Thursday, May 17, 2012

Organizing a Series, Part 1

Today and tomorrow, I'm going to talk about how to organize a book series and list some tools that I use to do so.

Series are common in genre writing: trilogies are popular in fantasy/science fiction and romance, longer series in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre and in fantasy/science fiction. Series can be of many types, such as:

- A) a long story told over multiple novel-length volumes (common in science fiction/fantasy, eg. Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings)
- B) a set of novels that are discrete stories written about related characters (common in romances, eg. Nora Roberts' trilogies)
- C) a set of novels that are discrete stories but that all involve the same main character(s), each can usually be read as a stand-alone (common in mysteries)

Often authors don’t know they’re writing a series until after they’ve written the first book, when their publishers ask them to turn a book into a series, or the author decides to do so. My RM Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner was planned. But my Claire Hanover gift basket designer one wasn’t. Regardless of whether you’re creating a series plan before or after the first book is written, there are some questions you have to answer:

1: How much to reveal in each book about what happened in prior book(s) in the series. If it’s a long story told over multiple volumes, the author is almost obligated to give the reader a summary of what’s happened so far to bring the reader up to speed, because they’re being plopped into a story mid-stream. If you’re writing one of the other two kinds of series, you want to give readers a tantalizing glimpse of what happened before, to plant the desire to read the other books. But you don’t want to frustrate them with what they missed. And you never give away the essential elements of the plot or the ending, because you don’t want to ruin that reader’s future satisfying read of the earlier book. You have to walk a fine line, and usually it’s better to err on the side of not showing enough rather than too much.

2: How much to go over the same ground that was covered in previous books, especially when it comes to characterization or describing the setting. You don’t want to bore the reader who’s read all the previous books, and for example, how many ways are there to describe blue eyes and blond hair or the layout of the main character’s house? How much of the characters’ backstory and relationships has to be retold? The key is variety, saying the same thing in different ways, and breaking up the retelling into small bits. Insert the bits where they’re needed, much like you do with the backstory of what happened in the characters’ lives before the series started.

3: Does my series “have legs”? Is there enough material there for more books? Make sure your main character(s) is strong (fully-fleshed out) and has a rich life, with lots of interesting characters as friends or relatives, lots of problems (emotional issues), a complex backstory that can be stressed and reappear in future books, and a career or avocation that will keep putting him or her in interesting situations. If the series is of the first type, where the protagonist is battling the same antagonist across multiple volumes, the antagonist has to be just as strong and rich. If the series is the second type, those related characters need to be introduced in the first book.


Many writers have trouble keeping track of the events (story arcs) and how they change the characters (character arcs) in a single book-length novel. The series writer, though, has the even more difficult challenge of keeping track of those over the course of many novels that can span multiple years in both the writer’s life and the lives of his or her characters. You can have arcs that span one book, so they must be introduced and resolved with a single novel. Or you can have series arcs that span multiple books in a series, either a subset of books, say two to four, or ALL of the books in the series (eg. Harry Potter).

The main character needs to grow and change at least somewhat with each book, because a character with no growth is boring. The main character should learn something in each book, and that knowledge will change her. BUT s/he can’t change so much that someone who reads Book 1 then skips to Book 7 doesn’t still recognize the main character as familiar. Often in a mystery series, the overall arc is the main character’s love life—the sleuth may start out single, meet someone, break up, meet someone else, an old flame may return so the main character has to make a choice, s/he may get married, the spouse may die or disappear, etc.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss what information a series author has to keep track of and what tools I use to do it.


Gloria Alden said...

You bring up some excellent points on writing and maintaining a series, Beth. I'm keep a record of each character and write descriptions and information about each and add to it when necessary. Otherwise, it's hard to remember things, especially about minor characters who return.

The roast of Elizabeth Peters at Malice, where the other authors brought up things where she'd deviated, and or repeated descriptions of her characters showed this is a problem with writers of series.

Excellent blog, Beth. I'm still looking forward to reading Wicked Eddies, but the excessive yard work and gardening needed this time of the year along with two long book club choices has me awfully busy and falling asleep early.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the great information. I look forward to your next post.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Gloria and Donna, for your comments! And, don't work TOO hard on that yard work, Gloria. ;-)