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Writing the Series Novel: Introduction

Monday, June 16, 2008

se•ries: SEER-eez (n)
1. a group or a number of related or similar things, events, etc., arranged or occurring in temporal, spatial, or other order or succession; sequence.
4. a set of successive volumes or issues of a periodical published in like form with similarity of subject or purpose.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006

When it comes to fiction, what is a series? Well, to put it simply, a fiction series is a number of books written around a particular continuity theme. It can be a duet, a trilogy, or an open-ended number of books, but they are a series only if there is some thread that ties them all together.

What kind of thread? Well, that depends. In Jan Karon’s Mitford series, the continuity thread is the main character, Father Timothy. Dee Henderson’s O’Malley novels are tied together because the main characters in each of them are adopted siblings. But they’re also tied together because each of the main characters is in some kind of “heroic” profession—like a police detective, a U.S. Marshal, a firefighter, a grief counselor, or an EMT. In Susan May Warren’s Deep Haven series, it is the setting that ties the books together, though the characters from the previous books do make “cameo” appearances in subsequent books.

With some series, there is a little bit of a difference, because it’s a continuing story throughout the series—which is seen most commonly in trilogies such as the Lord of the Rings series—in which the first two books may give a somewhat satisfying ending, but more than likely just leave the story hanging so that you have to continue reading to get any closure. This is true in some longer series, such as J.M. Hochstetler’s American Patriot series—which will extend to seven or eight volumes before the storyline comes to a conclusion.

The many ways of tying books together to create a series can pretty much be broken down into the three different kinds of series: spinoffs, serials, and sequels.

Spinoffs: A series of novels that take an existing minor character, setting, or concept from the first stand-alone story and create a new plot/situation for additional stand-alone stories. Examples: Dee Henderson’s “Uncommon Heroes” series or Christine Schaub’s “Music of the Heart” series that had as its continuing thread the novelization of the stories behind some of the greatest hymns of all time. Spinoffs are very common in the Romance genre—or in TV, though sometimes without as much success as in novels (e.g., Joni loves Chachi, Joey, or Frasier or the “Avonlea” series that was a spinoff of the Anne of Green Gables setting).

Serials: A series of novels that follow one particular character throughout many different, mostly unconnected episodes. Each novel is self-contained and could be read as a stand-alone title, though each successive title reveals more about the continuing character(s). Examples: Tony Hillerman’s novels featuring Navajo tribal police officers Leaphorn and Chee; Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels; Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels; Sherlock Holmes; Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys… are you sensing a genre pattern? Serials are seen most often in Mystery/Suspense and Action/Adventure. This is also what makes up the bulk of TV programming: the CSI and Law & Order franchises are prime examples. If you’re addicted to them, you watch every week and pick up on all of the tiny hints about the continuing-characters’ lives outside of the cases they’re working. However, the driving force of each week’s episode is the self-contained crime they must solve. Non-addicts can come in at any time and watch an episode and understand 95% of what’s going on (the other 5% being information about the characters that have been built throughout the series, such as Bobby Goren’s mother’s schizophrenia and cancer, or Horatio Cane’s relationship and short-lived marriage to Eric’s sister).

Sequels: A series of novels that contain one continuing story in a finite number of volumes. While each volume has a beginning, middle, climax, and denouement, the main plot/conflict of the series continues throughout the series and finally comes to a climax and resolution in the final volume. This main plot/conflict must be introduced early in the beginning of the first book. It cannot suddenly appear three chapters from the ending. While, if well-written, sequel-series books could be read separately, it is usually necessary to start with the first volume and read them in sequence to truly understand the entire storyline. Examples: Star Wars (whether taken as the original trilogy or the full set-of-six films), Tracie Peterson’s “Ribbons West” series, the Harry Potter series. Sequel series are most common in Science Fiction, Fantasy (just do a search for “trilogy” in the books section of!), and Historical Fiction/Romance. In television, these are shows such as LOST or Alias where each show builds the story upon what happened in the show before, and it’s really difficult to come into the middle of it and really know what’s going on without going back to the beginning to catch up.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be examining what, exactly, goes into developing and writing a fiction series, so I hope you’ll stick around for the journey.

  1. Monday, June 16, 2008 10:28 am

    I learn so much from this blog!


  2. Monday, June 16, 2008 11:02 am

    Me too!


  3. Monday, June 16, 2008 4:11 pm

    Thank you for the phonetic spelling =) I very much prefer spinoffs, and I’ll tell you why: because I can never find every book in a series in the store. If I have to read a previous one to “get” the subsequent books, I’m not inclined to make the purchase.


  4. Monday, June 16, 2008 8:31 pm

    “If I have to read a previous one to “get” the subsequent books, I’m not inclined to make the purchase.”

    But I would. In fact that’s my favorite reading experience–a whole series of books that build upon each other, growing more layered and rich in story and character as the series goes on.

    Reading tastes so differ. Good thing! *s*


  5. Tuesday, June 17, 2008 1:21 pm

    Lori, I have to agree with you! That’s my kind of reading. I hate it when a great story ends and that’s…the end!

    Nowadays with amazon and other e-tailers that host resellers, it’s very rare you can’t find all the books in a series. If I really like an author, I look them up on amazon and find out what other books they have out there.


  6. Tuesday, June 17, 2008 1:33 pm

    I think the thing that bothers me most about series is when the books aren’t actually labeled as series–or the volume number isn’t included anywhere on the cover. There’s nothing like picking up a book, starting to read it, and then discovering it’s the second or third book. Or seeing a bunch of them listed on Amazon that are obviously a series but there’s no clear clue as to which is the first one!


  7. Tuesday, June 17, 2008 6:25 pm


    Whenever I run into that problem I go to Wikipedia, or failing that, look up the author’s website for a chronological list of titles. But I agree, numbers would help!

    I like to read even stand alone mystery series in order, like Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries, or Ellis Peter’s Cadfael Chronicles, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries. They can be read out of order (and in some early cases I did read them that way), but the continuing character and relationship development subplots get a bit spoiled.


  8. Chris permalink
    Thursday, July 17, 2008 12:48 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for these posts on writing a series. I’ve just recently gotten serious about writing and for some crazy reason I’m planning on starting with a series.


  9. Friday, July 10, 2009 1:06 pm

    Hi Kaye.
    Thank you SO much for doing this blog. I am currently writing my first novel of a series and I learn so much from you!
    Thanks again.


  10. jeanene permalink
    Sunday, November 29, 2009 12:19 pm

    this is amazing information thank you


  11. Monday, March 5, 2012 11:43 am

    I am working on the continuation of my 2nd novel and could not find an endidng and my husband says keep writing maybe it’s going to be a series. I have decided to to that and came across your blog and it has confirmed what I as a writer need to do for my readers. Love your Bog.



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