Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What Makes a Book Series Seriously Good? by Jess Black

Do you have a favourite book series?

Allen & Unwin

I do! I have many. In fact, there’s nothing I like more than being hooked on a good series and really wanting to get the next book to find out what happens next! I can become very attached to characters in series, they become like old friends. It’s the same for me when reading or writing a series.

Have you ever stopped to think about the literary devices which are at play to help hook you into a series? There are many!

Hachette Children's Books

Take, for example, The Famous Five – you have five children of both sexes and varying ages and a dog. Wherever they are they smell out mysteries, even if there ends up being no mystery to solve. So what’s the series? Just as the title tell us – the Famous Five solve mysteries and are very good at it. They might bicker, have various conflicts between the five of them but ultimately they can all band together to put their super sleuth hats on and solve a riddle or two.

Why does it work?

It pulls in both girls and boys, the kids never have any parental supervision and solve very exciting adventures! You can apply this formula to many different stories, thus the series has longevity. What you want in a good series is the ability to keep going. You don’t want a premise which only allows a few stories to come out of it. A good series needs to hook the readers in so they will keep coming back.

Think about Harry Potter. The books were set up with a sort of love triangle between Harry, Hermione and Ron, both boys liked Hermione but she was too busy being very clever to notice. They had to fight evil and struggle with both a human and magic world while still getting their homework done.

The hook?

Harry was an ordinary boy blessed with a power he wasn’t sure that he wanted. With the help of his friends he might just overcome evil.

HarperCollins Australia

In A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, there is a set up which repeats itself in each book. Olaf (the evil Uncle after the children’s fortune) finds the children and tries to steal their fortune. The set up is we have three very rich siblings who are also orphans and have not yet come into their inheritance. Olaf commits all kinds of evil deeds along the way trying to get at the kids. It’s gruesome and wicked and very funny. It also allows the stories to happen anywhere – all you need are the three kids, their money and an evil uncle.

A series needs a group of characters who we can follow for more than two or three books. This means they are tied together either thorough family connections or through loyalty or membership of a place or fraternity which brings them back again and again. In the Harry Potter series, Harry and co become friends eventually but, at first, it is because they are thrown together by circumstance – all young wizard apprentices finding their way.

HarperCollins Australia

A series also needs a complex set of relationships among these consistent characters. For instance, in CS Lewis' Narnia books, the consistent characters are the siblings and the friends they have met in Narnia. These characters remain relatively unchanged although new characters may be introduced. The hook in The Chronicles of Narnia, which is repeated again and again, is the challenges the siblings face in this other world.

Of course, not all series use the same techniques and devices. For example, in the Harry Potter books there is a narrative line which advances with each book. You really do have to read them in order. Not all series do this. Famous Five books can be read in any order, the stories are self-contained. I like both kinds of series.  

Two of Jess' recent works published by Random House

One of the drawcards for me about reading and writing book series is that I get to follow the same characters for a prolonged length of time. I get to spend a lot of time with my characters.

In a good series, these characters will be allowed to change and grow over the course of the series. You get a pay off when reading a single book from the series which is aimed at those of you who are familiar with the characters, small details which only you, the loyal, will understand and appreciate. This is not to be undervalued. We love series because the characters become like friends and family. They are familiar to us. Through this familiarity we can become very close to them.

I think the secret to a strong and successful book series is a set of endearing characters who are forced together either through family circumstances or situation, who are set a series of challenges and who manage to overcome these challenges but also grow and change within the course of the series.

I look forward to finding out what my characters will get up to next.

In summary, a good series needs:
  • A hook to draw the reader in which can be repeated over and over again – going through the wardrobe, solving a mystery, leaving the Muggle world and going back to Hogwarts…
  • A group of characters who are tied together through family relationships, love or circumstance and who are able to evolve over time
  • An action which is repeated in each book, fighting evil, learning magic, solving a mystery
  • The books need to sustain your interest over time
  • Introduction of new characters, storylines and events; also cliff hangers
  • Characters who are endearing and who we care about and want to know what happens to them
Do you agree? What hooks you into a series?

About the Author

Jess Black has over twenty junior fiction chapter books published with Random House. She is the co-author of the highly successful RSPCA Animal Tales series and the Bindi Wildlife Adventure series. Jess tutors The First Draft Novel and Screenplay course at The Writers Studio and also runs creative writing workshops for children. She is available for author talks in schools. 

You can find out more about Jess' work at her website:

"When I was younger (10-13) I loved –

Anything by Enid Blyton – The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, The Magic Faraway Tree
The Wizard of Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin
The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis
the Nancy Drew series
The Hardy Boys series
Anything involving horses
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
the Trixie Belden series

Some of my current favourites are -

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Harry Potter series by J K Rowling
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Children of the Lamp series by P B Kerr
The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney"


  1. Thank you Jess. So many great book series to both discover and re-read!

    I hadn't thought about the differences between book series that you have to read in order (Harry Potter) and those that can be read in any order (Famous Five) before.

    One of the reasons that the Harry Potter books got longer and longer as the series went on was because the story lines in each successive book build on (and so have to explain) previous happenings. Books in series that can be read in any order tend to follow the same narrative structure and be approximately the same length because the plot of each story is not one of the elements that give the stories cohesion as a series. Interesting...

  2. And, what hooks me into a series? Always the characters!

    While I liked the Famous Five I never identified with them as closely as the Secret Seven and so preferred that series (though I read - and enjoyed - both!)