“Series and Standalones, Part 2”
Last week, I rambled a bit on why you should and should not write a series, then gave you a few vague tips on how to go about writing a series.
-Pick a Story you love
-Outline, outline, outline
-Don’t give up
Today, I’d like to really dig into what can make a series good.
The Principality of Plot
I seem to say this a lot, so I may as well say it again: characters alone can’t maintain a series. As nice as characters are, most of them… don’t have the ability to take that much weight on their shoulders. Not even Atlas and he holds up the entire sky, ya know.
Here’s why: most of the characters who try to uphold a series are those who are “unique” or “special”. It’s where the “Chosen” cliché of the fantasy genre comes from.
But those characters have to be more than unique. They have to be strong, and they usually aren’t.
What do we use instead?
Plot or setting. You’ve got two other story elements to choose from (unless you consider the idea of theme as a main story element, which I will not for the purposes of this post) to support your story. Setting can hold up a story, but it’s got to be a super unique place. You’ve got to have such a well-developed world that few people try, and even fewer pull it off successfully.
That leaves us, obviously, with plot.
Yup. The princedom of Series belongs to that ever-elusive Plot. For many of us (the Wordsmiths among us), this can be a hard concept to grasp. You’d rather just write the book than waste time coming up with the content for it.
Others among us, the storytellers, will find it easy to come up with a plot to sustain a series of books, or a whole dozen series.
Here’s the deal: you can’t just have any old plot. If you want to write a series (three or more books), what sort of plot do you need?
Arcs within Arcs.
The hardest part about writing a series is finding the right length of plot. Oftentimes, your plot isn’t long enough. You set a goal, find a villain, juxtapose them to the protagonist, and dig up a few conflicts.
Then you write the “series” and find it all fits in one book.
Because you need more. A good series has a complex plot. You need more conflict.
For instance, say your character has to find a map. This map is at a mountain, and you want your first book to be the trip to the mountain to find this map.
Turns out, your character reaches the mountain in the first twenty thousand words and you’re left with the choice of this: combine the first and second books, or abandon the story.
Well, don’t settle for a false dichotomy, and try the third option lurking behind the masquerading two: lose the map. Boom, more conflict. If the map was your character’s only way of finding the villain’s hideout, then they’ve suddenly got to find a new way, find a new map or guide or visit the old hermit in the mountains who practices the cliché Old Magic.
When in doubt, don’t let the protagonist succeed. If they’re trying for something, don’t let them win.
Of course, too many defeats can feel rather morbid, from a reader’s point of view, so try this: every success has to set up twice as many problems.
So: if your character finds the map, that’s fine. Except you’ve got to set up two problems to cancel this success: perhaps it’s guarded by werewolves and is written in old Gaelic, which no one knows how to read.
Now you have werewolves to deal with and characters that have to follow a map purely by the pictures and guesses on the text.
Watch the problems grow: your characters have the chance to take the wrong road over and over and over, to meet new people, new dangers, new side plots, new friends. Your story can increase exponentially, with the problem-to-success ratio of 2:1.
Yes, this makes it sound like any plot can be used, but don’t get me wrong: the plot already needs to be big. You can’t use a single-novel plot and then create enough problems to stretch into three. That’s the common practice among modern trilogy writers, and it always results in awful second and third books. Instead your plot needs to come with enough ready-made information to last three or four books all by itself.
All you need is to create the problems between the big events.
The Other Stuff
It’s hard to write specifically about something like “how to make plots longer”, because it’s subjective. The problem-to-success ratio is really the best one can do when talking generally. If you really need more specific help, the best idea is to find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you brainstorm.
There are other aspects of series, however, that can be answered rather specifically. I’ll phrase them in question form and then answer them:
What Point of View should I write my series in?
Generally speaking, anything longer than a trilogy is written in third person. This isn’t a rule, but a realization that you’ll stumble upon when writing series longer than three books: one person isn’t enough. When your plot is that big, the perspective of one person can’t possibly contain it all.
That’s not to say you HAVE to write in third person. I’d love to see more first person series out there with more than three books. But, for the most part, third person results in a more expansive story. It lets you create and explore subplots that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Should every book end in a cliffhanger?
Don’t do it.
Here’s why: your reader doesn’t want to have to read your second book.
I know, that sounds weird, but it’s true. A reader needs the freedom to walk away. If you “force” them to keep reading by ending your book with a “tune in next time” scene, your reader will feel dissatisfied. Especially if they didn’t like your book.
Instead of ending with a cliffhanger, write a story worth reading more about. If your story doesn’t compel me to keep reading, a cliffhanger isn’t going to help. I need to read on because I want to read on. Not because I feel incomplete if I don’t.
I’m not saying each book has to resolve perfectly. Not at all. In fact, if your book resolves perfectly, that means it’s time to stop at the end of that book and not continue.
Rather, you need to end in such a way that says “you can stop here if you don’t like it, but please read more because you’ll love it”. It’s hard to describe what that means, so let me give you an example of a book series that does this well:
The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a series. A series of seven, to be exact. They all feature overarching characters and setting, with a basic goal underlying the whole series. Each book ties into the previous, but each book is distinct from the last and the next.
If you read the first book, it ends in a “satisfactory” way, without solving all the conflicts. It tells us “if you don’t like this, you can stop, but we promise there are even better things to come if you keep reading”.
One of the best examples of a well-written “cliffhanger” ending in this series is The Goblet of Fire. In this book, He Who Must Not Be Named comes back. We see him, we’re terrified of him, and then we’re whisked away as the book resolves itself. We’re left wondering what in the world just happened, and what comes next. We don’t know if Voldemort is going to win, or what his plans are, but we do know this: Dumbledore and Harry will be there to stop him.
And, as the book ends, we feel content. Even as we race to find the next book, we could walk away from the series and not drive ourselves crazy with wondering. But we’re already so engrossed that we couldn’t walk away anyway, because we don’t want to.
That is how you finish a good story.
[END OF SPOILER ALERT]
A book series has the potential to become one of the most beloved collections of books in the history of books.
It also has the potential to crash and burn and be forgotten or made fun of for the rest of time.
In reality, the way the potential slides is left to you: the writer.
It’s scary, but it’s also worth it. Because that potential of changing lives and making people fall in love with your story and characters is too amazing to just let go.
Avoiding Lucky Heroes (Brandon)