Novel vs. Series

Do you remember your favorite series to read as a kid? You know, the ones you could plow through one book after the other, eating them up like brain candy?

As a kid, I read lots of series, but I never really appreciated the difference between a series and a single novel until I started writing my own. I’ve written stand-alone novels, and now I have The Discoveries of Arthur Grey series underway. When readers used to ask me how long it took to write a book, I’d say, “a few months”. But now, when people ask how long it took to write one The Discoveries book, they’re always startled at my answer: “Years!”


Galloping guinea pigs! Why does it take so long? Well, because it’s a series — and that’s a world of difference. What exactly makes writing a series so much different than writing individual novels? Here are some of the challenges I’ve found a series has over a novel:

Tying them together. At the top of the list, a series needs to have a theme that strings all its books together. It answers the question of what makes them a series? The most common theme you’ll find tying a series together is that it has the same characters from book to book. Or maybe every book is written like a diary, or takes place in a particular place or universe, or is about a certain type of character (princesses, wizards, etc). But a series will always have something that links its books.

Having wide characters. The characters of a novel have one story to tell. They live in the one book and are deep enough to keep you involved in their single story. But characters in a series need to be deep AND wide. They have to be deep enough for the reader to know them, and they’ve got to have enough about them to carry them outward through multiple books.

Plotting a course. The plot of a novel is one book long. Sometimes a series might be written that way, too. It floats along book by book, and you can read the books in mostly any order without getting lost. Then there are the series that take you from one book into the next. For these, there’s a plot that carries through and won’t completely end until the last book. A series like this is best read in a particular order.

Leaving bread crumbs. In a novel, all the clues and characters and plot are in one book. In a series, they’re spread out. True, some series are written like novels (in fact, some start out intending to be just one book and only turn into a series later) in that each book divulges all its secrets to that point (take Nancy Drew, for example, or the Magic Tree House books). Others have their story plotted out at the beginning, and the readers gets to follow the breadcrumb trail from book to book, gathering pieces of a larger plot until the very end (the Harry Potter series does this, as does The Discoveries of Arthur Grey).

So which do you think is easier to write? A single novel or a series?


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