The series arc
Now that we’ve gotten the ‘why’ of writing a series out of the way, let’s talk about some of the things you need to consider when writing it. The first is the series arc.
You can write an open-ended series where each story is standalone. Or you can write an ongoing story that ties everything up in the last book. Then there’s the combination of these two—standalone books that have an overall arc that ties up nicely by the end of the third book.
Everyone has their own likes and dislikes about series. As readers we love the third type ourselves. Stories that finish at the end of a book—it’s so frustrating when you get to the end of a book and the story stops, with nothing resolved—but that work to a bigger picture that becomes clearer as the story unfolds.
As readers, too, we don’t like a series that goes on seemingly forever without important issues being resolved. Wheel of Time, I’m looking at you here.
I confess that I get tired of a series after about four or five books. As a reader, and as a writer.
I’d rather (we’d both rather) write series’ the way Robin Hobb does.
Three books about Fitz (the Farseer Trilogy). “I’m done. His story is finished.” Or words to that effect. So she goes off and writes Liveship Traders, set in the Rain Wilds, a different part of the same world. With a guest appearance by my absolute favourite character out of the Assassin books. Meantime, she’s been thinking about Fitz and the Fool. “Maybe I do have another story I can tell.”
And she gives us the Tawny Man series. “I’m done with them now,” and she writes the Soldier Son trilogy, and then another Rain Wilds series (four books this time). And now … another Fitz and Fool series.
As a reader, I love it. She tells the story, she finishes, she moves on to something else.
As a writer I love it too. Imagine if Robin Hobb had written all nine Fitz and Fool books one after the other. She’d be getting awfully tired of her characters, I think, and it would show. Instead, when she has a story she is ready to tell about them, she tells it. And when she doesn’t, she gets to tell other stories.
This keeps the writer fresh, and also means that the story has to finish within the original three book arc. Nowadays, a series usually means three books. We can all point to exceptions, but unless you have an outstanding proposal, it will be three books.
The fourth arc
That means the writer must provide four story arcs. The story arc for each individual book and one for the whole series. And they must keep that overall arc unresolved without leaving too many loose ends.
Writers do it with varying degrees of efficiency. Some writers plan one big story and then seem to chop it into three parts almost arbitrarily. So you really only have one arc, not four.
Me, I find it frustrating to get to the end of a book with nothing resolved. It’s even worse when the story ends on a cliff-hanger. As a reader I like some sort of closure to each book. I also lose a tiny bit of faith with the writer when he/she does that.
If they do too often I tend to stop reading them.
It’s a smart thing to know the story arc you’re working toward when you write your series.
We’re pantsers, not plotters, but even we see the benefits of knowing the story arcs that we’re working to. Particularly the overall story arc.
It doesn’t have to be set in concrete. It doesn’t need to be long. And you don’t even require it for the first book, especially if you wrote it as a stand-alone.
You need to know it as you work through book 2, though. Otherwise you may end up doing far more rewriting than you planned.
We have a one sentence overall story arc for LINESMAN—which we’re not telling, for obvious reasons—but it’s enough. By the end of book 2 you may not even realise what we’re working to.
You’ll definitely know in book 3 though, because the overall story arc has to tie in closely with the smaller arc of the third book.