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:
HOW TO WRITE A KICK-ASS SERIES
(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.)