Posted On July 30, 2014 by Print This Post

Does Your Series Tell a “Bigger Story”? by Susan Spann

Help me welcome author Susan Spann. Today Susan is going to tell us about the “Bigger Story” – writing the arc that spans a series of stories. Enjoy!

2013 red backgroundHarry Potter. Jack Reacher. Laura Ingalls. From childhood favorites to adult novels, readers love a compelling series.

Successful series draw us in, engage our emotions, and leave us eagerly waiting for the characters’ next adventure. But this doesn’t happen by accident. Successful series share a number of common features designed to enhance the reader’s experience in the writer’s world. Once you understand the techniques, it’s easy to spot them in books you read—and also, to include them in your own successful series.

One of the most important features found in successful series is a “bigger story” –something which makes the series more than merely the sum of its volumes.

What is the “Bigger Story”?

The “bigger story” is an overarching narrative or relationship (or both) which carries through every book in a series, transcending individual the stories and unifying the series as a whole.

Some series tell a continuing story in several volumes—think Harry Potter or the Eragon books. Many fantasy books fall into this category, but it’s common in other genres too. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is also a good example.

The other type of series fiction is episodic. It features essentially stand-alone stories connected by a unifying protagonist or character group. For examples, check out James Rollins’s Sigma Force series, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels. My Shinobi Mysteries, which feature the ongoing adventures of master ninja Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, also fall into this category.

The best of these episodic series also contain an overarching “bigger story” which weaves the stand-alone novels into part of a larger narrative. Readers don’t get lost in these series when reading the novels out of order, but reading sequentially does enhance the experience for the reader.

Whether you want to write a Harry Potter-style series or a set of connected stand-alone novels, your series will have more impact if you draw your readers into a larger story.

Take the Time to Discover Your Bigger Story In Advance

Telling a “bigger story” requires planning, and even “pantsers”—writers who don’t plot out their books in advance—should take the time to figure out the larger story behind the series.

Ask yourself: What story am I really telling, beyond the events that happen in this book?

For me, the answer is key to every novel in a series. Each of my novels is stand-alone, but each book in the series also advances Hiro’s friendship with Father Mateo and the reader’s knowledge of Hiro’s mysterious background. This highlights the importance of author planning: if I didn’t already know the larger story I want to tell, I couldn’t drop hints and reveal the elements of that story in the proper order and at the necessary times.

The Better You Understand Your World, the More it Leaps off the Page

Blade coverA successful series isn’t simply a set of books that tell a story (or several stories) from one protagonist’s point of view. Each installment should feel like a window into an ongoing world. To feel that way, the world, the characters, and the plots must integrate into a larger, coherent whole—a “bigger story”—which the writer has considered in advance. Even “pantsers” can do this, by understanding the “big picture” elements and leaving the details to the writing process.

For example, it’s helpful know why each of your books takes place at a certain time and place in your fictional world—something beyond “because I wanted to talk about teenage wizards going to school in a magical castle.”

J.K. Rowling understood the entirety of her world, and also her characters’ histories, before she started writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Because of that, the reader feels immersed in a living, breathing world that existed before page 1 and continues after the final page of each novel in the series. This immersive experience draws readers in and keeps them coming back for each installment.

Discovering your “bigger story” is easier if your series contains a set of connected adventures, but it’s no less important for episodic series. Readers want to connect with a larger narrative. Figure yours out in advance, and your readers will follow.

Populate the “Bigger Story” With Interesting Secondary Characters

Compelling series often include a number of recurring, important secondary characters. J.K. Rowling’s “Dobby,” and James Rollins’s “Seichan” are good examples. These characters may or may not survive to the end of the series, but readers become attached to them and look forward to their appearance in later books.

Authors who understand the “bigger story” can weave secondary characters into a series in ways that set up “big moments” or “big reveals” for these characters later on. By introducing the characters early, writers allow the readers to develop attachments (or loathing), which deepens the readers’ experience with these characters in later books.

The reader doesn’t have to know that a character will make a return appearance, or that the character’s early appearances are setting up for something down the line. In fact, most readers appreciate a surprise—as long as the character’s actions are consistent with his (or her) previous appearances in the series.

Clearly, it’s hard to write an ongoing secondary arc if you don’t understand the “bigger story” behind individual plots. But when you do understand that larger tale, it’s possible to develop not only the major protagonist arcs but also those of the secondary characters who inhabit the series world. That, in turn, adds depth and reader appeal to both the characters and the series.

Practice Makes Perfect—And You Can Start at Any Time

If you’ve already started writing a series, but haven’t developed a larger arc, don’t panic. It’s never too late to figure out the bigger story behind your books. Look backwards at the ones you’ve written and figure out where you want the tale to go.

If you’re just getting started, take the time to invest in a “bigger story.” Look beyond the individual plots, and find the threads that connect your series as a whole. You might be telling a character’s story, or possibly the tale of a friendship between two primary characters. Romance and adventure probably play some role.

Whatever your larger series arc, finding it in advance will help you key into the “bigger story” that will keep your stories vibrant and your readers returning eagerly to the pages.

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With mini-series becoming the latest rage in books, what questions do you have for Susan regarding the “bigger story”?

Join us on Friday for a lecture about setting by Kat Cantrell

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Bio: Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Susan-Spann/303155186458624) and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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9 Responses to “Does Your Series Tell a “Bigger Story”? by Susan Spann”

  1. I haven’t written a series, but I’m stewing over the idea somewhere in the back of my head. This post was really helpful!

    Posted by Heather Webb | July 30, 2014, 6:45 am
  2. Morning Susan!

    Question for you! A friend of mine just wrote a series of books, and put the first one up, with the second to follow a few months later. She sold pretty well, but then got a bunch of negative remarks, because she’d left the first book end with a cliff-hanger to lead into the second book.

    So each book should be part of the overall “Big story”, but it should also end in a complete manner without leading into the next book? Or how do you connect the series together?

    thanks so much!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 30, 2014, 9:36 am
    • Great question, Carrie!

      I prefer to let each book “resolve” its own issues in stand-alone (or nearly stand-alone) format whenever possible, even when the book is part of a larger “through line” series. The key is leaving enough issues open to keep the reader eager to continue, but still resolve enough of the plot that a reader doesn’t feel “cheated” by the need to buy (or wait for) the next one.

      Hopefully that makes sense – and it isn’t always easy to do. It’s definitely easier when you plan in advance, however, because you know where each step in the story naturally resolves – at least for the moment.

      Posted by Susan Spann | July 30, 2014, 3:38 pm
  3. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Susan. This is a tough one. I definitely agree with you when it comes to paranormals and romance, but with mysteries I’m pretty satisfied when each book has a unique ending. I guess it’s because with mysteries the bigger story is often the story of the detective who solves each crime.

    Carrie – I’m not fond of cliffhangers. They might be a useful marketing tool but as a reader, they frustrate the heck out of me!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 30, 2014, 9:58 am
    • I agree, Becke.

      With my own series, the through line is the detective (well, the pair of detectives, really) and their ongoing friendship. There’s also a historical through line that I’m following. Each mystery resolves completely before the end, however, so each book could be read as a stand alone if the reader wants to read them out of order.

      I think you’re also right that this is a difference between mysteries (or thrillers) and more connected series (such as a fantasy series or a middle grade) where the through line does require more continuity between the volumes. Even there, though, it’s best to end with unresolved larger issues but a completed story (rather than a pure cliffhanger) if you can.

      Posted by Susan Spann | July 30, 2014, 3:40 pm
  4. Thanks for an excellent article, Susan. As someone who’s been waiting years for Justin Cronin to finish the last book in his trilogy (The Passage, The Twelve, Amy) I have to say that I appreciate being able to read a continuing story in a timely manner!

    My series of contemporary romances is linked by titles. KISS ME, CHLOE, KISS ME LYNN, and in time KISS ME, CINDY/FRAN/MAGGIE/KATE. They’re also linked because they’re sweet romances, and the covers have a distinct look that’s repeated on each book, and with characters who were secondary in one book being main characters in later books in the series. You’re absolutely right that all the books in a series need to be connected to all others in the series in significant ways.

    Posted by Linda George | July 30, 2014, 1:51 pm
  5. Great post, Susan!!

    I’m working on a series and it was refreshing to read so many important points you brought up.

    You are so ‘on the nail’ with being able to bring out subtleties in each book ahead of time, by knowing the larger story arc.

    I’m going to bookmark this article and come back to it again and again! -Or perhaps just take a print out and nail it on my board :)

    Posted by Anju Gattani | August 4, 2014, 10:28 am

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