How to Write a Book Series - Part One
So today we're going to talk about one of my very favorite writing subjects: how to write a book series.
I currently have two works-in-progress--The Dark Between and Dreamworld--and both are the first installments in their respective book series.
Dreamworld is actually a young adult paranormal urban fantasy (what a mouth-full, eh?) that I'm using to improve my technical writing skills while The Dark Between is what I like to call my passion project, an adult medieval fantasy epic that I intend to be my defining work.
Though both series are dynamic (more on that below), they have each given me their own individual challenges throughout the drafting and revising process. Being from different sub-genres and age markets, as well as different lengths (the Dreamworld series is a trilogy while The Astral Series will be upwards of six or seven novels long), each has taught me much about the process of writing a series.
From both personal experience and research, I've learned a lot of tips and tricks that I can't wait to share with you over the next two weeks. Breaking down the three types of series and how to write them is a lengthy business, so today's post will be the first in a two-part mini-series.
Today, I'll give an overview of the three types of book series and then break down the first type in full detail. We'll then pick up with types two and three in next week's part-two post. Sound like a plan? Let's get started!
Exploring the Three Types of Book Series
First things first, not all book series are built the same. In fact, there are actually three different types of book series: dynamic, static, and anthology. Let's take a look at an overview of each:
A dynamic series features a dynamic main character. In other words, the series' protagonist undergoes an internal transformation of personality, beliefs, and/or heart throughout the course of the book series.
This type of book series is by far the most popular, and as such, it is also the most attractive to publishers and marketable to readers.
Examples: Common examples of dynamic book series include Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series), The Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games.
On the other hand, a static series features a static main character, a protagonist who does not undergo any sort of emotional or mental change during the course of the book series.
This type of book series used to be widely popular in the early days of modern fiction, when books and book series were most often published as magazines serials rather than paperbacks. This isn't to say that static series are now extinct. There are still several popular static series being published today.
Examples: Common examples of static book series include Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and the Hannibal Lecter series.
Anthology series are a completely different beast. Rather than being defined by their protagonist's character arc, anthology series feature different characters and stories in each book, with the series overall being tied together by a common thread (more on that in next week's post).
Anthology series are the least popular style of book series, but several have still gained critical acclaim and commercial success.
Examples: Common examples of anthology book series include Goosebumps, Fear Street, and The Chronicles of Narnia (though the latter is a bit debatable).
The important thing to remember about all three of types of book series is that no particular one is better than another; they are simply different. Though dynamic series are by far the most popular (making them the easiest to sell), the examples for static and anthology series go to prove that you can write a commercially successful series no matter its type.
Ready to dive deeper? In part one of our two-part mini-series on How to Write a Book Series, we'll be breaking down exactly what a dynamic series is and how you can write your own. Shall we begin?
Breaking Down the Dynamic Series
Dynamic series are built on the foundation of their dynamic main characters, which means they require a lot of time and effort on the part of the author to be well-outlined before they are written.
After all, if you don't how your dynamic protagonist will undergo change throughout the series before you begin to write, you won't know how to prepare the character for that change.
While you don't have to have every last detail of your book series prepared before digging into the first novel, you should at least have a basic outline of your protagonists' character arc laid out.
A character arc is the transformation or journey a character undergoes throughout the course of their story. There are actually three different types of character arcs--positive, negative, and flat--but only positive and negative arcs will result in an inner transformation for your protagonist, making them a dynamic character.
A positive character arc is by far the most common type of character arc. At its heart, a positive arc is the story of a character who faces and overcomes a struggle to become a better human being than they were before.
In order to create a positive arc, your protagonist must begin their story as a flawed human being. This doesn't mean that they have to be some sort of criminal. Even noble-hearted heroes can suffer from an overabundance of pride. The important thing is to make sure that your protagonist has some sort of flaw to overcome.
When you write a book series, there are three different ways you can show your protagonist's transformation.
Their character arc can either play out slowly over the entire series, several times over the course of the series (i.e. one major flaw is overcome in each novel), or a combination of the two (i.e. they overcome one minor flaw in each novel as well as a major flaw over the course of the series).
A negative character arc is the exact opposite of a positive arc (le, duh, right?). While these protagonists still undergo an internal change, their transformation is markedly a sad one. Rather than becoming a better human being, the protagonist slowly transforms into a darker, more tormented version of themselves by the end of their story.
In order to create a negative character arc, your protagonist needs to start out as a generally good and moral person. They will then face a series of unfortunate circumstances or struggles that will shape them for the worse. By the end of the novel, the protagonist will be in a very bad place, most likely suffering a life-changing defeat at the hands of your story's antagonist.
Keep in mind, the protagonist of a negative character arc does not have to be a noble-hearted hero at the beginning of the story. They can still be a flawed human being like the protagonist of a positive arc.
In fact, many such protagonists have a tragic flaw that leads to their ultimate downfall. This tragic flaw doesn't necessarily have to be a bad personality trait, such as greed or pride. Even an overabundance of confidence or compassion can drive a character toward their own undoing.
No matter your protagonist's label in life, two things need to happen in order for you to pull off a successful negative character arc:
- Readers need to root for the protagonist to achieve their story goal.
- The protagonist must either fail to achieve their story goal or ultimately achieve it by means that compromise their original values, warping them into an antagonistic force.
If you can make both of these scenarios happen, your negative character arc will play out seamlessly.
Identifying Your Plot Arcs
Once you've decided which transformation arc your protagonist will take, it's time to begin working out how that transformation will occur. This means taking a few moments to sketch out the plot arcs for your book series.
Essentially, a plot arc is the storyline of your novel, and though a novel can have multiple plot arcs (which typically occurs in complex fantasies, sci-fi's, and thrillers), it isn't a requirement.
Now you may be wondering why you have to sketch out both character and plot arcs before beginning to write your book or book series. The answer is simple: a character arc follows the protagonist's internal struggles while the plot arc follows the external.
These two types of arcs are not mutually exclusive; they're actually quite interwoven. The external struggles your protagonist faces will force them to confront their own emotions, thus affecting their mental state. Meanwhile, the protagonist's mental state will affect the actions they take as they approach those external struggles.
Every part of your character's story should see them dealing with either their thoughts, their deeds, or a combination of the two. In fact, the more you pit your protagonist's thoughts and deeds against each other, the stronger your novel's tension will be. And high tension = high reader interest. Hurray!
Now, if you were writing a standalone novel, plotting would probably be a lot easier since you'd only have to identify the plot arc of your singular story. But since you're writing a book series, you'll have to outline an individual plot arc for each story (also known as a story arc), as well as a plot arc for the series as a whole (also known as a series arc).
Confused by all of these different types of arcs? Don't worry--we'll review them all at the end of this post. For now, let's talk about how you'll identify and outline the story and series arcs for your book series.
How to Build Your Own Dynamic Series
So, how do you go about outlining these two types of plot arcs? The process is actually relatively simple, but you will have to put in a bit of time to get it right (though how much will completely depend on your preference, experience, and skills).
Here are five steps to planning out your dynamic book series. Let's go!
1) Think back on your character arc.
First things first, you have to find the right plot structure for the first book in your series. A plot structure is simply a general order of events that you can use to outline your plot arc. Of course, not every plot arc follows the same pattern, so there are several different plot structures available for you to use.
How do you decide on the right plot structure for your novel? You'll need to look back at your protagonist's character arc and think about what events could transform them from the person they were at the beginning of the story to the person they become.
You don't have to go too in depth with this step; just knowing two or three of the big events that occur during your protagonist's transformation is usually enough to help you identify the perfect plot structure for your book.
2) Identify your plot structure.
The next step? Actually figuring out which plot structure is right for your novel!
In this She's Novel post, I break down the three most popular types of plot structures in full detail. Chances are one of those plot structures will be the perfect choice for your novel, but if none of them seem quite right, you can always do more research or shoot me an email for a bit of help.
3) Outline your first story arc.
Once you've chosen the plot structure you'll use for the first book in your series, you'll want to do a little outlining. Now, I know that "outlining" is a scary word for many writers. I get it--it's not fun. However, outlining doesn't have to be an overwhelming, soul-sucking experience.
There is no right way to outline a novel. How you choose to approach this process is completely up to you, meaning that you can go as simple or as in-depth as you'd like. Here are a few of your outlining options:
- A simple bullet-point list of events
- A quick two to five sentence summary for each chapter (I did this for my latest novel)
- A Roman Numeral outline detailing every chapter, scene, etc.
- The Epic Novel Plan
Have another idea? Great! Go for it, rockstar. Just remember that skipping this step will inevitably spell trouble for your book series, if not your individual book itself. Take a day, a week, a month, however long you need to rock your own outlining process. Just get that first story arc laid out.
4) Identify and outline your series arc.
Woohoo! You have the first book in your series outlined. Congrats, champ!
The next step in preparing for a successful dynamic book series is to think about the long term. Where is this story headed over the next several books? Where is your character at in their positive or negative transformation arc?
Choosing a plot structure for your series as a whole isn't a complicated process. In almost every case, the plot structure you used to outline the first book in your series is the same one you'll use to outline each subsequent story arc (the individual books in your series), as well as the series arc (the series as a whole).
Have I lost you completely? An easy way to understand the difference between the two types of plot arcs–a story arc and a series arc–is to think about your favorite TV show.
That's right, folks! You can learn how to be a better writer by watching television. Hurray!
So here's the deal: let's consider a cop show like NCIS or Law and Order. In almost every episode, the team works to catch a killer. This process begins at the crime scene and ends with an arrest. Bing, bang, boom. A complete plot arc plays out in just one hour.
This would be a story arc, making a single TV episode the equivalent to one individual book in your book series.
Now sometimes, while working to catch an individual killer in each episode, the team also tries to track down another killer. But this ingenious killer isn't so easily caught. It takes the team several episodes, or even the entire season, to finally arrest this particular bad guy.
This multi-episode long plot arc would be your series arc, the equivalent to your book series as a whole.
In essence, a series arc for a dynamic book series is a long, over-arching plot arc that runs overtop the individual story arcs that occur in each individual book in your series. It's sounds complicated, I know, but it's actually not that bad. If you're more of a visual learner, take a look at the graphic below.
Now, you'll want to create a general outline of your series arc before digging into drafting the first book in your series. This will help you plant clues and foreshadow the events that will take place in later books in the first installment.
You can get highly detailed with this or you can keep things relatively simple. The choice is up to you, though it may also be affected by the overall complexity of your series.
Whatever you choose, I highly recommend that you don't skip this step (or any of these steps, really). You need to know where your book series is headed if you want to build a strong foundation with the first novel.
That's why J.K. Rowling spent five years outlining the Harry Potter series before beginning to write and why George R.R. Martin had an outline of the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series to present when he was querying agents and publishers (even if the series was only three books long at that time).
5) Begin drafting.
Once you have your protagonist's character arc and the story and series' arcs sketched out, you have two options. You can either do more research and note-taking for your novel, or you can dive right in. The choice is up to you!
Just remember, the more pre-writing work you do before beginning to write, the fewer revisions you'll likely have to make later. If you're looking for further structure when it comes to pre-writing your novels, you're in luck. I made The Pre-Write Project just for you!
Additional Tips for Creating Your Dynamic Series
I know what you're thinking: "Additional tips? How can there be more?!"
I know I've thrown a lot at you today, my friend. But writing a book series is an EPIC challenge to take on, which means we need to get epic with this dynamic series breakdown. So stick with me for a few more tips, okay?
And remember, you can always bookmark or pin this post for later if you need to take a few days off to digest what you've read so far.
Now for the additional tips for nailing your dynamic book series:
1) You might have to sketch out multiple character arcs. Does your series feature a prominent, physical villain? If your antagonist plays a major role in your book series, you'll need to outline their character arc in addition to the protagonist's.
"But my villain isn't a dynamic character!", you say. Well, that means you have a static villain on your hands. I'll teach you all about how to outline static characters and their flat character arcs in part-two of this two-part blog mini-series, so stay tuned!
2) You can spread out the exposition. Exposition is the context (i.e. background information) readers need in order to understand a story. This may include character backstories, past events, cultural norms, settings, relationships, and more.
With most standalone novels, exposition is relegated to the first third of the novel, if not the first few chapters. Since exposition isn't the most interesting of information, too much of it at once can leave readers feeling bored or overwhelmed.
The beauty of writing a book series is that you can spread out the exposition over the course of the first several novels rather than just the first few chapters of the first book.
Of course, you'll want to reveal each individual book's necessary exposition during the course of that book. But more general information like character backstories and past events can be effectively revealed over the course of the series to keep readers from becoming overwhelmed, as well as to string them along with some of the more juicy exposition details.
3) A Note on Multiple POVs. Writing a multiple point-of-view book series (e.g. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire) is definitely possible, but it should absolutely be your passion project, something that you are willing to dedicate years--or even decades--of your life to producing.
By writing a standalone multiple-POV novel, you're essentially writing several novels all woven into one long story. Tough stuff. By writing an multiple-POV series, you are taking on the challenge of a lifetime.
While you might be able to bend or break some of the rules when creating a singular-POV book series, you absolutely cannot cut corners if you plan to write a successful multiple-POV book series.
You will have to spend hundreds of hours on each step in the process: planning, outlining, drafting, and revising. In many ways, it's a never ending process. I can say this with confidence because The Dark Between, the passion project I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is one such multiple-POV series.
People often gawk when I tell them that I spent over a year planning out this series before beginning to write it, but the truth is that the one year didn't even cut it. Much of what I'd planned during that time has already been scrapped and replaced by new character and plot arcs. And though I now have the first draft of the first installment wrapped up, the revising process is no where near complete.
In fact, Dreamworld--the novel I just drafted during NaNoWriMo--is likely to be published long before The Dark Between, and I am a-okay with that. Multiple-POV book series simply take time, and a lot of it. You have to be willing to put in that time if you want the series to be a success.
Now, I'm not saying all this to scare you away from writing a multiple-POV book series (I'd love it if you'd join me in this crazy endeavor!).
But the truth of the matter is that you need to be absolutely committed to bringing this series to life over the course of several years, or else you'll find yourself wasting time you could have spent bringing a much better standalone story to the page. Okay?
Whew! You just made it through one epically long post, friend. Congratulations! *throws confetti* Here's a coffee and a cupcake just for you.
As promised, I've also put together a review of today's terms below.
- Dynamic Series. A book series featuring a protagonist that undergoes an internal transformation
- Character Arc. The internal journey a character undergoes over the course of a story
- Transformation Arc. A type of character arc in which the character undergoes a positive or negative transformation
- Positive Arc. A type of character arc in which the character undergoes a positive transformation, overcoming an internal struggle to become a better human being
- Negative Arc. A type of character arc in which the character undergoes a negative transformation, succumbing to an internal struggle
- Plot Arc. The complete series of events that occur during the course of a storyline
- Plot Structure. A specified series of general events that can be used to outline a more specific story
- Story Arc. A complete plot arc that occurs of the course one book
- Series Arc. A complete plot arc that occurs of the course of a book series
- Exposition. The background information used to give context to a story
So, what do you say–are you ready to take on your own dynamic book series? Fantastic! Ask me any questions you might have in the comments below or feel free to shoot me an email. I'm happy to help!