C.M. Michaels, author of the wildly popular Sisters in Blood urban fantasy series, offers up five tips on what writers need to consider when crafting a series people will want to read.
I write in the paranormal, fantasy and urban fantasy genres, which comprises the lion’s share of what I read as well. When I think about my favorite books they have several things in common:
- A winning formula – Most of the extremely successful books are part of a series, and each book in the series generally follows an established formula. In some cases like Black Dagger Brotherhood (J.R Ward), Blood Shadows (Tessa Dawn) and the Dark Hunter series (Sherrilyn Kenyon), each story has a romance at its core, pairing one of the main supernatural characters with their love interest. You know going in the two will end up together—in spite of whatever Herculean obstacles are put in their way—but somehow that only enhances the enjoyment. For others, the formula involves established POV changes. In Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld series, for example, the protagonist shifts from book to book, giving you a different viewpoint of all of the central characters and putting more focus on whichever supernatural creature is being showcased in that novel (witches, vampires, werewolves, half-demons, etc.). Then there are those I like to call running storylines, where each installment in the series is almost entirely focused on advancing plot elements that span multiple books. Two of my favorite series are great examples of this type (both by Richelle Mead) – Vampire Academy and Bloodlines.
- Lovable, distinguishable and imperfect characters – There is a fine line to walk here. While I love the main characters to be flawed and to make mistakes they need to do so without coming across as idiots. The reader should be able to understand why they make the decisions they do, even if we know they are wrong and will lead them into trouble. The characters also need to have unique traits as far as how they talk, dress, think and carry out their daily routines. I should be able to tell who is speaking without relying on speaker connotations.
- An interesting and original supernatural angle – In order for a series to become a favorite of mine the author needs to offer a unique take on whatever sub-genre they are in. Whether that is accomplished by creating an entirely new species, providing wicked and unique powers, or dreaming up a never thought of before explanation for the origin / governing rules of your creepy crawlies, the story needs to differentiate itself and make me feel like I’m reading something original.
- An overall series plot arc – While following a formula for each individual novel is great, those that are more on the stand-alone installment side still need to advance plot elements that stretch across the entire series. I need to know that the time I invest in a multi-book series is leading somewhere.
- Engaging prose and a strong narrative voice – Whether told in first or third person, the narrative voice needs to offer me an intimate look into the mind of the main characters and make it easy to visualize what’s being described on the page without putting me to sleep with six hundred word descriptions of what a tree looks like. If I find myself skipping ahead or skim reading on a regular basis it will be the last book I buy in the series. As a society we don’t have the patience we used to for overly flowery prose. We all have a million things competing for our free time and far shorten attention spans. As for the syntax, when done right, the speaker attributes and action beats totally blend into the prose. If I’m noticing these connectors it’s likely because they are either repeated too frequently or are too generic – she smiled, he laughed, etc.
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