How to write a series

How to Write a Series of Novels Your Readers Will Love

18 Apr 2017 Fiction

Writing a series is daunting.

Each installment must both stand alone and work as part of the whole. You’re forced to keep up with all the elements you exploit in a single novel and make sure they serve the entire entity: characters, plot, settings, everything.

Having written six adult series and ten children’s series, I can say I learned quickly that I had to re-read the previous title before starting the next, every time.

Was that really necessary?

The one time I tried to shortcut the process I found myself more than halfway through the writing of the next title in The Left Behind Series™ when I had a sinking feeling.

One of the global curses I had included was a decrease in the power of the sun by one-third. So my characters in the desert suddenly had to wear long pants, sweaters, coats, hats. Made sense.

But hadn’t that curse been lifted near the end of the previous title? A rather significant development, if I was right.

And I was. A fast re-read of that previous title confirmed my suspicion. The desert was back to full aridity. I had to go back to the beginning of the current manuscript and re-dress my characters!

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A Crucial Checklist

Navigating the delicate balance between satisfying your reader with each book and keeping them longing for the next, you must remain vigilant on many fronts.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I risk frustrating my reader by stretching the story to accommodate a series, rather than ensuring that each title works on its own?
  • Am I able to keep each installment relatively similar in length and time span covered?

 3 Tips to Writing a Great Series

1. Remember that Publishers Love Series

Left Behind began as a one-book deal. The idea was to tell the story of the Rapture, including the seven-year Tribulation (including 21 judgments from heaven).

Halfway through the writing of that manuscript I realized I had covered only two weeks of the seven years.

With great trepidation, I informed the publisher, Tyndale House, that I was afraid the story would require at least a trilogy. They immediately rewrote the contract and urged me to let the story dictate the length.

My editor reminded me that publishers love series because they get more bang for the buck. If the overall plot can bear it, multiple titles allow advertising and promotion that much more impact for virtually the same price. The individual titles themselves promote the whole.

Halfway through the writing of book two, I had covered two months of the seven years. Another phone call. Another rewritten contract to make the series seven titles.

Eventually Left Behind became a series of 16 titles.

2. Keep Character Arc Paramount

The main reason I couldn’t force 21 dramatic judgments from heaven into one big novel was that with such a huge, cosmic concept, my characters had to be realistic and believable.

If the entire novel was filled with slam bang action, my characters would have become props, stick figures on which to hang a sort of comic book tale.

My message in this story is that while it was cast as fiction—putting made-up characters in the way of these dire prophecies—I believe it’s true and will happen some day.

So to lend credence to that theme, my characters had to be easily identified with. The reader had to be able to see himself in these situations and resonate—or not—with the decisions of very realistic people.

Character arc takes time, and pages. It can’t flag and get boring, but neither can it be shortcut.

In a series, readers expect characters to grow in each book and throughout the entire package.

3. Each Novel Must Satisfy On Its Own

This is where too many novelists stumble.

They succumb to the temptation to “save the good stuff” for the final book. Better to give your all to each title and, in essence, have to start from scratch with each new one.

Naturally, the overall story itself needs to continue, but force yourself to write each novel as if it’s the last in terms of intrigue, suspense, conflict, dialogue, character arc, all of it.

That will guarantee that the reader will get your best with every installment and one won’t dip in quality or serve only as a connector title to keep the series going.

Need help getting more words on the page when you write? Click here to download my free guide How to Maximize Your Writing Time.

56 thoughts on “How to Write a Series of Novels Your Readers Will Love

  1. Wow. As a reader who tends to read series bam-bam-bam, I so appreciate this. Nothing pulls me out of a story like the author forgetting that Steve is an accountant, not an attorney.
    The second that happens, the story is over. It’s no longer real.

    I remember, as a newlywed, racing to the store or library with my equally addicted husband to grab the next installment of Left Behind. That series taught us so much while grabbing us by the throat. Glorious Appearing was the most…glorious book I’ve ever read. Can’t imagine how hard that was to write.

    I really appreciate you taking what I know as a reader and laying it all out for us as writers. What appears so simple as a consumer is profoundly difficult as a producer. Kind of like how I knew everything about raising children as a college student. And now, off to my brood…(they’re eating lunch, no worries:)

  2. Hi, Jerry. This is a great article. My debut released two weeks ago today, and some reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads are saying they hope there’s going to be another book about this family. From the business end of writing, I understand a series can be a good thing. But from the creative end, I’m struggling with where the story would go if I were to continue. I try to imagine it…but not too hard. I have a WIP I’m eager to return to now that my book has released and don’t want to be sidetracked. I’m holding my breath, afraid my publisher will ask for Book 2 because of the response this book has received. If the publisher asks, I feel like my answer has to be yes. Any thoughts on how to open up a story that is closed?

  3. Hello Jerry. I wrote this novella about the exploits of a certain man.
    Now I am considering writing about the heir of my main character. Does this warrant a series considering that my first work is a novella not a novel ?

  4. I have written a Trilogy that started out to be one book. Each book comes to what I would call a less-than-complete ending. While it could stop there, it is still open-ended enough to tie into the next book. Is this a good idea or will it keep the books from being individually satisfying?

  5. What have you found to be the best cliffhangers in a series? And how did you know the final book was that? (Would you consider a sequel to The Valley of the Dry Bones? Sasha and Zaltana would be fun to follow…) :)

  6. Because I’m usually “late to the party” it’s actually worked in my favor to buy a whole series at a time. (Not Left Behind, though…that span of books found my hubby and I anticipating each new release!) :)

  7. Ignoramus here: I’m working on a series myself (don’t tell anybody). So…it sounds like it’s more likely to get picked up by a publisher because it’s a series? That sounds like they would also try to lower the price to buy the entire series… hmmm…I guess my flagrant skepticism of authority makes me a millennial…

  8. I am looking forward to using thus advice as our dragon series develops each book will be its own but advancing the characters each time through new dangers and worlds

  9. Yep, got to grab the readers attention from the start. My favorite series is the James Bond and Mission Impossible plots. They all open with a wham bam thank you mam action piece to get your blood pumping… Then they get to the story and it’s one action mishap after another until the character wins. The same plot methodology occurs with each installment and I never get tired of it. No wonder the head in the sand amateur novelists characters die as the writer seeks their fortune and glory. Excuse me, but I going to watch some Indiana Jones before I fall asleep.

  10. Jerry, the timing of your article is good for me as I just completed the second novel in a series. I’ve been writing for about 40 years, and I have several nonfiction books on the market. This is my first foray into fiction.
    I’m also at the stage of engaging an agent to market my manuscripts to publishers. What advantage might I have by presenting two books in a series in my first query?

  11. Hi Jerry, this is good stuff.

    I am into the second book of a series, but it’s more complicated in that the characters have the very limited capacity to slip time and jump time. In any other story of this kind, the characters interact with people of a given time-frame in a self-contained way. But those people don’t survive to interact later with the traveler, nor did the exist in a prior timeframe to interact with the traveler

    The harder part here, is that the angels and demons are eternal beings, so if a traveler goes back in time and interacts with one, the spirit will remember it into the future. More importantly, the spirit remembers it even before the traveler goes back in time to interact, so the traveler may have out-of-context conversations with spirits who have already interacted with the traveler, but the traveler hasn’t yet interacted with them (hasn’t gone back in time for the interaction). Whew!

    Juggling all this has been a lot of fun but you are so right in that I have to keep detailed timeline notes so that the reader never experiences the loss-of-context because I wasn’t paying attention – but I can still immerse the character itself to the loss-of-context and have them think-on-their-feet to navigate it. Frankly, I go back and re-proof parts of the storyline and get chills about what it would be like to be in the character’s shoes. Hopefully the reader catches that, too.

  12. Hi Jerry. I love your posts. Thank you. What do you think about a series that may go back in time. I’m writing a contemporary with historical elements, and my characters’ forefathers are calling out to have their stories told. Jay. Australia.

  13. I am currently in the ending chapters of my first novel. I definitely see possibilities for a second or even third book. Aside from this story I have a story idea focused more on a child audience. I can also see this idea turning into a series. Should I finish the first series before starting the second, or can I do both at once?

    Also, should they be published by the same company even though they are meant for different audiences? Can an author be in contracts with multiple publishers at once?

  14. You really had your hands full, but you did a remarkable job. Being a writer is a juggling act of trying to keep all the balls in the air.The ones I’m chasing right now is screenwriting. I was wondering if you offer courses on screen plays? I’m almost done with my first one. It’s a children’s screenplay. If you do have something, I maybe interested. I also have friends who are looking. Do you have a course listing with dates, names and times? We’re looking for reasonable tuition and some feedback. Thanks.

  15. I like Jerry’s point that each novel in the series must be a satisfying read on its own. I have noticed on Amazon that a novel that ends as a cliffhanger gets bad reviews with the reader saying the cliffhanger was annoying, and then others chime in and say, thanks for the warning, I won’t buy a book without an ending.

  16. Your best bet, Jim, is to make the first ms. the best it can be. That’s what will land you an agent. Then they’ll be thrilled to know sequels are in the works.

  17. Yes, I think you’re getting ahead of yourself, Tony. If a publisher is negotiating with you for a bargain, you’re in the top one percent of writers. More important than it being a series is that first one being good. Then they’ll be thrilled to know it’s a series.

  18. The best cliffhangers satisfy the ending to one book and yet make the reader want to know more about the lead character and their future. When their future no longer promises to be more interesting than the story you’ve told so far, you’re done.

  19. Lynda, you’re the arbiter. If it meets the criteria of being satisfying on its own while still making the reader want more, you’re good to go. If it feels incomplete, I’d rework it.

  20. Karen, your answer doesn’t have to be yes. You need to return to the WIP you’re passionate about. There’s nothing worse than a sequel that looks entirely market-driven. Pitch them on the new book.

  21. I would think there are audiences that are clamoring for an interesting series. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would think that the same rule that applies to the opening sentences of the first book apply to how well the end is written to a continuing book. The art of the transition is something I am learning while writing the ending to my book 1 to the beginning of my book 2. It must be intriguing, compelling, and drawing. I am hoping by the time I have book 1 ready for a publisher, I have a street team in place to be pushing my Amazon platform presence.

  22. Jerry, I needed this like a drink of fresh water. Thanks for these thoughts. You should write a book on this subject!

  23. I’d stick with one at a time. Yes, an author can sign with two companies at once, but ethically you’d need both to know exactly what was going on so they could coordinate. On the other hand, the odds of landing a contract with even one are astronomical, so concentrate on that first.

  24. Ha, great minds think alike! Well, maybe your great mind. But YES. “Maybe a Series?” So, were you already thinking that one over and I just happened upon your thought? Would seem like your blog post would indicate that.

  25. I’m also writing a series but my question is different: my book contains no profanity, violence or sex.The dialogue is spiritual as far as AA references and God. Would this be referred to as a “spiritual” genre, or what? Thanks!

  26. Just between you and me, thanks for the grammar correction! :) Back to Strunk & White for moi.

  27. I’m also interested in learning how to write screenplays. I think it’d be great if you did offer such a course!

  28. Thanks for this post, Jerry. It’s really helped me understand more about writing a series. I want to write a series, but I needed some teaching about how to do it. I feel that I’ve gotten some excellent teaching with this article. I can’t think of a specific question to ask right now, but I will ask if I think of one in the future. I really appreciate the good teaching you offer.

    I love the Left Behind series. It’s the perfect example of how to write a series, in my opinion. The novels speak for themselves. But I also love your novel, Riven. I think Riven is a good example of how to write a long novel and still keep the reader glued till the end. I normally don’t have a problem with putting a book down and waiting to finish it later. But Riven had me so glued to the story that I found myself wanting to read it all in one sitting. I couldn’t wait to resume reading it. I finished it record-breaking time. I look forward to reading all your novels in the future.

  29. No, I was just kidding based on the subject. Not sure there’s a book’s worth of teaching I could do on this, but no doubt I’ll find a place for some of the material in a course of some kind.

  30. Thank you for this insightful blog. I read your series and waited at the bookstore for the next installment. I especially appreciate your advice that each book be stand alone while tightly tied to the series. I have written a series of Christian children’s books that follow that profile. Do I pitch them as a series or as separate books? Would self-publishing be a better option?

  31. Hi Jerry
    I’m writing a series of Cold War spy thrillers. I’ve written in rough draft 8 books but have only self published two so far. Would you recommend I finish editing them and publish, or wait until I finish the series – I have another 4 books to write. Your opinion would be appreciated.

  32. I am trying to understand writing for the reader to understand. I am limited in my grammar understanding. I know I can go to siri and ask her but since this is right here I thought I would ask you. I struggle with trying to remember the rules of writing in general. “I before e except after c.” For some reason this sentence structure makes me uneasy.
    “The one time I tried to shortcut the process I found myself more than halfway through the writing of the next title in The Left Behind Series™ when I had a sinking feeling.”

    Would this be better said with a sinking feeling?

    Also when do you use lines- instead of parenthesis? What are the rules to help determine when?

  33. Thank you for this article.

    Years ago when I was still in high school, I thought of some ideas for a couple of series. I roughly planned what I wanted to happen in each book. To date, nothing is complete. Not even the first draft of the first book of either series. But reading this article got me thinking about them again.

    So my questions are: Are series advisable for first time writers? How do I pick which series to work on? After fleshing out an idea, should I momentarily forget that it’s part of a series so I may focus on making it my best? Can world creation type topics be a series?

    Thank you again for your time and expertise!

  34. As someone who is a huge fan of the left behind series as well as the kids series, and someone who is writing multiple series of books I really enjoyed this article.

  35. This is a great article! Thank you so much. I am interested in the strategies that you use to keep track of the characters and creating conflict to not only keep the reader interested, but also to contribute to the general idea /goal of the novel.

  36. Great article! The novel I’m writing is the first in a series and sets the premise for subsequent novels. Several topics are touched upon as background but will be the focus of future novels.

  37. @JerryJenkins, as I finish a chapter or major scene, I add to a “reverse” outline. In that plain-text document, I put down a few sentences re any major event and characters, anything unique (character clothing, etc.) and often the hook and cliffhanger. This way after the novel is finished, I can glance back at the reverse outline to get a Cliff’s Notes kind of look at the whole book before I start the next book in the series. (The reverse outline is also useful for a quick glance back at a name or location or major detail while writing later in the same book.)

  38. I began a book which was meant to be a short anthology about various owners of a special suitcase over a period of years. Well, one story led to the next and the next! Some stories are longer than others but each is complete and could stand alone. I’m thinking of combining them into two or three books that date from 1853 to the present, with the last person to own the suitcase tie in to the first through some reasonable coincidences, and not necessarily the last story in the book. In fact I have ideas for other stories that would fit in the middle somewhere. Each volume would have three or more stories, all tied together because of the suitcase, but units in themselves requiring no previous or further reading to be enjoyed. Many friends (some wo are writers as well) have recommended this approach rather than a tome that might put people and publishers off. The book is finished and just needs some fine tuning and editing which I am in the middle of now, thanks to my joining the Guild. The information I’ve read and listened to already has been a huge help. Is planning a series like this the best way to go?

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