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Writing the Series Novel: How Do You Know It’s a Series?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When I first started writing Ransome’s Honor, I thought it was going to be very much like my contemporaries: a stand-alone story with, perhaps, the possibility for a spinoff with a secondary character. However, the more I got into the story and the characters, the more I came to realize that I had way too much story to fit it all into one 100,000-word novel. When I sat down and wrote a (very generalized) synopsis including all of the ideas and conflicts I already knew I wanted to include, I realized I had enough for two novels. Then, as I got into the middle of writing the first book and I suddenly had POV characters I hadn’t planned on being POV/important, I realized that there was no way the story would fit into two books . . . but it would make a great trilogy. There were natural breaks in the story—natural cliffhangers as well as places to give satisfactory conclusions—to be able to not only keep the reader hanging and wanting to buy the next book to find out what happens, but enough big subplots to wrap up each book satisfactorily.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings story, he envisioned it as one massive volume. But because it was being published after WWII, when money and paper were scarce, the publishers decided it needed to be broken into three volumes. Because Tolkien had written the story in six “books,” the natural place to break them was after books 2 and 4, so that each volume of the trilogy was about the same length.

How do you know if what you’re writing is a series?
Remember yesterday, we discussed the three different kinds of series: spinoffs, sequels, and serials. If you’re writing a stand-alone novel, you can ask yourself if there’s the possibility of a sequel—of continuing the story beyond the ending. Is there enough conflict? Is there an overarching storyline that could tie more than one book together as a whole story? If not, ask yourself if you can take your main characters and put them in a new set of circumstances and have a new story in a serial series. If the main conflict for your characters ends at the end of the novel, are there any minor characters you could take to spinoff a new novel from?

Don’t forget about using themes rather than characters as a way to develop series. What about a series of novels based on telling the “romances” of each of the first ladies of the U.S.? Debra White Smith did a contemporary-set retelling of each of Jane Austen’s novels. What about doing the same with your favorite classic author like Dickens or the Bronte sisters (come on, you know Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are just begging to be set in modern times). What about a series of historical novels based on the lives of the royal family of Liechtenstein or Luxembourg?

But what if you just have a really long story that has no natural place to break it? We’ve all been told that publishers won’t look at anything over about 120,000 words. What if yours is 180,000 or more—and it just doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to break it into two novels? Well, then you may be in a quandary . . . you’re either going to have to convince a publisher to publish a five- or six-hundred-page novel—which is a hard sell unless you’re an established author like Steven King or J.K. Rowling or Philippa Gregory—or you are going to have to find a way of breaking it into a series.

The way to do this is with subplots and secondary characters. If you haven’t already, write a detailed synopsis of your novel. If you have a story of 150,000 words or more, you’re going to have several major events happening. (If you don’t, you should probably consider either adding some conflict or cutting a lot of stuff out, as you’ll need several major conflicts to sustain a reader’s interest in something that long.) Is there a major event that you could use as a climax of your first novel? Do two of your main characters get married? Is there a major battle? Does someone important die?

Look at how Peter Jackson broke the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rather than following the way it breaks in the printed books, he broke it more naturally with how the story flows. He broke Fellowship of the Ring after the death of Boromir (which is the opening sequence of the second book). That gave him a battle for a climactic scene, as well as the goodbyes to Boromir as the denoument. Even though in the long-term scheme of the story, it’s not a conclusion, just the breaking of the Fellowship, it made a natural place to end the first “volume.” In a similar manner, he chose to end the second film with the Battle for Helm’s Deep, with the aftermath of the battle as a denoument.

Look in your story for episodes like that—times of great conflict for your character which have a satisfactory conclusion (remember, “satisfactory” doesn’t have to mean “happy”), but which still leave the main story arc conflict hanging.

For Discussion:
Have you ever written or are you currently writing a series? Which kind is it (spinoff, sequel, serial)? Did you know when you first started writing it that it would be a series (two, three, or more books)?

  1. Tuesday, June 17, 2008 11:40 am

    Oh boy, Kaye. Am I ever in that position (having a long story that doesn’t want to break up nicely into a series). I’ve gone back and forth on this issue so many times now. Break it here, break it there, break it somewhere? Nothing has yet felt satisfying.

    Meanwhile, I’m editing it down and down and down again, and perhaps once that process is complete, I’ll find that dramatic moment where it can be cut.

    Or maybe I won’t. This is what I get for trying to write non linear. But at the time, it was write it that way, or don’t write at all–it was years before I knew how the book began. I’ll take this sprawling mess I’ve made over a blank screen ANY day. *s*


  2. Tuesday, June 17, 2008 8:13 pm

    When I started my Abigail Wenworth Series I didn’t plan on the first book being a series, but once I was about half way through writing it I had fallen in love with Abby (my protag) and new that I couldn’t let her go. I knew I wanted to write time travel-adventures, so it just seemed natural to keep the same character, rather than a new character for each book. Mine would have to be a serial category. They’re the same protags in each book, but each book stands alone too. It helps if you’ve read the previous but you don’t have to have read them.


  3. Wednesday, September 9, 2009 9:26 pm

    Kaye, I just got an idea for a series. It started as one book of course, but while thinking it out I realized there are 3 distinct books there. I have to explore it a little more to see.


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