Monday, July 6, 2020

Keeping Readers Hooked Throughout a Series

Today we're so excited to welcome Mary Kole. I call her Editor Extrordinaire. Welcome, Mary!

Many writers celebrate when they’ve written one novel or book for young readers—it’s a huge achievement, after all, to complete a manuscript! However, there are those writers whose stories span two, three, five, ten, or more books. I spoke with a client a few weeks ago who had a story written at over a million words, spanning nine decades, and more than ten manuscripts! Series writers are a special breed, and that’s why I’m excited to talk about crafting plot and character arcs over the long haul, rather than “just” one project, here.

Character development and plot development take on a somewhat different meaning when we talk about a series. You have some big decisions to make when it comes to both of these crucial elements. Let’s tackle character first. Here are three tips for crafting a great series character arc:

  1. Give your hero enough substance. A hero who goes “from innocence to experience” is fine and good, and a great hook to “hang” a standalone story on. But series characters need compelling wounds and objectives, motivations and needs, and some deep-seated damage or flaw that makes them interesting in the long term. 
  2. Turning points capture readers. As your nuanced character navigates their story, they need to have realizations, make decisions (good or bad), and wade through some ethical and moral gray areas. Series characters should have changes of heart, make mistakes, and be presented with tough choices. You are tracking years or decades of a character’s life, and a lot happens over an extended period of time that tests a character, yes, but could also change a character—for better or for worse. Readers should see the highest highs and the lowest lows of your protagonist before the series is done. It’s okay to not like them for a while or to even fantasize about killing them off, like thriller writer Lee Child’s famously admitted to doing with his Jack Reacher protagonist (featuring in 25 installments as of fall 2020).
  3. Think outside the protagonist. Series often come alive in the supporting characters and antagonists. If Voldemort hadn’t been that compelling, would Harry Potter have sung quite as beautifully over seven (very long) books? A series gives readers an opportunity to really sink into a story, and often that means lending additional development work to supporting characters, foils, and villains in the world.

When it comes to plot, you have one big decision to make right away: Will you be continuing one story or saga in your series, or will each book cover an isolated (but related) event? Series have gone many ways. Most series, like the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson series, follow one POV character through a series of interrelated events set in the same world. But there are options for telling a series story. Interconnected thrillers One of Us Is Lying and One of Us Is Next by Karen M. McManus follow different characters and different events, as do Kristin Cashore’s Graceling-world books. Or you can do a little bit of both—a linear character and story treatment, and then a companion book, like Allie Condie’s Matched series, with the addition of The Final Voyage of Poe Blythe. Or take a different path entirely. For example, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Ender’s Shadow, tell the same story through different POVs. 

Once you have your overall story scope figured out, here are considerations to keep in mind for a great series plot arc:

  1. A world with enough substance to support the conflict. In order to keep your series plot fires burning hot, you will need enough conflict to make things worse and worse and worse for your characters. We shot down a dragon invasion in the first book. Now the selkies are acting up in the second book. Then the king’s subjects will revolt in the third. World-building is crucial in any story, but if you intend to support a series with yours, is the world broad enough with enough potential hot spots where conflict can arise? But be wary, too, of just tossing random conflict into the ring. They shouldn’t discover a random alien planet that’s about to boil over for the fourth book just because we ran out of conflict on the home plant. Ideally, the conflicts are going to escalate in severity but also importance and potential impact on your characters and the world readers will have come to know.
  2. High stakes—in believable doses. I’ve long maintained that high stakes are actually very tricky to write (link to: because they have to be compelling and believable. A series needs enough stakes and plot tension to support more than one book. However, if there’s an asteroid hurtling for the planet in every installment, followed by a supervolcano, then a zombie invasion, readers may get stakes overload—or think that your story world is the unluckiest place in the galaxy. Ideally, the stakes grow from the primary conflict of your story, one that boils down to an ideological difference between your protagonist and antagonist. All of the events of the conflict should be interconnected, and build one on top of the other. The first Hunger Games book is a story of personal survival for Katniss. By Mockingjay, she’s leading an entire movement in the same story world, for the same main cause. The world is big enough, per the point above, to support many conflicts … but they are offshoots of a main theme, and the stakes grow believably with each book.
  3. A denouement that rewards characters and readers. “Landing” a series is tricky, because readers and characters alike have invested years of their lives, literally, into the story. As a writer, you have more choices to make. What do you resolve? How? Does everything come up roses for the character, or is the series experience the place to play  more in the gray areas—with more victories, yes, but also more defeats? Readers become invested in series, which is exactly the point, but that also means more passion and more expectations. It’s always possible to extend a series, for example, Divergent and Hunger Games, both originally published as trilogies, with a fourth sidecar book issued later. But ideally, you will say what you want to say in a way that captures the nuances of an extended character and world, and also satisfied the bigger investment readers have made. Figure out what your entire series is about, in terms of world-building and theme, and wrap it up in a way that’s loyal to your personal thesis of the work. Every great series has something big to say, at the end of the day.

There are as many series, series characters, and series events as there are series writers. This list is not meant to be comprehensive or all-inclusive, as there are always exceptions to every single rule. However, I hope to have given you food for thought. 

What are some of your favorite series that have hooked you as a reader? How do they play into these ideas, or disagree with them?

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Some things about Mary Kole:

Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of providing valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast and Crit Collective writing forum—to writers of all categories and ability levels.

She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She has been blogging at since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books.


nashvillecats2 said...

Thanks for a most interesting post, It made great reading also tips on writing and reading series.
Have a good week and keep well and safe.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's a lot to consider for a series. My stand alone book became a trilogy and it would've been nice to map it out with those things in mind. But I did give my character enough issues and problems to see him through.

cleemckenzie said...

Like Alex, I had a stand alone that morphed into a trilogy--unexpectedly. Next time (if there is one) I'll take your suggestions to heart and have a much better handle on how to develop a series. Thanks, Mary.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Planning it out like that can make a big difference.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I am in book one in a trilogy, and your tips are excellent. I'm trying to plan out some of book 2 and 3 in my head as I write this one to be sure that I have enough plot and character growth to sustain a series. I can't imagine writing a longer series like your client has, though.

Fundy Blue said...

Thank you for this informative article, Mary. One of my favorite series is "The Hyperion Cantos" by Dan Simmons. As a second and third grade teacher, I loved "The Magic Tree House" series by Mary Pope Osborne. It was wonderful for engaging reluctant readers of both sexes.

Helen said...

Thank you, a nicely summarized comparison of 'series'. It gave me food for thought.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great tips. The antagonist must indeed be compelling to last through a series!

Mirka Breen said...

Good post even for one who never wants to write a series. I'd say to the "give your MC a lot of substance" that ideally you would be IN LOVE with your character so the reader will be also. This doesn't mean they are good, it means they are delicious.

Pat Hatt said...

Sure lots of factors to make sure that are at play indeed.

Sherry Ellis said...

This is great information for writing a series. I'm doing that right now with my Bubba and Squirt Adventure books. It's a challenge to have a character grow throughout several books!