While you’ll find plenty of information cautioning you against mistakes to avoid making when writing a series (and it’s sound advice), how do you know you should write a series? What if you’re just getting started and you think you want to write a series or that you might have a series on your hands…how can you be sure? There are a few signs that indicate you have a series-worthy concept and character.
You Have Too Many Ideas for One Book
Let’s say you’re outlining your novel or you’re already writing it, and you find that the ideas just keep pouring in. Oh, but what if there was a murder at the theater where my thespian police detective is in a play? And what if it happened that one of the characters was part of a traveling circus that comes to town and weird things start happening there? (Not the most brilliant ideas here, but you get the point.)
I had an experience like that recently where I started planning a book, and as I was planning, new ideas started to form. They were all exciting possibilities, but I soon realized that I had scenes, story arcs, plotlines, etc. that ran in different directions. I couldn’t put them all into one book.
Then it dawned on me. Series, duh. The character I had created was one I knew I would love to work with again (more on that later), but what’s more, I clearly had ideas for another story.
Importantly, when you do find yourself basking in ideas like Scrooge McDuck in his pool of gold coins, you need to know what kind of series you have on your hands.
- One type of series is the one that flows from book-to-book. Picking up book two doesn’t make as much sense unless you’ve read book one. The Harry Potter series is such an example. Each book builds upon the last. The same is true for Hunger Games and the Twilight series of yester-year.
- Other series are episodic; each book is a standalone work and can be enjoyed without you having read another book in the series. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series is such a series. While Brown references Langdon’s situations from previous works, which is not uncommon in episodic series, the cast of supporting characters, the locales, the conflict source, etc. are new in each story. Without realize that Angels and Demons preceded it, I read The DaVinci Code first, and while I briefly wondered who the lover Langdon mentioned at the beginning of the book was, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.
So, as you’re writing and bursting with new ideas, figure out if your abundance of content is because you have an episodic series on your hands or if you have a chronological one that needs to flow from one novel to the next.
Importantly, books that should be read in sequence tend to be shorter series runs than those that are episodic.
You Aren’t Ready to Stop Writing the Character
Another sign that you might have a series is that you aren’t ready to give up your character. Hey, that saucy girl has more adventures in her. Why hang her out to dry when she’s only gotten started? If you’ve created a character with a strong character arc like Angela Marsons did in her Detective Kim Stone series or Robert Bryndza in his Detective Erika Foster series, then you’ve got fodder to go for ages.
Both Marsons and Bryndza have a mystery thriller detective series. Interestingly, both Stone and Foster are similar protagonists (showing these writers understand their genre)…both protagonists are feisty, often causing trouble at work by bucking order and authority; however, they are great DCIs…a little off-the-cuff but highly intuitive. They get the job done in the end. Both authors know not to make life easy for these women; both are damaged having suffered major losses, which guides their characters arcs in both authors’ series.
What’s more, speaking of character arc, unlike the protagonist of a one-and-done novel, Marsons and Bryndza make Stone and Foster deliberately slower at figuring out their inner turmoil and in resolving it. Needless to say, they shouldn’t figure it out…unless these authors have a plan to quit their respective series or to re-damage the protagonist to keep things going.
Your Readers Beg for More
Finally, your audience is a great indicator of whether or not you have the potential for a great series. Ideally, you’ll already know this before you wrap up the first novel. If your protagonist never “figured it out”, then your audience will likely beg for more…they want to know what happens next to that character.
Sometimes, though, you have a protagonist who is a little damaged and nuts and who is such a mystery that makes audiences want more. I mentioned in this piece on creating characters that audiences wanted another Lily Kintner novel from author Peter Swanson despite the fact that he wrapped it up. Does Lily have series potential? While the argument could be made that Lily could get out there again, integrate into small communities, and inflict her vigilante justice on others she meets, this would be completely outside of her character arc. Lily’s too much of an introvert. Her vengeance was limited to those who personally wronged her in the past. It would be outside her character arc to serve as fodder for a lengthy mystery thriller series based on (occasionally) justifiable homicide.
So, consider what your character’s potential is and if there’s potential in that character’s arc to keep going. The style of writing, genre, plot, character, etc. need to be consistent. You can’t go off the rails and write a totally different novel every time even though you’re writing the same character.
Why Series are Great to Write
If you do check all of these boxes, then congratulations! Series are great to write because audiences especially commit to series characters. I have been a fan of series literature since I was a child, and it remains one of my favorite guilty pleasures. There’s nothing quite like investing with a character over the long haul and going through several mysteries or adventures with that character (and their friends if some of your supporting casts sticks around throughout the series, which in many cases, there are at least one or two other characters with recurring roles).
Series are great, too, because you have a cheering section for your writing. Bryndza and Marsons both have fans on their social media pages who are giddy as both authors are due to release the next books in their respective series within the next few months.
Speaking of new releases, timing is important if you’re planning to write a series. If it takes you three years to put together a novel, then even if you can say you fulfill all of the above criteria, a series may not be best for you…especially if you are publishing in trade paperback. Audiences need new stories (particularly if you’re writing episodically) on a consistent basis to stay invested. If you’re waiting over a year to drop your next story, chances are, you’ve waited too long and you’ll lose some of those readers who were on fire following your last release; that’s not to say you can’t win them back, but that’s an added hassle that takes away from you writing your next book.
I realize, as some might be hasty to point out, that this timing caveat contradicts the success of J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown. There are two reasons for this. One is that Harry Potter was unprecedented…as was The DaVinci Code (and subsequent Robert Langdon stories). Two is that these authors offer readers a level of precision and depth that is unparalleled by most good series books. Does this mean you won’t succeed if you’re slow at churning out new materials? Of course not!
What matters most is that you have a strong character with a strong arc. You know you have series material when you have a consistent theme and idea…when you know the type of series content you want to write, you have lots of ideas you love your character and your audience loves your character, too. The end. Next story!
Part of what makes a series great is consistency. If you’re writing a series, find an editor to work with who you like and trust and who loves your series…find someone you’ll want to keep around from book 1 to book 10. Keeping the same editor ensures your work’s quality and style remain consistent, which keeps your audiences happy and keeps the words flowing.