Virtual Workshop #1:
Building Series Novels
I've talked about how writing novels is a lot like building mansions, and I'd like to revisit that analogy with some material lists for writing series novels.
Novel series is the sort of book building I do most often. Series can be of various lengths, and although I've been labeled as a long-running series author, I'm more the middle-length type, averaging about seven to ten novels planned per series. Writing these type of books from the beginning of my career has taught me to prepare well in advance for the duration of the building.
Series Novel Materials List:
I. The Durable Premise
A durable premise is the foundation of the series, the driving force of the story that can be sustained for multiple novels. Epic themes, enduring story elements or extensive plot aspects serve a durable premise well. However you work it, you want a premise that can be revived in each novel in the series without repetition. Here are some examples of durable series premise foundations:
Alternate histories (Eric Flint's 1632 novels, John Birmingham's Axis of Time books)
Epic adventure/exploration (my StarDoc series, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower)
Family or group sagas (Louisa May Alcott's Little Women books; Alison Kent's SG-5 series)
Haunted or paranormal settings, circumstances (Douglas Clegg's Harrow House novels, Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series)
Historical settings (Diana Galbaldon's Outlander series)
Immortality (Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Christine Feehan's Carpathian series)
Problem-plagued protagonists (Val McDermid's Tony Hill novels, Thomas Harris's Clarice Starling books)
Quests (Holly Lisle's Secret Text novels, J.R.R. LOTR series)
War/Epic conflicts (Star Wars franchise novels, Frank Herbert's Dune dynasty books)
II. The Standalone Conflict
Each series novel should stand on its own and provide the reader with a beginning, middle and end. So in addition to the durable premise you need a conflict that is autonomous to the current novel. This conflict has to have a resolution, but it should also connect with or feed into the durable premise. Like battles during a war, the standalone conflict can be resolved while providing some advancement (or regression, or flip-flop) of the durable premise.
Example: You remember John, our half-demon cop, who must protect Marcia the librarian from a murderous diamond thief. John's tasks are to defend Marcia and stop the thief; that's the standalone conflict. The fact that John is half-demon would be part of the durable premise; especially if I made Marcia half-angel.
When you're contemplating how to come up with your standalone conflict, think about a television series that you like to watch. Every week, you get a new show that has a plot for the episode that is completed by the end of the show, but also progresses the series story line along a little more (or regresses it, or flip-flops it, etc.) The series novel's standalone conflict should work the same way.
III. Memorable characters
Characterization is where I see a lot of otherwise excellent series fail. Series writers who build gorgeous, intricate worlds and then send out bit players to perform short-change their readers. When we read, we identify with the characters -- not the backdrop behind them. Forgettable characters can bury a series in mediocrity.
No two writers put together the same cast in the same way, so it's impossible to come up with the perfect character. What you can do is think about the traits and aspects of people that you remember best from all the books you've read, movies you've loved, and even people you've met through life. What was it about them that resonated with you? What made them stick in your head? Why did you love/hate/admire/envy these particular characters? Write up some lists and study them. These are the prime ingredients for making your own memorable characters, because these are the traits and aspects about which you feel passionate.
IV. Running threads
Running threads are plots or subplots that can be continued in the next/subsequent series novels. I tend to map these out on a grid in my head, and I once did an online workshop with plotting templates for single novels, trilogies and a mid-length series to show what I do in my mind. By the time I got to describing how to plot out seven threads in a three-phase, five-to-seven book series everyone was ready to give up and go home.
I've gotten over templating everyone, and I know that as with creating characters, no two writers plot or subplot the same way. When you're building a series, you have to think outside the single novel playground. A series runs on conflict, and some of that generally should be carried over from previous novels.
I like running threads that feed the durable premise, or eventually become part of it, but I also like small, hidden-in-plain-sight subplots that the average reader doesn't notice until I bring them into play. Your own preferences will relate to how your structure your series, but keep this in mind: the more subplots you and the reader have to track, the more likely you're going to drop a thread or tangle them, the more backstory you're probably going to have to lug over to the next novel, etc.
V. Resolution, Cliffhangers and Consequences
Every series book should have a resolution of the standalone conflict, but it should also give the reader a reason to keep reading the series. I like cliffhangers; I grew up watching television cliffhanger shows and they had a tremendous influence on me as a writer. Other writers like "the next chapter in the saga" approach or the "everything they fixed in the last book just went all to hell" wrench in the works.
Everyone's style is different, everyone has an opinion on it, and I'm not going to debate what is ultimately an individual decision and writing style. Whatever approach you use in your series, it should provide momentum for the durable premise and attract return readers.
One consequence of our very competitive market is that the series writer is rarely guaranteed to sell through to the end of the series plan. My novel Blade Dancer, for example, was planned as the first of an eight novel series. In the original manuscript, the story ends as Jory and crew go after Danea, who is abducted by slavers during the celebration on the homeworld. When the publisher bought only the first novel, and I was already looking at StarDoc being put on the back burner in mid-series, I changed the ending to wrap up the novel. Since then I've made sure that whatever I write as the last book of a series contract, I plan and leave the ending flexible enough so that I can change it into a series finale if I have to.
VI. Series Novelists of Tomorrow
As long as there are loyal readers, I think there will always be novel series. They may get a bit shorter -- the average length of a midlist series seems to be heading toward three to five books these days -- but like our premises and story lines, series novelists will endure. We may have to get creative with how we deliver what our readers want, but like our novels, they're worth the effort.
Post your comments, thoughts and questions by midnight EST on Wednesday, July 26, 2006, and you'll have a chance at winning today's Left Behind Goody Bag: A complete signed set of all six of my StarDoc novels, and unsigned copies of: Alison Kent's Deep Breath, Jo Leigh's Closer, and Holly Lisle's I See You; a Jane Austen writing kit with stationery, indigo ink and a pretty dip pen with changeable nibs, all packed in a blue "All on a Summer's Day" plastic tote bag from Barnes & Noble. I'll draw one name from everyone who participates and send you the goodies; giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
AbsoluteWrite.com's discussion board thread on The Novel Series.
Kate Elliott's article for The Swan, Why Writing a Fat Fantasy Series is a) really easy, b) very, very hard, c) fun, and d) not much better than beating your head against the wall until it's bloody – all at the same time.
My article for The Swan about series writing (my title looks so short now): When Once is Not Enough