Sequels, Prequels, and Companions: Series Writing

Many stories, especially in genre fiction, require a multi-book arc for their complete telling. From duologies, trilogies, and quadrilogies, to sequels, prequels, and companions, series publishing is big business, in both the traditional and self-publishing spheres. Despite our seemingly dwindling attention spans, readers who fall in love with unique worlds, characters, and narratives want to spend as much time immersed with them as possible. Like streaming services, readers want “bingeable” series, which are particularly popular in fantasy, science fiction, romance, thriller, and mystery genres, among others. Series readers are so avid, they even have dedicated bestseller lists (for example, the New York Times’ Children’s Series Best Seller list), to distinguish them from standalone titles. And some imprints publish series only. So what do you need to know about writing more than one book in the same universe, right from the very start? Here are five tips to guide your series writing process:

  1. Outline your entire series, not just your first book. Ask yourself how many instalments you think you will need to tell the story—two, three, four, or more? Take into consideration the target word count for each book based on your audience and genre, and give yourself the necessary space to develop your narrative at an appropriate pace.
  1. Each individual book should stand alone, with a complete and satisfying plot and character arc, as well as contributing to the development of the overarching series narrative. You should be able to describe the first book in your series as “standalone with series potential”—publishers will often acquire one book and see how it performs in the market before signing additional volumes. Even “cliffhangers” have a strong sense of resolution before teasing the next novel.
  1. Start “small” with your first book. When developing an intended series, it’s tempting to introduce your expansive world, cast of characters, and ultimate stakes from the beginning. But the best series start with a limited world, finite characters, and a discrete initial conflict. If you go too big with worldbuilding, casting, and stakes from the outset, you won’t have any room to build! Also keep in mind, you’ll need to “seed” the larger story from the beginning of Book 1, and make sure each thread is tightly woven throughout the series.
  1. Sequels, prequels, and companions can be tricky when it comes to giving the reader enough information about previous titles without being repetitious. Consider your reader experience if they were coming to your work out of order: Are your characters sufficiently (re)introduced? Is there an organic recap of prior plot points that is not simply a reiteration? Does the story stand alone, not requiring prerequisite reading? And consider the fans: Readers return to a series because they want another round of a promised reading experience. Are you delivering the same appeal with each book? Are you giving a little something extra to keep your readers coming back for more? How are you continually raising the stakes for your characters—and readers?
  1. Lastly, as an agent, I advise you to create brief summaries for subsequent books in a series only, and not to start writing until you have a book deal! (Unless, of course, you are self-publishing, in which case, write away!) When a book is traditionally published, the editorial process can massively alter the trajectory of the narrative. If you’ve already drafted sequels, etc., you will likely have to go back and do major revisions and risk losing large portions of your work. We want you to conserve your creative energy, and invest in your productivity.

Whether you are writing the next Millennium, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Chief Inspector Gamache, Sookie Stackhouse or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it all starts with an idea, and the first book!

For coaching on series writing, reach out to connect with one of our editors. You could be the next Rick Riordan, James Patterson, or Janet Evanovich!

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