Wattpad Creator J.K. MacLaren (@jkmaclaren) has been writing on Wattpad since 2019. Her most popular books on the platform include Backstage Girl, Blur the Line, and the Thread of Gold series. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Wattpad corp. or affiliated companies.
Learning how to write a series can be tricky. Whether you’re penning an epic seven-book fantasy series or a crime fiction trilogy about a grumpy detective, here are nine tips and tricks that I’ve found helpful.
1. Decide what type of series you’re writing
There are three main types of series. You can choose to write…
This is the most common type of series; it follows a protagonist’s journey over several continuous books. If you’ve ever read a YA trilogy, then you know what I’m talking about. Think "Hunger Games," "Harry Potter," or even "Fifty Shades of Grey."
This is a series of books that share a group of protagonists, although each book will likely focus on a different character. Think "Bridgerton" — or my Toronto Girls series, which follows the love lives of four best friends (#shamelessplug).
This format generally focuses on a single protagonist, although the books can be read in any order. Think "Sherlock Holmes" or most crime fiction series.
2. Build a roadmap
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, having a general idea of where you’re going with the series is a good idea. It’s a good idea to ask yourself:
- How will this series end?
- What are the main plotlines and events?
- How many chapters and/or books will it take to get there?
You might want to write three books. You might want to write ten. Regardless, each book should have an overarching plot, just as the whole series should have an overarching plot. Think of it like Game of Thrones: each chapter is an episode, each book is a season, and all those seasons combine to make an epic TV show series.
"But Jo," you say, "what if I hate planning my books? What if I just want to write and explore?!" Friends, that’s totally okay. Part of the joy of writing is discovery. Just make sure that you’re not going to pull a Lost and leave the audience with loads of unanswered questions at the end (like, what was with Walt’s special abilities? Where did the Monster come from? WHAT DID THOSE NUMBERS EVEN MEAN?).
3. Create your series bible
Do I break into hives every time that I see a spreadsheet? Yes. But I love, love, LOVE creating a series bible. A series bible is a document where you put anything and everything that you know about your world. Which kingdom is the coldest? What’s your protagonist’s favourite food? What does she smell like? (Yes, I genuinely write that down — it’s lavender and cinnamon, tyvm).
I like to keep a bible whenever I write a series. That way, when I hit Book 3 and I’m wondering what on earth Henry’s brother’s girlfriend’s café is called, I have an easy way to remember. Seriously. Can’t recommend this enough.
4. Explore your world
There is nothing—nothing—more exciting than exploring a new world. Whether you’re writing a cozy, small-town Christmas romance or an epic fantasy, a new world is ripe with places to explore. An underwater bakery. A plant shop that leads to another realm. A skating rink with pink ice. Your world is your oyster!
Generally, I like to have 4-5 places that are "touchstones" throughout a series: places that readers can instantly recognize. In Harry Potter, for example, there’s Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the Burrow, and Hogsmeade. As a reader, I find these places comforting; I already know exactly what to expect from them.
But what if Harry had only gone to those spots? What if he’d never explored the Ministry of Magic, or taken a tour of the Shrieking Shack? This is where exploration comes in. If you’re writing a multi-book series, it’s important to have a handful of fresh and exciting places to keep the reader’s imagination engaged. Don’t be afraid to have your characters visit a new kingdom, or even just a new coffee shop.
5. Hooks, hooks, hooks
Ruin your readers’ lives. I mean it. Take their hearts, crush them in your hands, and then set the ashes on fire. You know those books that leave you on such a crazy cliffhanger that you want to chuck them out the window? That’s what you want to write.
Sarah J Maas is a master at this. If you’ve read her Throne of Glass series, you’ll remember that the fifth book ends with her protagonist Aelin trapped in a metal box and kidnapped by baddies. Then Maas switched perspectives and wrote an entire book about Chaol Westfall. We had to wait two years and 660 pages to find out what happened to Aelin. Did I hate the author a little? Yes. Was it also really effective? Definitely.
Leave every chapter on a cliffhanger. Leave every book on a vast cavern of despair. Ruin your readers’ lives, people.
6. Play coy
Say it with me: Suspense is sexy. Just like a good first date, you don’t want to give everything away at once; you can reveal a character’s backstory over several chapters, or even several novels. Keep the readers guessing.
James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series is a great example of this. In the first book, a group of teenagers—known as "Gladers"—are left in a strange place called the Maze that’s populated by terrifying creatures. Instantly, the reader has questions. Why are the teenagers there? Who created this maze? Why don’t the kids remember who they are? Sure, Dashner could have just handed over all the answers at the start, but he doesn’t; he keeps the reader guessing well into the second and third books.
If you’re prone to info-dumping (which I am!), then this is a great way to leave some information for later. Instead of explaining in chapter one that Florence fears swimming due to a traumatic childhood incident with a snapping turtle, have Florence flinch away from water. Don’t explain her fear until later. Have Florence say vague but intriguing statements like, "There was an incident once" and "You don’t know what I’ve been through." Readers will (hopefully) be curious enough to keep flipping those pages.
7. Raise the stakes
So you have an exciting outline, some intriguing characters and cliff-hangers, and a fun world to explore. Now what? How do you keep the reader’s attention not only for the first book, but also for the next two, three, or ten books?
Well, folks, you raise the stakes.
Let’s go back to Harry Potter. When Harry first takes on Voldemort, it’s a one-to-one battle where Voldemort is so weak that he’s literally living in another person’s turban. By the fourth book, Harry is battling a stronger Voldemort, and his friend dies in the process (#RIPCedricDiggory). By the end of the series, it’s an epic showdown between Harry and Voldemort during the Battle of Hogwarts.
This is how you raise the stakes: Start with something terrible, and then make it worse. Torture your characters. Make their worst fears come true. Then torture them some more, in a bigger and better way.
8. Champion your side characters
I love side characters. I really, really do. Luna Lovegood? Brilliant. Samwise Gamgee? Iconic. Side characters can really make-or-break a series; they can offer comedic relief, a FOIL to your protagonist, or just a shoulder to lean on. Plus, you can always write a spin-off book about fan-favourites (I did this with Oliver in Six Ways From Sunday)!
I don’t really have much to say here except that it’s worth giving your side characters exciting, fleshed-out histories. Not only will it make your world feel more real, but it will also give your readers more characters to root for—and more characters for you to torture throughout the series (*insert evil laugh here*).
9. Know when to pull the plug
You know when you leave the teabag in for too long and your tea gets all bitter and oversaturated? Well, series are like that too: there can be too much of a good thing. If you drag a series out for too long, you run the risk of reusing the same plotlines OR—even worse—killing off all your characters (looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy).
So how do you know when you’ve reached the finish line? A lot of this is gut instinct. Are you excited to get your hands on the keyboard in the morning, or are you finding yourself dragging your heels? And how does your audience feel? Are you getting messages demanding the next chapter, or have your reads plummeted in recent weeks? If it’s the latter, it could be time to call it quits.
I’d like to finish this blog post by saying that unicorns are awesome. Okay, not really; I’d like to finish this blog post by saying that — despite everything I’ve just said — there’s no right way to write a series. Write an epic saga that jumps between ancient Greece and futuristic Hawaii. Pen a trilogy about space-dwelling cowboys, but write the whole thing backwards. Go bonkers. Writing doesn’t have rules. And you know what? That’s what makes it fun.
Learn more about the power of serialized storytelling and how to keep your readers coming back for more in Episode 3 of Story School.