“AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?”
WRITING A SERIES
There are two ways to write a series:
Planning out all the books in the series ahead of time.
Writing the first book as a standalone, then realizing you could write another.
For those of you who opt for option one, you better find somebody experienced in this multi-book planning ‛cause I ain’t it.
If you hit the payoff end of book 1 and keep writing, stop whatever you’re doing. Type THE END where book 1 naturally ends, open a new file, and take all the stuff you jammed at the end of book 1 and put into book 2.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO STOP
If you’re a diligent newbie writer, you’ve purchased (or checked out of your library) a few books on writing: how to write novels, how to write scenes, how to write romances, how to write memoirs, etc. Now, look back at a few words and note the word “scenes.” That’s key to a series. A series book is one big giant scene. There may be other scenes to follow that biggie, but don’t go there unless you’re James Mitchener’s reincarnation and plan to write the entire history of the world in a single volume.
The elements of a BIG scene (e.g., an entire book) are the same as scenes within chapters, and chapters within books.
A standalone book has beginning, middle, and end (sunset, fade to black, happily ever after).
A series book has beginning, middle, and end with a transition setting up the next BIG scene (e.g., the second book).
You may not know you’re writing a series when you start out, but you should have a good feel whether there is more. You can imagine a reader saying, “And then what happened?”
WHAT I ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY HATE ABOUT (SOME) SERIES
You might be merrily reading along, enjoying the tale, admiring the writer’s skill (not too many typos), and prepping yourself for the big payoff at the end. But when you get to the end, there is no payoff. You’re left frozen in time. The villain holding the sharp blade sneaks up behind the hero, he brings the blade up and is just about to strike, and.....nothing. The writer figured you’d be so enthralled with finding out what happens next that they’ll surely buy your next book.
Nuh-uh. The only time this is a valid ending is if you’re in the 1950s, munching popcorn in the first row watching another episode of Buck Rogers. A cliffhanger is all well and good if you know going into the deal, and you’ve laid down your quarter to enter the theater that Buck most likely won’t get knifed by the villain, and you’re perfectly okay to come back next week to see how said villain is thwarted.
The thing is, that movie house is also offering a feature film with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s why you paid your quarter to be satisfied by an ending that naturally progressed throughout the narrative.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
You should care because you’ve pissed me off. Yeah, I’m just one person, so my opinion doesn’t matter. That’s entirely true. But do you really believe I’m the one and ONLY person in the entire world that holds that opinion? You’re sadly mistaken. I’m special, but not that special. If I think that way, then a whole lot of people—potential buyers—think the same. You’ve just lost your audience.
Think about your own life. You live your life in stages. The end of one stage suggests the next, but the next stage is its own part of your life. Sometimes, your life takes a surprising turn. You were headed toward point A, but somehow or other events led you to point B instead. If you could map out your whole life (or, say, your parents could do it for you), you and everybody around you would be bored silly.
So, transitions can be smooth:
You graduate from high school and continue on to the college where you had applied to become a rocket scientist.
You graduate high school, but you met this guy in the summer and he’s part of a biker gang, which you thought totally cool, so you blew off college and rode the back seat of a Harley across the country.
In either case, graduation from High School is the natural ending point of that stage. But if you’re sneakily planning to write a series, you briefly mention admiring the black leather jacket on that dude who rode by the graduation ceremony on his Harley. You lock eyes with him. He grins and winks. You feel a little tingly, but shake it off to march into the next phase.
Uh, oh. We’re planning a series, right? Well, you might pack all your bags, have a going away party, and even start the drive to your college of choice. You spot the dude on the Harley as you pass by the diner, but you just drive on.
CUT, WRAP, AND PUT A FORK IN IT
But you now have a satisfying end to book 1 with a hint of the events of book 2, but you’re not leaving in the middle with the villain stabbing the hero in the back. You (the main character here, of course) may just keep on driving to college. That could be another book in the series. Or you could pull a U-turn in the road and head back to, um, grab a burger at the diner. Yeah, a burger and a handful of tight jeans.
A fork in the road can act as a transition between books in a series. At the end of book 1, you present some possibilities, but you have ended this stage (or book). Book 2 picks up with one of the forks you have offered in book 1.
THE HERO SERIES
Mystery writers love a series. They develop an interesting main character and, quite conveniently, she already has a cool job as a police detective, a private eye, or even a lawyer (if you like Earl Stanley Gardner). The crime occurs, the main character investigates, and the villain is captured. A complete book with no fork at the end (though it can be done) or anything to hint at the next book. The built-in transition is the character. Easy to do this. When you write your mystery, just add “A Jo Blow Story” on the cover. You have a built-in purpose in continuing to another mystery to solve.
Here’s the catch. In the first Jo Blow book, you introduce Jo and the reader finds out things about her. Why is she a private eye? Is she the lonely dark Sam Spade type, or the gregarious Hercule Poirot? By book 2, the reader of book 1 knows a lot about Jo. But what if the reader picks up Jo Blow Book 2 without having read the first book?
A little bit of backfilling is required here, so the new reader gets to meet Jo all over again. This is a tough job for the writer. How do you fill in the new reader without boring the old reader to death? It’s a subtle thing that I happily leave to sisters of mystery (or brothers as the case may be).
L.J. Sellers knows a thing or two about writing mystery series. I’ll let her take lead here:
Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. “ He clearly wasn’t writing a mystery series.
Kindle readers have suddenly discovered my Detective Jackson series, and many are reading my stories back to back. This can be a dangerous thing! When the details of previous stories are fresh in their minds, readers are so much more likely to catch inconsistencies.
I didn’t know I was writing a series when I penned the first Jackson story (The Sex Club), and a secondary character who appeared in book one came back in book three with a different hair color. I keep expecting more of these little quirks to surface, but I’m doing everything I can now to avoid it.
Sometime during the writing of Jackson book two (Secrets to Die For)—as I kept searching the manuscript of the first Jackson story looking for specific details—I realized I needed to start a file to track these things. So I created an Excel document and started copying/pasting details into character columns right after I typed them. Parents’ names, make of car, cell phone ring tone—anything I attached to a character I added to my character database.
It’s not that readers want characters to be static. They want protagonists to grow and change, but in a natural and logical way that comes from the story. If the protagonist is exactly the same from book to book, no matter what happens to her, readers get bored and give up the series. So series writers must achieve a fine balance and create subtle, organic personal changes, but without screwing up the details that should be consistent.
CONFESSIONS OF AN ACCIDENTAL SERIAL WRITER
I never intended to write any series, but they kind of happened without my acquiescence or thought. My most obvious series is the Witches of Galdorheim, but I will admit to a couple of others that snuck on me.
First, about Witches of Galdorheim: I wrote the book “Bad Spelling” and ended it nicely with the main character considering her future with another character as her main squeeze. Somehow, I fell into the Fork In The Road scenario. Would Katrina (Kat) continue to grow in her witchy powers? Was she really attracted to Andy, the former troll? Just what’s going on with her half-dead, half-alive father in the glacier?
That last loose end needed a bit of tying up. I decided that Kat’s father should be returned to his homeland in Siberia so I left those hints at the end of “Bad Spelling.” I figured I could write another book or not. The end satisfied every requirement of a standalone book, but definitely left open a few concepts. With lots of pushing and shoving from my beloved critters (critiquers), I decided to come up with something more to do with the frozen father. From this emerged “Midnight Oil.” The opening scenes were obvious. Kat’s grandfather comes to Galdorheim as promised to take his son’s body home for burial.
And then what happened? That’s the crucial question in continuing a character’s life into the next stage. I left a perfectly good and satisfactory ending, but the questions were open to what happened afterward. I thought this over for some period of time, and came up with an idea of the progression in Kat’s life. Her grandfather could certainly have shown up, with her new troll boyfriend along for the ride. That was a boring idea that did not lead to the question, “And then what happened?”
It was clear that some kind of conflict must occur. Okay. I got the idea in the middle of the night, or whenever (I really don’t remember). Troll boyfriend is kidnapped by … okay, some kind of villain. Who would it be? I thought about Mordita, the old sorceress who helped Kat in the first story. Surely, she had some kind of past. Matter of fact, I hinted at a mysterious past without purposely doing so in Bad Spelling. All the things that happen in “Midnight Oil” came about because I had questions about what would happen next.
Well, I’m sure as heck not going to hand out spoilers on what happens in “Midnight Oil.” I won’t even tell you why I came up with the title. However, the blurb is a nice teaser, so here it is:
Midnight Oil: Shipwrecked on a legendary island, how can a witch rescue her boyfriend if she can’t even phone home?
After Midnight Oil, I was still left with the question: And then what happened?
The result is “Scotch Broom.” But now we’re way down the list of what happens next, so no more hints other than to give a taste with the tag line:
Scotch Broom: A magical trip to Stonehenge lands a witch in the Otherworld where an ancient goddess is up to no good.
I have to say that stream of consciousness had a huge role in these stories. What if? What if? That’s what dragged me on into Kat’s story.
So, a series was born accidentally. One thought led to another. Lots of fun research brought ideas I never had until I started down various paths.
I’ve nattered on long enough here. I’ll end by letting you know that my science fiction romance (more SF, less romance) started out as two short stories. Another of my books also began life as a short story, followed by another, then another. I guess, then, that I am a natural series writer whether I try to be or not.
Have I helped you figure out how to write a series? Probably not, since every writer is unique and has their own concepts and ideas.
Please, though, don’t leave a book with a cliffhanger. Leave those for chapter endings and let the reader decide if they ask the question “And then what happened?”