When I started writing crime, it was largely by accident. I had what I thought was a standalone book with thriller elements. I wasn’t intending to do any more crime and I certainly wasn’t going to do a series. I’ve seen many good series that should have ended at a trilogy, or at most a quartet, carry on past the point of resolution, with the books getting progressively more disappointing. I’m a firm believer in natural narrative arc. Get the couple together, catch the killer, stop the story there. So, no, I wasn’t interested in doing a sequel. Or so I said.
Inevitably, I soon found myself writing a crime series. I realised I had a long backstory I wanted to draw out, over many books if necessary. I had a large cast of characters with a lot going on. I had a location that fascinated me. And so I realised why people write series, even when they don’t plan to – sometimes, it’s hard to leave those characters behind. And with crime, unlike with romance, we get the chance to plausibly bring in new narratives again and again.
One of the reasons I didn’t want to write a series was that I wasn’t sure how to do it. Are there any rules? On the fantasy side, George RR Martin has redefined the series with A Song of Fire and Ice. Apparently it’s fine to kill off major characters halfway through, or write a book that doesn’t feature most of your main cast, or introduce new viewpoint characters in every book. It’s OK to have long, deep backstories that are barely alluded to in many of the books. It’s OK to move your characters around at a glacial pace. It’s OK to continually frustrate and surprise your readers. Or maybe it’s just OK if you write like George R R Martin. So now I’m writing a series I set out to discover how that works, and if there are any rules for a good one.
Rules for a crime series
1.Any romance must be flawed. Once you get the couple together, the only way to go is down. Tear your characters apart, make them their own worst enemies. Keep creating more stories. Probably why we don’t get many sequels to romance novels.
2.There aren’t any happy endings, not really. This is why you’ll often get crime series where the next book flows out of the first – the killer is caught, but another body has just been found, or the detective is so damaged by it we know they can never really find resolution. Once you have a happy ending, your series is effectively over.
3.The characters have to plausibly come into contact with crime a lot. And no, being a crime writer isn’t a good enough reason. (I’m amazed no one arrested Jessica Fletcher years ago, with all the murders she ‘accidentally’ stumbled on.) This is why so many crime novels feature police, private eyes, pathologists, and other people whose jobs involve crime.
4.You can innovate – link the series by location rather than characters, or tell the next instalment from the viewpoint of a minor character in the last (eg Tana French does this). It’s fun to see old favourites wander through new books (eg in Jilly Cooper, SJ Bolton). This also adds to the verisimilitude of the world you’re creating
5.Keep upping the stakes. You have to keep giving your character things to care about, then ripping them away. This can sometimes be frustrating to the reader, who just wants the character to catch a break. I’m thinking of the Patricia Cornwell books, where I did become annoyed at how many people Scarpetta has to love and then lose. Let her have some happiness, Patricia!
6.Find a way to make the books stand alone, without creating the ‘Sweet Valley High’ effect. People don’t always come to a series via the first book, so you have to make sure they can understand the one they’re reading, without including the same bit of text in every book that explains the back story (like on page three of every Sweet Valley High book, where you’d be told exactly what the twins looked like). I still haven’t quite figured out how to do this.
7.Work out your backstory, and when it will be revealed – I personally really enjoy series that tease out a secret over many books, but there is a problem here. How do you know how many books are going to be in the series? You might start and it’s a huge hit so you have to carry on, or equally the series might get cut and your characters never find resolution. I asked a few writer friends how to deal with this one and they just shrugged. Sometimes these things are out of your hands.
8.Make the lead character interesting enough to carry off many books – eg Lee Child’s Reacher. It helps if they are single and can canoodle someone new each time (eg James Bond). You can also move them around to different locations and allow them to take part in many adventures.
9.If your character isn’t a sexy loner with a plausible reason to move around to different places, put them in an interesting location, with a rich supporting cast. The reader will want to go back to visit their old friends each time.
10.When you’re done, stop. Don’t push the series past the point where all the stories are tied up and the characters are all happy (or dead, if you’re George R R Martin). Don’t let your series ‘jump the shark’, in TV parlance.
So those are some arbitrary rules I’ve set for myself. The first book in my series, The Lost, comes out in April, and I’ve just finished the sequel to it. Did I manage to meet my own rules? You’ll have to let me know…
The Lost is published by Headline on 11 April