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.