I’ve had discussions with other writers about how there’s tons of advice out there on writing novels, but very little on writing series.
File this one under “stuff I know how to do, but don’t know how to articulate or explain.” But this one will be less polished than the pieces I wrote on the structure of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, because I’m really thinking out loud as I go here.
Step one, I think, is to take a look at what a series is. A set of interconnected books, okay. But there are ways and ways of connecting things, and they’re not all going to operate the same. After chewing on this for a while, I’ve decided that you can very roughly sort different types of series into a spectrum from discrete to linked (with two semi-outliers that I’ll note as we pass them.) So:
At the absolute discrete end, you’ve got books whose only connection is that a single author wrote them. Not actually a series; ’nuff said.
The Setting Series
In this type, the connection between the books is that they take place in a single setting, but otherwise they share no connection of character or plot. (They may not even share authors.) I’m having trouble thinking of any pure examples of this; most often this tends to be a superset of other series, e.g. Discworld or Valdemar being settings that contain both stand-alone novels and series within them, or a shared world like the Forgotten Realms. If you can think of an example that is purely stand-alone novels, whether written by the same author or different ones, let me know. (I think it would need at least three books to serve as a good example; two books in the same setting is a series by the most technical definition, but I’d like something stronger.)
The Cast Series
This is the type of series you commonly find in romance, where each book follows a different set of protagonists and a different plot, but characters from one book appear in another. (Romance often sets this up by presenting you with a group in the first book, e.g. a set of siblings, with the implicit promise that you’ll get to see each of them get their own story eventually.) These naturally share a setting as well.
*The Reset Button Series
As the asterisk indicates, I think this one’s an outlier. It’s the Nancy Drew model: each book shares a setting and a core cast with all the others, but in between books the slate gets wiped clean, which means they have less plot continuity than the Cast Series. Nancy will always be eighteen; Ned will never graduate from college. I’m not sure this is very popular anymore, except maybe in children’s fiction — and maybe not even there?
The Episodic Growth Series
Closely akin to the Nancy Drew model, this has a core cast and a new plot with each installment, but there’s no reset button. As a result, change and growth do happen over time. You see this a lot in mystery novels and police procedural TV shows, because it’s very well-suited to those genres: each installment starts with a crime and ends with the crime being solved, while in the background there might might be some ongoing character-based subplot about the detective’s marriage falling apart or whatever.
The Episodic Arc Series
This one is a hybrid between the previous and the subsequent types. It has self-contained episodic plots, especially early on, but there’s also a longer-term metaplot that those episodes may be helping to set up, and the episodic structure tends to fall away toward the end. Examples include Harry Potter and each season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and yes, I realize the creators of both those works are not exactly looking great right now, but they’re well-known illustrations of the model). Many trilogies feel at least a bit like this, because it’s sensible from a business standpoint to write a more or less stand-alone novel that can serve as the foundation for the later two installments.
*The Perpetual Motion Series
Our other outlier, which I think I’ve only seen in soap operas on TV. Here there can be many arcs going at once, such that while an individual plot may end, the series as a whole doesn’t (until it gets canceled). This would be an extraordinarily hard trick to pull off in traditional novel publishing, I suspect, though it could work in indie.
The Metaplot Series
Here there’s no real attempt to wrap up a self-contained plot in any particular installment. From the start, you know you’re getting a long-term story, and unlike that trilogy approach I described above, the first volume doesn’t feel like it could stand on its own. A Song of Ice and Fire is a prominent example of this, along with TV shows like Lost.
The Single Book
And to cap off the other end, we have our other form of non-series: a single novel that just happens to have been published in multiple volumes, i.e. The Lord of the Rings. The difference between this and the Metaplot Series is that in theory the author of the latter type gives each book its own satisfying structure, even if that structure doesn’t end in resolution; the author of the Single Book non-series just whacks it apart at the necessary intervals.
I think that covers the whole gamut. Obviously some things are going to straddle the divisions, because no system of categorization is ever perfect; the goal here is to distinguish what shifts of interconnection happen along the way, rather than to make clean boxes that absolutely everything will fit neatly into. And series can change over the course of their lifetime, e.g. what the author intended to be Episodic Growth sprouts an arc plot along the way. I’ll chew more on those bits of the concept later. But for right now, I think this is a decent framework? Is there anything significant I’m missing?