A Series of Writing Mistakes
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Today I want to discuss series, and some of the more common mistakes I see writers making. They come in many forms, but usually as basic structure and plotting errors. These issues are easier to fall victim to than you might think.
So let’s get right into it, starting with the MOST common problem.
Dividing 1 Long Book into Many Parts.
I cannot tell you how many times I have had a series like this come across my desk. No joke! I see more series divided this way than I do any other way, and it bothers me to no end.
A series is NOT just a long book divided into parts. You cannot write a single massive story and neatly cut it into 2 or 3 or 4 volumes because what you get then is a series of incomplete books.
By doing this, you ensure that your first book ends in disappointment because, chances are, nothing is resolved.
Book series are not like TV show episodes. They are more like the whole season. You can end them on a cliff hanger but not before you wrap up that season’s storyline and defeat the most recent baddy.
In other words, each book needs to be a contained story with a beginning, rising middle, climax, and resolution. Otherwise, you will struggle to convince readers to continue after the first installment.
Don’t get me wrong. All books don’t need to have a separate plot entirely. On the contrary, they all need to follow one main plot. They should, however, complete at least one or two subplots and give the reader some form of resolution (even if it isn’t a positive one).
Saving All the Good Stuff for the Last Book
Sometimes all books in a series are complete stories, but nothing really important goes on until the last one.
This usually happens when the antagonistic force isn’t developed enough.
Many writers begin and end their stories with the focus on the protagonist and don’t consider the antagonist’s role in the novel beyond the main character’s struggle to defeat him/her/it.
Not only do these writers make antagonists that are flat and boring, but they miss the opportunity to build varying levels of conflict.
Great fantasy antagonists put everything at stake for the protagonist. From a personal stake (such as losing one’s self and one’s friends/family/home/etc.) to wider national and global stakes (taking over the world, pinky?).
Heroes don’t just jump into the battle to save the world for the good of mankind, they must be forced into it in some way on a very personal level. Most of us know this, however, what many forget in series writing is that this personal threat needs to be caused either directly or indirectly by the main antagonist.
Too often I see manuscripts for first books and second books that are pretty small beans compared to what happens in the last. When I ask clients why they tell me that it’s the “journey” or that they want to give the protagonist time to “grow” before getting to the big bad.
That is fine. Just remember that you also need to give the antagonist the same time to grow in power as well. They cannot come out of nowhere in the last book; the ending needs to be the logical outcome of all the drama that came before.
And just because the first book may focus on overcoming only the personal stakes doesn’t mean it can’t be just as exciting as the last. Global stakes aren’t innately more compelling than personal stakes. Both can involve tense and fast-paced conflict so long as you are willing to put in the work to make it so.
Surprises in fiction aren’t a bad thing . . .
. . . but they can be.
Just as antagonists can’t arrive out of the blue in later books, neither can characters, or settings, or main plots.
That’s not to say that you can’t introduce a new character, a setting, or subplot after the first book, but the arrival needs to be foreshadowed in some way.
For example, in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, book 4, A Feast for Crows, is the first time we “see” Dorne. Though it didn’t come out of nowhere. We were introduced to the idea of Dorne in the first book, Game of Thrones.
This way, your separate books have some continuity across them and feel like a cohesive whole. Give the reader something to look forward to and don’t just throw things at them later, especially if those things completely change the direction of the plot.
. . . Plus it will make it look like you do in fact have a direction for the whole story and aren’t pulling some kind of bait and switch.
Stretching Out a Small-Scale Story
Sometimes writers don’t have a series-worthy story at all. They have merely stretched out a small-scale story over many volumes.
This can happen with amateur writers who don’t know how to tell a story efficiently. They write unnecessary scenes and have trouble getting their characters to where they need to be.
For this reason, many agents and editors don’t accept series from first-time writers. Chances are the “series” is actually a poorly written standalone.
I advise all writers reading this right now to take an honest look at your manuscripts and ask yourselves if it could be told in a single novel. If the answer is even “maybe” than scrap the idea of a series and write it as a standalone, you’ll be better off in the long run.
A First Book With No End in Sight
Speaking of George. R. R. Martin, you know how everyone hated him a while back?
Well, it’s not only because he was taking forever to release the last volume of Song of Ice and Fire but because readers were beginning to doubt if even he knew how it’s going to end.
I’m sure he did . . . maybe . . .
Martin’s objectives aside, there is nothing worse for a reader than getting halfway through a series and realizing there is no higher purpose to the events up until that point.
There is no pay-off, no aha! moments, no foreshadowing to a surprise ending, and if there is, it is a sloppy illogical patchwork as the author attempts to tie elements together that do not belong.
The reader trusts you to know more about your story than they do. Do not let them down!
Finishing a Series with Unfinished Business
So maybe you do know where the story is going. You do all the work to make it an unforgettable journey for the characters as well as the readers.
But oops. You forgot to tie off all the loose ends and left your audience with questions concerning subplots and secondary characters.
Everyone can accidentally forget about little strings in a complex set of novels written over a number of years. This is more a matter of diligence than skill, but it does happen, so be careful during the review process to check and make sure your ending leaves no strings dangling.
Changing the Premise or Theme Mid-Series
This one could be a sub-problem of the last, though it can happen at any point and to anyone.
It’s when a second or third book follows a different theme or changes the premise entirely from that in the first.
Avoid this mistake at all costs. Changing the foundation of a story like this will alienate your readers and make it seem like you have no idea what you’re doing with your series. They will no longer trust you . . . and they shouldn’t.
Ensuring that the premise and theme stay constant throughout the series will give you the internal consistency that is so, so very important in fantasy/sci-fi. I type those two words so often, I’ve begun to hate them, though I cannot stress them enough.
Fantasy/sci-fi is nothing without consistency. And if you’re writing a series void of consistent themes and premises, you might as well write multiple standalone books.
Firing the Continuity Director
Some problems with consistency happen on a smaller scale.
All I’m gonna say is that if your character is a golden blonde in the first book, don’t make her a dirty blonde in the next.
If your character broke his hand in the first book don’t give him full finger dexterity in the third.
If your river flows south in the second book don’t write the current going east in the last.
I think you get my drift (see what I did there?).
Series can be a lot of fun to write, and they give authors ample opportunity to build the most epic of epic worlds and stories. But, with more opportunity for success comes more opportunity for trouble.
Series take a lot of work, so just . . . just . . . be careful, aight?