4 dos and don’ts of writing a fiction series

Cindy Davis

Writing a series, according to this author and freelance editor, can be heaven—and it can also be hell.

by Cindy Davis

As with anything, writing a series has its good points and bad points. And its rules.

Pro: You can bring the reader into a familiar setting where they can kick off their shoes and feel at home. They develop an emotional relationship with the characters. They’re drawn into not only the plot du jour, but you as the author have the luxury of leaving some subplots—family relationships, minor characters’ problems, town events, etc.—open for continuation into the next book. This keeps them coming back for more.

Con: You have to recall every detail—down to your character’s hair color and quirky mannerisms. You have to keep an ongoing timeline of events. You have to show the characters’ growth and development as they learn from those life events.

There are a few very important things I learned while working with publishers as both an author and editor, and now as I’m working with a script writer:

1. Plan for your series. Imagine it as a television show. Remember how they have three or four actors who appear on a regular basis and then each show employs a few more to complement that specific plot. Make a plan for four or five stories using those three or four basic characters. If more story ideas sprout from that, great.

2. Don’t leave the reader hanging. Please, please, please, do not stop a novel at some seemingly convenient place and continue it into the next book. Important: novels are not soap operas. Readers need a complete story, with the main plot tied up in one nice package. You can leave some plot elements open-ended: a romance, an illness, or a job search, for example, but the main plot must be wrapped up in each book. Minor plots can be carried through only if they are understandable in each book without backstory.

I’ve had authors argue that their readers prefer the serialized version—with the fact that they are clamoring for the next book as evidence. When I ask how many readers say this, usually authors admit to two, or maybe four, but that’s nothing compared to the thousands or hundreds of thousands you might intrigue by following a more standard format. It’s worked for publishers since the dawn of publishing. I also ask whether those four readers wouldn’t still enjoy the book if it were a complete story. My suspicion is that they like your writing style, characters, and the general plotline rather than the serialized format.

Another important item: Following traditional rules does not change your voice. It doesn’t change your plot or your characters. It doesn’t make you less of a maverick. To be a maverick, use your creative abilities to invent captivating storylines and unique, stimulating characters that suck those readers in. Keep them coming back for more!

You have 20–25 seconds to capture the reader’s attention, to compel them to buy your book over the zillions of others out there.

3. Each story must be an entity unto itself. Think of TV shows like Murder, She Wrote. Each program has its own complete storyline. It is separate, with no mention made of what happened on last week’s show. You want to infer cool or suspenseful things happened—and you can use dialogue to do this in one sentence (“Remember that trip we took to Aspen? I can’t believe you pushed the ski instructor into the hot tub!”) and let it stand at that. Entice, don’t tell.

Remember, if someone picks up the second book in your series and your first chapter starts out with the continuation of ongoing events, or mentions characters without introduction, they will close the book and buy something else. 99% will not go looking for book one. People aren’t wired that way.

A statistic I learned at a conference a couple of years ago: you have 20–25 seconds (one or two paragraphs) to capture the reader’s attention, to compel them to buy your book over the zillions of others out there. If readers end up scratching their heads in confusion after two paragraphs, you haven’t done your job.

4. Introduce characters again. Keep ongoing character introductions unique in each story—as if they’re appearing for the first time.

Creating a fiction series is no easy feat, but follow these best practices and you’ll be much more likely to write a series of books readers will love!

Cindy Davis is an award-winning veteran freelance editor who has worked with a dozen publishers and over a thousand authors who’ve won their own awards. She has authored 30+ published novels and non-fiction books. Connect with her on ChapterBuzz, her freelance editing website, and her author website.

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