Thursday, July 18, 2013

5 Ways to Make a Series Work

Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t homeschooling her kids or writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband.

Stephanie has blogged on here before about how sometimes an idea demands a series, and other times one book is all it takes. Sometimes series are trendy and sometimes editors chant "stand alone!" at us, but if you decide on a series, you still have some figuring to do. So with the debut of my first-ever published sequel but days away (squeeeeeeee!), I thought that today I'd doff my editor hat that I usually wear in my Go Teen Writers posts and don my writer cap to chat with you guys about series.

First, let's touch briefly on the different kinds of series:

A. The Continuity Series
These are all about the same character(s), each with a complete story arc, but subsequent books picking up more or less where previous ones left off. Some fine examples of continuity series are: The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt, Blood of Kings...and pretty much every other YA series I could think of. ;-)

B. The Stand-Alone Series
In a stand-alone series, there will be common threads and characters through the books, but each title will have a new hero/heroine and a completely new plot line. The idea is to be able to read them out of order...but there may be spoilers in book 2 for book 1 (like knowing what characters ended up with whom or whether they solved the mystery), so it's still best to read them in order. Examples: Daughters of Boston, The Chronicles of Narnia's later books, The Wrinkle in Time books, Culper Ring Series (yes, plugging myself. Aren't I clever? LOL)

C. The Single Titles Series
This one is a little trickier. A lot of publishers are now doing series or lines by multiple authors that all have a single common thread. For example, Abingdon's Quilts of Love line, where quilting is all that each books will share with any other book in the line. They have something in common, but the books are completely independent. Sometimes one author does these too, like Denise Hunter's Nantucket series...or my upcoming Let Me Count the Ways. In these books, there may be a common setting or theme, but there's absolutely no reference to previous books in subsequent ones.

So let's say you've decided to write a series, and you know what type it will be. When I first started writing, my ideas almost always came to me in trilogies...though more often than not I'd move on to a whole different idea after one book rather than getting past chapter 8 of a sequel. And the more experience I gained, the more I had to ask myself why.

I think writing a series can be difficult for a couple reasons. Aside from the writer getting bored with an idea or character (so been there!), there's a delicate balance to strike. You have to bring readers up-to-speed in book 2 or 3, since it could have been months or years since they read the previous one(s), but not bore them with facts they already know. You have to weave in backstory from previous books without making it scream "Backstory!" (which we all know is a no-no in the beginning of a book). You have to have common themes so they're all tied together, without being redundant.

Though I have 25 manuscripts finished right now, I'd only ever written one full series of 3 (still unpublished) before I signed a contract with Harvest House for the Culper Ring Series. I was confident I could do it, but there were challenges I hadn't anticipated. Having just turned in the final one though, and with Whispers from the Shadows hitting shelves so soon, I now have a list of things that work and things that don't.

Common Themes

Though my series is generational, what pulls each book together is the Culper Ring, a band of tight-knit family and friends who began spying for General Washington in the Revolution (true history!) and (fictitiously) continue guiding the nation in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. So obviously, themes of liberty run through each one. Every series, no matter what type it is, does this, because it would be pretty shocking if book 1 was all about facing your fears on a skateboarding half-pipe, and then number 2 was about falling in love over old letters found in attic. Common themes are what make a series feel whole. But they need to each be unique. So some ways to do that:

Ask a New Question

In Ring of Secrets, the question that my characters always came back to was this: What would you sacrifice to serve your cause?

In Whispers from the Shadows, my characters face a new question: How do you know who to trust?

Book 3, Circle of Spies, asks: Are you free?

Face New Problems

We also have to be careful each book is covering new ground in terms of action. Katniss couldn't just win the Games in all 3 Hunger Games books, right? Her opponents changed with each one, getting bigger and more serious as the series went on, and the action went from one arena to another to the real world.

In my series, though each set in a war, the characters face very different problems, sometimes fighting behind the scenes, and sometimes on the front lines.

Approach the Plot from New Directions

Fresh plot isn't enough though. We also need to be careful not to overuse the same plot devices. Some I found myself trying to repeat (keeping in mind these are historical romances):

  • Love triangles
  • Love at first sight
  • Falling in love with the enemy
  • Heroine/Hero distrusting each other
  • Secrets between main characters
  • Mistaken/hidden identity
Don't just tell a new story, tell it in a new way.

Common Threads

One thing I really loved doing in the Culper Ring Series though was pulling threads from book 1 all the way through the series. I had a few tangible things that traveled through the generations with my characters: a book of prayers; a pearl necklace; sign language. These were three things that were so important to the Ring of Secrets that I decided to keep them going. But it's tricky! Because it's not enough to keep them there--I also have to keep them relevant. How do we do that?

My best advice is to use nothing in vain--if it's there, give it a real purpose. Let's take my sign language thread as an example. In book 1, Winter knows a precursor to American Sign Language because her grandmother went deaf, so her father and his friend got some books on signs and used them to create a method to communicate. She and her guardian (father's friend) use it to communicate covertly in New York City. Hero sees it, asks to learn...and uses a sign at the end to help the heroine convince someone of who she is.

In book 2, my hero is the son of the characters from book 1, so he grew up knowing signs as well. We see him use them a few times throughout the book, and his parents use them when they don't want the heroine to understand what they're saying. She, however, asks to learn a few signs later that carry special meaning to the hero.

So, having it in two books, I had to use it in the third (law of threes, you know). But I had to find a new way to make it relevant. I pondered this for a while before I came to my forehead-slapping moment. Through the other two books, the signs were more a tool of espionage than why not make it fresh by returning to the roots? I brought in a deaf child whose parents want to be able to communicate with her. And my self-absorbed heroine had to face some demons to be able to help.

In Review

So to sum it all up, writing a series is a lot like writing any slew of books in that we need to be aware of our fall-backs as writers--and avoid them. We need to keep each story unique and fresh and make sure it's complete...but there are also some quirks unique to a series. You have to have thing that draw them together, you have to draw readers from one to another, which means making them invest in your world.

Questions about the nitty gritty or overall of writing a series? Ask away!

And also, because I'm celebrating the release of that second book in my first-ever-published series, every day in July I'm giving away a copy of book 1, Ring of Secrets, on my blog. Hop on over to for chances at that every day, as well as at one bonus prize each week! And if you haven't already, I would so appreciate it if you'd download Fairchild's Lady, Culper Ring Series 1.5--a FREE novella. It's available from Amazon, CBD, B&N, iTunes, and GooglePlay.


  1. Samantha AuthoressJuly 18, 2013 at 7:35 AM

    Wow! Such a long post, I am not actually writing a series but I will print this off for future reference. I've got one or two ideas floating around in my mind that I might want to think about. Then again, I've always been more of a stand-alone novelist.


    P.s. I love when Roseanna posts!

  2. I wish my mind worked more in trilogies then it does. One of the great advantages that come with trilogies or writing a series is that, if the characters are well done, the reader gets invested in them so much more than just a stand alone novel. The stories become harder to forget, and much more potent then.

    For the most part I have the tendency just to do stand alone novels, but I absolutely LOVE to read series that connect with one another. Like Blood of Kings trilogy does this so well, because the characters are so familiar, yet they continue to change. I was always curious to see what they were going to do next. Another series that I absolutely adore is by Dee Henderson, called the O'Malley series. It's six books(with a prequel as well) long, and follows adoptive siblings in their professions and their lives. Their banter, their fears, I loved everything about them. They made me feel like they were real people because I'd spent so much time with them.

    Congrats on your new book releasing, Roseanna! I can't wait to read more about Winter and Bennet, and now their son! Squeal! :)

    1. Thanks, Clarebear! I do so love these characters, LOL.

  3. I tend to write stand alone novels, but this was a great post! Will definitely use for future reference if I start writing series.

    I have one question. You said that backstory shouldn't be done at the beginning of a book, but I have that in mine,in the second chapter, but the whole book kind of goes off of her memory of this particular event, and it's something they need to know in detail after I finish chapter one. Do you think that's okay, or do I need to find a different way to say that?


    1. There are always exceptions to the "no backstory" rule, NatlieNoel. If you *really* need the readers to know what happened, then yes, put it in chapter 2. Sometimes that's definitely necessary. Other times, it's easy for us as writers to wax on forever about a characters childhood or formative moments in those early pages, when WE're getting to know them...when it's better for the reader to just get hints. In one of my MSS, I originally started it with when my H/H met the first time, went all through the formation of their relationship, then jumped 9 years. In rewrites, I started at the 9-years-later section and wove how they got to know each other in throughout. The reader didn't need to know all that, much as I did.

    2. Most of the time if you find yourself loading backstory in your novel it's a sign you're not starting early enough in your story. One of the ideas of "No Backstory" is that you want to show your story role into place, rather than having your reader crash into backstory.

      P. S. Did you consider a prologue? I used one in the novel I'm currently writing to trim away on backstory.

      Oh and so you know in the future, a lot of authors say "No backstory in the fifty pages of your novel (some even say first 100 pages). But it's OK to have a little backstory in the beginning if the reader needs it, it's better that your reader understands the story than band backstory.

    3. Not sure I totally agree with you there on the earlier thing. Most of the time the "forbidden" backstory we try to sneak in is about years past, not months or weeks or days, so starting our story earlier would take us too far out of the action. If anything, I'd say most of the authors I've talked to have learned to start a little LATER than they wanted. Though I totally agree on the reason for the rule.

      I never stick closely to rules about "Don't do this until this page/chapter/percent," especially not if it's a matter of clarity, but if you just keep it in mind as a guideline, it can remind you that a lot of your story's history is for you, not the reader. =)

    4. I don't stick closely to the "How Many Pages Till Backstory" "rule" either , it's just a good thing to keep in mind.
      I guess what I meant by "earlier" is that you maybe starting at the wrong time in the story (on the other hand, you may not). The "earlier" thing is just from personal experience.
      In the end, it all depends on the individual story.

  4. After the project I'm about to start (a stand alone), I'm going to be writing a series which is a trilogy, with a spin-off told from the POV of the MC's daughter (16 years later, as babies don't tend to be great a self-expression) in the same world, but with a lot of changes. It's a fantasy/dystopia and I'm sooooo excited about it but don't have enough information yet to start writing. :( Like NatalieNoel, lots of my ideas are stand-alones, but I prefer to read trilogies and series, so am trying to come up with more ideas for those. I get too attached to the characters to let them go after just one book, haha. The MC of my last project -- that I was certain beyond any doubt was going to be a stand-alone -- has just sprung either a sequel or an epilogue on me, *sigh*. She keeps taking the story into her own hands. I don't know whether my epilogue idea will span a whole book, but it might be too long to just bung on the end of the story now. A novella might be in order. Thanks for the post, Roseanna!

    1. Don't you love when characters just demand more story. ;-) That's how my novella was born, LOL.

    2. Taking control of their story is great -- it's when they start jumping out of windows that's annoying . . . don't ask ;)

  5. From Amo Libros:
    Thanks for such a great post! I was wondering, though: you said that in your second book, the hero was the son of the main characters from the first book. Was it difficult to write your characters as their older selves? (Assuming they showed up at all.)

  6. A post about series! yeeshh!!!!
    I'm writing a trilogy and so far i'm on editing the first draft and have plotted out the other two books. This post came just in time because now I'm realizing I need to tie up a few loose ends in my thought process for my trilogy. I know the love triangle is sooo cliche, but would it be too cheesy still if my first book is the love at first sight thing and the second book is the love triangle? There's only one love interest in the first one but a second one is introduced in the next book?

    I have a question about setting also. I'm planning on changing settings from the first book to the second and third. Do you suggest changing settings of a continuous trilogy after I've gotten my reader so used to one place?

    Great post and your series sounds so intriguing! I want to read it!

    1. Changing setting is totally fine! They don't all do it, but many do. Using The Hunger Games as my example again, Katniss ends up all over the place through the series. =)

      And your idea to introduce a love triangle in the second one sounds great. =) When I mentioned being careful not to overuse them, I meant within each book. Which is to say, almost all my books have love triangles in some form or another, LOL. I NEED TO STOP THAT! Two of the three have characters instantly drawn to each other (though not totally love at first sight). I made sure to make it take longer in the third. ;-) But those aren't continuous, so for your setup, it sounds like a great way to mix it up from book to book!

  7. I write almost nothing but series. I'm currently working on a sixty book series. Within it are five five book continuity series, 25 "stand alones" as in they are part of the whole thing but don't make up any particular group, one four book continuity series and one six book one. It's called Telskolia and it's based around this one group of islands and their inhabitants over 1100 years.Each book is different with it's own themes and their like historical fiction but the place is made up. The common theme through all is that the only purpose for life is the glory of God.


    1. Wow! That's epic. In multiple ways, LOL. Sounds like a fun (and consuming) project! I like my books to all be set in an interchangeable story world (so if I set up a villain in one series, his organization might named in another series, let's say), even though they don't have anything to do with another. Your Telskolia must be incredibly interesting!

    2. O_O SIXTY BOOKS?!?! You're going to be writing that forever. At least you won't run out of ideas for a while :)

    3. From Amo Libros:
      O_O WOWW!!! That is so cool!!!

  8. I mainly write The Continuity series type of books but I do plan to start self-publishing a Single Title Dystopian Series in December. The former type I plan to start sending to agents in 2015. Thanks for sharing and congrats on your latest book.

    1. Thanks! And good luck on your own series. =)

  9. This was so encouraging! My series I'm working on was going to be a Standalone trilogy that, in each book, spanned all 4 years of the Civil War for each individual family. Suffice it to say, shortly into book one, I decided to split each book up into two. So, my "ideal" trilogy recently became a series of 6 & with all of these tips & encouragement in this post, I'm even more excited about it.

    1. Oo, Civil War! Just finished up mine set then. =) I bet you'll have a blast with them!

  10. Nancy Drew actually would fit under C, but all the writers donned the pen name Carolyn Keene. I guess that would qualify as ghostwriting?

    I'm working on a series that's pretty much B until the final book, but I don't want to give anything away just yet. ;) I have plans for an A-type series in the future.

    I just finished reading the article. Wow. These points are all going to a sticky note on my computer and Pinterest!

  11. Wow, very interesting. So far on my WIPs, I am currently writing standalones but I am thinking of writing a series when I get the time. After reading your post, I am going to keep in mind these things so I don't fall into any pitfalls or mistakes later on. Thanks!


  12. Thanks for the post, Roseanna! I am working on a trilogy now, it started out as a standalone, but now I've realized that saving the world is a bit of a long plot to get done in one book... Plus, I am absolutely in love with all three of my MCs. This post was very helpful, I've got some ideas for the second book I'm going to try out... If I ever finish the first one, anyway. Slow going.

    1. LOL. A lot for one book indeed! Good luck with them, Catsi!

    2. Thanks! (I think I'm going to need it- I've never finished a single story before...)

  13. I love writing standalones as well as series. Right now I'm working on the first book of a series about six friends and every story is written from a different friend's perspective. It wasn't supposed to be a series to begin with, but I think I will enjoy the way it turns out. Thank you for this post, Mrs Roseanna. It really helped me realise the differences in series.
    ~Annie-Jo Elizabeth

  14. What I love about series is that if you love the story it doesn't end with one book. HOWEVER, writers must keep in mind that a series shouldn't outlast it's story.

    Star Wars Episode VII, since Star Wars is about the Chosen One bringing the force back to balance and since the Force is brought back to balance in Star Wars Episode VI, there is no need to continue the story. IT'S OVER! IT'S DONE! The story is complete. Anakin destroyed the Sith for good. (Just so you all know, I LOVE STAR WARS)

  15. Great blog post. I'm writing two series right now. One is continuity, and the other is a single title. I'm considering do a stand-alone series, but I'm not sure yet.


  16. Great post! I tend to think up most of my books as series, but I totally get the tying in yet new. Thanks for sharing. ^ ^

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