Structuring the Series for Fantasy Authors

- by E. C. Ambrose

Cover image by Cliff Nielsen, book 1 of The Dark Apostle, coming from DAW books, July 2, 2013

Cover image by Cliff Nielsen, book 1 of The Dark Apostle, coming from DAW books, July 2, 2013

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is how you go about creating, not a single book, but a coherent series.

Fantasy readers love series books.  Once they get excited about a world and its inhabitants, they like to go inside and shut the door, living in there for book after book:  as long as the books continue to reveal new discoveries and give them even more to love.

On the other hand, they often hate series because each volume may have no ending, leaving them hanging for months (or even years) before they know what happens next.  Sometimes the author or publisher abandons a series for one reason or another.  Sometimes, the series is never finished at all.

Once burned by a series, readers shy away from the next one, fearing that they won’t be satisfied. They may decide to wait until the complete series is available to read (or even to buy) the first book.

Trouble is, if too few people purchase book 1, there might not be a book 2.

My new series is 5 volumes, and I have taken a deliberate approach to the structure to both satisfy readers with each volume and entice them in to reading on.  In making the choices I did about that structure, I listened to readers, wrote the novels, worked through two drafts of a series outline with my editor, and, ultimately, wrote the books again.  The outlines needed to show a clear development of plot and character, and still allow for me to learn more as I wrote, incorporating those new elements to make the books even stronger than the outline suggests.

Readers I spoke with strongly preferred series where each volume left off at a stopping point–creating an arc for each book, even if the arc did not reach a final conclusion.  They also liked to think the author had a complete structure in mind in advance.  If the author could say the series had seven volumes (like Harry Potter) then the reader had some assurance that an end would be in sight.  While they were attracted to series in general, they were a bit tentative about series that were too open-ended.

Much as we malign the trilogy in fantasy, it is also comforting to the reader, who knows he will receive an epic, multi-volume experience, but one with a finite scope.  And authors like Katherine Kurtz, in her classic Deryni series, showed that trilogies could build upon each other to expand the world while delivering a solid read every time.

For The Dark Apostle books, I crafted each volume in the series to follow a particular, smaller plot arc, suitable to a single volume, while building a larger arc that will bind all five together.  Hopefully, the reader can feel satisfied that one plot thread reaches a satisfying conclusion at the end of the book even as he worries what that conclusion implies for the larger problems that are building.  So the book-ending does not diminish conflict as a whole.

While I’m a fan of the cliffhanger ending for chapters, it’s a difficult game to play for a series volume.  Much as we want the reader to feel compelled to read the next one–we don’t want them to feel cheated out of the book at hand. It’s been said that the opening of a novel sells that novel, and the ending sells the next one.  A cliffhanger that’s too abrupt or unsettled increases reader frustration, and, if that cliffhanger is coupled with an open-ended series, leaving the reader with no understanding of when a conclusion will be reached, the author risks losing the reader completely.

Additionally, each volume needs to move the characters and plot forward to a significant degree–it needs to carry the weight of a novel, if only to justify its price and the reader’s investment of time. Honor the reader by delivering that development.  Also consider how each succeeding volume will grow in scale, scope and conflict to build a vision deserving of such a broad canvas.  Even with a big, exciting series like The Wheel of Time or The Game of Thrones, readers grow restless with a sense that the plot is not moving forward, or moving toward a conclusion worthy of the work so far.

I’d love to hear from some other fantasy authors about how they worked with structure in series. How much did you know in advance?  And how did you allow for discoveries along the way?

One comments

  1. I had to laugh at your question, E.C. My fantasy romance series, The Gods’ Dream Trilogy, started out as a short story I wrote to submit to Andre Norton’s Witch World anthology, but Andre was no longer doing them. So I made it into a longer story, then into a 42,000 word book to submit to the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart contest. It ended up finaling, but was too short to submit to publishers. (This was in 2003.) So I made it into a full size book, which was endorsed by Andre Norton. As I was finishing the book, I started to get glimmers of ideas for a trilogy. Sower of Dreams and Reaper of Dreams are self-published, and I’m finishing Harvest of Dreams. So there was never any careful structure for the series–just the short story that kept expanding!

    I do have fans who are eager for the last book, and they keep me writing!