Story Structure in a Series

This weekend I was privileged to participate in a panel discussion at the conclusion of a long day of writing workshops. 

The venue was the annual Write on the River conference in Wenatchee Washington – a great event, very professional and well attended – and I was among 12 presenters on a stage answering questions from a hearty handful of astute writers who had the energy to drag themselves in after a long day.

Someone asked about writing a series

They always do.  It’s one of the most-often asked questions I’ve personally heard, both at conferences and here on Storyfix. 

Specifically, writers want to know about how to structure a series.

Which makes it a great question.

Now, before I mount my soap box, allow me to confess that I’ve never written a series.  And I’ve only read a few.

Which, while I have an opinion, is why I didn’t try to be the first to answer this question at this particular Q&A.

I have written a sequel, and I must confess I had visions of a series… but that’s precisely my point today.

Back to Wenatchee… at the far end of the stage sat none other than the Master of fantasy series juggernauts, Terry Brooks.  Small wonder I didn’t chime in right away.  I was relieved to hear him unequivocally say what I have been somewhat equivocally saying on this issue, and would have written here anyway.

It’s good to be validated by someone who has sold over 30 million books.

There are a few things you need to understand about writing a series. 

And one of them is… maybe you shouldn’t be asking the structure question.  Even if it is a great one.

Because the question implies that series novels are somehow structured differently than stand-alone novels.

They are not.

Allow me to repeat that.  They are not.

Unless you kill off your hero, and if you give your hero the right role — detective, therapist, magician, columnist — then if and only if your book is successful you may have a shot at bringing that hero back for an encore.

Each book in your series needs to stand alone. 

As if it were written and intended as a stand-alone. 

Which means all the of the principles of structure, character and the tools of effective storytelling apply just as much to an entry in a series – especially the first novel – and in precisely the same way, as they do to any other book.

Stated another way, each book in a series needs to deliver a satisfying ending to the reader. 

What Makes a Series a Series

What I am about to say here may have exceptions.  Which I will put a fence around after I’ve said it.

A series is not a 500,000 word story published as five separate, sequential 100,000 word books.

That’s a fatal mistake.  That’s the first rule of selling a successful series.

A valid, publishable series from that same story would be five stand-alone novels, each with something in common:

–         a compelling hero that returns in each book…

–         an over-arcing thread of story premise that is not resolved in each book (such as the on-going search by Harry Potter to find and bring justice to his parents’ murderer), but is separate from the book-specific story…

–         other elements-in-common, such as setting or arena…

–         possibly a sequence of timeframes that age with each book…

–         … and, most importantly, each entry has a book-specific story that resolves itself.

A series is a recurring character in a recurring role.  That’s it.  It’s not the continuation of a single storyline.  That’s an option, not a requirement.

Harry Potter has both – a book-specific plot and an over-arcing storyline.  The book-specific plot always resolves itself.

Harry Bosch, on the other hand (the hero of many Michael Connelly mysteries), simply stars in each book.  There is no over-arcing story, per se. 

We see this in television all the time. 

In the current hit series Castle, for example, the hero, the primary characters and the set-up continue from episode to episode.

Castle has the same gig – he’s a bestselling novelist who is a friend of the Mayor of New York City, who has arranged his role as a consultant tag-along with a certain precinct and the gorgeous lead detective who calls the shots.

He and the hot lead detective – Beckett – have a sub-text of romance and sexual attraction that continues from week to week.

Castle’s life away from the station – his unbearably cute high school daughter and his unbearably overdone actress mother – continues from week-to-week in the guise of a sub-plot, without ever really becoming one.  More like comic relief.

But most importantly, each week presents a case to solve.  And unless it’s a 2-parter, the following episode’s caper is not connected to it in any way.

This model is all over television.  Every night.  Every season.

This is identical to the structural linkage between books in a series.

Before The DaVinci Code there was Angels and Demons.  Same character, same premise, completely different story.  Angels resolved solidly. 

The only person who saw this as a series at the inception of that book was Dan Brown, the author.  And only when DaVinci went ballistic was Brown offered contracts for something like twelve more Robert Langdon novels strung out over the next half century.

Television, unlike books, has a few exceptions to this, such as Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara, which are almost completely character-driven.

But that’s television.  Don’t let it ruin your novelist perspective on this issue.

Any literary exceptions – and here’s that fence – if they’re even out there, would almost always have the name of a famous author on the cover.  Why?  Because…

You Can’t Sell a Series

Publishers don’t often (if ever these days) buy a series premise – much less multiple manuscripts – from an unpublished author. 

So don’t pitch it that way.  It will get you next to nowhere.

They buy a book.  They may contract for another, but rest assured, it isn’t a series until the first book sells.

Because two books do not a series make.  And if neither sells, there won’t be a third.

If your first book sells and the character and over-arcing drama are set-up to continue past the first book, then a sequel – not yet a series – may be in cards.

They won’t keep publishing you on the promise of the series someday exploding into popularity.  You get one shot, with one book.  Make it count.

Not that it’s wrong to think in terms of a series

But don’t allow that plan to compromise the nature and quality of your first novel in the sequence.

Each book you write has to stand alone.  And if it’s a series you dream of, you must deliver a character that readers will want to see return.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to Story Structure in a Series

  1. Larry,
    Thanks so much for this. Once again you’ve confirmed to Wendi Kelly and myself that yes, we’re doing it right.

    From the start of our novel we knew we wanted to make it into a series. We also knew that each book, especially the first, had to work as a stand alone. We resolved our hero’s mission. Wrapped it all up nice and neat at the end, but there were a few smaller things we left unresolved on purpose.

    And since we’re going both the route of self-publishing and looking to get picked up by a major publishing house, we’re moving right along into book two.

    Hey, it doesn’t hurt to dream, right? If there’s a story to tell, tell it! So we are.

    I’m wondering though, since so many of us were brought up on series like Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett and others, could the market eventually change their minds and start looking at prospective series as a whole?

    I do see your point that if the first one doesn’t sell it doesn’t make sense to buy a whole series from the start if there’s no guarantee it’ll be a hit.

    On the other hand, the same could be said of taking a chance on a single book.

    What do you think? Are more authors leaning towards series these days?

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    Fantasy, IME, is a slightly different beast from most other genres in this regard. The readers tend to EXPECT things to be built as a trilogy or a series. From Wheel of Time to Malazan Books of the Dead, people who love the genre mostly seem to crave sweeping stories of such scope they don’t fit in one book, and more and more not even three books. Though at some point I wouldn’t be surprised to see a backlash of some kind pushing authors back to more individualized stories, but that might just be a hunch I have.

    Mind you even if you sell the first book you aren’t guaranteed to get to write the second if you don’t get sales, so… 🙂

  3. Re the “stand alone” in a series:

    The over-arcing storyline through the series doesn’t need to be backstoried to death in each succeeding book. Like the Harry Potter series, you don’t reiterate his whole history.

    They are “stand alone” in the sense each is a complete 4-part structure, etc., but not necessarily stand-alone in the sense the reader could pick up any one of them and make sense of the entire over-arcing plot line.

    In the Harry Potter series, you’ve just about got to start with Sorcerer’s Stone and read them in sequence. The over-arcing plot sequence appears to be time-framed; each one is the next year at Hogwarts. We learn in the first book that Professor Snape is antagonistic and perhaps a bit of the why. By the third book, we know pretty much who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. If Bad Guy A shows up, we know he’s a bad guy, we don’t need to be shown that again.

    My four novels are blatantly labeled Book 1, Book 2, etc., in the blurbs and the foreword encourages the reader to do them in sequence. Yeah, they’ll all be getting a major rewrite to become stand-alone in the sense of each one having the proper structure, but each one advances the over-arching plot line.

    Might also want to examine your overall theme throughout the series. Each of your series might have a sub-theme, but each needs to be consistent to the overall theme.

    Yep, that’s a lot of design work at the beginning. Tough, but it’s worth it.

  4. Excellent advice as always Larry. Two authors come to mind for me – Adriana Trigiani, who wrote the Big Stone Gap series, (one of my all-time favorites), and Rick Riordan, who wrote the YA middle grade Percy Jackson series. I’ve read all but the last of Percy Jackson, (have to finish 5 other books before picking it up), but Rick does a fantastic job of making each book a stand-alone, filling in a few blanks here and there to “hint” at what happened in previous books without giving the whole story away.

    Same goes for Adriana, (by the way, she’s the favorite author I met who pushed me to write a novel). Her BSG series is astounding to say the least, yet each book is written as a stand-alone so well that I actually started with the second in the series, not knowing it even was a series until I got about halfway through that second book and discovered the first. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the stories better read out of sequence.

    As for me? Well, I’ve got to finish that first one before I can even think about a series, and I’ve no plans to go there anyway, at least not yet.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking and well-said post.

  5. I just love your posts, Larry. You always put things in such clear terms. This article was the right subject at the right time for me, personally. I’m completing my first novel, and see potential for more books in the same world with the same characters, but I’m keen to concentrate every bit of talent I can muster into this first book. If I do that, the rest will take care of itself.

    On the selling side of the equation, there’s a good reason for not selling a series right out of the gate. If your first book is successful, you’ll be kicking yourself—because you could have sold the second book for much more money with the success of the first one as leverage.

    Thanks again for this terrific post. I’ll be sharing it with a ton of friends!

  6. I followed Lia Keyes here and I’m so glad I did. This is a very cogent post with excellent advice.

    I don’t have a book written, yet. But it’s very useful and important for me to understand how to ‘get it right’ so I can ‘get it published’ down the line. 🙂

    Thank you.

  7. Larry,

    Thanks for this, I have been interested in your opinion on this subject for a long time.

    And…I am a fan of the series Castle too, even if the romance never seems to get off the ground as much as I wish it would.

    I liked your checklist. It looks like we have them all covered. We didn’t at first. At first we were going with a location that had a group of characters and each book was a new hero. That changed when our good guy convinced us he could handle being the constant throughout everything.

    I do agree, that as a reader of the genre, I love a great series. I hate to see a good character come to an end and I love looking forward to the anticipation of that next great book.
    Hopefully, readers will come to feel that way about ours someday.

    If they do, you will have had a hand in it!

  8. Does this mean we’ll see Gabriel Stone again? 🙂

  9. Shaun

    What if you only envision a duology or trilogy? There’s only one story I want to tell and it can be done in 2-3 books. It’s the only story I’m honestly passionate about and have been for quite a while. What happens if you get the first book published but it doesn’t sell well… Can you self publish the 2nd or do the characters and such belong to the agent and you’re unable to do that etc. I’m not really familiar with this kind of thing.