Writing a series

There is no doubt that series sell. Once readers have enjoyed one book about a character, they are likely to want another, and ebooks make that next book just a click away.

Before you can create a series, you need a really strong idea. Take time to get this right and make sure you have the two essentials:

  • A strong main character or characters who will feature in every story.
    Even if your idea involves a large group of people, try to focus on one or two who the readers can really care about. Don’t make them too perfect, but make sure their character flaws are ones readers will relate too. They are far more likely to identify with someone who is impetuous or scared of heights than they are with someone who delights in murdering cats.
  • Plenty of plot potential
    A quick brainstorm of plot ideas needs to produce at least three, but preferably six or more, with the potential to become a book. These might come because your characters move around meeting new challenges and dangers, as happens in Star Trek and Doctor Who. Alternatively, your main characters may stay in much the same place while other people or events enter their lives to trigger storylines. Police procedurals, school stories and hospital dramas fall into this group.

Testing your idea
Once you’ve got your basic idea worked out, sit back and think how much you like it. Do you feel passionate about your characters? Are you dying to get to work developing those plots? If the answer to those two questions is “No”, this might not be the right idea for you, even if it is fantastically commercial. A successful series means writing book after book about the same characters and if you’re not too keen on them now, you’ll be heartily sick of them after book 8. So don’t create a millstone around your own neck Go back to the drawing board and start again.

Linking books together
Most series have an overarching storyline that carries the reader from book to book. If that’s going to consist of relatively minor developments in a character’s life that form a background to the main stories, you can probably work it out on a book by book basis. But if it’s much more integral, like the struggle to defeat Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, it’s better to work it out in advance. Either way, each of the books still needs to contain a complete satisfying story in its own right, even if you leave loose ends in the over-arching plot to be tied up in later books.

Getting started
Once you’ve developed your idea, it’s time to move on to the actual writing. Because you need to introduce your readers to the whole scenario for your series, it sometimes helps to start the first story at a time of change for your main character – a new school for teacher or pupil, a new assistant arrives for a detective or a new job for your doctor. Then your reader can learn about the setting along with the new arrival. But remember that you don’t need to reveal everything straightaway. A few unanswered questions can help keep readers turning the pages.

It’s best not to introduce too many characters at once. Readers can give up if they feel they are drowning in a sea of names so try to concentrate on the characters (good and bad) who are important to this particular story and let the others shrink unnamed into the background for now. You can always feature some of them  in more detail in later books.

Avoid painting yourself into a corner
When you start your series, you have a completely free hand that’s subject only to any restrictions imposed by the setting and you don’t even have those if your series is set in a different world. But as soon as you start writing, you start to set your idea in stone. If your police inspector turns left out of his office to reach the canteen in book 1, he’ll need to do the same in book 8 unless you’ve worked a station redesign into one of your plots.

A little detail like that shouldn’t cause you much trouble unless you forget it, but some choices you make will have more far reaching consequences. If your character can’t run fast in book 1, he won’t be able to escape the tiger in book 4 and you may live to regret creating rules of magic that restrict how many spells your wizard can perform in one day.

Don’t kid yourself that your readers won’t notice if you change things you’ve already established, either deliberately or by mistake. I assure you they will and some of them will take the trouble to write to tell you. So, as soon as you set to work on your series, create what’s called a ‘series bible’ to record all the important details as you invent them. Then stick to it or, if you really have to change something, make sure there’s a valid reason for the change in the story. For instance, in the previous two examples, your character could take up jogging to improve his running speed or your wizard could find a magic wand with the power to cast an unlimited number of spells.

Diana Kimpton