Writing the First Book in a Series: Four Killer Elements

Two little words can make me clutch my Kindle with glee, readers, and they would be series potential. I don’t actually get them from your query (although you may mention it there); I get them from your brilliant first-in-a-series (FIAS) manuscript, and it’s brilliant because it has constructed these four key elements with pluck and skill: story arcs, protagonists, ensemble casts and world-building.

Story Arcs
In a FIAS, you have two sets of story arcs: primary and secondary.

The primary arc details the story in this book. There will be a beginning, a middle and an end for both the plot set up at the start, and the point of character conflict that has been brewing (got that? Arcs are made of plot conflict and character conflict).

The secondary arcs stretch for the entire series and linger in the background to varying degrees. You will resolve points of them bit by bit, leading to a crescendo in the last book.

By the end of FIAS, the reader must be satisfied by the end of these primary arcs. The secondary ones dangle to tantalize. In other words: that trilogy you’re writing better be three separate books, mon ami, and not one giant, sprawling manuscript carved into three bloody pieces.

The most important thing to remember is that the secondary arcs should not overshadow the primary arcs. Book One still has to be drizzled with awesomesauce and served with a side of hell-yeah-and-your-mother if you want anyone to buy the second.

Whether your protagonist has to carry one book or a whole trilogy, there are several important things to remember:

Keep them active When a character is thrown into a new world or situation, it’s easy to let them be swept along by exciting events and other characters. But don’t let them observe from the sidelines or continually be rescued; don’t allow them to remain passive. Secondary characters can be passive sometimes, but your protag is special. Special! The first time that weird thing happens? Okay, yeah, she might stand there in shock. But the second time, she can’t help but do something. That’s why you’re writing about her.
Never forget their point of conflict Protags are driven by their plot lines, but their personalities shape their actions. I see lots of average girls thrown into paranormal worlds, for example, and ending up in dullsville. How has this girl been shaped by her first kiss, that thing that girl said to her at the grocery store when nobody was looking, the diary she found in the park and reads obsessively? And how does that affect the way she reacts to all these amazing things? Give her personal demons and throw her into the ring with them. She’s got to finish this book a different girl to the one she was when she started–and not just because of a boy.
Beware The Chosen One You don’t need a prophecy or a destiny to be awesome. Hell, it’d be nice to be the only one without a prophecy. That’d be fresh. With a prophecy, half the time, you give away the end of the book at the beginning. (This isn’t to say that the idea can’t work; more that it will have to work a lot harder to impress me).

Ensemble Cast
You need a strong, charismatic ensemble cast to carry a series. Yes, they must not overshadow your protags, but equally, your readers have to long to meet them again. (It may be easier, if you’re unfamiliar, to look to TV shows for a good demonstration of this kind of dynamic: Scrubs, Buffy, House, Gossip Girl).

Save the tortured souls for later on You want personal conflict in your FIAS, but too much can overshadow your bold new world and your protag can come across as whiny. So shape your tortured, dark character as secondary in this book and let us love them in small doses. We’ll lap up their book when it comes because you’ve done the groundwork. (This isn’t to say that your FIAS protag can’t be troubled, but there are varying degrees. In my experience, readers will tolerate a lot more depression and grit as a series goes on).
Beware the sausage fest Ensemble casts are often made up mainly of male characters. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing–MANFLESH!–but remember that your female characters will need to work twice as hard to be cool and memorable. Don’t let them shoulder all the stereotypical rubbish; let them shine. And don’t let them exist primarily as objects of desire for your male characters–it’s far more interesting when not everyone fancies them, or even likes them.
Plan your secondary cast member as you would a protag Secondary characters often end up all sounding and acting alike, or falling into stereotypical roles–this is one of my biggest complaints. They should have their own background, own journey, own personal demons (perhaps literally!), and you have to write them with just the tenth of space that a protag gets….but still get a lot of this across. It’s an exercise in subtext and the mark of a skilled writer. Get to it!
Don’t forget the comic relief I see a lot of depressing books/dark worlds crying out for a sense of humour, and a good secondary character can be the light in the dark. Choose your humour wisely; some books work better with a few acerbic one-liners than a catalogue of funny incidents. Also remember that a comic relief character should have another purpose that is just as important in order to flesh them out.
Vanquish The Villains of Hamtasy Your villain will be scariest if they surprise me. Don’t make them talk like a Bond Villain. If you’re writing a villain, go Google the Evil Overlord List and check your character against it. The stakes are high in your book and this is the person who shapes those stakes; they are just as important as your protag, even if they only get ten percent of the page time. Think about that. Think about what this person has done to the world you’ve created, and find subtle to ways to show us the consequences.

World Building
FIAS has a tricky job to do: it has to draw us into an exciting setting–whether it’s a snooty boarding school with something suspicious in the basement, or a parallel universe where e-readers turn into your favourite book boyfriend when the moon is full* –and it has to tell us a full story. You’ve got to strike an important balance between posing many questions and only answering some of them. (Example: so how did the world get this way? Nazis from the dark side of the moon! Are they still at large and dangerous? Ooh, now that would be telling…)

Focus on world elements relevant to this book One of my most common complaints is that an enemy/paranormal dimension is mentioned a few times but never explored, and it bugs the hell out of me (or equally, that an important element is not explored enough). If Villain X is currently in the background and you’re going to mention her to set up meta conflict, I better meet them in this book, even if it’s just a fleeting glimpse so that I feel the impact of the mess they’ve left behind. Think breadcrumbs to the gingerbread house. When I do meet them properly, you better not let me down!
Do not be over-ambitious with your story arc You are telling this story in this part of your world. The others can wait. Don’t visit other parts just to fill in a few chapters, and if you mention other elements in passing as world-building, show me how it’s relevant to this book. Everything that I experience as a reader should be well-explained.
Write a world that readers want to live in Reading is, for the most part, about escapism. If your world offers me my own pet stegosaurus, I’m going to want to live there (especially if I get a special badge). If the stegs turn out to be homicidal, write your characters with such force of personality that I still want to live in that world full of flesh-hungry dinos, just to meet these people. (This is key with dystopia).

There you have it: four key elements to writing the first book in a series, with my first mention of the Evil Overlord List (it won’t be the last. Oh NO). Go forth and write something cool now, please.

*Somebody seriously needs to write this one. Or just make these magic books.


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