By Ron Glick
Ron Glick is the author of numerous novels and three different ongoing epic series. In this post he outlines what it takes to write a successful continuous book series.
I have always been told that there are three cornerstones that must be built as an Indie author if you ever wish to establish your brand—a library, consistency, and legacy. Basically, this means you must have more than one book for your readers to enjoy, have a reliable schedule for release of materials, and books that share common characters and storylines. Though I might speak more on the first two at another time, it is for the purpose of the latter that I am writing this article today.
Specifically, I would like to discuss the concept and unique challenges presented by writing books in an epic series, a series that is a continuous, ongoing storyline. Though not all books with a common history are part of a specific series (look to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon stories, as an example), it is largely an accepted fact that readers generally enjoy following the ongoing stories they fall in love with. And if you have done your job as a writer, this will be exactly what you have achieved: a bond between the reader and the characters you have created.
Another thing I was once told is that all good stories have a sad ending—because they end. If your reader is not sad that the story is over, if they do not feel a yearning to know what happens next, then you likely have not engaged your reader enough to have them read anything more you have written. Readers almost always put down one book and pick up another, and you always want to get your readers to put down that book and look for another one of yours.
This is a vitally important function as a writer—to get your reader to willingly suspend disbelief (something else I have touched on in other articles that I will likely one day write about in more depth at a later time), which is to say have them become so invested emotionally and mentally in your story that they are willing to set aside the knowledge that what they are reading is not a true story and believe what is being presented. If you achieve this, they will want to know what will come next in the story, and they will go looking to see if you have written anything else that continues the story.
This is where series come into play. True, books like Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code are great stand-alone stories, and it helps that they share a common protagonist, but unless you do some work on browsing through all of Dan Brown’s work, you really do not know this. One advantage of writing an actual series is that the reader can tell at a glance what the next book in the story is.
For example, if a reader were to read my book, The Wizard In Wonderland, he or she can see on the front page, “Book 1 of the Oz-Wonderland Series”. This ready-made label tells the reader that there are either more books available in the series or more are forthcoming. So if the reader enjoys the book, he or she will likely look for Book 2, and so on. True, a reader might like my work enough to just look for my name to see what else I write, but it is a sure bet that if he or she liked the book they just read, they will be more drawn to its sequel.
Epic/Continuous Series vs. Stand-Alone Series
In the case of writing a series, I find readers are typically more drawn in if it is more than just a series in name, as well, which is to say that the story is genuinely ongoing, not just with the same characters. Some are quite successful using the latter formula, but it has been my personal experience, after having worked in bookstores and spending the last several years involved in marketing my own and others’ books, that a series that continues an existing storyline simply has more appeal.
Take the Hardy Boy series by Franklin W. Dixon (though this is actually a collective pseudonym, not an actual person) —this is a long, long series (original series had 190 books) that follows the exploits of teen brothers who solve mysteries, but they all are stand-alone stories. Though they all are under the Hardy Boys series name, none of the books actually have an ongoing story that carries between the individual novels. Which means that very few people will actually read the entire series, but pick up many books throughout the series.
As a counterpoint, let us look to the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan (and co-authored in later volumes by Brandon Sanderson). Jordan wrote an epic storyline that spanned fourteen volumes—and readers clamored for each new release, even after he passed. The Hardy Boys never enjoyed this level of demand—no one rushed to the book store for the latest book in the series. And the reason is because though fans were invested in the teen sleuths, there was no need to know “what happens next” like there is in an actual series that has a continuous storyline.
Personally, I see this demand in my own books—I have readers who have difficulty waiting for my series. I have a set schedule for writing books, with an average two years between individual books in my epic fantasy series Chaos Rising and The Godslayer Cycle, and a year between installments of my Oz-Wonderland series. Readers are drawn in and they want the story to continue, and this is a huge advantage if you are an Indie writer.
Of course, with advantage comes challenge. For instance, you cannot so easily put down what you write and keep your readers happy, and you must have a plot laid out before you ever write your first book that will span the breadth of the series.
If you intend to write an actual continuous series, which I prefer to call an epic series, you cannot just think of a concept, write one book, and then decide if you are going to write more about it later or not. You are making a commitment by writing this kind of series. You are telling your reader that you intend to tell an epic story that spans more than one book.
A perfect example of this is the Dark Tower series by Stephen King—who spent four to six years between released volumes of the original books in the series. One of the most sought after books while I worked in one book store circa 1991 was when the next book (which would be Wizard In Glass six years later) was coming. He committed to a series, and then his readers would not relent on their demand for “what happens next”. Having read King’s series, it is clear that there is a definite creative shift in the middle of the series, leading to less original content in later books, which to me suggests he might not have had an end-story in mind when he started his series. Which, of course, leads to the second challenge to successfully writing this kind of series.
Drafting a Series
Possibly the most important aspect of writing an epic series is that you must draft out an entire series when you start, not just one book. By far, this is the greatest challenge in undertaking writing this kind of story. Most writers can create a story outline for one book, then come back and create a new outline for their next one. But when writing an epic series, you have to know the entire story—perhaps not all the individual nuances along the way, but certainly the crises and resolutions that occur throughout the series, the milestones if you will, and ultimately where the story is leading and how it will end.
This is greater than just more chapters to outline. An average book might have, for instance, twenty chapters, and a writer investing in just one book only needs to worry about the drafting of those twenty chapters. But the author of an epic series has to consider an exponentially greater number of chapters, at least in theoretical concept.
In my own series, The Godslayer Cycle, I set an ambitious goal: nine books, billed as “a trilogy of trilogies”. In truth, the series will actually be eleven books, with two interludes written, one inserted between each trilogy (yes, this is an advance announcement that the next book in the series will not be Four as most people are hoping). In my Chaos Rising series, I set the goal of three books with several follow-up stories planned, which might or might not include additional series. But the important part relative here was to know where and how that story was going to tell out. As counterpoint, my Oz-Wonderland series was much looser: though I have an overall concept for where the series is going, I have not committed to a set number of volumes—but I do know where it is going and where it ends. And this is the whole point.
With this in mind, The Godslayer Cycle was a massive concept to conceive, and before I could commit to writing the first book, I needed to know the plot of each and every book, where the story was ultimately leading, not to mention the where and the how of its ending. I needed to place leads to upcoming story plots into the first book of the series, knowing they would not bear fruit nor even be seen until later books in the series were written.
In fact, with my most recent release, Three, I shocked many a reviewer by revealing that the time-travel concept was hinted at in the very first book, One, and that the elements of this story plot have an impact upon the entire story yet to come. Readers have been shocked to learn that the missing nameday gift from the first book was always taken by the future Nathaniel traveling back in time, a story plot not revealed until my latest release, four years later—or that Mariabelle’s death was tied into this storyline (a plot that will not manifest fully for two more books).
My point here is that I wrote concepts into the first book of the series knowing full well that they were elements that would not be developed for literally years to come. I had laid out a plotline that would extend over nine books, with a conflict that would gradually escalate with each release, and without giving every detail away at the outset.
Which leads to my final point on writing an epic series: patience. As a writer, you know all the secrets that your story involves, but you cannot rush to the end and tell your reader everything. There’s something to be said for mystery in life, and in writing an epic series, this is critical. Not only does it give your reader a hook to continue to read, but it also creates a far more credible skein upon which to write your story. When writing my own series, I had to be willing to not rush the story development—I had to let the secrets play out as they should. And if you intend to write along this vein, I cannot make a greater recommendation for writing a skillful presentation.
When one begins to explore anything, they do not receive all the answers at the first venture—a true quest involves layers of discovery, and this is what you must be willing to do for your reader: hold back. Do not give into the temptation to show your entire hand. If you are writing an epic series, you must be willing to carry the epic element along through the whole series. You are, after all, writing a story that needs to keep your reader invested in returning for later volumes. And if they know all your secrets with the first book, you lose an important allure that will bring your reader back for more.
I assume anyone reading this article is a fellow author, and I sincerely hope my ramblings, musings and thoughts have helped you in at least some small way. But I would love to hear from you, and as always, I am open to suggestions on other topics to write about through my website, ronglick.com. Many thanks to Sabrina Ricci for suggesting the topic of this article, as well.
I am and shall always remain,
Ron Glick, Author
Ron Glick (born January 20, 1969) is a community activist, and is presently active in several charitable enterprises. He was born in Plainville, KS. After living in various states, he currently lives in Kalispell, MT. He is the author of The Godslayer Cycle, Chaos Rising, the Oz-Wonderland series, and Ron El’s Comic Book Trivia, as well as having written a screenplay adaptation of The Wizard In Wonderland. Additionally, he created the Golden Age Preservation Project as a means of making Golden Age comics more accessible to modern audiences. His expose, U.S. Political Prisoner Since 2004, broke him away from his fictional works to shed light upon political corruption in Montana.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published on October 22, 2015.