What Happens When I Split My Novel Into a Series?

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My story project (urban fantasy / horror mystery) is expansive enough that I’ll need to divide it into 3 or 4 books. It’s very much a single story and not a series, although I’ll make sure to line up different parts of the story with the different books. How do I end a book that’s only a quarter of a story? What other complications will come from this choice?

Hey Finn, thanks for writing in!

The main risk of dividing one story into multiple installments is that until the final book, each ending will lack satisfaction. After getting through an entire novel, readers will expect something to be resolved, and if it’s not, there’s a very good chance they won’t pick up the next book.

I notice this quite a lot in longer series these days. I’m left with a feeling of “so what?” when I get to the end, because instead of resolving anything, the author is promising me that things will be resolved in the next book. We’ve got a couple posts that touch on this subject, which I’d recommend:

Ideally, you prevent this problem by having plots that resolve within each book, each of which feeds into the greater series’ plot. As we’re fond of saying, your plot is fractal. Harry Potter is always our go-to example here. Each book has its own plot. In book one, it’s keeping the Sorcerer’s Stone safe. In book two, it’s stopping the basilisk. Beyond each book, the plot of stopping Voldemort looms in the background, until it’s finally resolved in book seven.

You can see this at work in other series as well. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the overarching plot is about who will sit on the iron throne, but the first book’s plot is specifically the story of Ned Stark. When he dies, it provides satisfaction, even as it opens up a whole new plot of book two. Part of the issue with the later books is that they don’t have very strong plots of their own, it just feels like we’re getting everyone into their places for the series climax.

Making this work may very well require some revising, but I very much recommend it. Keeping readers interest for an entire series is always difficult, it will be even harder if they don’t feel like there’s something to look forward to at the end of each book.

Hope that answers your questions!

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  1. Petar

    I should add that publishing (if this is Finn’s goal) becomes more problematic with serial works, especially for new authors.
    What publishers are looking for is “standalones with series potential”. I’m still figuring out what exactly that means. It probably means that only very minor plot threads should remain unresolved for the sequels.

    • Cay Reet

      Could also mean that there’s characters with a minor plot attached which could take over a sequel or several. Or that the story as a such lends itself to serialisation over time (cosy mysteries often start out with a first book and run as long as possible, since every of them is essentially standalone, even though there’s plots involving relationships which go through from the first to the last).

  2. FluxVortex

    Karen Miller’s “Godspeaker” trilogy suffers a bit from being 3 books rather than 2. A significant amount of character development is front loaded onto the second book “The Riven Kingdom” by virtue of a change of cast and setting, but most of the new cast’s vital action is saved for the climactic third book.

  3. Mike

    Probably the most annoying example of this is Murakami’s 1Q84. It is a single book (admittedly, a very long one) which is sometimes sold as three, without any consideration for satisfaction and complete plot arcs.

    I might be wrong, but it appears as though this was a choice by the publisher, not the author. Each “book” in the trilogy is only one act in a full, cohesive story. It only makes sense to read all three at once, and if you only bought the first one, you’ll just be left with a cliffhanger and no resolution.

    Reading all three parts is worth it, but the weird breaks are a great example of what not to do when splitting your work.

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