Does any unpublished author plan to write a series? Perhaps it’s a question of confidence, but I certainly didn’t. I wrote my first book, The Pinocchio Brief, focussing on the usual; plot, characters, conflict, setting and theme. I remember that I particularly agonised over the ending – I wanted to create an original, dramatic but plausible twist, which would stick in the mind well after the minutiae had been forgotten – and I also settled upon providing a small amount of personal revelation from Judith Burton, one of my two main protagonists, in a debrief with Constance Lamb (the other half of my legal duo) over a couple of drinks, once we all knew ‘whodunnit’.
It was only when my novel was out there in the world and people said they liked it, that I contemplated writing another book in what has now become the Burton & Lamb series. At that point, I was forced to focus not only on those same five elements again, but also on how to make the series, as a whole, appealing. Four books in (and with a fifth to come out in the summer) here are my tips of things that have worked for me, with a focus on characterisation.
Invest in your characters
If readers are sufficiently interested in your characters, then they will want to read more about them. So do spend time thinking about their back story and what really makes them get out of bed in the morning, even if you don’t reveal any of it in book one. It can sit there under the bed clothes waiting for an opportunity to poke its head up.
And remember that not every character has to have experienced a major trauma in the past, to make them alluring. Readers appreciate subtlety and may identify more with characters if they can personally identify with their background experiences.
Don’t reveal too much too soon
Writing a series gives you the luxury of time; time within each book for characters to gradually reveal aspects of their personality and motivation, time for characters to change, particularly if they are confronted by challenges along the way, time for the relationships between your protagonists to develop and even time in between books for things to happen which move the characters on.
In my books my two main characters are (deliberately) opposites in outlook, in many respects. This allows me quite naturally and often through dialogue, to put forward their opposing views on a series of themes. It also means that they can learn from each other. You can even throw in the odd serious disagreement, if you like, making your readers hope they will be reconciled at some point in the future, because, of course, they make such a great team. These devices (and more) allow readers to really get to know your characters and, hopefully, learn to love them.
But with longer story arcs, which may span a few books or even your whole series, you must stand behind your conviction that the series has legs (I say this as more of a ‘pantser’ myself, than a planner) and you need to plan accordingly.
Strong and distinct stories
At the same time, don’t neglect individual story lines. This is probably easier in the kind of series I write, where each case stands alone and Judith and Constance simply apply their skills to the given situation. But you want every book to be memorable. It might also, for example, contain a sub plot which mirrors the bigger conflict running through the series.
Bring characters back
You create supporting characters (in my case this may be a police officer, a suspect or witness, an opposing lawyer, a love interest) and you find that readers are talking about them or you feel that they had a lot of potential and there wasn’t sufficient time to explore it first time around. Bring them back!
This happens all the time in real life and we often like someone more when we get to know them better. Even if the converse is true, that’s no bad thing – we love villains too, sometimes even more than heroic figures.
Ring in the new
I’m all for familiar environments and keeping them constant can illustrate a character’s development. Readers also often like stories because of their setting (we all hear of fans visiting places which appear in popular novels). But how about forcing your characters to survive somewhere new and uncharted? Take them out of their comfort zone. It may even surprise you when you see how they respond. It helps to keep the series fresh and has the added bonus of potentially attracting new readers too.
Tie everything together
Lastly, you need to make your books appear part of a series and the easiest way is with the name you choose (although the cover design will also help). There’s a balance to be had here, though, because you want your title to be catchy and distinctive, but you may wish to reproduce it (at least in part) for the next chapter of events. In this respect, again, it really does pay dividends (metaphorical ones, at least – one never knows whether any actual riches will follow) to think ahead.
(c) Abi Silver
My website is www.abisilver.co.uk
About The Rapunzel Act:
When Breakfast TV host and nation’s darling, Rosie Harper, is found brutally murdered in her home, suspicion falls on her spouse, formerly international football star, Danny ‘walks on water’ Mallard, now living out of the public eye as trans woman, Debbie.
Not only must Debbie challenge the hard evidence against her, including her glove at the scene of the crime, she must also contend with the world’s prejudices, as the trial is filmed by Court TV, turning it into a public spectacle.
And the pressure is felt by Judith and Constance too, as they strive to defend their most famous client yet. Can justice be done when the world is watching?
Praise for The Rapunzel Act: ‘A gripping mystery sensitively told’: The Times – Best Crime Fiction for April
Order your copy online here.