Readers love a good series, and so do authors. For readers, it’s fun to get to know characters well, comforting to know more or less what direction each book will take, and delight in knowing there are more to read and more on the way. For an author a successful series means a reliable paycheck and cumulative royalties, and a predictable path for the writing and publishing of each new book.
Guest column by Kurtis Scaletta, who is the author of three middle-grade novels published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, and the Topps League chapter book series published by Abrams/Amulet.
But publishers would rather publish a stand-alone book and see how it does before committing to a series, so the first book becomes a tough balancing act. How do you learn to write a stand-alone book with series potential? Here are 7 ways to accomplish that.
1. Begin with a strong stand-alone book.
This should be your highest priority, even if your dream is to launch a series. Pick your strongest idea and write the best book you can, as if it will be the only one. In other words, don’t sacrifice the story for the series. Address the series potential in revisions.
2. Establish a structure and format that is both predictable and extendable.
As you feel your way through the first book, keep in mind that you are also creating a template that can be reused. When I set out to write the first installment in a baseball series for kids, I decided that each book would have two stories: one centering on one player for the minor league team, and one on the protagonist who works as a bot boy. A detective series might have one major, serious case and a minor, humorous case in every book. This doesn’t have the be a rigid formula. It’s more of a theme with endless variation that helps you succeed at how to write great fiction.
3. Give yourself a wide cast to work with. Even if you aren’t sure how they will play in, give your minor characters some personality.
It was easy for me to do this, since I had an entire team and ballpark staff to introduce. If your series involves a more solitary character, think about neighbors, drinking buddies, or exes that can drop in to every book. Any one of them might have a problem that develops into a future full-blown story.
4. Adopt what could be a running joke or minor theme in your books, something readers will look forward to seeing in each subsequent volume.
I decided that every book in my kids’ baseball series would feature a ballpark promotion, something to add life to the setting of each book which often (but not always) criss-crosses with the other storylines. Explore your environment for similar threads, such as frequent malfunctions and problems in the detective’s office building, and preposterous excuses by the incompetent superintendent.
5. Give the reader a feeling that the hero has accomplished something but still has a lot to do.
Avoid the “cliffhanger” ending that undoes all of the work the protagonist accomplished in the first book, just to repeat it in a second book. However, make it clear that the hero’s ambitions still have a long way to go.
6. Create ‘thumbnail’ sketches of two or three future installments in your series.
Can you embellish a few things in the first book to lay the groundwork for those stories? Can you describe interests and or problems of the characters than can trigger future stories?
7. Set up a few possibilities for series-long narrative arcs.
My baseball series includes a gradual climb out of the basement for a minor league team and a story of growing friendships between two dissimilar bat boys. Some detective stories are against a background of “real life” narratives as the hero searches for love, raises children, or grapples with personal issues. The books might still be read out of order, but give additional rewards to those who read them in chronological order ... and who read them all!
Most of these will give a book texture and depth if it is fated to be a stand-alone book, but will allow you a smooth transition into a series. In fact, the vitality that comes from planting seeds for future books can make for a richer reading experience that makes readers want more.