A series has more substance if each volume has an independent plot, even if it’s part of a larger conflict. A reader who picks up a book out of order should be able to follow the action while still wondering what happened earlier, which is likely to drive them to read earlier stories eventually.
It’s a good idea to increase the plot’s complexity as the story progresses. Without further obstacles and challenges, your story can get boring and predictable. I loved reading “The Hobbit” series, but when I saw the first movie, while I admired the visuals, special effects, and casting, I got bored after about an hour thinking, “How long can I stand to sit here watching monsters chasing hobbits?”
I’ve also read stories that just went on and on and on with too many obstacles. They can have a “ho-hum” factor as well.
Bear in mind that readers may come to a sequel months, or even years, after reading the first book, or possibly not in order. Always recap the plot and describe the characters again to refresh their memory as well as assure any new readers don’t feel lost.
I run into this a lot, and have even caught myself guilty of this while writing my series. To the author, it is one continuous story. To the reader, however, who may have read the predecessor ages or at least many books ago, remembering exactly what was going on as well as the function of minor characters, is often unclear.
In some cases, you may want to use a prologue or a “The Story so Far” section for this purpose. Those who don’t need the review can skip it while those who do will appreciate it and allow them to get fully engaged in the story more easily.
Ending a book in a series with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger comes with a risk, especially if the next episode isn’t yet available. There’s a fine line between leaving a reader intrigued versus frustrated. The latter may lose a potential fan.
If the sequel has been released, this is less risky. If not, and you absolutely want to end it that way, consider waiting to release the entire series at the same time. If the ending isn’t so abrupt that it drives readers crazy, then it’s not quite as hazardous to your fan base if they have to wait a while for the next episode.
However, there is nothing more disappointing to a reader than really getting attached to a great story that doesn’t have a satisfying ending. If there’s any doubt you’ll complete the story properly, especially within a reasonable amount of time, then avoid cliffhangers. Use a reasonable, albeit soft ending, you can pick up from later.
Details and descriptions are important to support imagery, but balance is required so they enhance, rather than slow down, a story. This is genre-dependent, however, because some, such as romances, thrive on description. Thrillers should have less, but enough for readers to envision what’s going on.
Integrating details into the action is a challenge, but a skill serious writers must develop. This is where strong verbs are essential. A diligent author will take the time necessary to find the exact word needed to convey action and imagery with an economy of words. This is part of your job as an author.
When you write a murder mystery, you must keep your readers guessing. Any “whodunnit” story needs red herrings to place doubt in the reader’s mind regarding who the culprit might be. No matter how many novels your readers have experienced, they shouldn’t be able to easily predict how it will end. Readers thrive on suspense and wondering what will happen next.
These red herrings may necessitate a few characters who are technically extraneous. These, of course, are the exception to the rule to not include people with no function in your story. The fact of the matter is that they DO serve a function, and that is to keep the reader guessing.
I’m always disappointed when what could be a juicy, complex plot is never fully developed. The author sets up intriguing possibilities that are never explored and quietly disappear. I’ve seen great premises with best seller potential fall flat for lack of detail.
I suppose some people enjoy a quick read and don’t mind a straight-line plot with a predictable ending. I prefer a story that not only draws me in to the plot and characters, but one that shows the author put some thought into the story, beyond that first flash of creativity.
In some cases, if there will be a sequel to explore neglected plot elements, this can work. However, don’t tease the reader with plot twists that never materialize, then drop them, as if it was too much trouble to work them in. A book that doesn’t wrap up all the loose ends is similar, unless it’s deliberate and used as a cliff hanger.
Next on the list for scratching 5-stars is no challenge. If the protagonist breezes through the entire story without any obstacles or personal growth, it’s pointless. Whatever it is s/he wants, the harder it is to get it the better.
Most of us are somewhat annoyed by those who have everything they want handed to them, perhaps on the proverbial silver platter. Starting out a story that way is fine, but then having your protagonist lose everything and get a hefty dose of the real world will get your reader involved. An example of where this is well-done is the relatively new sit-com “Schitt’s Creek”, where a family formerly in the millionaire range loses everything and is living in a cheap motel.
The harder your protagonist has to work for what he wants, the better. This also builds suspense, a critical ingredient in any story.
The last complaint was directly related to style and the skill of the author, i.e. too many adverbs. While useful, they shouldn’t be overdone. Before using one, see if you can find a better verb. More often than not, this can be done and eliminate the need.
For example, instead of saying “she walked slowly” how about “she trudged”, “she strolled”, or “she moped, dragging her feet”? See how the verb also implies imagery and mood? Economy of words increases their impact. Verbs are powerful. Make sure you use them to make your story more vivid. Scrutinize every one to see if you can replace it or really need it.
Here’s a reader gripe that definitely drives me crazy, this one #7: Similar names! Avoid having them start with the same letter or rhyme. One example that comes to mind is from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”, where we have Howard and Leonard. These two are very different characters who look and act entirely different, but the names are too much alike. If your reader is the slightest big dyslexic, it will drive him or her crazy.
Your story should never have a Shelley, Sherry, Susan and Stacy. Be more original! Give some thought to naming your characters. Bear in mind that those who read quickly are most likely to stumble over this form of thoughtless writing.
Here’s another gripe on the “doesn’t get 5-stars” list, though I haven’t seen this one quite as often. This one is when the main character is forgotten. I’ve seen stories that started out with one person and then s/he disappeared at some point and someone else took over.
Huh? Whose story is it? Even the first chapter should start out with the main character, which is sometimes violated, and may cause the confusion in the first place. If someone off-stage is key, use a prologue.
I saw this happen in one book recently where this transition would have been the perfect place to end it and segue into the sequel. However, doing it halfway through the book definitely didn’t work for me. You just get connected with a character and then he disappears? WTF!