As most of you know, the last few weeks I’ve been researching series writing as a way to get my head around not only my next book (no. 2 in a series), but also the next however many I get to write with this world and characters. As a reader I hate the series that fizzle or get repetitive, and it breaks my heart to see the ones that go off the rails. When you love something, you want to follow it to the ends of the earth – and my goal these past weeks has been to figure out how to write something worth loving, something that works past Book 5, that makes for a beautiful and interesting full series. Here’s some of the initial thoughts and information that’s come up in my research.
A novel or short story should have at least one story question (often more) established at the beginning and brought through the entirety of the story. When all of the story questions are answered, the story feels complete. It’s over. Posing another question starts another story.
The rules are a little different for a series. With a series, there are some story questions it will take multiple books to answer. But, to make each book complete, there must be a central story question that applies to this particular book – a question that must be completely answered by the end. The relative weight of the answered questions vs. the unanswered questions determine whether the series feels like connected episodes or one long story – or somewhere in between.
Limitations – or, Consistency
A series has to hold together, meaning every book needs to feel like part of a larger whole. One of the chief ways this is accomplished is through the use of limitations. Basically, you can’t change the rules in Book Five to add ghosts to the world without some careful foreshadowing all the way back to Book One. And even then, you run the risk of losing readers as you change the rules on them. Basically, the universe you set up originally needs to be the universe that exists forever and ever – with new areas to explore, for sure, but with the same rules.
This applies to characters and plot in addition to worldbuilding. A character’s driving motivation (the two things that make him who he is) need to remain constant over the course of a series, or at minimum, change very very slowly and only one at a time. To give an example, in the series my friend James Tuck is writing, the main character’s family has been killed and his driving motivation for hunting monsters is the hope that one of them will kill him someday. (He’s Catholic and can’t kill himself.) A lot of things can happen to this character as he learns and changes. He can have a new girlfriend. He can face bigger, badder monsters, open a club, even adopt werewolf kids (not that I think this is in the cards for this guy). But if he stops wanting to join his family and die, it becomes a different kind of book.
In the same way, if the first book has a murder case (like mine does), the audience is going to expect a murder case in the second book. It can be a very different kind of murder, in a different location or social class. I could probably also get away with a difficult missing persons case, or a rape, later in the series. But it would be too far to stretch for the plot to lose the mystery element completely, to become a heartwarming story about a parcheesi tournament. It wouldn’t be a series book anymore. That’s what I mean about series – similar plot, style, character hotpoints, and even consistent worldbuilding all have to work together for the series as a whole.
Keeping It Fresh – or, Avoiding the Same Book Syndrome
We’ve all had that experience where a series we loved just stopped being fun. Sometimes this is because the books lose the energy they had in the beginning, or (worse) when they start repeating themselves. A lot of the research I did on series had to do with avoiding these two pitfalls.
A big part of it is character. If the main character(s) can grow and change over the course of the book and the series, that keeps things fresh and interesting. To accomplish this, every book has to matter. Every plot has to impact the character(s) in a personal way, and they will not be the same person they were at the start of the book – or the start of the series. Having authentic growth and change without changing the character’s hotpoints (see above) can be tricky, but it’s very possible. An example that a lot of authors in my generation point to is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series – Miles has very different adventures over the course of a lifetime, but as much as he grows and changes from book to book, he’s still Miles. He’s still clever and flawed in the same way he was at the beginning.
Most writers talking about keeping a series fresh point to plot elements: new challenges, new cases (for mystery/thrillers), higher stakes. Michael Stackpole even talks about what he calls an essential step to a good series, what he calls the “away game.” Taking the main character away from his/her comfort zone and support system for awhile shows you who they truly are, he says. Then, every book afterwards happens in light of this new understanding. Many of the writers in my writer’s group point to stakes: putting more in danger, making things more personal as you go through the series. The downside to this, of course, is that if you move too fast you’re in danger of worldwide stakes over and over again, which gets boring.
The last suggestion I’ve run across for keeping things fresh (while maintaining series limitations) is to pick up threads from previous books and plant threads in the current book, so that existing characters become more or less important, and people and ideas develop in a deeper way from book to book. Take something you thought was minor at the time and make it a big deal in the next book – this, I think, is one of the best suggestions I’ve run into.
I’d love to hear your opinion on what makes a series succeed or fail. What are your favorite series and what makes them tick? What are your biggest disappointments as readers of series and what do you think made them go wrong?