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Writing the Series Novel: Shattering the Happy Ending

Monday, June 23, 2008

How do you start the next story in the series?

That’s probably one of the biggest questions when it comes to writing a series (the other is about backstory, which we’ll get into tomorrow).

Last week, we discussed ending a series novel. The gist is, no matter which kind of series it is, each novel must give a satisfying ending. If the series is a spinoff series, which picks up with different POV characters, starting the next novel shouldn’t be too hard, as you have two new characters with brand new conflicts to explore. You can throw them into immediate conflict with no problems whatsoever. If your characters from the first book appear at all, they can still be living in the afterglow of their happy ending (if it’s a romance or other “happy ending” story). If it’s a family saga and you’re continuing the story with the kids of the characters in the first book, again, you have totally new characters and new conflicts to explore.

However, if you’re writing a serial or sequel series, you’re faced with shattering the “happy” (i.e., satisfying) ending from the first book and throwing your beloved POV characters into new turmoil and conflicts . . . when you just spent 80,000–100,000 or more words getting them OUT of turmoil and conflicts. This is where your mettle as a writer will be tested—as you’re forced to once again embroil your characters in enough conflict to drive the plot of the next novel, as well as get them closer to the ultimate plot’s climax and resolution.

If you’re writing a serial series, in which you have the same character throughout getting into one fix after another, starting the next story is a matter of finding the right conflict that not only will bring out new aspects of your character but will also allow your character to pick up at the level of development she attained in the previous book(s). Even though each book in a serial series could be read as a stand-alone, for you as the author, it isn’t. You can’t have your character making mistakes that she was making in the first book if you’re in the third, fourth, or ninth book in the series. Even though each book has its own self-contained story/plot, your character must continue to grow and develop throughout the series so that she’s a different person by the end of the series than she was at the beginning—just like she’s different at the end of the novel than she is at the beginning. You, the author, must keep up with her growth, her strengths, her weaknesses. Exploit them for the plot, but never forget what you’ve already put her through, nor the lessons she’s already learned. Don’t have her learning the same lessons over and over and over throughout the series. Revisit if necessary, but don’t just rehash. In other words, don’t start the next book with a crisis that is precipitated by the character doing something she should have learned not to do in the first book.

If you’re writing a sequel series, you’re faced with not only continuing the over-arcing storyline, but with coming up with a plot that will drive the narrative of each of the books in the series. Even if it’s most definitively a “to be continued” story—such as The Empire Strikes Back in the original Star Wars trilogy—each volume of the series must have its own beginning, middle, and end. It must have turning points. It must have a climax and a denoument—even if the denoument doesn’t wrap up all of the loose ends of the story. Most importantly, just like any stand-alone novel, a sequel must begin with a hook and an inciting incident that gets the plot rolling. Remember, you cannot be certain that a reader will have read the previous book(s) in the series. Even if the first line of the first chapter picks up right where the previous book left off, you still need to hook the reader with the first line, the first paragraph, the first page.

This is one area where knowing your story ahead of time can really help out—because you’ll know where to break it into volumes so that each ends with a bang and each starts with a bang.

In a sequel series, you also want to make sure that each volume in the story continues to ratchet up the tension for the characters. Don’t look at a sequel series as individual books; look at a sequel series as one REALLY LONG story. Remember in the Plot or Plod series when I gave the example of a plot looking more like an EKG than a steadily rising line on a graph? Well, I did a quick-and-dirty example for Fellowship of the Ring that shows the rising and falling tension levels in the plot of the story (taken from the movie, not the novel). That’s what you want the storyline of your SERIES to look like as well—ending each volume after one of those tension spikes where the level then drops—but then seeing the tension level rise swiftly (and higher) almost immediately in the next volume.

For Discussion:
Consider the characters of your current WIP. Even if you’re not planning on writing a SEQUEL to the story (as in, continuing the story), what’s something you could do to them that would shatter their “happy ending” and begin a new volume of their story? If you were to write a SERIAL with them, what’s the next conflict you could throw them into? And if you were to write a SPINOFF of your WIP, how would the original characters come into play in the next book? What would you want your readers to know about those characters after the close of their story?

  1. Monday, June 23, 2008 12:13 pm

    I remember being so frustrated, yet anxious, after watching The Empire Strikes Back. Truthfully, I get frustrated with books that have a dangling end because, unless it’s an old series, it’s going to be sooo long until we find out what happens.


  2. Tuesday, June 24, 2008 10:01 am

    I guess I’d have to throw some physical challenge at my cowboy and his lady…some danger to the ranch, some danger to their relationship (a rival? a supposed cooling off of feelings? not sure).

    For the Duluth books, financial issues, competition for contracts, the loss of a loved one?

    But man, it would be HARD. After all the work you go through to give them a happy ending and YANK, there goes the rug, right out from under them.

    I agree that one of the most frustrating things to see in a series is where the protagonist seems to forget everything they learned in the last book and has to relive the same conflict over and over again.


  3. Monday, June 30, 2008 10:22 pm

    This is great advice. I really enjoyed reading what you had to say on this topic.


  4. Sunday, October 26, 2008 3:07 pm

    Hey. What if (as in my case) the sequel is several years later? I mean, do I jump to a conflict three years later in the last chapter of the first book?


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