There are times when you might write a story and realize that there is no way to contain the whole story in the amount of space you have. In that situation, there are several things you can do:
- Cut the story down to make it fit. This would mean either taking out some of the story elements or focusing on just one section of the story.
- Expand the size of your story. If you are writing flash fiction, you can turn it into a short story: if you are writing a short story then you could expand it to be a novella or a novel.
- If this is not possible, or preferable, you can turn the story into a series. That is what we’re going to talk about today.
The stories in a series can be of any length, from flash fiction to novels, but novels series are probably the most common. We’re going to look at three types of story series and tips on writing each type.
Types of Story Series
1. The Epic
I’m going to call this type the Epic. This is where your series is all one story. Examples of this are The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (3 books), the Harry Potter Series (7 books), A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (13 books), or The Wheel of Time (14 books). These series are all one long story that has been broken up into different books.
The good thing about this kind of story is that since it is all one story, the readers want to know what happens at the end, so they will want to keep reading each new story when it comes out to see what happens.
The main disadvantage of this type of story is that once you start, you HAVE to finish it or risk angering your readers who have started it and want to know how it ends. If it is a long story series, you might get bored with writing it and either be tempted to not finish it or just rush an ending to get it over with.
Tips on Writing an Epic Story Series
If you ever want to write one of these, make sure you plan out the whole story before publishing the first part. You don’t have to write the whole thing, but you should at least know the big things that are going to happen. When you are writing a story, your ideas for it are often different when you start than when you finish. That is fine if it’s just one story since you can edit it as much as you want, but if the first part is already out and people are reading it, it’s a lot more difficult to change things. If possible, it is also good to let your readers know how many parts there will be, so they know what they are getting themselves into.
Another point is that you should make each part of the story series into a complete story. Even if the main overall conflict is not resolved at the end of each part, there should be some resolution. For instance, in the Harry Potter series, every book covers one school year, so it feels like there is resolution at the end of each story, even though the overall plot keeps going on.
2. Episodic Stories
This is the opposite of the epic story. In episodic stories, there is no connection between the individual stories, so someone can read them in any order they want. Usually they have the same characters or at least the same themes. An example is a sitcom on TV. Each episode has the same characters and setting but there is usually nothing that happens in one story that affects the next one. Examples are the Sherlock Holmes stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle (56 stories and 4 novels), the Hardy Boys books by Franklin W. Dixon (190 books) or the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine (235 books).
The main advantage of episodic stories is that they are easier to write. You don’t have to worry about what happened in past stories since they don’t affect the new story. You have the characters and other story elements and just need to think of a new situation to put them in. This type of story is perfect for detective or police stories, spy stories (like James Bond), or daily life stories. That is one reason why this type of series can have many, many stories in it.
The main disadvantage with this type of story is the danger of it becoming formulaic. For example, in a detective story, they might learn about a crime, go investigate, get a few leads that might help them start to discover what happened, then a final showdown where they solve the crime. If it is a good formula and well written, it could be successful, but it is hard to change the formula. You might want to change things but you can’t change them too much or that will destroy the formula of the stories.
For example, in Sherlock Holmes, at the beginning Holmes and Watson are sharing an apartment. This way they can always go together on adventures. However, in later books, Watson gets married. This is not too big a change since they can still get together, but if Watson had moved to Canada, it would have totally changed the stories, since they are all written from the point of view of Watson.
Tips for Writing Episodic Stories
The main tip is to make each story unique in some way. As much as readers might know and expect the formula, it is good to make each story stand out in some way. Agatha Christie wrote more than 80 mystery stories, but a lot of them blend together because they have similar plots and characters. It is the ones that have some unique elements, like having literally everyone in the story die (And Then There Were None), or having everyone stuck on a train together (Murder on the Orient Express) that makes them memorable.
3. Hybrid Series
This is a combination of the previous two types. They are episodic stories but are also set in a definite timeline where things do develop and change over time.
Because this is a cross between the other two, it is more of a spectrum, with some stories being closer to epics and other being closer to episodes. The ends of the spectrum are defined by these characteristics: if you can read them out of order and not be confused (episode) and if the events of the previous book affect the next books (epic).
An example of a hybrid series is the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (7 books). There is a clear timeline of which books come before others, but every story is a distinct episode and isn’t dependent on other ones to understand. Other examples are the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (9 books) and the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett (41 books).
It could be argued that a lot of series fall into this category. For example, the Hunger Games books, by Suzanne Collins. In some ways, the first book in the series is more a standalone book, but the 2nd and 3rd books are more a single story, but they all follow a single timeline.
Hybrid stories have the advantages of both epics and episodes. On one hand, you don’t have to have all stories planned out before you publish the first one since you have some flexibility. However, you are also not tied to a formula, so you can change the characters and have them develop over time.
The disadvantage of this type of series is the danger of changing things too much and getting away from what made the series special in the first place. If you are writing a story series about a pair of high school girls who start a business, you could continue it to when they are grown up, but teenagers who might like the earlier ones might not be as interested in those and adults might not read a series they think of as for teenagers.
Tips on Writing Hybrid Series
Be aware of the direction that the series is going in. Since this is not an epic, where the whole thing is a single story, you don’t have figure out all the stories ahead of time. However, you need to be aware that any changes you make will affect later stories. What you don’t want to do is fix things later so that everything makes sense. This is called a retcon (retroactive continuity).
One example of this is in Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton. At the end of that book, Ian Malcolm dies. But then, the writer decided to write a sequel and wanted to use Ian Malcolm since he is such an interesting character. So the sequel The Lost World, starts with Ian Malcolm explaining that he was so sick, some people just thought he had died. It is best if you can avoid this sort of thing.
Now it’s your Turn
- Think about some series you know well, either books, TV series, or movies. Which category do they fall into? How would they be different if they were a different type of series?
- Are there any stories you have written that could be expanded into a series? If so, what type of series would be the most appropriate?
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