How and Why You Should Write a Series
An exploration of how and why series work, as well as some tips for writing your own.
There are lots of ways a writer can be memorable. They might write a one-off, poignant novel about life and love, they might write a book that becomes so well loved it gets tons of adaptations throughout time, or (and let’s hope this isn’t you) they might live in infamy for particularly controversial or damaging works or social lives.
One of the best ways to become memorable as a writer, though, is to create a series. Series give you the option of deeply and widely exploring your stories, maximizing their use from a business perspective, and giving your readers tons of material to enjoy.
Let’s discuss why you should consider writing book series.
Why you should write series
While there are ample reasons to write book series, they can be broken down into two main categories: business and creative.
The business perspective
I know, I know, the idea of business in your writing can often feel like sacrilege - our books are our babies, after all. Focusing on the business aspect feels like exploiting our creative work or even “selling out.” But from a practical viewpoint, you need to focus on the business of your writing in the planning stages and the publication stages if you want to be able to keep writing professionally in a sustainable way.
So, now that you’ve accepted that business is necessary, here are the business reasons you should be writing in series.
Firstly, writing a series means, very simply, that you have more books to sell. With more books on sale, you have more chances to make sales. In fact, you may be able to create box sets or special edition collections that you can sell alongside the single books for even more revenue sources. For these reasons, many self-publishing authors write series, so they can earn as much as possible from every fan they make.
This also means that you can use the first novel in a series as a reader magnet. If you missed our deep dive on it, a reader magnet is a little teaser you put out for cheap or free that gets readers interested and hooks them into your work. Readers that buy your first book and like it will be excited to read the second book and will likely buy the other books in the series as well.
Beyond this, writing in a series lets you build up your brand. Author branding is very important, and having a long-running or well-received series can help to make you recognizable and encourage readers of that series to look into and perhaps purchase your other books. Series give you a chance to build a voice and a style that your readers will recognize in other, unconnected works.
The creative perspective
Okay, boring business stuff out of the way - what about the creative part? Why is writing a series fun for you?
Well, first of all, you get to develop your worlds and characters more fully across a series than you would in a single book. Series give you the room to explore your worlds in more depth - they can give you access to different regions of the physical world, different social strata for your characters to navigate, or more complicated political, magical, or natural systems for them to work within. If you’ve done all this work world-building for a science fiction or fantasy novel, why wouldn’t you want to get as much use out of it as possible?
The character development opportunities, to me, are the most fun. That side character that you love from book one? He could become the main character in book two! That minor antagonist you really liked who didn’t fit into the major antagonist plot? Use him later in the series! Your hero’s fear of cheese never came up? Bring it up in a later book! Series give you lots of room and time to explore every aspect of your world and make it as deep, complex, and exciting as you want.
Beyond that, you may develop a fan base! While yes, it’s possible to create a following from a standalone book or a number of standalone books, fan bases naturally spring up around long-running works and series in part because of the level of detail you’re allowed to go into; there’s something for everyone to latch on to, and lots of characters to enjoy and ship, if you’re into that.
What types of series are there?
So, you’ve decided to write a series. Awesome! What now?
Now, you decide what kind of series you plan to write. There are actually three main categories of book series that you can write, each with advantages for different kinds of writers. Let’s look at them in a little more detail so that you can decide which best suits the story or stories you want to tell.
A serial series - not to be confused with serial fiction - means that the books in a series flow chronologically from one to the next. They typically follow the same characters from one book to the next, and build up not only internal, single-book arcs, but larger, full-series arcs that resolve in the final book in the series.
Usually, serial series will have relatively uniform formats from one book to the next. The first book sets up the world and the format, the books in the middle serve to build suspense and tension, and the final book (or occasionally, the final couple of books) resolves the large story arcs and brings us to the true ending. Sometimes, the final book in a serial series will break the format of the others, often becoming longer and slightly more chaotic to wrap up loose ends.
What’s important about a serial series is that the books have to be read in chronological order to make sense. The overarching plot is resolved across several books, so each book builds on the context and content of the previous books in the series. If you jump into the middle of the series, you probably won’t recognize many major characters, events, or points of the plot.
Let’s look at the Harry Potter series as an example of this setup. They follow the larger plot of Harry becoming a part of and eventually saving the wizarding world over the course of his teen years. To make this enormous and complicated story more digestible, each book covers one school year - or, in the case of book seven, the equivalent of a school year - and the events that happen within it, from right before the first day of school to the beginning of the next summer vacation. This is a pretty clean setup, letting the audience know what to expect format-wise without taking away any of the suspense of the larger arcs.
Serial series are excellent for writers with big, complex plots to explore.
Okay, so what if you have a cool protagonist, but you don’t have a larger or more complicated overarching plot? What if you want your books to be read in any order and have a sort of drop-in-drop-out cast?
If that’s the case, then an episodic series is probably for you. Episodic (or procedural) series are a set of self-contained stories that share a single strong protagonist or main group of protagonists. The different books in this series usually follow similar structures, but don’t have any interlocking themes beyond recurring characters; the stories are resolved within one book, leaving the protagonist to wander on to the next “episode” without loose ends to tie up.
Episodic series are excellent for writers who don’t want to be limited in the number of stories they create for their characters, and who want the freedom to tell small stories with familiar faces. They’re great for writers who like ensemble or rotating casts.
In this case, the best example I can give you is Agatha Christie’s Poirot mystery series. Hercule Poirot is, from his first appearance, recognized as a world-famous detective with peculiar habits, called in for only the most intriguing plots of thievery, murder, or foul play. He’s almost always accompanied by an assistant - oftentimes Mr. Hastings, but sometimes a one-off companion - and usually goes about talking to many witnesses and inspecting the crime scene for minute details before gathering everyone in one room for the big reveal of the criminal. While yes, the books technically go in the order of his life, with the final book being the last crime he solves before his death, you don’t have to read them in that order. You can pick up any book in the series and rest assured that you’ll understand it without having read anything else.
Episodic series work really well for horror and mystery novels. For horror, there’s even a name for the episodic series - “monster of the week!”
So if serial series are good for folks who have a large story to share, and episodic series are good for folks who have a large character or cast to share, what about folks who have a large world to share? What if you’ve spent tons of time developing an entire planet, solar system, universe, or series of universes with unique religious and political atmospheres, and trying to connect it all to one character or one story would feel reductive? If that’s the case, my friend, you need an interlinked series.
Interlinked series are series that, well, interlink because they are based in the same world. They don’t often feature the same characters across all books but will feature the same world and history, and while they can follow a larger plotline, they don’t necessarily have to. Instead, they focus on a single character or group of characters for one book and then move along to the next one.
Interlinked series are similar to episodic series in that they can usually be read in any order without any detriment to the reader. That being said, interlinked series writers often leave Easter eggs for their other books within stories, as a sort of “thank you” to readers who stick with the series. You’ll often see references or cameos from previous books and will be able to follow a consistent timeline from one book to the next, knowing when it’s happening in relation to the other books.
For this kind of series, my favorite example is the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. All of the more than 30 books in the series take place (primarily) in Xanth, a magic land shaped like Florida and connected to our world through an unstable border. Each book follows a different character, with their own life story and unique journey to take, all taking place within the slightly absurd rules of this pun-based magical world. You can read the books in any order and understand them enough to have fun, but if you read them chronologically, you start to recognize major names and events when they’re mentioned. For instance, many of the books follow members of the royal family, so we end up reading stories from one generation to the next and seeing the “happily ever after” of our previous protagonists through the eyes of their children.
Interlinked series may or may not have similar formatting throughout, may or may not have Easter eggs, and may or may not have a larger, inter-book storyline. It’s the perfect format for a writer who has lots of stories to tell from one place rather than one perspective.
How to write a series
Once you’ve picked the kind of series you want to work on, the next step is to…well, work on it! Writing a series takes planning, dedication, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
Plan and prep the whole thing first
To begin with, you’ll want to plan your series out. Start with the big stuff: set up your overarching themes and inter-book plots.
If you’re writing a serial series, outline the whole thing just like you would with a stand-alone book; right now, you’re just focused on getting the whole story mapped out. When you have that, you can look for places where breaks would be appropriate. Consider breaking the stories up:
- After mini-climaxes like battles and the retrieval of McGuffins
- On cliffhangers like character reveals or deaths
- After a major discovery has been made or a plan has been established
Then, take your broken-up story chunks and outline them as their own books. Make sure you’re structuring them to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
If you’re writing an episodic or interlinked series, consider making a master outline of all the major recurring characters and world details that you can use across all of the books in the series as a reference guide. This might include making a map that you can update regularly (I recommend the site Inkarnate for fantasy maps), creating character profiles, or mapping out rules for political or magic systems. Put this document somewhere you can get to it easily - and make sure you back it up!
Planning a whole series of books might seem terrifying for the pantsers out there, but the good news is you can have a plan without mapping out the entire series in exhausting detail. Make sure you know key points for each character’s arc, and the overall course of the plot, even if you don’t know all the key details. This work will help you make sure your story idea has enough substance to work as a series, and having a sense of direction can save a lot of time, as it’s less like you will be rewriting large chunks of story because something didn’t fit.
Explore the whole cast
Beyond having a plan for the story as a whole, as I mentioned, you’re going to want to have plans for your whole cast of characters. This doesn’t just mean your main cast - side characters and antagonists can make for great opportunities in series as well!
Keep an eye on your secondary characters. While in a stand-alone, the focus has to be on the main cast at all times, in a series, you’ve got more room to explore those characters from previous books that weren’t the main focus but did have something about them that was interesting in its own right. This is especially true in episodic and interlinked series.
Heck, you may not even have thought they were that interesting until thinking about it after the book - what ever happened to what’s-his-name? You may even find that your readers have latched onto a particular character that played only a small part the first time they showed up in the series, and have a significant interest in seeing more from them.
Consider writing your next story from a new perspective. If you want to get really creative with it, you might even consider writing from the perspective of the villain, and showing the story from their side.
Put in plot holes on purpose
So here’s a fun cheat you can use as a series writer: your first-book plot holes can be used as fodder for a later book. Where stand-alone writers have to watch out for plot holes and inconsistencies, as a series writer, you can use them to create intrigue with a clever reveal later on. Yep, you can make it seem like you knew what you were doing all along by finding the places your readers have questions about and answering those questions in another book!
You might even choose to put “holes” in on purpose, to foreshadow larger events later in the series or give hints to what the plot of the next book is going to be. Here are some ideas you can use:
- Reference a major event without explaining what it is. For instance, have characters talk about what they’ve done “since the Jelly War” without explaining what the war was or what it was about. You can then set a book during the Jelly War to answer your curious readers!
- Change a character’s traits without warning - make their eyes or hair a different color, change their accent, have them make choices that come out of left field - between one book and the next. Later on, you might reveal something that happened to them; maybe they were replaced with an imposter or suffered some trauma that changed their perspective or goals drastically.
- Show a seemingly irrelevant scene from the outside, then show it again from the participants’ perspective. You might have one of the main characters spot a man getting thrown out of a bar early on, but ignore it, only to find the man as a party member later on and discover that he was trying to get information on the big bad but got caught during that moment and had to fight his way out!
- Create subplots for your characters that play out over the course of a few books, or add hidden elements to their backstories, which make more and more sense as the series progresses. Perhaps in Book 1, we know two characters had a prior relationship, but don’t know why it ended. In Book 2, they’re forced to wrestle with the change in their status with each other, and in Book 3, they settle into a new normal.
Know when to say “the end”
Series may be theoretically limitless, but in reality, every story has to have its ending. While fans may love long-running series with a huge cast and deep world, one way or another, the series is going to have to come to a close - you can’t write forever, and, realistically, switching authors will always change the story and may cause it to feel disjointed.
Additionally, a bad series ending can be catastrophic for your story’s future readability. Take for instance the public reaction to the end of the Game of Thrones television show. Many fans felt let down by the final season and episode, claiming that the story felt rushed and disingenuous to the characters. Because of that, many fans dropped the series entirely, and lots of new viewers were discouraged from finishing the series to save them the disappointment. The show went from an international phenomenon to a massive fan scandal practically overnight.
Not ending at all is another problem for your author brand that is best avoided. Look no further than George R.R. Martin, whose lengthy delay in finishing the next book in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series (upon which the Game of Thrones TV show is based) has created a class of readers who won’t even pick up a fiction series until they know it is complete.
So, no matter what kind of series you’re writing, make sure you know how it’s going to end. Have a definite conclusion in mind - give your characters their happy or tragic endings, wrap up the plots that you can, and leave some things open to reader interpretation. If you end a series well, then your readers will continue to love it long after the last book comes out, and will be excited to welcome new readers into the experience. They’ll have a lot to look forward to, after all.
Series can be incredibly fun for everyone involved. Writers get to strut their stories, readers get more stories to enjoy, and publishers get to capitalize on multiple releases. They can range from epic tales across vast continents to small, day-in-the-life explorations of a single town, and carry that variety with them to make sure that everyone has something to enjoy.
When planning your next story, consider making it a series, for your sake and the sake of your readers.