To series or not to series?

I recently tweeted a semi-complaint, semi-joke that while brainstorming my next novel with my wife at dinner one night, she essentially rewrote the entire plot and then explained to me how it should be a series, rather than a standalone novel. My wife is a very talented musician who understands the Instagram generation in ways I never will, but she has never called herself a writer. So I took this advice as helpful – it was! – and also kind of laughed at how zealous she had been.

But, two days later, I’m still thinking about her idea.

I write standalone novels, which makes me a little unusual in today’s publishing world. I see and hear characters and write out their story to its end, which in romance means a declaration of love and reasonable assurance they will remain happy together. Usually, the next two characters who need to find each other to find happiness pop into my head halfway through drafting of the previous story, and once revisions on that previous story are complete, I let the new characters tell me what’s up. I don’t usually think about how the old characters are doing, except to revisit their story every now and then and smile (since, after all, I wrote it, and at least I like it if no one else does).

Writers, do you ever re-read your own work and just bask in how great it is?

But writing a series doesn’t have to mean writing sequels. This is helpful for me to keep in mind for romance, where the happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) is the conclusion of the story. What comes after that? The only plausible way to create a sequel is to force the characters into some conflict that drives them apart. Like the marriage plot, in which two characters fall in love and end up engaged or married at the end, the remarriage plot sees characters already in love broken up, and the goal of the plot is to bring them back together. It can work when done well, but it can also involve silly, contrived conflict that threatens the original story for the characters in the first place.

Some remarriage plots are just plain torturous, but The Parent Trap is an example of this plot done delightfully.

(Sidenote: I have also read sequels in which writers didn’t understand conflict drives plot, and the story became 200 pages of happy people doing happy things. This might sound cute, but it’s actually a very boring waste of time. I’m looking at you, that novel with the wedding in Nantucket.)

Let’s say Jessie and Tom are the heroes of a classic romance. Now living their “happily ever after” in the sequel, something must happen to drive the story. Maybe the catalyst is that Jessie discovers she’s pregnant, and Tom doesn’t want the baby. Or maybe Jessie’s ex-girlfriend comes back to town, and now Jessie doesn’t know if she wants to stay with Tom. Either of these will work to separate Tom and Jessie so that they can declare their love again and be reunited by the book’s conclusion, but these plots also mean we learn Jessie and Tom aren’t the great people we were rooting for in book one. In the first example, Tom turns out to be a jerk who is willing to dump a partner and child. In the second, Jessie’s declaration of love for Tom was obviously contingent: she loves him so long as there’s not someone else she loves better. In neither case will the reader feel good when the two are reunited because it’s now clear they could easily be separated again in the future.

My wife’s suggestion at dinner, though, was to think about extending the book to the side couples who populate its scenes. What is the story of each of them? How did they each meet, become attracted, face barriers that kept them apart, and finally surmount those obstacles? What was their adventure before they became the background to another couple’s? These are interesting stories worth telling. Although I have not played in the same world more than once, she had a good idea. Since the book (books?) isn’t sold yet, I can’t give you the full details on the plot, but suffice it to say, it’s a cute story that would lend itself really well to this kind of series.

Sit tight, readers. This one may take me a while to write, but it might be worth it.

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