go. You begin to feel strongly that their work is not done, that there are many more stories this particular hero or heroine has to tell. Suddenly, an idea for another adventure for your female sheriff or male private eye inspires you to write yet another book. If so, you may be well on your way to developing a series.

How does Launching a Series Differ from Writing a Single Title?

Do you really want to develop your book into a series? There are definite pros and cons. Some writers believe series books are easier to sell. Is this true? Not necessarily, but there is definitely a potential for repeat business.

The first step is to decide whether you want to market your book as a single title or the first in a series. Creating a series takes a little more careful planning than developing a single title. You must plan not only for the first book, but the next several books as well.

If you decide to develop a series, then before you send the novel off, make sure that the character's lifestyle and history are sufficiently established in the first book to sustain two or three more books. If not, you may want to make some changes in the first novel, because once it is published, it will be too late.

Creating a Likeable Protagonist

In a series, the main character starts developing a past in the very first novel. This life history will remain with them through the duration of the series. Every decision the main character makes in one book will affect his or her future in subsequent books. To make a character real, they must have some kind of past, and you as an author must choose that past with care. If your heroine gets a divorce, she will remain a divorcee until the end of the series. If the hero is a widower with three children, his kids must play some role in the story from that point onward.

Personal Problems

Giving the main character a personal problem to solve can make him seem real to the reader. But the particular life dilemmas the protagonist is facing must be chosen with care, for any problem you introduce in the first novel must also be dealt with in following books. A personal problem can give the character depth, but after the third book it could become a tedious burden for both reader and author unless the problem is an integral part of the storyline and arises naturally from the character's personality.

Writers tend to be creative with giving their characters personal problems and handicaps. You will find blind detectives, quadriplegics, dyslexics, obsessive-compulsives and alcoholics. One important point to remember: once a permanent problem is set in a series, there can be no "miracle cure." This will be part of the story from now on. The main character must deal with the problem throughout the series.

It is wise to avoid stereotypes such as the alcoholic unless you can put a new slant on it. Ian Rankin succeeds in making this work for Rebus in his series because the need for alcohol grows naturally out of the character's situation and unique personality; it is almost a part of his overall makeup. If a character is portrayed as an alcoholic, then he must act like one and experience the emotional setbacks that go along with his particular weakness.

When developing a character, try to create a healthy balance. Too many problems and you're stuck with the emotional baggage from book to book. Not enough and your character appears one-dimensional. Sometimes a smaller problem for the character to solve will work just as well as a big one, especially if the book is action-based. If your character has six criminals to bring to justice before midnight, he may not need the added burden of a messy divorce, a broken leg, and three rowdy children to raise. But he does need to have some personal dilemma that will bring him to life for the reader.

Developing Minor Characters

Friends and family play an even more important part in a series because they will no doubt play a recurring role. Each character you introduce must be considered in the next book, whether or not they actually appear. It is easy to make careless mistakes, so charting a brief family history helps. This can be especially tricky if you did not plan to write a series from the beginning.

In a series, your character's life is under the microscope. Consistency becomes all-important. If he has a mother in the first book, she can't disappear in the second. If someone dies in the third book, they have to stay dead. This can affect the entire tone of the book more than a single title. If you kill off a minor character the hero loves, the grief does not miraculously disappear.

Romantic Interests and Subplots

Romance often develops between the hero or heroine and another character as a sub-plot. An on-going, off-and-on love interest can spice up a series and keep readers curious. However, in a long-running series it can sometimes be necessary to bring a love affair to a close.

For example, if your heroine is getting serious about one of the side characters, you may have to get him out of the picture by having some unresolvable difference of opinion come between them, or take extreme measures and have him meet up with a "rather nasty accident." Many authors use the accident ploy, but don't overuse it or your heroine will appear a black widow.

If romance leads to marriage in a series, then keep in mind that the spouse from that point on will have to have some important role to play in the series, such as joining the investigation. There have been many successful series where the investigators join forces to be a husband-wife team. But if that's not the kind of story you want to write, then leave your main character single.

Constructing a Believable Setting

In a series you build a setting you and your readers will return to again and again, so make it as real and as charming as possible. A quaint British village, a picturesque New England fishing community, a Navaho reservation have all been used to create unique settings for series novels. A setting can enhance a series, especially if your character seems a natural part of his environment.

Plan your town or fictional community carefully. If the bank is on the corner of Fifth Street in the first book, it must be on that same corner in the following books. Inconsistencies will be quickly spotted by readers. Once you have set a plan for a town or community, it cannot change unless changes are a result of natural growth or some disaster. The main character will interact with many of the people in the town, and will form relationships with them.

Dealing with Time in a Series

Time does not stand still. In the series, the time element is all-important. Many series authors deal with the time element by freezing their character at a point in time and roughly keeping him or her the same age throughout the series. This technique is often used in a series where the detective is there as an objective observer to solve the crime, and his or her personal life is an interesting "aside," not an integral part of the story's main events.

Another way of dealing with time is to have the character age naturally with each book. This works best with a series where the protagonist's personal life is deeply involved in the storyline. Life-changing experiences such as promotions, facing retirement, and other issues that come at different points in life can play a meaningful part of the story. However, if one character in the story ages, they all have to age, even the side characters.

Whatever method is used, it is important that the author be consistent throughout the series as a whole, either by having the characters remain basically the same age or aging a little at a time.

Tying up the Loose Ends

You should plan from the beginning whether you want your series to come to some kind of a close after three books, or keep running indefinitely. In a three-book series, readers expect some kind of closure, a happy ending such as a marriage, and a tying up of all sub-plots. An on-going series remains open-ended, always introducing fresh ideas and new characters.

Whatever you do, don't kill off your hero unless you are absolutely sure you never want to write about this character again!

A series novel takes a lot of planning. Once the first book has been published, all others must fall in sequence and there is little margin for error. If you take the time to do that planning at the beginning, it will save hours of time and heartache at the end.

Find Out More...

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

The Stuff Series Are Made Of - Karen Wiesner

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

Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson are the authors of forty-three novels. Their works include the Jeff McQuede High Country Mystery Series: Murder in Black and White, Whispers of the Stones, and Stealer of Horses, and the 8-book Ardis Cole Archaeological Series. Please visit their blog at http://vbritton.blogspot.com/.


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