Tag Archives: writing a series

Writing the Cliffhanger

1 Nov

Love them or hate them, cliffhangers are popular and utilized in lots of books nowadays, even the ones that never get (or intend) a sequel to follow up the ending. 

So what’s the difference between a cliffhanger that makes a reader pick up the next book and the one that makes the reader chuck the book across the room? 

That’s what I’m here to discuss. 

First, there are three ways to end your book:

  • Complete conclusion
  • Non-Ending Ending
  • Cliffhanger

Second, if you’re here to learn about cliffhangers, you’ll want to focus on the non-ending ending and the cliffhanger. What’s the difference?

A Non-Ending Ending doesn’t answer most (or any) of the questions posed, not even the ones asked at the beginning of a story. This is becoming more common. I personally dislike it a lot, but alas, this isn’t about my feelings. As an example, consider a murder mystery. The main question posed at the beginning of the book is “Who is the murderer?” The secondary question might be “Why/How did this murder take place?” 

(I will be coming back to the idea of main and secondary questions, so keep that difference in mind.) 

By the time you get to the end of a Non-Ending Ending book, you still have no idea who the murderer was. You may know how the murder took place, so some of the secondary questions might be answered, but the main question is not. 

A popular one that I can think of off the top of my head is The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The first book asks, “Who will be chosen to marry the prince?” The ending of that first book doesn’t answer. It just dwindles the group down to the top ten. If you take a careful look at the trilogy, you’ll notice all three books follow a one-book arc versus a trilogy arc. But that’s another post for another day. 

As much as I hate to say it, a Non-Ending Ending is a valid choice. But I recommend you be intentional when making this decision. By choosing this, you are risking the reader feeling duped and not trusting you to finish the story. I myself typically put a series down if they have a Non-Ending Ending. However, I finished The Selection series, so there’s always exceptions. Typically, though, the traditional cliffhanger is more likely to get readers coming back for more.  

In my opinion, reading and writing a traditional cliffhanger is a lot more satisfying. Why? Because you will answer that main question. Your reader will know who the murderer is. But those secondary questions might lead them into a new mystery. For example, instead of wrapping up why the murder happened, the murderer tells us they were under orders and don’t know the answer themselves. An underground organization hired them–and a few others. There are more murders to come. Now your hero isn’t trying to solve murders; your hero is trying to stop them. EEK! That’s a cliffhanger. 

Readers will be much more likely to trust your stories if you answer the main question posed at the beginning of your book. They know they might not get all the answers they want, but they know they’ll get a story that is satisfying, even in its twists. Whereas, in a Non-Ending Ending, they might ask themselves where the book is headed or how long the story will be stretched out. 

Don’t know which ending your book has?

Read other books. Have you ever been twenty pages away from the end and stopped, wondering how the author is going to wrap it ALL up? That’s either the best pacing ever or extremely poor pacing. Spoiler alert: It’s more often poor pacing.

Most of your story’s questions need to be wrapped up by the 75% mark. The subplots, the clues, etc. As your characters head into the climax, they need to know everything they are going to know about their opponent. Of course there might be that single plot twist that sparks the “hero is absolutely alone, hopeless, and at their lowest” part, but other than that, having your protagonist learn anything new after the 75% mark is going to feel convoluting, and it risks your ending spiraling out of control. 

So where do you throw in the cliffhanger?

Typically in the climax aftermath. 

Most writers have a natural cliffhanger buried somewhere in their work. I recommend taking a look at your main and secondary questions again. Typically, one of your secondary questions will serve as a lead-in to the next book. Make sure your cliffhanger is small enough that it doesn’t leave your reader feeling robbed of an ending, but big enough that they cannot resist the urge to pick up the next book to experience how your universe expands. Promise another story in that cliffhanger. This is also a great place to ask yourself what you have planned for book two. If book one’s cliffhanger is easily dismissed in the first few pages of book 2, it’ll feel cheap, and readers might put book 2 down before they’re invested in the next plot. Book one’s cliffhanger should lead us to the inciting incident of book 2. Example from our murder mystery: Book opens up with the detective tracking down the organization he believes hired the murderer. Instead of arresting, he poses as a hitman to infiltrate. He’s handed his first assignment… 

Now we’re invested in book 2, and the cliffhanger isn’t resolved. Rather, it’s evolved into a new story. 

A great cliffhanger will feel inevitable. 

A fantastic cliffhanger will appear right as the reader feels comfortable and believes the book is about to end with a satisfying conclusion.

Last piece of advice? All choices are valid. You don’t have to have a cliffhanger to have a fantastic book. Some readers love Non-Ending Endings. Some readers hate any type of cliffhanger. You can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, so make the decision you need to make to have a book you love. 

~SAT

How to Plot a Series and Make Every Book Stand Out

16 Aug

As an author with three series under my belt, I’m often asked how to plot a series, and I thought it was finally time to share a few tips. 

First thing is first, anyone considering traditional publishing should make book one a standalone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the dream of writing a series, but in traditional publishing, that choice is out of your control. Agents/editors will get discouraged by proposals that say, “this is first book in a five-book series,” because no one can guarantee that will happen. (In fact, a series can be very rare for a debut author.) 

Repeat after me: “standalone with series potential”

But that’s more to do with traditional publishing than writing—and it doesn’t affect those who are self-publishing as much—so let’s get to those writing tips: 

Identify the Sub-Genre of Each Book

When I set out to write a series, I know each book needs to feel special. The way that I do that is by identifying each book’s sub-genre. For example, in my Timely Death trilogy, book 1 is a paranormal romance, book 2 is a paranormal mystery, book 3 is a paranormal action. In the Tomo trilogy, book 1 is certainly dystopian action, but book 2 is dystopian horror. (Time will tell what book 3 is.) 

When each book has its own sub-genre, it’ll help them stand apart while also inviting new energy into the storyline. Personally, I’d recommend every first book heavily lean toward your main genre in order to set the overall tone and expectation. Using my example above, the Timely Death trilogy is a paranormal romance, and book 1 is heavily focused on that, both in the main plot and the subplots. It’s the next books where I allow a little more deviation. 

I encourage anyone writing a series to keep that tip in mind when plotting out numerous books that follow the same characters. If you’re unsure what sort of sub-genres might work with your overall genre, “20 Master Plots and How to Form Them” by Ronald Tobias is a fantastic resource that helps explain plot and genre expectations. Play around with a few and see how they feel. 

Avoid the Dreaded Middle Book Slump

Avoid that middle book slump by throwing everything you can at it. What do I mean by that? I mean that a lot of writers stop themselves from using amazing material because they want to save it for the big, explosive finale. And that’s valid. But personally, I disagree with that method. Trust me when I say not to hold back. Give each book everything you got. You will come up with something even bigger for the next book. I know it can feel scary, but I’ve done it before, not knowing what I was going to do with the last book, and everything came together perfectly. 

If you want that example, I’ll explain, but it does spoil book 2: 

In the Timely Death trilogy, there’s a prophetic fight-to-the-death between two clans alluded to in the first book. Every reader expected it to be in book 3. And guess what? It’s in book 2. Though it seems to be set up as the ultimate climax from book 1, I knew I wanted to push against that formula the moment I started writing book 2, so I trusted my gut and used it in book 2. Book 3 ended up being even bigger and followed the fallout of that fight. Using everything I had in book 2 opened the series to even more dramatics, plot twists, and drama than I ever could’ve planned had I tried to save material for the finale.  

Don’t Fear Character Change, Including Relationships 

Too often I read series where characters’ friendships and romances remain intact book after book. Granted, the romance genre requires a happy ending, but you can still have a happy ending while pushing what it means for a couple to be together. You can break friendships and meld them—or break them up forever. You don’t have to have a happy ending for everyone. In fact, if I know my main couple won’t work out, I make sure to show one that will, and vice versa. 

To me, this tip is reminiscent of being willing to kill your darlings. 

If no one’s relationships ever suffer, then readers might get too comfortable with the stakes. Be willing to part family, friends, and lovers. Allow them to make new friends and find new families. This will allow for fresh scenes and stakes because new relationships mean something new to lose. New relationships will also show how your characters are changing. My favorite kind? A villain who joins the good side in the end. There’s something so interesting about showing what it takes to get the hero and villain to see eye-to-eye, even if one of them can’t exist in the end. 

These are just my top three tips for planning a series.

How do you plan yours?

~SAT

Take Notes While Writing a Series

11 Nov

While on Twitter the other day, writer A.J. Forrisi asked an amazing question!

P.S. Give A.J. a follow!

My quick answer? Take notes on your first book, so that writing the sequel isn’t as difficult. (And definitely do a read-through. ) I keep a character bible and chapter summaries for each book in a series. Notes help! But what type of notes should you take? How detailed should they be? Everyone’s method is going to be a little different, but I thought I’d share a couple places to start.

 1. Keep a Character Bible

This should cover all descriptors and main personality traits/issues. Personally, I keep a list of every single person mentioned in the book, even the tiniest characters. Why? Because that side character’s eye color is going to come up in book 1 on page 18 and in book 4 on page 127. It would take forever to read the entire series over and over again every time I need to find a detail. That being said, I still think you should read through your work multiple times. If you want to get fancy, take a note of the page number information is written down. That way, you can always double-check.

2. Organize Chapter Summaries

Sum up each chapter in a couple sentences. What happens? How does it change the book? If your book is heavy on revealing secrets, keeping track of what certain characters know will also help. That way, if those secrets move into book two, you don’t have to skim over and over again to find out where and what they learned. One thing I’m sure to emphasize in my chapter summaries is when certain characters make their first appearances. That way, I know when they entered the story (and the description tends to appear at the same time).

3. Other Notes to Consider

I keep a “General Resources” tab on my Scrivener. This is basically a sheet with links to educational websites on topics covered in book. (You know, in case I need a refresher, especially if I’ve taken a break between books.) I also keep a History sheet that tracks the years leading up to the book. Sometimes these events come up in the book, sometimes they don’t, but it’s good to know how my characters arrived at the first chapter. For fun and inspiration, I also keep a Pinterest board and a list of songs that remind me of my story. That way, if I’m finding it hard to get back into the series, I can connect with that original inspiration quicker.

Do you take notes between books? If so, what types?

Feel free to share your method!

~SAT

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