Yesterday, we started looking at “Telling a Bigger Story”–writing a series that leaps off the printed page. Today, we’re continuing that conversation with more tips for creating a vibrant world in series fiction:
The Better You Understand Your World, the More it Leaps off the Page
A successful series isn’t simply a set of books that tell a story (or several stories) from one protagonist’s point of view. Each installment should feel like a window into an ongoing world. To feel that way, the world, the characters, and the plots must integrate into a larger, coherent whole—a “bigger story”—which the writer has considered in advance. Even “pantsers” can do this, by understanding the “big picture” elements and leaving the details to the writing process.
For example, it’s helpful know why each of your books takes place at a certain time and place in your fictional world—something beyond “because I wanted to talk about teenage wizards going to school in a magical castle.”
J.K. Rowling understood the entirety of her world, and also her characters’ histories, before she started writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Because of that, the reader feels immersed in a living, breathing world that existed before page 1 and continues after the final page of each novel in the series. This immersive experience draws readers in and keeps them coming back for each installment.
Discovering your “bigger story” is easier if your series contains a set of connected adventures, but it’s no less important for episodic series. Readers want to connect with a larger narrative. Figure yours out in advance, and your readers will follow.
Populate the “Bigger Story” With Interesting Secondary Characters
Compelling series often include a number of recurring, important secondary characters. J.K. Rowling’s “Dobby,” and James Rollins’s “Seichan” are good examples. These characters may or may not survive to the end of the series, but readers become attached to them and look forward to their appearance in later books.
Authors who understand the “bigger story” can weave secondary characters into a series in ways that set up “big moments” or “big reveals” for these characters later on. By introducing the characters early, writers allow the readers to develop attachments (or loathing), which deepens the readers’ experience with these characters in later books.
The reader doesn’t have to know that a character will make a return appearance, or that the character’s early appearances are setting up for something down the line. In fact, most readers appreciate a surprise—as long as the character’s actions are consistent with his (or her) previous appearances in the series.
Clearly, it’s hard to write an ongoing secondary arc if you don’t understand the “bigger story” behind individual plots. But when you do understand that larger tale, it’s possible to develop not only the major protagonist arcs but also those of the secondary characters who inhabit the series world. That, in turn, adds depth and reader appeal to both the characters and the series.
Practice Makes Perfect—And You Can Start at Any Time
If you’ve already started writing a series, but haven’t developed a larger arc, don’t panic. It’s never too late to figure out the bigger story behind your books. Look backwards at the ones you’ve written and figure out where you want the tale to go.
If you’re just getting started, take the time to invest in a “bigger story.” Look beyond the individual plots, and find the threads that connect your series as a whole. You might be telling a character’s story, or possibly the tale of a friendship between two primary characters. Romance and adventure probably play some role.
Whatever your larger series arc, finding it in advance will help you key into the “bigger story” that will keep your stories vibrant and your readers returning eagerly to the pages.
What’s the underlying narrative your characters want to tell?