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writing a series of novels

How to Write a Book Series

Piers Torday. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Piers Torday
November 13, 2022
November 13, 2022

Have you got a story so rich it warrants an entire series? Are your main characters so complex that their character arcs span multiple books? If so, lucky you! The prospect of writing a series is incredibly exciting. It also brings up plenty of questions about the writing process and the careful planning required.

How much of the overarching plot should you know when you start writing? How can each book’s own contained plot relate to the bigger story arc? Should you develop your characters early, or leave them room to grow in subsequent books? On that: should your secondary cast be recurring characters, or do you need to refresh each time? And if you’re keeping track of all these different people, do you need a big fat character bible recording every detail?

Whether you’re writing science fiction or fantasy novels, a children’s book series, or a sumptuous, extended work of historical fiction, the question of how to write a book series will likely crop up. After all, when you fall in love with your main characters, it’s natural to want to spend multiple books with them. And almost all commercial fiction genres are receptive to a well-conceived series, particularly when you’ve amassed loyal readers.

So before you start writing, or decide whether your story arc and central characters should go beyond a single book, here’s some advice from our writing coach Piers Torday.

Piers has written two wonderful and award-winning series of children’s books – The Last Wild was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and its sequel, The Dark Wild, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His latest book, The Wild Before, continues the series. The Lost Magician kicked off Piers’s other series, and also garnered several awards including Teach Primary Book Awards and Times, Sunday Times and Observer Children’s Book of the Year.

Here, Piers explores the pros and cons of writing a book series, and shares his top tips for this valiant endeavour in creative writing.

What is a book series?

A series is a sequence of two or more books, usually by the same author.

There is an episodic series that tells one central overarching story over several volumes, such as Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series.

Alternatively, a series can return to the same world or the same characters for a sequence of related but standalone stories – from the Poirot mysteries, to James Bond thrillers, to Paddington’s marmalade-sandwich-based escapades with the Brown family.

In this blog, I focus on the overarching story series, because that’s my experience. But many of the same rules apply.

Why write a book series?

From bestselling children’s mega-hits like the Harry Potter series to epic fantasy series such as The Wheel of Time, authors love returning to worlds they have already created to explore them further. And when readers love something, they’ll line up to devour more of that same universe.

infographic showing what proportion of the bestselling novels of all time were in a series

Source: Wikipedia

A successful book series can offer a writer a degree of financial security and continuity, writing books about characters and a world that have a proven readership. They can spawn whole fandoms, not to mention spin-off titles and crossover books based on popular characters. Sometimes, writers can even create pseudo-nonfiction books that provide as much detail on the universe as possible. The Harry Potter world did this to great effect, even generating a whole new series centring on what had been a minor character who lived long before the main character, Harry Potter, was born.

When readers love something, they’ll line up to devour more of that same universe.

A writer of a popular series can build it into a whole career, from books to events. Some of the most successful, like Suzanne Collins’s young adult blockbuster The Hunger Games or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy become adapted into equally popular movie or TV franchises, theatre productions, audio dramatisations, graphic novels…

Reasons not to write a book series

There is a flip side to this very alluring potential.

Creating compelling characters, stories and worlds which can last for three books or more is one of the more ambitious enterprises any author can undertake.

Not every story should be a series. Remember that the standalone novel remains the most popular literary form. Many readers will only ever read one or possibly two books in a series – even if they love them – because readers are unpredictable.

A series writer has to make each individual book attractive and compelling while leaving enough open ends to justify a further book or three. They have to create characters that continue to grow in unexpected yet authentic ways which hold our attention, sometimes over hundreds of pages.

Creating compelling characters, stories and worlds which can last for three books or more is one of the more ambitious enterprises any author can undertake.

Some fantasy series are so epic they risk overwhelming or imprisoning their own creator. Many Game of Thrones fans have given up on George R.R. Martin ever delivering The Winds of Winter, the final book in his Song of Ice and Fire series.

Yet for others, a successful series can be the gift that keeps on giving. Terry Pratchett wrote 45 Discworld books: were he still alive today, I’m sure he’d be writing another one now.

5 tips for writing a book series

I’ve written one four-book series (The Last Wild quartet) and one two-parter (The Lost Magician series), both for children, and can confirm book series are both massively rewarding and mind-bogglingly challenging.

If you think your book might have series potential, here are my five top tips on how to maximise it.

  1. It’s all about Book One
  2. Think small to grow big
  3. Trust your characters
  4. You control your world, not your readers
  5. Creativity, not continuity

infographic showing what proportion of the bestselling books that are part of a series are the first novel in the series

Source: Wikipedia

1) It’s all about Book One

The first in your book series is really important – especially if it’s also the first novel you have published.

You may think you are simply writing the first volume in a twenty-book series, but for agents, publishers, and readers, that is not how they see it. It takes time and effort to read a book. The most important job you have is to reward that initial commitment.

Your first book must satisfy on its own terms. It must tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end (even if there are plot questions still to be answered, backstories yet to be revealed, and character arcs only in their infancy). Think of it as a standalone book as you set out to write a series, rather than fixating on how many books you can spin this out to.

According to her website, J.K. Rowling:

Conceived the idea of Harry Potter in 1990 while sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to London King’s Cross. Over the next five years, she began to map out all seven books of the series. She wrote mostly in longhand and gradually built up a mass of notes, many of which were scribbled on odd scraps of paper.
—J.K. Rowling’s website

But she only got the chance to share those seven books with her readers because Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was such a runaway success.

infographic showing book sales for each of the books in the Harry Potter series

Source: Scholastic

Do not hold back. This is your one and only chance to sell your characters and their world. If you have a startling idea for a character, episode, or plot twist… don’t save it for a theoretical book seven – when you haven’t even sold book one yet!

Give Book One everything you’ve got because your one job is to persuade your reader that you can tell a great story in one book.

If they believe that, then they might want to hear more of that story or another similar one in another book. Or even two…

2) Think small to grow big

When you are dreaming up a world, concept, or main character that might last a series, your foundational one-liner is crucial. All the fictional planets, lists of spells and colourful gladiatorial challenges in the world could not generate a successful series if the central concept is not compelling on its own.

Tempting as it may be to start with the steampunk transport system or a map of the Goblin Village, keep that creativity on ice until you have your uniting concept.

infographic showing book sales for each of the books in the Hunger Games series

Source: Wikipedia

Start with a single idea

With The Last Wild, I began with one central idea. What if a boy who couldn’t talk to people discovered he could talk to animals? What would be his personal journey and overarching narrative?

As I explored, over time how that idea could come to life, I imagined a world with hardly any animals. If my hero, Kester, can only talk to a few, it makes their connection vital. Then I wondered why there were hardly any animals in this world and had the idea of a deadly virus that wiped out animal populations.

From that, I thought about what people would eat in a world without animals. I speculated where the virus came from and what the cure might be. The more I researched every angle of that first statement – from mutism to how animals communicate, biodiversity to food supplies – my fictional world grew in my head.

Every time I decided on characters, place names, and story points, it always came back to that first what if.  And in the end, there were four books of rules, detail and language that all derived from one stem.

infographic showing book sales for each of the books in the Narnia series

Source: Wikipedia

C.S. Lewis famously began The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with little more than a picture:

‘The Lion’ all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.
—C.S. Lewis

And from that single image was born Narnia. A fantasy land created over seven books so enduring that Netflix is currently working on the fifth major screen adaptation.

Think of a series you have loved reading. What is the central foundational proposition to that epic story and world, and how many details can you trace back to it?


3) Trust your characters

One of the biggest appeals for those who write a series is the chance to write character development of the most richly satisfying kind. Arcs that are so expansive and lengthy that they mirror a life.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo initially doesn’t want Samwise Gamgee to accompany him on his quest to Mount Doom. But by the end of the trilogy, the pair are inseparable. And it is Sam’s heroic bravery that enables Frodo to escape Shelob, orcs and Gollum to complete his quest.

This relationship could develop over a single book, but the fact it takes three volumes makes the final resolution even more moving and satisfying. Readers feel they have been on an epic adventure with Frodo and Sam. They have accompanied them on such a rollercoaster of peril, hope, disappointment and wonder, they feel they have shared their lives.

Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien planned this all along, but no mind, no matter how great, can foresee every detail of a character’s journey. Outstanding characters begin in your imagination, but the longer they live on the page, the more their own moral choices become independent of your grand designs. They come alive in the writing process.

A good steer, however, is to let the actions of the main character drive the plot. It’s a useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead. Even if the story begins with them committing a murder, by having the protagonist be the instigator, your audience will care about them regardless of their terrible actions.
— Philip Pullman

So do not make too many concrete plans for your characters before you know them better. You’ll know the key points and maybe even a plot outline, but let them grow and take shape as you write.

infographic showing the bestselling books in the 50 Shades series

Source: NDP BookScan

4) You control your world, not your readers

Creating a fantasy world can be a lot of fun, especially if you are a control freak like me. You get to make up words, and sometimes a complete language system. You can move mountains to accommodate rivers and summon dragons from fiery pits. Entire armies are under your command, but you also get to decide what unusual vegetables are for sale in the local market.

The characters, plot, settings, weather, and branch of archaic magic deployed are all up to you.

What is not up to you is how the book performs. Some readers may read the first book and have an insatiable desire to read two or five more. Others may enjoy the book very much, but feel quite satisfied and ready to move on to something new. How many acclaimed series or trilogies have you, in fact, only read one volume of?

So don’t hold back too many vital reveals until Book Seven, because your readers may never get that far.

Likewise – especially when writing for children – make sure your readers can enjoy your books as standalone, self-contained tales that satisfy as one story without the surrounding books. Children will often pick up Book 3 or 4 in a series from a library because they like the cover or title. (Or a well-meaning aunt who didn’t realise the book was part of a series may gift them Book 5.) The reader may then go back to the first book for more, but only if the book they randomly encountered also makes sense on its own terms.

Your job is to create a compelling world we want to return to again and again, and characters we can’t bear to be without. But as Tolkien discovered, how those books are published, marketed and consumed is a worry best left to others.

And now I look at it, the magnitude of the disaster is apparent to me. My work has escaped my control, and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody).
— J.R.R. Tolkien

5) Creativity, not continuity

The bigger your series world, the more details you have to manage.

You are welcome to invent your own currency. But remember, you need to know not only how much everything costs – from a flagon of ale to a squire’s estate – but also how much the equivalent might cost in a neighbouring country. The same applies to languages, systems of magic, school hierarchies, and so on.

This is fiddly enough in one book, but the more books you write, these systems of classification you have invented only grow bigger and more complicated. There’s a reason there is a bestiary to guide a reader through the Tolkien universe, for example.

But my advice is not to feel daunted by these challenges or treat them as gaping plot holes. See them as an opportunity to be creative and clever.

Readers don’t actually want reality, that’s why they’re escaping to your fantasy series. They want consistency and plausibility so as few intrusive thoughts as possible break the pleasure dream of reading. That doesn’t mean you can’t invent a good reason a groat is now worth three guineas.

After all, if the world we’re living in was a series, it is outrageous to see how many unpredictable and implausible changes the writer has gotten away with.

At heart, the continuity conundrum encapsulates the deep pleasure of writing a series for me. A well-written series realises a world that seems to take on a life of its own. This can throw up as many challenges as there are in our real one, the more books there are. But only in a series can your readers enjoy the illusion of resolving them in a way that makes them want to read more and more…

Get guidance to structure your series from the start when you sign up for a writing course at The Novelry.

Someone writing in a notebook
Piers Torday. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Piers Torday

Piers Torday is the award-winning and bestselling author of seven books for children dubbed ‘the new master of children’s fiction’ by The Times.

Members of The Novelry team