and Feeding of
a Genre Book Series
(c) 2005 Lori L. Lake
Creating compelling characters with interesting
personalities, problems, and conflicts is one of an author’s major
goals. Once created, sometimes those characters take on lives of
their own and become so enchanting to the author that it’s hard
to let go of them. Writing a book series is one way to continue
to explore those characters and the themes that become apparent
in the first book.
Key to writing a book series is creating and maintaining
multiple character arcs and event plotlines from book to book. Mystery
or action-adventure series, in my opinion, offer the greatest opportunity
for this because each novel of that type can contain one plot resolved
in its entirety (the whodunit, the rescue, the capture) while subsequent
novels can carry forward the multiple subplots that have been introduced
regarding relationships, the work world, and secondary characters.
I can easily think of more than a dozen mysteries and action-oriented
books where a romance arc is a subplot that ebbs and flows from
book to book, while some other plot carries the main narrative story.
Family issues, conspiracies, health problems, and hobbies can also
provide subplots that pop up from book to book in this type of series.
WORKING IN THE ROMANCE GENRE
Creating a series in the romance genre is much more difficult.
Once the protagonists conquer the obstacles keeping them from "true
love" and become soulmates, the novel no longer has the characteristics
that distinguish the story as a "romance." By definition, stories
in the romance genre have as the main focus of the story the development
of the relationship between the two main characters. Central are
the conflicts – the issues that drive the story – that the characters
encounter in their quests to find love, happiness, and emotional
justice. Along the way, those obstacles (fear, misunderstandings,
Daddy says no, etc.) keep the characters apart, and a great deal
of the storyline is devoted to this dance as the two take risks
and struggle to resolve their problems.
Future books in the series must find new conflict
in order to tell a compelling story, and I would argue that those
subsequent books about their relationship would be better titled
dramas or some other genre designation. If you have characters going
through the same romance dance from book to book, the reader will
quickly become tired. Where is the emotional justice if two characters
continue to play at the game of courtship? It quickly becomes tedious
for the discerning reader.
While exterior obstacles may, indeed, cause great
conflict main plots and subplots, sequels in a romance series generally
need the two leads to be largely devoted to one another. This means
that other issues must be developed to drive the plot. Examples
of lesbian romance authors who have accomplished this in their series
include Melissa Good with her Dar & Kerry novels and Carrie
Carr with her Lex & Amanda series. In truth, I can think of
few serial romances that focus much on "romance" after the first
or second book. Romantic elements and issues of commitment or misunderstanding
may still arise, but that special tension that occurs when the characters
are falling in love and lust is not the same after they’ve consummated
If, however, the author intentionally thwarts the
romance between the two characters from novel to novel, then
that romantic angle becomes a subplot, and the writer better have
some other compelling storyline as main plot. Rarely does anyone
want to read a story where the main plot is not resolved, which
is why the romantic elements cannot hold as the main plot. Though
the subplot may actually be the most compelling angle of the piece
(does anyone remember the TV show Moonlighting? Or how about
Xena: Warrior Princess?), something else has to be going
on in the story.
If an author wants to create and maintain a romance
series, she must be prepared to highlight the romantic elements
of the story as subplot against a backdrop of something else: mystery,
intrigue, adventure—some sort of engaging main plotline. Most often,
it seems to me that something going on in one or both characters’
work worlds serves to provide the main plotline. Examples: the medical
world (Radclyffe), private investigations (J.M. Redmann or Elizabeth
Sims), amateur detection (Ellen Hart), police work (Laurie R. King
or Katherine V. Forrest), corporations (Melissa Good), government
(Trish Kocialski), protective services (Radclyffe again), etc.
PLACE: The Fantasy Island Option
One way to maintain a romance series, though not so often done,
is to have the central commonality from novel to novel be the place
where the story occurs. Jennifer Fulton's Moon Island series is
a good example. The two main characters (Cody and Annabel) in Passion Bay resolve their difficulties by the end of book
one, continuing to live on Moon Island. So the romance is over,
right? Not exactly. Jennifer brings on a new couple in the second
book, Saving Grace, and their story becomes central. Annabel
and Cody are still vital characters in the novel, and though their
character journeys continue to influence the main plot, their relationship
issues are subplot. In the next two books in the series, The Sacred Shore and A Guarded Heart, entirely new groups of characters come
to Moon Island. Again, Cody and Annabel's storyline is a subplot,
and they influence the main plot in major ways, but other characters’
journeys carry the main plot. With each book, the reader is thrilled
to touch base with the original romantics while being expertly immersed
in new conflicts and characters.
So, as in the Moon Island series, Place can serve
as the uniting feature in a series, and the specific characters
who roam across that location may shift somewhat. Still, the reader
wants at least one character to identify with from book to
book. In Jean Stewart’s Isis sci-fi/fantasy/adventure series, the
Isis region and Whit and Kali serve as focal points, but a number
of other characters shift to the forefront in each book. Some of
them recur, while some die or move to the background in subsequent
books. The main plot involving the preservation of Isis serves as
a rich environment in which to act out a number of plotlines, some
of which are resolved in each book but many of which carry over
to the next volume in the series.
A more subtle approach would include what Jessica
Casavant is doing in her Boston Friends Series. The three books
currently out (Twist of Fate, Walking Wounded, and Imperfect
Past) follow the issues of different women who are all loosely
connected. The books could probably be read in any order, but with
each book read, the clever reader will increasingly associate the
various characters with one another.
There is yet another sort of series to consider. It is possible
to write an epic in which none of the issues are resolved from book
to book. The Lord of the Rings, Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano/Suiza saga,
and Karin Kallmaker’s Tunnel of Light Trilogy come to mind. In each of these,
the main plotline is not resolved at the end of the novel, and the
reader is basically left hanging at the end of each installment
until the final denouement in the last book. It’s also possible
to write a series of series. The first three books of Jean Stewart’s
Isis adventures are one self-contained adventure/journey; the next
books start a whole new story arc (though still related to the same
arc completed in the first series) with the same main characters.
It is interesting to note that all of the books
I mention in the above paragraph fall into the realm of speculative
fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal). Some genres—specifically
mystery, thriller, and romance—don’t lend themselves well to cliffhangers.
The only mystery I can think of with a hanging main plot thread
occurred in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series (when the villain
Temple Gault carries over from book five to six). Still, the main
thrust of Scarpetta’s investigation has some resolution after
book five; it’s just not entirely resolved until book six.
PROCRASTINATED PLANNING: "Oops! I had
Often a writer creates a world, envisions characters, and explores
themes, intending to write a single novel. It is only later that
she realizes the world, people, and themes are so compelling that
she cannot let them go. If this happens to you with your work, it
would be helpful to try to decide if you want to write a sequel
to finish off those original explorations—or work with those characters
on a long-term basis and create a whole series. If you are inclined
toward the latter, it is helpful to think about your intentions
in advance and ask yourself some critical questions before you paint
yourself into a corner.
- What genre do you see as the main plot?
- What kind of subplot arcs might you envision
for future books?
- Will you need to lay groundwork to bring
in additional characters?
In my own Dez Reilly/Jaylynn Savage series, Gun Shy is a romance with a police procedural backdrop
and a painful but necessary character journey for Dez. I wrote it
with no idea that once I finished, I’d have to promptly begin
with a sequel in order to resolve some of the hanging plot threads.
Under The Gun, the second book, is a continuation of the
same themes from Gun Shy. There is a resurgence of the main plotline, and
subplots regarding a police case are added, but it is, at heart,
both a quest and a romance. By the end of book two, Dez and Jaylynn
are committed to one another, and while later books could feature
elements of romance and include conflict between the two characters,
some other main plot line is needed if Dez and Jaylynn are to continue
as main characters. So the third book, Have Gun We'll Travel,
is an adventure/thriller that serves as a bridge book into
a new type of main plot for them. Accordingly, the main plot line
is not romance, but the threat of grave physical danger to
Dez, Jaylynn, and their friends and whether they can escape that.
The fourth book in the series shifts even further, continuing to
include Dez and Jay's relationship issues as subplots, but making
central the police procedural and the character journeys involved.
TACTICS TO USE
If I were to give one major tip to someone considering writing
a series, I would talk about how important characterization
is and that decisions about characters need to be made in advance
as well as kept in mind as the writer moves from book to book. The
author needs to think about getting to know her characters well
and really mining their emotional depths—but not all at once. Revealing
character through the events and action is important, but it can't
be done too quickly; character flaws and quirks can't be resolved
too fast (or sometimes at all) without the story seeming farfetched.
Keep in mind that it is the gradual revelation of character detail—feelings,
outlook, reactions, past events, etc.—that provides the reader with
a rich experience. This is one of the delights of writing a series
about specific characters: as she mines the depths of her story
people, the writer goes through a process of discovery as well.
Making a well-defined and versatile supporting cast
available to assist with subplots and the main plotline is also
important. You can never tell when a secondary, or even a tertiary,
character will step up in some way and become a protagonist. Jean
Stewart has spoken of this happening in her Isis series. And some
authors have spun off secondary characters into new series.
Putting characters in a world where "stuff happens"
is truly critical. The writer cannot rely upon a one-time bit of
excitement because that won't carry through a series of books. It
has to be a world regularly rife with conflict, difficulties, and
even pain and disappointment. This is why so many stories have law,
police work, government, politics, and medicine as backdrops. It’s
no coincidence that TV programs like "E.R." and both the "Law &
Order" and "CSI" franchises are so popular. The worlds in which
they take place offer up myriad ways to showcase conflict and external
and internal action.
My final advice to anyone contemplating a series
is to make sure you keep careful track of your timeline and of the
characters and their basic characteristics, family arrangements, and
important life events. This goes for the main, secondary, and background
characters. I didn't do that with Gun Shy and Under The Gun, so when I got into Have Gun We'll
Travel, I had to do a lot of review of the first two books.
NOW I have character data and charts with details, but I wish
I had done that while it was all fresh in my mind. It would have
saved a lot of time and effort.
I wish I could direct you to specific books – or even sections
of How-To manuals – to learn more about this topic, but I don’t
recall seeing anything written about it anywhere. Perhaps, then,
one of the best things to do is to read series written by authors
in various genres. This list is by no means exhaustive but does
contain a few series with three or more volumes. A careful study
of the string of novels in each series reveals, by example, a considerable
amount of information about how to craft a series.
Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series
Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield series
Baxter Clare’s Lt. Franco series
Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series
J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series
Randye Lordon’s Sydney Sloane series
Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series
Radclyffe’s Justice series
Jennifer Fulton’s Moon Island series
Radclyffe’s Honor series (which could also go in the category above)
Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series
Jean Stewart’s Isis series
Karin Kallmaker’s Tunnel of Light series
© 2005 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of
the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points
of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori@LoriLLake.com. Lori welcomes
questions and comments.
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