How to Write a Book Series (And Why You Might Want To)
The world of publishing is changing.
Readers are no longer as willing as they once were to read one book and be done with a character, storyline, and world forever.
They’re also growing less willing to go through the effort of finding a whole new book—usually by a completely different author—to satisfy their curiosity.
Standalone books are still quite popular, but the popularity of the series model has grown too big to ignore, the profitability thereof too significant to not consider for yourself.
You might think that writing a series is something only super famous authors do, but you’ll be surprised by how easy it actually is. So if you’re considering this model, or if you’re curious to know what goes into it, strap in and listen up!
What Is a Book Series?
I know, I know. How elementary could this get, right? Why even include this section at all?
Well, there’s an important distinction we need to make right off the bat that will guide our discussion throughout this article.
Primarily, when we look at book series, we’re considering two main approaches:
Yes, there are more ways to write a series of books, including anthologies (think Marvel) but these are by far the two most prevalent approaches, and therefore it’s what we’ll spend the most of our time on today.
A dynamic series (also known as a sequel series, continuing, etc.) means an extended storyline over the course of many books, usually with the same cast of characters with additions and subtractions along the way.
My series The Light Thief follows this approach. The books primarily follow the main character, Aniya Lyons, as she journeys across the underground world of the Web to rescue her brother, uncovering a menacing conspiracy along the way.
Though each book is a complete novel in and of itself, each installment reveals more about her world, propelling her into new adventures in which she meets new friends and wages war against new enemies.
Further, each book is a critical piece of the larger puzzle, and if you skip one, you’ll miss out on a huge part of the story and will be completely lost if you go from book 1 to 3.
But I also use it to illustrate how a dynamic series has multiple books with individual stories, but how each one goes toward telling one larger, encompassing story in a way that’s directly related to the book that comes before it and after it.
At first glance, an episodic series looks a lot like a dynamic series. It’s also a series of books that usually has the same main character(s), and often (but not always) tell one larger story in addition to the individual complete narrative in each installment.
However, an episodic approach is different in that each book can typically be plucked out of the series, read in isolation, and make perfect sense. Obviously, the characters will already be established, and you won’t get the same experience if you haven’t followed them throughout their journeys. But you don’t need to read any other book in the series to understand the core narrative of any particular book.
A great example of this is something like Sherlock Holmes. Each story is a contained mystery that has little to do with the series as a whole. Yes, there’s some character growth throughout Doyle’s stories, and it’s more satisfying if you enjoy the whole series beginning to end, but you don’t have to in order to appreciate one specific story.
Which One Is Better?
The natural question to ponder, then, is which approach is right for you?
Well, there are some genres where this question is answered automatically. In fact, there’s usually one specific approach that dominates in any given genre, and sometimes you have more leniency when choosing which one is right for you.
For example, mysteries are almost exclusively written episodically. People like to be able to pick up an installment; be engrossed by a grisly murder, a trail of clues, and the eventual apprehension of the suspect; and then move on to the next one.
Fantasy stories are usually dynamic, compiling into one long saga with a grand-scale plot and ending in a way that pays off the books that came before.
Other genres are less clear. Science-fiction, for example, is very diverse in the kinds of series that make up the genre. Political thrillers could very easily be written as a dynamic series, but you could instead choose to focus on one character thrust into different kinds of episodic situations, like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
If you’re writing in a genre that has a clear choice one way or the other, the best advice I can give you is stick to the norm. It’s possible to break convention and take the genre in a different direction, but this is best left to veteran writers who will know how to market these outliers.
If you’re in a genre that doesn’t have a clear choice, consider whether you want to focus more on a powerful character that keeps readers consuming every new book, no matter what situation they’re in, or whether you’ll lean heavily into a deep, rich story that will take several books to do justice.
Obviously, even if you choose a dynamic approach, you’ll want strong characters, and vice versa. But one approach highlights character just a bit more, and the other, plot.
It’s also typically easier to sell an episodic series. This way, you have multiple choices when it comes to marketing, an easier onboarding path for new readers who aren’t sure where to start, and a little more room for margin in case one or two installments aren’t as strong as the others (lowering the chances that readers will give up the series entirely if they don’t want to finish a particular book).
When you take a dynamic approach, however, it does simplify things slightly. You only have one book that you have to market, since it’s more difficult to market subsequent books in the series and then convince someone who clicked on the ad to go back to book 1.
But you also lose a little bit of freedom when you write a dynamic series. You’re tied to one narrative that people expect you to finish. If an episodic series isn’t performing as well, it’s a little more acceptable to drop it and write something else since it’s easier to justify not giving it a true ending. But if you never tie up loose ends in a dynamic series, you can expect most of your readers to not be thrilled with you.
In the end, it comes down to your genre, your commitment, and your personal preference. But you can see now why we would start this article by discussing the difference. It’s a crucial decision you need to make that will guide how you write the series.
Why Write a Book Series?
Series are exploding in popularity. Interest in standalone novels is still alive and well, but it’s getting to the point where many readers simply won’t read standalones, instead specifically digging through the Amazon store for series alone.
Whether this is brought on by binge culture (thanks to innovations like Netflix) or if it’s a result of a dwindling global attention span, no one can agree. But one thing is certain: Readers are consuming more series than ever before.
They’re looking for series they can get really invested in, with characters they love spending time with again and again. They’re craving the 12-book series they can purchase all at once and ravish at their own pace, whether that’s over a year or over a weekend. They want to be able to find a book and know that there’s plenty more where that came from when they’re done.
But series can also make life a little easier for the savvy author.
The Benefits to Authors
It’s easier to write six books in a series than it is to write six standalones . . . at least in some ways. If you’re writing a series, you’ve already established the characters and the overarching narrative. You’ve already built the world. If you were to write six standalones, you would have to do a lot of that work all over again with each new book. However, it can be challenging to keep things fresh for the reader and you, the author, but we’ll discuss that later.
It’s also easier to sell a series than individual books. Even readers who don’t care whether they read standalones or series will still be more likely to read six books in a series than they are to read any six individual books. And it’s for the same reason. When they take interest in the characters and story of the first book in a series, they’ll likely continue reading the series just to see what happens. Readers don’t have that same motivation with standalones.
Series also have the benefit of having a unique marketing advantage. When you release a book and point out that it is the third book in your series, you naturally draw attention to the previous installments. Maybe your advertisements catch someone while promoting book 3 who wasn’t aware of you when books 1 and 2 came out.
The Amazon Factor
Amazon favors series as well, though they’d never say it publicly. When you release a new book in a series, you keep your series “fresh” in their algorithm, especially if you release a sequel within 30 days of the book before it (an advanced strategy). If you want more information about this technique, google “Rapid Release.” Just beware, it’s a rabbit hole that you’ll spend a long time uncovering.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the reasons why you might want to write a series. It’s merely meant to illustrate that there are too many benefits to ignore. Of course, series-writing isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve thought about it, maybe it’s time to give it a go.
How Do You Write a Book Series?
Now, finally, we’re ready to discuss the method. And no, it’s not quite as simple as writing one book and then another. There’s a bit more nuance that will help you stick with it and finish your series strong, as well as keeping your readers with you along the way.
Know the End Before You Begin
This applies to both dynamic and episodic series, surprisingly enough. In both cases, it’s important to know how your series will finally come to an end.
In a dynamic series, it’s crucial to know the narrative arc of your series across each book. This ensures that you’re not just writing aimlessly, introducing one new complication in each book just for the sake of keeping it going. You actually have a game plan, and you leave bread crumbs along the way to show the reader that you do actually know what you’re doing.
Knowing the end will help you to make sure each book in your series plays a vital role in the endgame (though it may seem ambiguous at the time). And if you think that the reader won’t be able to tell, chances are you’re wrong. Most readers are savvy enough to be able to tell that the author doesn’t really have a plan for the arc of the series, and it’s enough to make a lot of people simply stop reading.
If you’re writing an episodic series, you may think that you don’t necessarily need to know how it’s all going to end. But this is simply not the case. It’s less important that you know exactly how the story is going to end (you still should, however), but it’s even more important that you understand who your main character is going to be at the end of their final story.
You see, most people read episodic fiction either because they love the author’s voice or because they love the main character. For most readers, I would say, it’s the latter. They fall in love with a character and are willing to see them through thick and thin, through every weak entry in the series, until the bitter (or bittersweet) end.
And so, you need to know how your character will grow over the course of the series. You don’t want them to be emotionally stagnant through 12 books, only to have them suddenly reach full maturity all of a sudden in book 13 when it all ends.
Yes, the longer the series, the slower the growth, typically. But there needs to be consistent growth that the reader can see all throughout the series.
So do yourself a favor and decide how you want it all to end.
I personally waited until I’d written the fourth book of my series to ever release the first just because I was so conscious of the fact that I needed to know where everything was going. You don’t have to go to these kinds of extremes, but if it helps you solidify your long-term plans, it’s highly effective.
Even if you prefer to write by the seat of your pants and despise outlines (more on that later), knowing the end from the beginning will help you tell a more cohesive story with more interesting characters.
Outline Before Drafting
The whole outline vs. pantsing argument is one for another day, so don’t get all defensive on me today!
But even if you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, there’s something to be said for outlining a book series, especially if you’ve never written one before.
Writing a series is no easy task. Even for veteran writers, it’s easy to get lost in all the details you have to keep track of in order to adhere to continuity, maintain the quality of the series across multiple books, and keep your readers interested and engaged!
As far as continuity goes, trust me—it’s far easier to outline a series before you write it than it is to try to maintain a series bible after you’ve already started. I know a 20-year veteran writer who hires people just to re-read every book in his backlog each time a new one is ready for publication, just to make sure he’s got all his details right.
When it comes to quality and keeping your readers engaged, like I said earlier, readers are smarter than you think. They’re pretty good at sensing when a writer has no idea what he’s doing, when he’s just writing into the dark and unsure of what comes next.
Again, some people manage to write by the seat of their pants and do it quite well. But when you’re producing a multi-book series, it’s important to maintain a sense of structure and flow across multiple books, and it’s hard enough to do that with just one.
I still recommend that veteran writers outline their series, but the less time you’ve been writing, the more I recommend outlining when writing a series. It’s that important.
Keep Adding New Characters
It’s important that you add new characters in each new installment of your characters.
For example, I make it a point to add at least 2–3 new major characters in each book of my series. Of course, that’s mostly because I need to replace the ones I killed off in the book before.
I don’t have a problem.
The point is, adding new characters will ensure that your series stays fresh, keeping both reader and author invested throughout each book.
If you keep the same few characters in each book, never making any changes to the cast, it’s incredibly easy to get bored, both as a reader and an author. Even if you change up the character development dramatically, you run the risk of burning out thanks to lack of novelty (no pun intended).
But fresh, new characters that play off your existing cast in innovative ways, introducing new relationships, romances, and rivalries, will keep all parties engaged throughout the entire series.
Adding a new character can inject an incredible amount of life to your story and change things up dramatically. Try it, and you’ll be surprised how much fun it is to write your series again, even when you’re eight books in.
And if you do write in an acceptable genre, don’t be too nervous to kill off a character or two. It’s just another way to keep tweaking with the core cast so you don’t have the same three characters just doing different things throughout a dozen books.
Prioritize Character Development
Whether you’re writing a dynamic or episodic series, it’s important that you keep character development paramount. After all, readers typically engage more with characters than they do the plot. They may not realize it, but it’s characters that add the magic to any given narrative.
Imagine how boring Lord of the Rings could have been if the characters weren’t interesting.
So don’t let your characters fall by the wayside. Don’t give them complete arcs in the first book and then leave them alone for the next six. Likewise, don’t spread out just one character arc over the series, making readers wait for several books before they get any emotional payoff.
Make sure you give your major characters one character arc that spans the book, as well as one overarching character arc that pays off gradually over the course of the series. Doing so will ensure that your characters grow a little bit with each story and keep your readers emotionally engaged along the way.
Ensure that Each Book Stands Alone in a Dynamic Series
Obviously, if you’re writing episodic fiction, this will naturally happen. One of the main selling points is that each book in the series can be read by itself. But to a degree, each book in a dynamic series must also stand alone.
This does not mean what it sounds like.
Or it does, I guess. I’m not a mind reader.
So many people see this advice and think that they need to write each book in their series like the reader didn’t read any of the preceding books.
They think a reader needs to be able to pick up book 3, get an idea of what’s going on, and feel right at home.
As such, authors think it means they need a recap at the beginning of each book. Or worse, the characters talking to each other about everything that happened in the last book for the first 100 pages.
And 30 years ago? This may have been true.
Back when it took three to five years for the next book in a series to come out, maybe we needed those recaps.
Back when binge culture didn’t exist and attention spans lasted longer than a TikTok video, maybe we needed a narrative-driven way to bring us up to speed before we carried on with the rest of this book.
But this advice is dead. Bury it. It’s gone.
Nowadays, with readers consuming an entire series over the course of a few days, with authors pumping out multiple books a year, with a reminder of a prior book’s event just a Google search away, it’s simply not necessary.
And to a lot of readers, it’s actually insulting. They see these recaps and scoff. They don’t need a refresher. They just finished the last book yesterday. And even if they didn’t, they can always just look in their Kindle at the last few pages of the last one to give themselves a quick reminder.
Could you include a glossary at the end of each book, maybe a quick timeline of what’s happened so far? Sure, I guess it couldn’t hurt.
But the old days of including recaps are dead and gone.
Honestly, this advice was never that good to begin with. There are very few ways to include this recap without it coming off as extremely awkward. Either it’s out of place as a direct note to the reader, or it’s two characters talking about something they both already know (which is one of the worst things you can do in any medium).
If you absolutely have to include some sort of refresher, you’d better make it quick. You’d better write it in a way that makes sense—perhaps one character explaining something to a new character. But don’t dwell on it, for the love of all that is good and holy. I have never once read a recap and thought it was well done.
Not a single one.
And if the experts can’t do it, please don’t think you’re going to somehow pull it off in your book. Just skip it, include maybe a brief reference when it comes to some important plot point you want the reader to specifically remember, and move on.
What Does This Advice Actually Mean?
All that said, you want to make sure that each book in a dynamic series stands alone.
But we’re not talking about the plot, not like you think.
Rather, you must make sure that each book in your series has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each book must be a complete book. Yes, the series has this same 3-act structure (don’t fight me on the word “act”; that’s not the point of this article), but so must each individual book.
You’d think this is common sense, but you would be surprised how many authors I’ve seen come to me with a book that’s meant to launch a series, and it is almost entirely an introduction.
Imagine if the first Harry Potter book was all about how Harry had a miserable life at the Dursleys before finally getting his letter. The book would end with Hagrid busting down the door, and then there’d be a page telling you to buy book 2.
I wish I were kidding, but there are some authors who literally believe that they need to spend 50,000 words on the first 10% of an overarching plot when writing a series and shove it all in one book.
No, each book must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must tell a complete story all on its own, even if it’s part of one grander narrative.
Before you shake your head and say that you would never do this, be very careful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of planning some huge, overarching plot and spend the first book just getting your characters all in one place.
You must be honest with yourself and determine whether a reader would truly find this interesting. I’m sure your master plan is quite brilliant, and the series as a whole will tell a story for the ages . . . but is each book readable all on its own? Is each story individually satisfying?
I wish I could tell you that this is an isolated issue, that I’ve only seen this a few times. But I’d be lying. I’ve seen this way too many times to not warn you of the dangers of not ensuring that each book stands on its own.
You have been warned.
Why Is This So Important?
Well, apart from the obvious reasons I’ve discussed, it’s important that you give your reader a setup, conflict, climax, and resolution in each book. It’s crucial that your reader experiences at least the basic framework story structure, proper pacing, and the ebbs and flows of rising and falling action. It’s vital that each book ends with a satisfying conclusion.
It doesn’t have to tie up every loose end and roll credits with such a finality that the reader has no interest in book 2. It’s fine to end with a cliffhanger. It’s okay to tease the next book. Just make sure that you actually bring the major conflict to a close before opening the next one.
Consider this: Would you rather watch several 20-minute episodes of a show, or would you rather watch one three-and-a-half hour movie?
Most people would rather watch several episodes of a television show. This is largely thanks to the phenomenon that is binge culture. You get emotional payoff faster, you get answers faster, you get a resolution faster after 20 minutes than you do after three-and-a-half hours. That dopamine hit comes faster and more frequently, making binging TV shows a more attractive option than long movies for most people.
This phenomenon also helps us understand how important it is that we give each book a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s important, vitally so, that you give your reader resolution. If you just spend tens of thousands of words on pure setup, therefore hundreds before they get any payoff at the end of book seven (assuming they ever get there), you will exhaust your reader.
This is why pacing is so important in any book. You need conflict on a macro and a micro level so that you don’t exhaust or bore your reader. Likewise, in a series, you need conflict on a macro (series) and micro (book) level. It’s all about keeping your reader engaged and paying off what you promise.
So if you’re tempted to drag on your overarching plot simply because you’re writing nine books, resist the urge. Give each book a beginning, a middle, and an end, and keep you and your readers sane.
You are now an expert on writing series, so go ahead and get to work!
Okay, you may not be an expert, but you’re more prepared than most authors are before they simply start writing without doing any research, thinking that it’s as easy as just writing multiple books with the same people in it.
You’re miles ahead of the competition now, maybe even confident enough to know that a book series is a lot easier than it once seemed, and you’re ready to try it for yourself. I hope you do try it, and I wish you the best of luck!