What I’ve Learned About Writing an Ongoing Series

September 23, 2013

I almost forgot, but then I remembered!  I promised attendees of my Kaffeeklatsch at this past Worldcon that I would post my rules for writing an ongoing series.  This essay has appeared on a couple of different blogs as guest posts and the like, but this is the first time I’ve put it here.  Long overdue, I think.  So, here we go:


(Note:  my model and guide for learning to write a series has always been Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  I make references to it throughout.)

1. Make each book a stand-alone story in its own right. The goal here is to have someone be able to pick up any book in the series and still get hooked. Don’t make it harder for readers to get into the series by forcing them to figure out what order it goes in, or confusing them if they get it wrong. The first Miles book I read was Mirror Dance, which is not only in the middle of the series, but in the middle of a three-book story arc. I still loved it enough to rush out and read everything else — completely out of order. But I never felt lost. (It did result in a lot of “oh, that’s why that happened!” moments, but that’s okay.)

2. The main character has to grow and change. Writers are taught that a novel should have a character arc, that through the story the main character should learn something, should be changed somehow. That the main character is the one most affected by the story. This shouldn’t change just because it’s a series and the character continues across many books. The character still needs to be invested in the story, each and every time.

3. There’s a corollary to this: The main character needs to be the kind of person that lots of life-changing stuff happens to. Let’s face it, for one person to face a dozen life-changing character arcs over the course of a series might be pretty unbelievable. But not if that person is naturally that kind of person. Over the course of his series, Miles flunks out of the military academy physical exam, gets into the academy anyway, graduates, starts a military career, accidentally becomes admiral of a mercenary fleet, becomes a pan-galactic super spy, screws up so badly he destroys his career, has to find a way to pick up the pieces of his life and find a new career, and he does, as an investigator which takes him on all sorts of new adventures, and then he meets the love of his life, and then — you get the idea. Miles is the kind of person who will never run out of adventures.

So, the short version of this: don’t be afraid to have your characters grow up. Don’t be afraid to throw vast, life-changing problems at them. That will make the series more interesting, more realistic, more vivid, and will make your reader that much more invested in it.

4. The corollary to that is: Don’t write the same book every time. Readers are following the characters, not the story formula. If they love your characters, you can do just about anything — mystery, horror, romance, thriller, all of the above. Challenge yourself, try new things, don’t fall into a rut.

5. Stay true to the characters. Don’t bend and twist your character to fit an interesting plot. If you want to try a weird plot, consider: what would the character you’ve already established do with that kind of plot? Make the stories organic, and know what the character would do in every situation. If you want to do something crazy, think about what it would take to push the character into doing something out of character. But always remember: you’ll have to sell it to the reader, make them buy it, and then deal with the consequences realistically.

6. Supporting cast. A good supporting cast can do wonders for a series. Miles wouldn’t be Miles without Ivan, Mark, Gregor, Aral and Cordelia, Elli Quinn and the rest. Don’t make them stereotypes, make them great in their own rights. Think of it this way: they’re your main character’s team, and they’re all in it together. They’re not little satellites there to orbit the main character.

7. Goals, and a series arc. While each book should stand alone, that doesn’t mean some part of the story can’t continue on from book to book. Give the main character a goal, or a problem that never gets solved, that continually develops complications. This gives the entire series an arc, and will help hold it together as a series. It’s part of defining the character: what drives this person to keep going even while all this crazy stuff is happening?

This also gives you a way to end the series with a bang, if you decide to end the series. The character accomplishes that big goal, the big problem is finally solved, the ongoing villain is finally overcome. In Miles’s case, his ongoing problems were finding a place in his world, reconciling his sense of adventure with his sense of duty, and finding a woman he could settle down with (who would put with him) and start a family. At many points, he despaired that any of this will happen. Then he met Ekaterin. (It turns out the series has continue on after the birth of their children, even though that would have been a perfect end.  But Bujold has also branched out — we finally have our book about Ivan!)

(And yes, I know how the Kitty series ends.  I hesitate to say any more about that until those plans, and future ones, are firmed up a bit.)



11 Responses to “What I’ve Learned About Writing an Ongoing Series”

  1. Scott Hedrick Says:

    ” Make each book a stand-alone story in its own right.” I know it’s a movie, but the rule applies there as well. I believe that The Empire Strikes Back, which I think is the greatest of the Star Wars movies, had a problem because you really needed to see the previous and next ones to fully understand it. George Lucas was going for the old serial genre, which required each episode to end with a cliffhanger, and in that he succeeded. That works if you only have to wait a week for the next part, but it drives moviegoers- and readers- away if you have to wait a couple of years between installments. That doesn’t mean you have to clean up every plotline, it just means that the viewer/reader needs to be satisfied that there was a beginning and end to what they just saw/read. The last (to date) Star Wars trilogy, while the movies were just pale shadows of what came before them, at least had a beginning and end, and you could watch the movie by itself and be reasonably satisfied that you had an entire story- not the entire story arc, but the part you just saw had a beginning and end. This is a benefit to the viewer/reader in case the next part doesn’t come along.

  2. Great advice, Carrie. Good timing for me, too, since I’m wrapping up the first book and planning the second in what could be a long series.

  3. Matt Says:

    Scott – great point. C.J. Cherryh’s 2nd Chanur series left huge cliff hangers between books that took a year for the next step (and George R.R. Martin has spent 5 years or more between novels) – that can be very difficult for fans when books are first being published. Conversely, C.J. Cherryh’s current Foreigner series is difficult in that not much happens to advance the story arc from novel to novel in the later parts. I am not a writer. I’m a Game Master for our circle of friends. I created a story arc adventure what they still talk about (more than 15 years later) as one of the best adventures. (GMing shares some aspects with writing – plotting, characters balk and run off in strange directions, hooks and surprises that drive the plot and characters). And that leaves the point that Carrie didn’t mention per se – while the whole series needs a direction it also needs subsets or mile-posts of a story’s arc. Elements that appear and resolve over several stories and / or large sections of the overall story give a series meatiness and hold it together. Think Babylon 5 and Geribaldi’s fall and recovery. Cherryh’s Foreigner series in the middle when they go into space. Feist’s The Riftwar Cycle. Maybe this is why so many series are sets of trilogies or quadrologies or only run for 5 or 6 books . Without these subarcs that cover several stories the series risks wandering lost in the wilderness as the series gets longer. (Hamilton’s Anita Blake series comes to mind, as does Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series.)

  4. […] What I’ve Learned About Writing an Ongoing Series (carriev.wordpress.com) […]

  5. Suze R. Says:

    Excellent points, and I love that you are using another of my favorite authors to make your points! I do like the advice of letting the books stand alone. It does make a lot of sense to write the individual books that way. And Ivan’s book is the best yet. I did want to go back and read the one that talks about the kittens! I am pretty sure that’s from Ceteganda. It is a good way to hook new readers.

  6. It’s all pretty much true. I’d only add a couple of other points:

    a) Don’t be afraid to do a mid-series pivot if you think you can do so without annoying too many readers. By which, I mean: if it’s getting stale, change the big overall story arc or the nature of the Big Bad, or something. Throw a Red Wedding. Shake stuff up. Reveal that your protagonist has been operating under incorrect assumptions for the past several books. And pull the trigger on a gun you left on the mantelpiece in book 1 some time in book 7.

    b) Beware of editors whose idea of where your series is going is not *your* idea of where the series is going. Because that way madness lies. (Been there, got the scars, finally getting the series back on course eight years later …)

  7. Richard Alan Says:

    This is very good advice for series writers. I write series and I love reading them. The characters become part of our family as we watch them grow and mature.

  8. […] this week I came across this post from Carrie Vaughn on writing serial fiction. I am about 15% of the way into the second City of […]

  9. […] that donned on me after reading a blog post from one of my favourite authors, Carrie Vaughn, about What [She] Has Learned About Writing an Ongoing Series. To be truthful, I have the email about the post update saved in my email. I realized that with the […]

  10. […] What I’ve Learned About Writing an Ongoing Series (carriev.wordpress.com) […]

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