The Continuing Story—Writing a Series that Grips Readers
By Sarah Sundin
Nothing makes an author happier than to hear, “I can’t wait for your next book!” One way to build anticipation is with a book series. Readers enjoy series for a sense of community and familiarity. Also, many publishers prefer series, especially in certain genres. Although sales for the second and third book will always be lower—after all, how many series do you start reading and not finish?—each book release bumps up sales for earlier titles, leading to an overall longer shelf-life.
As a writer, a series allows you to develop a rich cast of characters and to get more mileage out of your research. For example, I had to do a lot of research on B-17 bombers for my Wings of Glory series, but I used it for three novels.
When planning a series, the author must decide what will tie the stories together and how closely to connect the novels. Note: I use a three-book series for an example, but series can run shorter or longer.
Ties That Bind
The device that binds your series must be grand enough to carry three complete novels. The most commonly used devices include family, friends, a profession, a location, an event—or a combination. My Wings of the Nightingale series follows three friends who serve as WWII flight nurses (profession) in the Mediterranean (location).
How Closely Connected?
Series run the spectrum from strongly connected to loosely connected. The far end of the extreme includes sequels, when the series tells one long story divided into several novels (Lord of the Rings).
There isn’t a right or a wrong way to construct a series. As a writer, consider what your stories require, but be aware of the pros and cons.
- Strongly Connected Series
- Readers feel a sense of community or family.
- Readers feel compelled to read the next book to find out what happens.
- Writers can develop the characters, setting, or situation more intensely.
- Readers can feel “conned” into reading another book and resent it, especially if the first novel ends in a cliffhanger.
- Readers who inadvertently enter the series in book 2 or book 3 can feel lost—and cheated.
- If the writer doesn’t rehash earlier books, the reader can feel disoriented, especially if time has passed between release dates.
- If the writer rehashes too much, readers can feel bored or annoyed, especially if they read the books within a short period of time.
- Loosely Connected Series
- Readers can jump into the series at any point and not feel lost.
- Easier to plot for the writer. Each book completely stands alone.
- If characters from one book don’t interact with characters from the other books, no sense of community develops.
- Reading book 1 may not drive the reader to read book 2.
- Readers don’t have a sense of anticipation to find out what happens to their favorite characters.
- Middle-of-the-Road Series
What I’ve chosen (it isn’t right or wrong, it just works for me) is for each novel to tell a complete story, including the heroes/heroines of the earlier/later novels as side characters. When done carefully, the middle-of-the-road approach can reap many of the benefits of both closely and loosely connected series. The reader can experience a sense of community and feel compelled to read the entire series, but not feel lost if they start in the “wrong” place.
- Give each book an emotionally satisfying ending for the characters. Unfinished storylines should be related to the series set-up. For example, the Wings of the Nightingale series runs from 1942-45, so the story of World War II and the role of the flight nurses isn’t concluded until the last book.
- In book 1, include scenes with the characters from books 2 and 3—or at least talk about them. Drop enough hints so the reader says, “I want to know what makes her tick.” But leave some mystery.
- In books 2 and 3, revisit earlier characters. Readers love to see the story continue. In romances, this allows you to show weddings and babies!
- However, resist the urge to reminisce. Use snippets to remind the returning reader—and maybe hook the new reader. In In Perfect Time (Book 3 of Wings of the Nightingale), Kay Jobson attends the wedding of the main characters from Book 1, With Every Letter. Kay thinks, “Who would have thought when Kay had transferred anonymous letters between Mellie and Tom that they’d end up married?” No long rehash of the plot—just a snippet.
- In books 2 and 3, include enough background about the situation or setting to orient the new reader, but not so much as to annoy the returning reader. Since the Nightingale series follows flight nurses, each book needed to describe how air evacuation was conducted. This balance can be tricky.
- Ration your material. When plotting the Nightingale series, I made sure I didn’t use all my best flight nursing story ideas in the first book and run up dry in the third.
- If possible when writing books 2 and 3, find some critique partners who have read the first book—and some who haven’t.
With planning and consideration for the reader, you can create a series that grips your readers and won’t let them go!
What do you like or dislike about series? What tips would you include?
About Sarah’s latest, In Perfect Time:
World War II flight nurse Lt. Kay Jobson collects hearts wherever she flies, but C-47 pilot Lt. Roger Cooper seems immune to her charms. Still, as they cross the skies between Italy and southern France, evacuating the wounded and delivering paratroopers and supplies, every beat of their hearts draws them closer.
Sarah Sundin is the author of The Wings of the Nightingale series and Wings of Glory series. In 2011, A Memory Between Us was a finalist in the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Awards, and Sundin received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. On Distant Shores was a finalist for the Golden Scroll Award from both the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (AWSA) and the Christian Authors Network (CAN). She belongs to American Christian Fiction Writers, CAN and AWSA. Sundin plans to continue to focus on World War II for her upcoming Waves of Freedom series about three naval officers based in Boston.
A graduate of UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy, Sundin works on-call as a hospital pharmacist. During WWII, her grandfather served as a pharmacist’s mate (medic) in the Navy, and her great-uncle flew with the US Eighth Air Force in England.
Sundin lives in northern California with her husband and three children. When she isn’t ferrying kids to tennis and karate, she teaches Sunday school and women’s Bible studies.
To keep up with Sarah Sundin, visit www.sarahsundin.com, become a fan on Facebook (SarahSundinAuthor) or follow her on Twitter (@sarahsundin) and Pinterest (sarahsundin).