TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

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28 thoughts on “TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

  1. For a true series, make sure YOU like your character enough to keep writing about him/her.

    In the romance genre (I write 3 romantic suspense series), it’s usually connected books more than an actual series, with a group of characters, each having his/her own book to star in. It’s important to set things up for the secondary character in book 1 who will star in book 2, and so on. Keep notes so you don’t have to go back to find out you gave a character a kid and now how to figure out how to have him be a romance hero.

    • Excellent tip, Terry! I constantly check my notes to make sure I didn’t miss something. I also read the previous book before writing the next one. It’s amazing the tiny details that you forget about, especially if you’re alternating between two or more different series.

  2. Absolutely excellent, Sue. Thank you. I’m not only bookmarking it, but sharing it in Writers Resources on my website.

    I prefer writing in series when I have a character (or characters) I like enough to learn more about them. So far I have a 6-book PI series (writing Book 7 now), a 4-book soldier-of-fortune series, and a period-western saga (more an ongoing story than a true series) in 10 books that span 60 years of the protagonist’s life. And I’ve written origin novels for a future-Earth magic realism series and one for a really strange “assassin” series that I can barely wait to get back to. (grin)

    And I prefer to read series characters, so….

    • Thanks, Harvey! That’s a great idea. I’ll do the same in my Writer’s Resource.

      I prefer to read series, as well. I get attached to the characters and can’t wait to see what trouble they get into next. 😉

  3. I prefer to write and read series. If I find a world I love and characters I adore, why would I want that to end in 50K-100K words?

    Fabulous advice in this post.

  4. Great advice from everyone. I will be saving and sharing! I’m writing the sequel to my debut novel and planning in my head for the third, which will actually be a prequel. Each book has three main characters. In the sequel, one is a returning character while the other two had only been mentioned in the first story. For the prequel, a character introduced in the second book, becomes the main character, and the two supporting characters step forward from the previous books. It is going to be tricky, because the last book in the series takes place thirty years before the first. My hope is to tie up all the secrets seeded in the first two books.

  5. “Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.” Elaine Viets
    Advice for life!
    Really great thought on character driven series, but I am wondering what some good advice for series set in a location with different characters taking the lead each time would be?

    • Hahahahaha. Indeed!

      Great question, Lori. I keep the same leads, so I’m not the best person to answer. Hopefully, someone from our community will chime in. Perhaps you should read the Dublin Murder Series, as Clare suggested.

    • Your setting would have to be like a character in the type of series you’re suggesting, Lori. Think “over the top” & iconic when selecting/creating your world.

      Whether your world is an original fictitious one or you pick an iconic real setting like Los Angeles, I recommend you think through a strong theme for your series that would connect your stories. That would give a reason and a foundation for any stories that would sprout from your imagination.

      An example for a Los Angeles setting might be stories about how L.A. as a city of dreams can make or break any visitor who dares to venture there.

      I like the challenge of your comment. A great idea to put your stamp on, Lori.

      • Ooh, love that advice, Jordan. I can see L.A. working really well. Alaska may be another, where criminals run to escape the law. Each book could focus on that particular character’s crime and why they fled.

        • I read a book a long time ago that I’ve never forgotten – called KISSING IN MANHATTAN, an anthology of short stories set in New York City. Every story had the same setting within Manhattan. Each character had their own lead story and they ALL lived in the same apartment building in NYC. It was a clever way to link each Anthology story.

          The characters had good, bad & sad stories while living under the same roof. The theme could’ve been how little we know about our neighbors – the quiet desperation in a huge metropolis where people literally live on top of each other, yet are so isolated. Very poignant.

        • Hmmm…Alaska? I would love the research trips needed for that one. And I’m intrigued by the book Jordan mentions below, Kissing in Manhattan. That would be interesting.

      • Thank you Jordan. This definitely challenges my to think deep about how to use one location as a character in itself. Great advice and I appreciate the help.

  6. Thanks for summarizing these amazing tips, Sue. Genius idea. I’m bookmarking this post too.

    I’m also looking forward to the comments of our astute members. The discussions are always an enhancement to our posts. I love our TKZ writing community. Have a good week, girlfriend.

    • I love our TKZ community, too, Jordan. You’re right. The comments are often just as informative as the post. Wishing you an amazing week! {{{hugs}}}

  7. I mostly read fantasy and mostly watch sci fi. I’ve noticed a very solid structure in those series.

    The first installment, the underdogs react to whatever pressure the superiors put on them and win. In the second, the empire strikes back (:)) and wins. And the third is the great final battle. Even in longer series, like Harry Potter, the main characters win a few times, each time realizing just how large and frightening the enemy is. Then they lose, books 4-6 for HP, and then the final battle. And you can build in any amount of nuance about who the bad guys and good guys are, and who to trust.

    Having said that, I really love the series that focus on character relationships inside that structures. The advice here given about it is amazing.

    • I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say, thank you, AZAli! Thanks also for adding your tip for our fantasy and sci-fi writers. Much appreciated.

  8. Maybe something to be careful about is avoiding too much repetition. I enjoyed the first two Louise Penny novels, but by the third one, all the background goings-on at the Bistro and elsewhere in Three Pines had gotten old and I had to give up on the book. I suppose some people enjoy just hanging with these people, but I did not find it fresh enough. Almost like repeating old jokes.

    • Excellent point, Eric. We need to be mindful of our dedicated readers and not keep reminding them of what happened in earlier books. It’s a tricky dance, but an important part of series writing.

  9. One point I should have included, Sue, was to really get a handle on how to deal with backstory. This can be learned!

    When you have a series character, you have to do balancing act with each new book — how to educate new readers on your hero’s background but not bore established readers. You also, at times with a new book, must reveal important plot points from old books that helped set up something in the new book. But you must tread carefully and not tip off too much so you spoil the older books for new readers. (does that make sense?)

    And one of the beautiful things about writing a series is that, if your new book is juicy enough, you will entice folks to go find your old stuff. A good series can be evergreen. As John D. MacDonald said, the old stuff is often the good stuff!

    • Kris, you said it so much clearer than I did. It’s one of the hardest parts of series writing, IMO.

      I also loved your tip about keeping track of what happens in each chapter. All I use is my outline, endless pages of notes, and sticky tabs in the physical books. It’s time to get more organized. Your advice gave me the push I needed to get ‘er done before my two series get too many books that it becomes a monster job. And for that, I thank you. 🙂

  10. I am considering a series for my debut WIP but I am trying not to get too far ahead of myself. I am setting it up (hopefully!) for a series and I’m seeing where it leads me. Thanks for the great tips, everyone! I am bookmarking this for later. Happy New Year to all!

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