April 22, 2014

Should We Learn to Write Series?

Connected chain links with text: Should We Write Series?

Many books recently on the bestseller lists have been part of series. From the Divergent series to the new cliffhanger and serial books, series are a popular trend. But what if we don’t naturally write series? Will we be left behind?

The “lessons learned” section in my post about Beverly Kendall’s self-publishing report reiterated the fact that most successful self-published authors write series. Kristen Lamb just posted about series being hot, hot, hot.

Yet at the same time, we see posts like Roni Loren’s asking if readers are becoming too impatient for series. Or from reviewers ticked off and saying authors are doing cliffhangers “wrong.”

What should we believe? And more importantly, when it comes to series, what can we do to achieve success yet avoid the pitfalls?

The Shifting Expectations for Series

Yes, series are popular, especially in certain genres and with certain readers. Children’s books (including Middle Grade and Young Adult (YA)) have long been filled with series. The growth of New Adult (NA) has continued that trend.

Historically, these series would sometimes end with cliffhangers, but more often each book resolved the main conflict by the end. For example, each Harry Potter book ended with open series arc threads about Voldemort and the ongoing threat, but the book-specific conflict about the Chamber of Secrets, etc. was complete. Each Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew story was episodic, with virtually no bearing on future books.

In the past, only a few adult genres, like epic fantasies, embraced cliffhangers. Most genres like mysteries or thrillers expected series to be episodic, with one book not necessarily affecting the next. Genres like romance, which expects a happily-ever-after (HEA) ending for the couple, utilized common settings, secondary characters getting their own book, etc. to create series.

In other words, genre expectations play a huge role in what readers will and won’t accept. So there’s no one right answer for “how to do a series.”

However, some popular YA and NA series have pushed those expectations. They involve the same characters in each book, end with cliffhangers, and if done well, can feel “epic” by the time they reach their conclusion.

Those successes have inspired authors in other genres to push against their expectations as well. Some books calling themselves adult romances now drag out the happily-ever-after for three books. Some genres are experimenting with serial novels, essentially releasing a chapter or so at a time, forcing readers to buy all the parts to receive a complete story.

Sometimes, especially for books on the edge of New Adult or in genres with a history of serial novels, these stories find success. Or some books feel epic enough to justify dragging out the conclusion.

Others? Not so much. Reader backlash has started against series that seem to drag out the story simply for money. Using unimportant obstacles to increase word count is like the series version of a “sagging middle.” Even more readers are complaining about books that don’t feel complete.

In other words, there’s definitely a way to write series that might be more “wrong,” at least as far as the potential dangers. So like any trend, we shouldn’t hop on the bandwagon without knowing the specifics.

The Dangers of Series

If each book is a complete story, either along the lines of each book resolving its conflict, being episodic, or having only setting or secondary characters in common, I think we’re safe in most (all?) genres. Readers won’t usually complain if they pay for and receive a complete story.

The problems come when we try to write and sell an incomplete story. This could be a serial novel (a couple of chapters at a time), a story that doesn’t meet genre expectations (no happily-ever-after at the end of the book), or a cliffhanger story, where the book’s main conflict isn’t resolved.

(A second type of cliffhanger story resolves the main story conflict and then introduces a new conflict in the last scene. This approach essentially incorporates a “teaser excerpt” into the story itself. Again, genre can play a huge role in whether this will be successful.)

With any of those approaches, readers often won’t feel satisfied. Yes, these cliffhangers could lead to sales by readers eager to learn the ending. But they can also lead to potential readers refusing to pick up Book One once they read the reviews and see that it’s not a complete story.

Personally, I won’t read serial novels and I expect a complete story. As I commented on Roni Loren’s post in regards to romance series:

“If the romance is the main plot and it drags on, that’s too angsty for me. Most of those don’t have the plot to support the drama, and it feels like the author is just throwing in kitchen sink obstacles to make more money. I don’t get serials until they’re complete and published in a single edition either.”

More readers seem to be getting tired of the “incomplete story” ploy. They’re waiting for the complete series to make sure the payoff will…:

  1. happen…
    (Many a traditionally published series has been canceled mid-series, and some self-published authors don’t have the dedication they claim they do.)
  2. and be worth it.
    (We don’t want to invest many hours reading a series only to have the final act fall to pieces, leave too many unanswered questions, go in the “wrong” direction, suffer from slow pacing or pointless obstacles, etc.)

But what if the majority of readers takes this attitude? The series will look like a failure because everyone is waiting for its completion before they start reading.

The Bottom Line on Series

In other words, while series are popular, we shouldn’t feel pressured to write against our natural inclinations just because it’s trendy. Series have plenty of pitfalls that might come back to bite those authors who jump on the trend.

If we want to join the series bandwagon, we can do it while still writing connected-yet-standalone stories. In other words, we can market books as a series without featuring the same characters or cliffhangers.

When we hear about series books helping self-published authors, that doesn’t indicate we have to change our writing style. If we want to write series with a big series arc or continuing characters, we can target readers who enjoy that approach. But if we want to write series with connected-standalone stories, that can be hugely successful too.

So when we decide whether our future writing will include series, we can keep several points in mind:

  • What are the expectations of our genre?
  • What types of series could meet those expectations? (episodic, connected standalones, series arcs, etc.)
  • Does our genre have a history of serial novels or cliffhanger stories?
  • Does our genre have a history (or current rumblings) of backlash against those techniques?
  • What risks are we willing to take with our stories and marketing?
  • If we want to write cliffhanger stories, do we have enough conflict to create an epic feel and avoid pacing/sagging-middle issues?
  • If we don’t want to write cliffhanger stories but want more than episodic, could we use connected standalones (maybe with a series arc building in the background)?
  • What elements of our story could connect to other stories (setting, worldbuilding, themes, minor characters, unseen relatives or other referenced-but-off-the-page characters, villains (or villain organizations), types of conflicts, etc.)?

My current stories take the connected-standalone approach. My paranormal romance series started with a standalone novel, but as soon as I thought about the basis for the paranormal aspect, ideas filled my head with additional standalone stories connected by worldbuilding.

I see this as the best of both worlds for my genre. I’m able to meet the genre expectations for paranormal romance, complete with a happily-ever-after ending for each couple at the end of each book, and I’ll be able to market them as a series.

We’re asking for writer’s block if we try forcing writing styles that don’t work for us. But if we’re creative, we can meet marketing trends and keep our muse happy. In fact, writing a series doesn’t require learning anything new except for thinking broader about the possibilities. *smile*

Are you able to write book series? If you’ve struggled, have you worried about how to capitalize on the “pros” of having a series? As a reader, do you read some types of series and not others? Do you enjoy serial novels or cliffhangers or do they disappoint you? Does this post give you ideas for how to approach series?

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My most popular series at the moment (on Wattpad) seems, at first glance, connected-yet-standalone, but they genuinely aren’t. Each book has a different narrator, tone, focus, etc.—but each one builds on the one(s) before, where you need it all together to fully appreciate it. It’s…a mess, truthfully—a tangle that bewilders some readers and elates others. And it’s one of those series that started out planned as a stand-alone, became a trilogy as that first book was getting finished, and keeps…having…more…added. I’m on book #4, and it looks as if there will be 6 total (though one may be a novella rather than a novel). Beyond that, my one space opera penname gets sales, every so often, directly thanks to the 3 short stories that are in a series (but can stand alone). The first story in that series is free…and then one of the stories available under that penname is a crack!fic that twists that story world with the story world from two stories that otherwise sit on their lonesomes, under that penname. There’s a visible sales pattern of freebie, story #2 & #3, crack!fic, the MiB black humor one tied into the crack fic, then the set of dystopia flash fics that tie into the crack!fic. (One of the stories in my WiP pile is actually a #4 to that short story set. Cover’s done, at least, and I have most of it written. Now I just have to figure out how the MC through the climax.) That said,…  — Read More »

Michael Carter

Dear Jami,

A friend of mine, also a published author of nearly ten years standing, has taken a series approach, quite naturally and probably before it became trendy.
He has discovered a real reluctance from readers to purchase the second book when they haven’t read the first even though they are episodic in nature and this has lead to a necessity to keep the first episode in print when otherwise he would have concentrated on other projects.
Another friend has a ‘saga’ comprising of half a dozen books where it is far more important to read in sequence. The first in the series is likely to sell more and only a fan will read every one.
I bought the first when there was only one and was then pleased when I saw further installments. I think I may have been put off if I had seen all the books in the shop at once.
The author in question has also been pressured into a ‘Dallas’ moment when he has resurrected the heroine for further unplanned installments

Lucy Lit

Thank you for this, Jami! I boycotted a popular author last year after the on going “3 chapter at a time” promotion. Really ticked me off. Now I refuse to participate as both a reader AND an author. I planned my self-published Sultry Savannah Series as interconnected yet standalone. To me, it’s a balance of giving the reader a satisfactory experience and staying true to the story as it wants to be told.

Margo Carey

Great post.
I’m writing a fantasy series where the family is the link. Since most series I’ve read have the same character as protagonist throughout, I’ve been a little nervous. In my work, each story will be a stand-alone that concentrates on a different protagonist within the family and the family saga is the overreaching arc.
From what you wrote, I think I’m all right.
Thanks for your detailed description.


Loved the post today. 🙂 I am writing an erotic romance series. Each will be a standalone with secondary characters from the first book getting their own stories in the books to follow. As a reader, I do love to be able to pick up anywhere in the series and start to read knowing the characters from the previous books. For me, there are a few authors out there that I will buy their books because they are cliffhangers. But as an aspiring writer myself I’ll stick to HEA for now.

Robert Doucette
Robert Doucette

I am in nearly complete agreement, especially with Jami’s reluctance to buy volume one of a set of unknown length.

While I would be interested in writing a series using the same lead characters, I don’t know how to deal with the character arc. Once a main character has fully grown into her Essense, how does she grow for the next book(s) in the series?

Thanks for all of the great advice and insights.

Jeanette O'Hagan

Great post Jami. I’m writing a NA fantasy series – almost finished 4 books and I came to the same conclusion – that I want a connected-standalone approach. Each book has its own narrative arc which is resolved at the end of the book but there is an ongoing series arc that hopefully will keep readers wanting to read more. I think this works well and its fun to do.

But it’s not always easy. Each book can be read on its own though later books do contain spoilers for earlier books – I tried to keep this to a minimum but also to write the plot twists so that they are just as engaging when you’re in on the secret as when you are not. Since I wrote the 4th book first, this has meant I’ve keep some elements in the first 3 books (eg the identity of one of the main characters Rasel) more in the background than I might have if I had written them in a different order.

So challenges as well as advantages but I’m enjoying writing this way.

Diana Beebe

Great post, Jami! I’ve been thinking about this a lot right now while I plot a short middle grade series and a couple of other possible book ideas. Cliffhanger middle stories drive me nuts, so I don’t want to write that way.

As usual, very thoughtful and helpful! 🙂

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

Epic fantasy reader here, weighing in.

You have some great points about not stretching out a story, or creating a cliff hanger, just to extend the story. I’ve read a lot of stand-alone serial novels, where the familiar characters and world building is used, and sometimes a character’s story arc is not completed, but specific story plot is resolved satisfactorily. (A HEA can be a matter of perspective, ya know!)

Anne McCaffery’s Dragon Riders of Pern; Anne Rice’s Vampires and witches; even James Patterson’s Alex Cross and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are a series that uses specific characters and settings. I hesitate to use too many Fantasy and Sci-fi examples, but that is what I read most of my series in. But I have read good series with mystery, paranormal, and crime fiction.

Perhaps there isn’t a definite right or wrong about series; its either done well or it isn’t. Like any other story concept.

Good post Jamie.


Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Interesting. I never force myself to make something a series or a stand-alone. I just write however much the story needs. So my story dictates how long it will be; I have no power over my book’s/ series’ length, haha. The dragging on of a romance is interesting. Camilla by Fanny Burney was definitely a drag-on for 900ish pages, haha, which was annoying, because the obstacles were all unnecessary misunderstandings. But I stuck with it because I loved the hero and heroine, and I thought it was still worth the wait to see them finally marry and live happily together ever after. Back to the drag-on romance topic, I’m wondering how long it will take for my hero to fall in love with my heroine (the heroine was in love with him already after meeting him for the fourth time, lol, love at fourth sight). Of course it might be annoying for him to take so long, but on the other hand, I can’t FORCE him to fall in love with her NOW or very soon. Feelings can’t be forced. People can’t be forced to fall in love. His feelings will have to develop by themselves and we will see what happens! At least he is HEADING IN the right direction, though so far, at 285 pages, he is STILL friend-zoning and family-zoning (sees her as a second younger sister) the heroine. He would definitely be in love with her by the end of the book–which hopefully would only be…  — Read More »

Sharla Rae

I love series but you really need to keep a notebook of character outlines and certain points that will carry over to the rest of the books. For me, about three books is a good number in a series. After that it seems like some authors get board with their own books which means the readers will too. Then again, with historicals like a family saga you can set the series all over the country to liven things up. It just depends. Thanks Jami for your insightful blog. The series today are way different than back in the 80s and 90s.

Alina K. Field

I’ve heard that some of the NAs or Contemporary Romances are breaking up the story into three segments with the HEA at the end of the third. That doesn’t appeal to me AT ALL. I much prefer the “three sisters” or “three brothers” type of series where each secondary character gets an HEA, and that’s what I’m trying to write. A twist on that is where some underlying problem traces through each book in the series and is solved at the end of the last book. An example of that is Tessa Dare’s Stud Club series. Each book is a complete tale, but the last one resolves a murder mystery. I’m trying that with a contemporary series, but it will be quite a while before I have that figured out.


[…] continuation issues when writing a series. Jami Gold’s started an interesting discussion on if you should even learn how to write one. And then there’s Holly Lisle, who I wish was my friend, offering a video-series workshop on […]


I’m not far enough along on my writing journey to have created a series yet, but I’m already thinking about the next book as I write the first. That way I can add a few innocent hooks to the first story that won’t mean too much to the readers until they get to the second book. I love plotting.

anne gallagher
anne gallagher

I started writing 3 stand alones that were connected by a single character and then as time evolved and I was writing more, that single character appeared in all my books. Now that I’m down to the last book in the series this single character finally will have her story to tie the whole series together.

However, I’m toying with the possibility of having a pre-quel to the last book (novelette) with a cliffhanger ending, to lead into the final book. I’m not sure how it’s going to work the way I want it to. And if not, then I’ll just write an epic final novel. Right? That way everyone is satisfied. I don’t want my readers mad at me.

Lolita Moroney
Lolita Moroney

I have to confess that although I’m not a fan of series (I don’t believe I’ve ever read one), my WIP is going to be the first in a series. It didn’t start out that way but as I was planning my storyline I found there were some elements that were worth expanding upon. If I gave them the attention they deserve it would detract from the plot. I never imagined that my initial story would develop into a series but I’m glad I’ve decided to take that route as I get to explore the characters and worlds that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Of course the other plus is that it gives me time to figure out what on earth to write next!

Christina Hawthorne

I’m late, again, but given that I write a series I wanted to make sure I left a comment. I’ve aborted more than one series that I was reading and it was usually for one of two reasons. The first is that, like you, I gravely dislike books that conclude rife with cliffhangers. It’s as if someone ripped the book from your hand midway through and burned it. The second, more common reason (for me), was beginning the second book (sometimes the third) and quickly realizing the author expended virtually all available ideas in the first book. Characters don’t grow or if they seemed to grow in the first book, they strangely revert to who they were in the initial story. Plots are rehashed time and again with only minor (and insulting) alterations like changing the setting or adding a character to replace the similar one who died.

So, here I am writing an adult fantasy series that I’d consider a variation on the Rowling model where series arcs exist, but character arcs are resolved in each book. Further, each book is centered upon a different protagonist who lives in the same fantasy world and at the same time (and sometimes exists as a minor character in a different character’s story). Eventually it all adds up to many of the characters coming together to tackle the primary arcs. To simply call it shifting the POV for each book wouldn’t be accurate.


Ha, you and Becca are doing that mind meld thing again…great post!

Taurean Watkins

I’ve always loved series because I like getting attached to characters and watching how they develop, with some exceptions, my favorite series are the ones where characters are allowed to evolve and grow, that’s probably why I struggle with books (whether reader or writer) where things are stagnant. As a writer, this is even more so, and I do read and love stand alone books, too. I love reading them, too, they’re just hard for me to write because with series you can mine material and expand on it, and I love the long-term world building writing a series brings. This post gave me more things to think about on the kind of series I gravitate to as both reader and writer, and I do like series that have a dual sense of plot, like HP, where we get a self-contained plot specific to that book, yet there’s a larger arc only the whole series gives the reader. On the other hand, more episodic and situational series have their charms, too, I just get frustrated when we’re so married to stagnant characters that we lose touch with watching characters grow and evolve. While many writers I know (or admire) love the freedom of stand-alone stories, for me it’s hard because you have to start from scratch every time, if I drafted faster I might like writing stand alones more. My debut was meant to be stand alone, but I love the characters and world so much I’m going to do…  — Read More »


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