Essential writing skills: good and bad ways to write a novel series

A little while ago I read the first three of Joan Aiken’s ‘Wolves’ novels, a series for children set in an alternative nineteenth century. King James Stuart III is on the throne, beset by plotters wanting to put the Hanoverian pretender into power.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

The books weren’t ‘the further adventures of…’ but a set of tales connected by common world and a quite subtle technique; a secondary character in one book would become a main character in another, embroiled in a completely different tale. This, it seemed to me, was an exceptionally clever approach because it enabled Aiken to keep coming up with fresh plots and character arcs. And, of course, C S Lewis did something similar with his Narnia series, as did Ursula Le Guin with her Earthsea books.

Finding new angles is always the problem with series. An ongoing series offers a good way to capitalise on earlier work, including research. It isn’t even a marketing ploy, necessarily; sometimes a character or setting simply captures popular imagination and the audience demand more. Conan Doyle discovered that the hard way – he couldn’t kill off Sherlock Holmes.

A series, of course, offers a different challenge for novellists – creating a suitable character arc. There are various ways of dealing with that. Joanne Rowling did it by limiting the length of her series, from the get-go, and presenting Harry Potter’s ‘coming of age’ arc across seven books. Each of the novels gave a slice of that arc.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.
You never see the model from this angle in the series. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia software.

But what about open-ended series? That’s another matter altogether, regularly dealt with by TV script writers, and something that’s also changed over the years. Back in the 1960s, for instance, Gene Roddenberry hauled in top-rated writers to produce scripts for the original Star Trek. But irrespective of what transpired, all had to return to zero at the end – a ‘reset’ ready for the next episode which would launch from an unchanged setting. Authors who’ve taken that same approach for long-running story series include Doyle (mostly) and Enid Blighton (unfortunately).

Today the focus is different. On TV we see it in shows such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica were presenting whole series as linked story arcs, in which characters did change, where the setting did alter. There’s a lot to learn from this in terms of handling novel series. Much depends on whether the series is fixed – like Rowling’s –  in which case it will be possible to develop a single lead-character arc spanned across the series.

But if it’s open-ended, what then? One way is via micro-arcs. The character has to face a challenge in each novel that addresses a single aspect of what their character needs. Perhaps they learn something about themselves along the way – just one thing, maybe. In the next novel, they learn something more. The setting keeps changing. With suitable planning, it’s possible to create ‘super-scale’ story arcs (I’m thinking Perry Rhodan, a German team effort which I think has run to nearly 3000 novels so far).

The risk, of course, is that it’s too easy to fall into melodrama on the back of it. That’s where TV soap operas fall down, usually leading to a favourite actor coming back, after being killed off, as their own long-lost twin. Over-long novel series can go that way too, if the author’s not careful.

Which way an author goes is up to them, of course – ‘closed’, the way Rowling did it; ‘linked’, the way Aiken did it; or just open-ended, the way Conan Doyle did it. But the techniques for each are different, and that’s the secret to making them work, in the end.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: good and bad ways to write a novel series

  1. Excellent post, with great categories. I think that TV series that change their focus lose their spark – clear arcs that get artificially extended after their completion grow thin, and series that are primarily episodic that try to build larger narratives end up shifting the focus to that kind of soapy melodrama and internal character relationships. And of course, the same happens with book series too.

    1. It certainly does. One of those things about the nature of the industry both in novels and tv. Better to end something on a high note or its natural dramatic cycle. It happens, but not that often.

  2. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I don’t mind reading books in a series as long as each book ends. Recently, I read one that failed to do that. I forgot to write down the title and the author, so now I have no idea which means I’ll never know the ending.

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