My love affair with the written language started with the children’s series Babar the Elephant. The next books I fell in love with were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, among the many other gems she wrote, and the inimitable Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyn Keene.
Why are series popular? Because readers love them. As a reader myself, I like nothing more than to revisit a much-loved “world” created by an author, where I can meet familiar protagonists and accompany them on new adventures. It’s like visiting an old friend or snuggling up under your favorite blanket. Series allow readers to discover new things about their favorite heroes and follow them as they learn and grow through their successes and failures. They allow readers to get to know different aspects of that “world” and the secondary characters better, as well as explore intriguing backstory.
Is it easy to pen a series? I suspect most readers believe the answer to that question is yes. Most writers would say no.
Two recent series I admire are the Harry Potter books and the Inheritance Cycle. I love these novels not only because they are damn good stories and are well written, and by well written I mean great grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure, in addition to the all important gripping prose, but also because I’m bowled over by their authors. It must have been immensely difficult to craft such convoluted plots over so many books, spanning such a timeline, and involving so many characters. To remain consistent with the established facts of the story and to be true to the nature of the protagonists, the antagonists, and the secondary actors. To not, as it were, commit a “blooper” that could remain in print forever.
If you were to try to summarize those two series in a pitch sentence, you could do so pretty easily. Unlikely young boy hero must defeat powerful dark lord. In Harry Potter, the adventure involves a school of wizardry, a world of magic that exists in parallel to a cozy English human one, and a large cast of supporting characters, most of them fantastical. In Inheritance Cycle, the adventure involves the school of hard life, a dark and frightening magical world that expands over thousand of miles of hostile territories, and a large cast of supporting characters, most of them fantastical and as unpredictable as hell.
Imagine being the puppet master of either of those two worlds. Because that’s what JK Rowling and Christopher Paolini, and all other series writers (and writers generally), are. Puppet masters. And the successful ones have to be damn good to “be” everywhere, and “in” everyone’s skin, and “see” the past and the future of that world and the storyline over an entire collection of individual novels that will culminate in a predefined ending. I would have loved nothing more than to be a fly on the wall of their studies as they plotted out these books.
So how do writers go about this challenging task? Although everyone will have their own process, tailored to their individual needs, I believe they may share the following common attributes.
- Organization is key
Some writers will outline all the books in a series with a predefined ending before they commit to typing the first word of the first novel.
Some have a vague idea they will be writing a series, start the first book, and see where their Muse takes them.
Some will start a book on the fly, realize that it could be a series, panic, and start planning the overriding story arc from the second book.
The latter is kind of what happened to me.
When I started Seventeen, I only wanted to write Lucas Soul’s story. But something happened while I was writing Soul Meaning. Other intriguing characters and backstory crept in, almost uninvited, and insisted on having their say. Some secondary characters stated in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t the last I had seen of them (Victor Dvorsky and Dimitri Reznak being prime cases in point). The “world” I created grew organically and extended its reach thousands of years into the past and several years into the future. One book was not going to be enough. Neither would two or three.
By the time I finished King’s Crusade, I had an idea where the whole series was going to go and how the stories would link up, while still being readable as stand-alone novels. By the time I completed Greene’s Calling, I had outlined the remaining three books and penned the last scene of the entire series.
I now had a general map I could refer to. This map was originally organized in an A4 folder. It’s now on a dry wipe board in my study and in my Evernote app.
- Timelines are essential
When you are writing a complex series where the overriding plot weaves through several novels and parts of those novels involve flashbacks or historical prologues, you need to have a tight control of timeline. This applies to the individual novels as well. Even in an action packed story, your protagonist needs to sleep, eat, and travel. You can’t be tracking a suspect in Washington DC in the morning and chasing bad guys in Paris four hours later. If you want the final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist to take place on a specific day/time/location, then you have to work backward through the plot and ensure all preceding events lead to that endgame.
When I start a new story, I class the first scene set in the present time period as Day 1. In Soul Meaning, this was the night Lucas suffered his fifteenth death. In King’s Crusade, it was the day Dimitri Reznak discovered the tombs. In Greene’s Calling, this was the morning a plane crashed into Conrad’s home. Day 1 always takes place in a specific month and year.
Sometimes, Day 1 will have a specific date and day of the week attached to it. For example, in Greene’s Calling, Conrad had to reach Washington DC on Columbus Day 2011. This meant figuring out what day of the week that fell on, working backward to determine when the plane would thus have to crash in his swamp, how he would get from there to Rio de Janeiro and onward to Washington, and how long the whole process would take.
Interlinking the books’ storylines is similarly challenging. Soul Meaning and King’s Crusade overlap by about a month. Dimitri Reznak’s discovery of the tombs is touched upon in the last chapters of Soul Meaning, which meant I had to work with both books’ timelines quite closely for it all to make sense. And for those of you who read Greene’s Calling, you will notice the epilogue takes place at a specific point in the near future. This was not an accident. This was a very careful calculation on how I could bring all those characters together, in one place and at that crucial time. It could not have happened earlier.
- Character profiles are life saving
Not all authors do character profiles. Some find them exceedingly tedious.
I think some kind of profiling is crucial for any series, for consistency’s sake.
Although authors like to think they are omnipotent and omnipresent in the “world” they’ve created (after all, it’s their world), they forget that they are human. Which means the overwhelming majority don’t have eidetic memories. Let’s be blunt. If you can’t remember what you had for dinner a week ago, you will be forgiven for not recalling what gun you gave your protagonist, or how tall they are, or the color of their eyes. Were they in the regular army or the Marines? Did they get their degree from Stanford or Harvard? Do they drive a Chevy or a Ford?
I never compile a complete biography before I start writing about a character. I would get bored pretty fast. What I have at the beginning are basic stats and age. Height, physical build, hair, and eye color. Characteristic marks. I then add to this as the story progresses and I get to “know” each character better. This is my framework:
Date & Place of Birth (Age)
Important people in his/her life
After reading all of that, some of you may be wondering why the heck writers even bother with series. The answer is simple. They are fun. Seriously challenging but fun. It’s great watching your characters grow. It’s exhilarating landing them in deep shit and helping them wade out of it. It’s exciting finding out what happened to some of them after that “The End”. Series are less constraining than stand-alone novels, where you have to wrap up everyone’s story and interest before that final page.
Another benefit of series? They create life-long fans of authors and characters alike, in a way that a lot of stand-alone novels can’t.