How to Write a Book Series

woman holding a book series in her hand

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

As much as authors love to write, building worlds and populating them with three-dimensional characters who are compelling enough for you and your readers to want to get to know is no easy task. Wouldn’t it be nice to create those characters once and then use them to tell several stories in that constructed universe? No wonder so many authors are drawn to the concept of writing a series.

Of course, readers who fall in love with your world and recurring characters are going to be eager to read more, which gives you an instant boost when it comes time to sell your next book.

If that sounds attractive, it is. But writing a book series isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s an endeavor that requires dedication, creativity, commitment, and meticulous planning.

Is your idea series-worthy?

I know I just went into a whole spiel about how great a book series can be, but before you launch into your own, it’s worth asking yourself if your idea needs to be a series or if it’s better off being a standalone novel. After all, some of the most beloved books of all time are standalones. Pride and Prejudice, The Outsiders, The Great Gatsby, The Fault in Our Stars — as much as people love those books, they’re not exactly set up for a sequel, much less a series. Some stories are perfect just as they are. The story is finished, the character arcs complete. Why mess with perfection?

So you need to decide: Is your world too big for just one tale? Is there more story to tell? Your characters may finish book one having resolved their outer journey, but there may be opportunities to explore more internal and external conflicts.

What kind of series are you writing?

Assuming you’ve decided you want to write a book series, you need to decide which kind you plan to write: open or closed. This will inform your writing process and how you navigate the story arc.

Open series

An open series is a collection of books set in the same universe, usually — but not always — featuring the same characters. There is no overarching plot, we simply follow our main character (James Bond, Nancy Drew, Harry Dresden) through a series of adventures. Typically, the protagonists in open series don’t have a character arc — many remain flat characters. James Bond, for example, doesn’t change from book to book. Furthermore, each standalone book in an open series doesn’t have to be read in order.

One nice thing about writing an open series is you don’t have to plan on writing a series when writing your first book. My novel The Dragon Squisher, for example, wasn’t going to be part of a series at all, but when I was filling out the metadata for Amazon, I came to the question, “Is this part of a series?” and I thought, “Well, why say no when I can say yes?” I’ve finished the sequel (The Crudge Whacker) and am working on book three.

Closed series

A closed series tells one large tale over a set number of books. Think of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. Closed series include individual novels, with each entry telling a complete story, but there is also an overarching storyline and character arcs.

Closed series are very popular, but they take extensive work at the outset as you have to plan out a grand epic, including all of the individual novels, from the beginning through the end, and plant your Chekhov’s Guns throughout so they can go off in subsequent volumes in your series (something J.K. Rowling was particularly adept at in her Harry Potter series).

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Elements to consider for your book series

OK, so you’ve decided to write a series and even chosen which kind. Now what?

World-building and setting development

Make sure your series’ worlds are immersive, distinct, and, most of all, enjoyable. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time here. Take the time to craft a detailed setting, complete with its own rules, history, and culture.

If you’re including magic, work out the magical system. If you’re writing sci-fi, work out the tech. Readers should feel like they’re stepping into a living, breathing realm. That doesn’t mean throwing them into the middle of an info dump. Dole out the details as the story progresses and stay consistent throughout your series.

Story structure

If you’re embarking on writing an entire series, you should already know the basics of story structure. If you’re writing a closed series, you’ll need to apply those same rules not just to each novel, but also to the entire series. For example, if you’re writing a trilogy, then use the three-act structure: Book one is your protagonist setting out on the adventure, book two ends with some kind of major setback, and book three gives you closure.

Connecting the plotlines

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchIt’s good to weave a web of interconnected plotlines through all your series’ novels, especially if you are writing a closed series. But even if you’re writing an open series, it can be fun to have recurring jokes, rivalries, and motifs showing up from book to book. For a closed series, use foreshadowing in the earlier installments that pay off in later entries to create a sense of coherence and anticipation.

Subplots

Subplots are going to help you fill out your story — especially in a closed series. When writing book one, you don’t necessarily need to know all the details of each individual subplot, but it’s a good idea to know the general idea of where each subplot will go. For example, perhaps you know one of your side characters will turn against your protagonist by the final book. That’s enough information for you to begin writing.

Character development and growth

Characters are the heart of any story, but with a series, you need to make sure they are compelling enough that people are going to be desperate to read their next adventure. Give them room to evolve, face challenges, and grow over time. Establish arcs that allow readers to witness their transformation. The Harry Potter series was especially great at giving each character a satisfying arc.

Keep a “Series Bible”

Consistency is key when writing any story, and that goes double for a writing multiple books for a series. If you refer to a landmark by one name in book one and then another in book five, your readers will know. Keep a bible of all your character and place names, as well as physical descriptions and dates, etc. Keep the bible updated as you continue to write your series. If something important happens to a character in book three, make a note of it so you’ll remember when you get to book six.

Consider your series title

You’re going to need a title for your series as well as each individual novel. It’s good to think about this ahead of time. I recommend naming the series after your first book (e.g., The Hunger Games) because it’s easier for readers to remember. Then when book two comes out, people will instantly know it’s a sequel to book one (Catching Fire: The Hunger Games, Book 2).

I wish I had done this for my series, The Nigel Chronicles — of which The Dragon Squisher is the first book. However, there are plenty of successful series that are not named after the first book (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Dresden Files, His Dark Materials), so this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

Consistent book design

covers from the Crazy Rich Asians book seriesThe visual and textual elements of your series matter. Invest in book cover design and create book titles that evoke the essence of your narrative. Consistency in design can establish a strong visual identity for your series, like with Kevin Kwan’s hugely successful Crazy Rich Asians series.

Consistent tone

Maybe it goes without saying, but if you are writing a series, each book should be similar to the rest in the series. That doesn’t mean each plot should be a carbon copy of the previous one, but you want to keep the tone similar and make sure that whatever you delivered in the first book (action, humor, camaraderie, etc.) you keep on delivering in the rest. That’s what your readers are expecting in your future books.

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Related Posts
Narrative Structure — Why It’s Important
Internal vs. External Conflict in Writing
Round vs. Flat Character: What’s the Difference?
How Your Title Can Enrich Your Writing
How to Use Chekhov’s Gun to Enhance Your Story

1 COMMENT

  1. Great advice and you have reassured me that I have done all the right things in my trilogy of Grand Canyon historical novels. Book One – Canyon Crossroads is available on Amazon and B&N websites. Book Two – Heart of Gold is about to be released and I’ve submitted Book Three – Guarding the Treasure to my publisher. Closed series writing is tricky but a lot of fun, especially when my characters told me what to write.

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