Writing Your Series: An Addendum to “Writing Your Book”


Today’s post is intended as a sidebar of a sort to the Writing Your Book” series that I’ve been posting over the course of the past few months.  It grows out of a question asked last week by NewGuyDave (Thanks, Dave!) in response to my post on writing the end game, the gradual set-up for a book’s climax and ending.

Specifically, Dave asked about working the end game in a multi-volume project, as opposed to in a single volume.  But then he broadened his question to encompass the planning of a series and the structuring of a character arc over several books.

Let me begin by addressing the end game issue — and keep in mind that I’m assuming Dave’s question refers to an extended story arc, as opposed to a true serial.  The short and annoyingly glib answer to Dave’s question is that the end game in a multi-book project it not that different from the end game in a stand alone novel.  As I’ve said before here, writing an extended story arc does not excuse a reader from needing to write a complete story within each volume.  Each book in an extended story arc should have a satisfying story arc of its own.  It has to lead to its own climax and leave the reader feeling that she accomplished something by reading the book.  The tricky part, of course, is that the story arc for each book is embedded in the story arc of the entire project.  And so you’re building in clues and setting up the end game for the larger project at the same time.  Okay, weird analogy time (with apologies to Atsiko):  Have you ever sat in front of your computer and watched the progress bars for a download of multiple files, and noticed the way the top bar for the individual files catches up to and bypasses the bottom bar, which is tracking the entire download?  That’s kind of like what you’re doing with the end game in a series.  On the one hand, you have to give clues and set up the ending for the individual book, which progresses at one pace.  On the other hand, you also have to further the set up at the series level, which happens more slowly.  Ideally, the climax of each individual book contributes to the series setup.

The point, though, is that you’re essentially juggling two story telling agendas at once.  You want to maintain the integrity of each book — give it a beginning, middle, and end; set up its climax just as you would that of a stand alone novel; maintain its pacing and narrative coherence; etc.  But you also need to pay attention to the larger story you’re trying to tell.  You have to further the overarching plot enough that it seems to your reader that she has made progress in the story, but not so much that you steal the thunder of your remaining volumes.

And this is essentially the answer I would give to Dave’s other questions, too.  Character arc (a phrase I love, by the way, and one that I think is deserving of its own post) is a great example.  In my Winds of the Forelands series, one of my lead characters starts off hateful.  He’s selfish, egotistical, spoiled rotten, immature, and abrasive.  He drinks too much, is inconsiderate of his friends and family, and is annoyingly unaware of his faults.  He improves some by the end of book one, and a bit more in book two.  He turns a corner at the end of book three, is darn near likable at the end of book four, and is a true hero by the end of the fifth and final book.  He is the most difficult and most rewarding character I’ve ever written.  What made him so hard to write was my own tendency to grow impatient with him.  I wanted him to stop doing the stupid things he did throughout the first few books.  But I didn’t want his growth — his character arc — to be rushed.

Patience.  Pacing.  Those, I believe, are the keys to planning an extended story arc, be it from the perspective of character, or end game, or plot development.  Just as you don’t want to hurry the development of your plot in a stand alone novel, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself in a series.  You need to give your readers enough to keep them reading, to keep them feeling satisfied with each volume, to make them feel that the tension and the payoffs are building.  But you also want to hold back enough so that the next book will be even better.  Until you reach the last one, at which point you make it so full that your readers are breathless at the end.  When I talk about story arc and pacing at a conference, I like to represent the arc visually:  picture something the shape of a rainbow, but with the right hand side cut off just after the apex of the arc.  That’s what a story arc for a book should look like.  For an extended story arc of, say, four books, it should like four of those truncated rainbows in a row, with each apex getting higher.

That’s how I plan a series from a plotting perspective.  I then fit my lead character’s arc into that structure.  Returning to the lead character from Winds of the Forelands, in each of the books (well, except number 4), this character’s growth manifested itself in a key event that served as the volume’s climax.  Each book had its big finish, my character grew steadily throughout, and his growth provided the mechanism for following the narrative progress of the overall project.  Put another way, the narrative arc for each individual novel became a microcosm of the narrative arc for the whole.

I guess you can say that writing an extended story arc is more complicated than writing a stand alone, since you do have to pay attention to the pacing, character development, and narrative growth of each book as well as to those of the larger project.  But the skill sets are the same, the challenges very similar.

David B. Coe

15 comments to Writing Your Series: An Addendum to “Writing Your Book”

  • Great post, David. I especially like your character arc example. Question: what if you’re not sure if you are writing a series or not? In other words, how much do you leave hanging in, say, book 2, if you have sold the books one at a time and are waiting on sales numbers before your publisher will purchase a third in the series? A purely hypothetical question, of course… 🙂

  • David,
    Thanks for the great post, and for the mention. I’m going to read this again later, digest it some more, and maybe come back to comment after I’ve assimilated what you’ve had to say. Some of this I’ve heard before, but much of this is new. Again, thanks a bunch. I’m writing a new novel now and wanted to plan out my character’s progression/regression over a trilogy and wasn’t sure how I wanted weave the the plot and character arc together. Now I have more food for thought.

  • Pfft. I’m all for computer analogies. And the progress bar one is very fitting, I think.

    I’m curious, though… why doesn’t a series “excuse a reader from needing to a write a complete story within each volume”? 😉

  • As always, an excellent post. This may be a topic for another post but here’s a question: When writing your character arc over several novels, how often do you feel it necessary to hit a point in Novel 1 or 2 so that it sticks and is recalled with minimal nudging in Novel 3 or 4?

  • A.J., speaking hypothetically — because, of course, I’ve never been in such a position myself…. — there are a couple of ways to answer this. On one level, the key, I think, is making each book as complete and self-contained as possible. In the post on story-arcs v. serials that I link to in today’s post, I was actually responding to a marketing question that had come up. The point of that post was that in today’s market, particularly with new writers, publishers are generally less willing to take a chance on an extended story arc because of concerns about sales. Writers new and experienced help themselves by making each book stand alone to the greatest extent possible. Publishers will be more likely to buy a book if they don’t feel that in buying one they’re making a de facto commitment to buy three. But your question, I think, is more concerned with the artistic side of this. Even if each book is fairly complete, even if the books are being purchased one at a time, there is that arc of character and narrative to think about. No matter how hard we try, that second book is going to find our characters and story “in the middle.” And I’m not sure that there is a satisfactory answer to this. We write the books as we envision them, and we do our best to give them a satisfying end. But we can’t control the market or the economy, and we can’t make publishers buy our books. To a certain degree, this business demands leaps of faith, on our part and on the publisher’s part. Usually it works out — and I’m confident that yours will. Sometimes, though, a series dies prematurely. I wish I had a better answer.

    Dave, thanks for the idea. I hope you find some of this helpful. I’ll be interested to hear what questions you have after reading it through.

    Atsiko, what I meant was that when we take on a series, we still, I believe, have a responsibility to make each book as complete as possible. The components of good storytelling don’t become irrelevant simply because there’s another book coming. Every novel, be it a stand alone, part of a true serial, or part of an extended story arc, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it should leave the reader feeling satisfied, even if he/she remains curious about unresolved elements of the larger story arc. That’s all I meant. Let me put it this way: I loved the movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I think it was the best of the original Star Wars trilogy. But I hated the ending, and I try never to end a book that way (although some of my readers might argue that point). I much prefer the ending to the first STAR WARS, which hinted at more to come, but also left movie goers with a complete story.

    Stuart, thanks. I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at with your question, but let me give it a shot. With the character arc for Tavis, the Winds of the Forelands character I mention in the post, I tried not to pound away at the obvious too many times. I love Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books, but I do feel that there was a heavy-handedness to his approach to character. Certain attributes were drilled into the reader too many times. I try to be a bit more subtle than that, establishing a pattern of behavior that, I hope, leaves the reader with an overall impression of a person. My hope is that when they encounter Tavis early in book II, their first reaction is “Oh, I remember him. I don’t like him very much.” I also hope that as I begin to show some improvement in the guy, that they find themselves liking him more and more, almost against their own wishes. But what I’m going for is a general impression, so that I don’t have to hit specific points too many times. Does that answer your question?

    I should also add that I tried to give Tavis at least one moment in each of the early books that hinted at his humanity, his capacity for growth. Just as I wanted his development to be gradual and realistically paced, I also wanted to show early on that the seeds of maturity were already there. I didn’t want him to go from 100% jerk to 100% hero, because people don’t work that way in my opinion. He had good moments in the early books — memorable ones, I hope. And he also had prickly moments late in the series. That’s who he was and is; it’s just that the emphasis shifted.

  • David,

    Great post. I think one reason some sequels fall flat is that the original story involves characters in the process of change and self-discovery, but the sequels don’t. When subsequent stories involving the same characters don’t take them to new places in their development we have to rely mainly on plot to drive the story. If done well this can make for a fun read, but it limits how much we can identify with the characters. (Reminds me of you previous posts about the importance of character in stories.)

    And thanks for addressing my ‘amending’ concerns when planning for endings within a series. Turns out I’ve actually already been thinking about character arc without realizing it. 🙂

  • Thanks David. Good things to mull. AJH

  • David, Several comments:

    Your rainbow visual and this >> On the one hand, you have to give clues and set up the ending for the individual book, which progresses at one pace. On the other hand, you also have to further the set up at the series level, which happens more slowly. Ideally, the climax of each individual book contributes to the series setup.>> were spot on! The little hints offered, the small things left hanging — as long as they don’t interfear with a satisfying book ending — make a reader ready and eager for the next book in the series.

    And I agree totally with the heavyhandedness of some writer’s character work. I don’t need the writer to rip off a character’s arm and beat me over the head with it to get me to remember him. You did a masterful job with Tavis, allowing him to grow without ever losing the seeds of both potential success and failure that were built into him when we first met him. And at the end, he was still both weak and stong, still who he started out as, and yet, very different.

    And last — this post was not only informative, but beautifully written too. You should be a writer! (grins)

  • John, I agree with you about character. If characters aren’t changing, growing, regressing, they’re dying. My opinion as both a writer and a reader. That’s why thinking about character arc not just for a book but for the entire project is so important. And as I said, NGD deserves the credit for getting me to think about this stuff in terms of “character arc”. It’s a term I’d heard before, but hadn’t thought through in this way.

    Thanks, A.J.

    And thanks, Faith, for the kind comments. I have to admit that I’m moving away from extended story arcs in my work. What I’m writing now and what I see myself writing for the foreseeable future are more along the lines of true serial. But the challenge of putting in those clues, of mixing the pacing of book and series — I’m really going to miss that. Many thanks for what you said about Tavis, and about this post.

  • Er… I was mostly poking fun at what I assumed to be a word-o–ie, “reader” instead of “writer”–but I do think you answered the other question very nicely indeed. 🙂

  • heteromeles

    This is another great post. I won’t add an troublesome question, because AJ got to it first.

    Another analogy is from Charlie Stross. In his Merchant Princes series, his take was that book #1 was for letting the pigeons loose. The rest of the series was dealing with the pigeons when they came back, crapped all over everything, and found roosts they really liked, that they weren’t about to leave without massive effort on the hero’s part. This is what pigeons do, of course, and they’re smarter and tougher than they look. Think of them as flying subplots with poor sphincter control.

    On mature reflection, I think the computer bar might be a better analogy.

  • Well, I’ve mulled this over for the better part of the day while playing with character bios and charting rainbows (wink), so I bet be weighing in. I think what I’ve got is a character changing in two ways and I needed to look at how far they were going to develop in each book and over all three books. Right now, I’m comparing my major plot disasters to the character’s overall perspective to see if they were changing at or around the same time, or if one was causing the other. So after the inciting incident the MC is in frame of mind “A”, and a few chapters later after disaster #2, he’s at “A-1” or “A-2” (intentionally vague to avoid giving away too much). I don’t want him to slip all the way to frame of mind B, until necessarily late in the first book, perhaps after pre-climactic disaster. I hope this makes some minutia of sense.

    Even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody here, I think I’ve got a better handle on character arcs by book and in extended-stories. Thanks all for weighing in.

    One question though, okay maybe two. Would it make sense for an optimistic idealist to slowly become more pessimistic rational over the course of time when faced with a world of hurt that they were unaware existed? Can a character’s voice adapt as they change, becoming more or less sarcastic or bitter of the course of a novel? *goes off to ponder again*


  • AH! Atsiko, sorry! I didn’t even catch my own typo. Chalk it up to being too busy and too rushed. My apologies!

    Thanks, H. And thanks for the laugh re Charlie’s analogy, which I actually like very much.

    And Dave, cryptic as it is, I think I understand where you are in the book planning. I think I should mention that whil it’s nice if the character changes coincide with book climaxes, it doesn’t have to happen that way. Remember the MW mantra: there is no one right way to do any of this. As for your question in the last graph, yes you can have a character change in the way you describe. It certainly makes sense in a real life logical ways. But you might want to think about mitigating the overall effect somewhat. You want your character to grow, to become more mature. But you don’t want his growth to be a total downer, if you know what I mean. Is there a way to make him more rational, more mature in his thinking, while also clinging to his ideals. Yes, his voice can grow more bitter — it would under the circumstances as you describe them. But you also want your readers to like him still, to want to “be” with him still in a narrative sense. Do you see what I mean?

  • I think I gotcha. Not to heavy. Subtle changes, and try to maintain some redeemable aspect of the character the reader liked from the beginning. However, the discussion is transforming into another topic. What makes a character likable or memorable? Why is it harder for readers to relate to brooding, bitter characters? And how do you balance the good, the bad, and the ugly characters?

  • Yes, I suppose the discussion is evolving, isn’t it. The truth is, I may have let personal taste insinuate itself into my last comment, and I apologize for that. I know that as a reader I find brooding and bitter fine for a while. But after some time, I want a protagonist to have something a bit more positive for me to cling to. I’m certainly not saying that your character needs to be all sunshine and singing birds. Look at the TV show “House.” He’s a very difficult character and yet people love him. He is absolutely memorable without being “likable” in any traditional sense. It can be done, and if that’s where your story is taking you, then that’s where you need to go. But you should be aware that it runs a bit counter to the market. As for balancing the good, the bad, and the ugly . . . Well, once again you may have pointed the way for an upcoming post. Well done!