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And every giveaway post also has an author tip. Last week was about How to launch Your Book and you can read that HERE.
Today’s author tip is “HOW TO WRITE A LONG SERIES!”
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How to Plot a Long Series
Have you ever read a book one in a series and thought it was amazing but then book two kinda lags and by the time you get to the end of the series you’re pretty sure the author pulled that story out of their ass?
Probably because they did.
You know this because you’ve read other series where the author did not pull that story out of their ass and the whole thing makes sense from start to finish. This is what makes a series great.
I’m going to use Hunger Games as my example again. Mainly because it’s a series I’ve read and also a series that makes perfect sense when you look at it as one long story. Because that’s what a series is. One long story. Which means each book has a specific purpose in your story structure.
If you’re not familiar with story structure there’s a ton of books out there that will explain all the details, but here’s the basics:
Beginning of the middle
Middle of the middle
If you have a trilogy, this structure is pretty simple. Book one is the beginning, book two is the middle, and book three is the end. But what if you have five books? Or thirteen books? Then what?
Well, if you have thirteen books chances are you’re writing what’s called a standalone series. Think… X-Files TV show. The premise of the show is Sculley (the skeptic) and Mulder (the believer) solve weird FBI cases involving paranormal stuff, urban legends, and alien abduction. Each episode has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But there’s also a continuing story. Mulder is actually on a mission to figure out what really happened to his sister when they were kids because he thinks she was abducted by aliens. In the X-Files this continuing story does NOT appear in every episode. Most episodes are standalones. But as the seasons progress this continuing plot-line got more and more attention until the series kinda stopped being a standalone series and turned into a continuing series (more on that below).
If you can find a good long TV series to binge on Netflix (like Blacklist or The 100) you will see this happen as you move through the seasons. Homeland is another one that does this well as the seasons change. Homeland is actually a continuing series, so tension builds and builds, then little bits and pieces get resolved. But each season is totally different. Billionaire is another one. Game of Thrones is 100% continuing series with almost no standalone episodes and it’s a slow-moving one at that. Still, it works.
Hunger Games is also a standalone series but the beauty of those three separate stories is that each book builds on the next. You can read book one and stop and be sorta satisfied. You can read book two and feel the same. But there’s a cliffhanger leading into the next book that makes you want to to read on.
The other kind of series is a continuing series. This is when each book resolves some kind of major conflict BUT it’s clear that the story isn’t over yet. Authors run into problems when they write this kind of series when they don’t resolve the major conflict in each book and instead string the reader along and leave them unsatisfied.
LOTS of authors do this. Sometimes you’ll never even get a book two. If they’re a traditional author, perhaps they didn’t get a book two offer or had it rescinded due to low sales. I don’t know why the traditional publishers act surprised when a book like this fails. if I can figure this shit out without ever taking a creative writing class, it should be a no-brainer for a professional in the business to get it. But go figure, they still publish these books all the time.
Cliffhangers are your friend. Believe me, nothing draws people on to the next book in a series than a great cliffhanger. The problem is… many authors fail to understand how to actually write the cliffhanger.
In TV cliffhangers are huge in keeping the audience engaged in a continuing series. In a show like X-Files you don’t get a cliffhanger at the end of each episode because it’s a standalone series. There is one major goal per episode and it gets resolved. Sometimes cliffhangers are used mid season or end of season, but the majority of shows resolve.
In a continuing series the goal is to compound the mystery until you can’t bring the tension up any higher and then you start parceling out answers to create audience satisfaction. You do this by using the cliffhanger properly. Meaning you resolve SOMETHING, but you leave the end of the show with a major conflict.
Books are the same way. If you’re going to write a continuing series, no matter how many books you end up with, you have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You MUST use a cliffhanger but you need to do it right and resolve SOMETHING by the end of each book.
If you write a thirteen book continuing series chances are you’re gonna have several major continuing conflicts that resolve over the course of several books. Start major conflict in book one, continue it (with satisfactory conclusion of the major single book conflict at the end of each) and carry it through three, or four, or more books, then resolve it while bringing another major conflict into the forefront of the story. Then you concentrate on that over the course of several books, solve it, and go on to the next major conflict. If you don’t understand this go watch a good TV series that has been running for at least 5 or 6 seasons. There’s a reason these shows are still on. Learn why by watching how they introduce and resolve conflicts and how they leave you hanging.
If you’ve got a good imagination you can conceivably carry on a series indefinitely. Introducing characters and conflicts over several books, bringing in side characters and side conflicts to fill the story out as you move forward, and then resolve conflict one while refocusing on the new characters and conflicts in the next segment of the series.
But here’s the really important part. The key to keeping readers happy and the story rich and fulfilling.
You MUST have all the major story structure elements in EACH BOOK AS WELL AS THE SERIES or SERIES SEGMENT.
So book one has all those story structure elements listed above. AND BOOKS ONE THROUGH THREE will also have their own story arc with all those elements. Get it? Every story has an arc to follow AND the series as a whole has an arc to follow too. This is different than the major conflicts you resolve in each book. Those SHOULD BUILD UP your series arc, answering questions along the way.
This is why, even if you’re not a plotter, you should plot your series. You don’t have to know every story element up front BUT you should know where the series (or series segment) ends. Because if you don’t you’re gonna end up like one of those authors who pulls a story out of their ass.
So here’s my five-step plan for writing a long series:
ONE – decide if your series is STANDALONE (each book is a complete story arc that ENDS with reader satisfaction). Or CONTINUING (each book has a conflict that resolves, but the major question continues on). Or both. Which is the best kind, in my opinion. You have one major mystery/issue/conflict that CARRIES THE WHOLE SERIES and each book has a little piece of the puzzle to help the reader figure shit out along the way. This resolution is critical for reader satisfaction.
As usual, ROMANCE GENRE has a caveat. At least in contemporary romance where the major conflict is usually something internal or (don’t get offended romance readers and writers) trivial. Contemporary romance readers don’t expect a huge, life-altering conflict. The goal is a HEA. If you’re writing paranormal romance or romantic suspense, then readers DO EXPECT big problems and you should deliver that.
TWO – know how many books this series or series segment will have and plan out your beginning, your middle, and your end TO THE SERIES FIRST. Worry about the individual books later. The most important part of a successful series is knowing that the beginning of book one ties back to the end of book three (or whatever book you want to end that conflict with). I’ve said this many times before (for good reason. It’s what actually makes the difference between a GOOD BOOK and a GREAT BOOK). Tying your beginning to your end makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Only amateurs can’t tie the end back to the beginning.
THREE – know the major conflict for each book. Again, you don’t need to know the details, just the general direction.
FOUR – KNOW HOW EACH BOOK ENDS. And what that amazing, satisfying cliffhanger might be at the end of each book to carry the conflict forward IN A NEW DIRECTION (because you resolved that old direction in the climax). See Homeland for a great example.
FIVE – plan your beginning for each book. This includes a great hook and the turning point that transitions the beginning of the book to the middle of the book. The middle is the place where there’s a lot of leeway as far as grunt work goes, and personally, I would not worry about the middle until you get there. If you do steps 1-4 above you’re gonna know the middle, at least a little bit. So that’s helpful.
If you’re not a plotter you’re probably thinking… ah, fuck this shit. But look, these five tips are NOT PLOTTING. They are BASIC MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS. There is so much more to being an actual “plotter” this barely qualifies. And honestly, going in to a series, long or short, without knowing where you’re headed means you’re relying on your “muse” to carry you through. And that’s just kinda… dumb. I mean, why? Why leave it all up to chance when these basic steps can make all the difference?
Also, just because you come up with an idea up front doesn’t mean you have to use it. Everything can be changed as you go. You’re the god in this world you’re creating.
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OK, that’s it for today. I’m gonna go take my own series-plotting advice now! This is the LAST $100 multi-author giveaway but I have more giveaways coming (really GOOD ONES too!) Plus a whole bunch more author tips so make sure you don’t miss anything by filling in the “Follow This Blog” form below.
See ya next time,