Does Your Series Tell a Bigger Story? (Part 1)

I’m off to teach in Ireland next week, on a writing retreat in Galway run by Ireland Writer Tours. By the time you read this, I’ll be on the Emerald Isle, but I thought I’d shadow some of the teaching I’m doing there in the blog posts going up in the next few days.

And so, with no further ado…Does Your Series Tell a Bigger Story?

0611 Fushimi Inari Gates (up)

Harry Potter. Jack Reacher. Laura Ingalls. From childhood favorites to adult novels, readers love a compelling series.

Successful series draw us in, engage our emotions, and leave us eagerly waiting for the characters’ next adventure. But this doesn’t happen by accident. Successful series share a number of common features designed to enhance the reader’s experience in the writer’s world. Once you understand the techniques, it’s easy to spot them in books you read—and also, to include them in your own successful series.

One of the most important features found in successful series is a “bigger story” –something which makes the series more than merely the sum of its volumes.

What is the “Bigger Story”? 

The “bigger story” is an overarching narrative or relationship (or both) which carries through every book in a series, transcending individual the stories and unifying the series as a whole.

Some series tell a continuing story in several volumes—think Harry Potter or the Eragon books. Many fantasy books fall into this category, but it’s common in other genres too. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is also a good example.

The other type of series fiction is episodic. It features essentially stand-alone stories connected by a unifying protagonist or character group. For examples, check out James Rollins’s Sigma Force series, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels. My Shinobi Mysteries, which feature the ongoing adventures of master ninja Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, also fall into this category.

The best of these episodic series also contain an overarching “bigger story” which weaves the stand-alone novels into part of a larger narrative. Readers don’t get lost in these series when reading the novels out of order, but reading sequentially does enhance the experience for the reader.

Whether you want to write a Harry Potter-style series or a set of connected stand-alone novels, your series will have more impact if you draw your readers into a larger story.

 Take the Time to Discover Your Bigger Story In Advance

Telling a “bigger story” requires planning, and even “pantsers”—writers who don’t plot out their books in advance—should take the time to figure out the larger story behind the series.

Ask yourself: What story am I really telling, beyond the events that happen in this book?

For me, the answer is key to every novel in a series.

Each of my novels is stand-alone, but each book in the series also advances Hiro’s friendship with Father Mateo and the reader’s knowledge of Hiro’s mysterious background. This highlights the importance of author planning: if I didn’t already know the larger story I want to tell, I couldn’t drop hints and reveal the elements of that story in the proper order and at the necessary times.

I hope you’ll join me tomorrow to continue this look at “Telling the Bigger Story” and how to make those stories leap off the printed page.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear: what’s the bigger story YOU feel inspired to write?