I know the first novel in a series is supposed to “stand alone,” but what exactly does this mean? Do I have to tie up all the loose ends? Won’t ending on a cliffhanger get readers to buy the next book?
Writing a series or trilogy of novels is all the rage right now. The dream of publishing a novel, for many writers, has turned into the dream of a successful series of novels with a mega-blockbuster movie deal. Writing a book series is very appealing to aspiring writers. But what makes a series successful?
It’s a lot more than simply writing a bunch of books about the same characters. Writing a great book series is like writing a great novel except three times bigger (for a trilogy) or four, five, ten, twenty times bigger (for a series), because not only does each novel have an arc, but so does the series as a whole.
If you’re writing or considering writing a novel trilogy or series, here are some things to keep in mind:
If I could only give you one single piece of advice, this would be it: plan ahead! The more plotting, outlining, and time-lining you do, the better your series will turn out. This prep work will save you from major headaches down the line. It will also enable you to provide details about the rest of the series to a prospective publisher, who’s going to want to know what the series has in store.
Create a Time Line
There is nothing worse than realizing halfway through book two that your super-amazing, carefully crafted plot doesn’t make sense because Pirate Pierre is supposed to take over the world two years before he was born. Time line issues can create major nightmares for a series writer, but can be easily avoided by maintaining a time line of your story. Creating one early will help you plan an error-free series.
Viewing your world’s history and your characters’ histories in a time line may also spark new ideas and interesting connections.
Create a Series Bible
Every time you introduce a concept, rule, or description, put it in a series bible (a big ol’ document full of information about your series). Then refer to this bible often as you write the books to ensure that you are following your own rules and maintaining consistency.
Some things you may want to include in your series bible:
- Character profiles, including their arc across each book and the entire series.
- Family trees or other charts of how characters are connected.
- Maps of locations or detailed written descriptions of the layout of the land.
- Any rules or laws established in the series.
- An explanation of how abilities or powers work and a list of their limitations.
Introducing Concepts that Become Relevant Later
Possibly the most challenging aspect of writing a series is introducing concepts that become relevant in later books. While not an absolute requirement, establishing concepts in early books can help create a consistant and “real” feel to the series.
Whenever you’re introducing a concept/character/ability/location/etc that will become relevant later, the key is to also make it relevant now, in book one. That doesn’t mean it needs to be central to the plot or even relevant to a major conflict, but it needs to feel like it’s being included for a purpose and/or its inclusion needs to be invisible to the reader.
If a minor character’s stinginess becomes the major conflict of book three, perhaps their stinginess causes a minor conflict in book one and a slightly larger one in book two. This way you establish their stinginess in a way that is relevant to the first two books rather than throwing it in as an extraneous detail.
“Hiding” the introductory of information is also an option. For example, you can use flippant comments from characters, jokes, warnings, etc. to introduce an idea in an unobtrusive way.
Keep in mind as you write or revise the first book in your series that anything you set up in the first book (no matter how insignificant) must be carried through the rest of the series. This is where planning the full series in advance can save you a lot of headache. If a law is mentioned in passing in book one, you are locked into following it, even if it prevents you from exploring a really cool plot line for book two.
Even if all you want to do is just make a teeny-tiny alteration to the character’s magical powers, readers will call your bluff. Your series will no longer feel realistic. Inconsistency shatters the illusion of the story.
Keep Loose Ends Strategic
It can be tempting to leave a variety of loose ends in the first novel in the series so that when writing subsequent books you can pick up whichever loose end seems most interesting or exciting. But a ton of loose ends can make a novel feel unfocused and cluttered. Plus leaving unanswered questions isn’t satisfying for readers.
If you leave a loose end, it needs to get tied up at some point in the series. So don’t leave a bunch of stuff dangling if you don’t intend to address it later.
Each Book Stands Alone
It is never okay to end a novel without a resolution. The first (or second or tenth) novel in a series is no exception. Every novel must stand alone on its own two feet with its own central conflict that gets resolved over the course of the novel.
Yes, there may be a bigger picture conflict that has not been resolved or you might imply a new conflict to tempt the reader to read the second book, but overall, the book should have some serious stand-alone appeal.
The most important thing to ask is: Does this book have value outside the context of a series? Would it sell if there were no sequels?
If you answer no, you’ve got some major reworking to do.
The Character Arc
Writing a character arc throughout a series of novels can be a challenge for some writers. While a character arc needs to be present in every novel, it does not necessarily need to be a different arc for every story. The character can have one arc that is broken into several stages.
For example, say you have a character who grows from being a spoiled rich girl to a worldly and generous heroine across the course of a series. Her character arc in book one may simply be accepting the fact that members of her society are impoverished. Perhaps she struggles to accept this because she was told it isn’t true. Maybe she blames the impoverished people for their plight for most of the novel, but her eyes are opened by the end.
In the second book in the series, perhaps she learns to accept life among the impoverished people, while in book three she learns to be willing to fight for them. The character arc can be broken into smaller chunks (or arcs) just like the plot of the series can be broken into smaller plot chunks (arcs) for each book.
The character arc can also be caused by the previous novel in the series. If a character makes a decision that results in the death of a friend, she may spend all of book two learning to accept herself and let go of the guilt.
Consider the “Connecting” Factor
What is the concept or element that will connect the books in the series? Is it the character’s ability? The world? A villain?
Whatever element of the series is the connecting factor, that element needs to be extremely strong. This is your series’ “hook.” Without one, there isn’t much reason for a series.
The thing is, publishers don’t want writers to create series just for the hell of it. There needs to be something that makes the series cohesive. It should not feel tangentially related, nor should it feel like an average character is followed through a series of unrelated obstacles across the series. There needs to be something exciting and consistent for the reader to latch onto.
Identifying and strengthening the appeal of this connecting factor can help you sell the idea to agents, publishers, or readers.
Avoid Being Stingy with Ideas
One common obstacle with writing a series is the temptation to “save” ideas for later books. You think up a cool concept but then hesitate to add it to book one. Wouldn’t it spice up book three a little more? you think.
The problem with saving ideas for later is that there won’t necessarily be a later. Even if the first book gets published, there is no guarantee any sequels will ever hit the shelves. If you’re stingy with your ideas, you’ll end up with a half-baked novel sitting on your hard drive rather than a fantastic standalone novel on book shelves.
Don’t Write a Series Because it’s Popular
A lot of big books recently have been a part of a series, and I think this has led a lot of writers to get dollar signs in their eyes when they think about landing a huge-o gigantic multi-book deal. But don’t just jump on the series bandwagon because you want to be more marketable.
In truth, many publishers are actively seeking out standalone novels because of the insurgence of writers selling series. There is a great market for both standalone and series novels. So don’t try to iron your plot as flat as a pancake to spread it over a trilogy. If a series develops, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s equally as great.
Homework: To Series or Not to Series
If you’re writing a series, consider whether your story is truly big enough to fill multiple books. Will each of these books have a full plot arc that would be satisfying outside the context of a series? Have you done a significant amount of prep work on your series? If not, spend some time today organizing your time line, outline, and series bible.
If you’re not writing a series, consider if the story you’re telling has series potential or is getting too big for its one-book britches. A good sign is a word count creeping up over 100,000.
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