So, you’re looking to become the next R.L. Stine: you want to write a beloved, successful, enduring horror series and cement yourself as an icon in the horror genre for generations to come.
Or, at least, you want to write a horror series.
Writing a series can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! If you’re looking for some help getting your horror series off the ground, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’re going to talk about some pros and cons when it comes to writing a series, how to write a horror book series, and tips for marketing that series once you’ve got it written.
Ready? Let’s go!
Series vs. stand-alones: pros and cons
First and foremost, you must ask yourself: is writing a horror series the right move for you? What are the benefits, and what are some of the potential pitfalls?
A strong series will help you grow your reader base around one core story. If you’ve got a favorite TV show with a cult following, then you’ve seen this in action—people tune in for every new season because they love not only the story, but also the characters and the world the story’s set in. This allows for pretty strong branding.
However, it can also incentivize authors to write a series long after it’s technically done. Again, if you’ve got a favorite TV show with a cult following, you’ve seen this happen: a beloved show gets dragged along for seasons after it stops being good because it’s making money. It also means that your audience is tied to that specific series, and it might be a gamble to present them with an unrelated project.
Basically, the positive side is that you’ve got lots of space to explore a world and its characters and to tell a complicated story in the way that you want. The negative side is that a series takes a ton of time to create, and if your audience isn’t in love with it, that work might need to be heavily changed or scrapped altogether.
How to write a horror book series
If you’ve still got your heart set on writing a horror book series, congrats! Let’s get started with some tips for how to make your series the best it can be.
#1 – Decide what type of series you want to write
What kind of series do you want to write? There’s a few different types to work with, and they’ve got radically different approaches, so it’s important to know up front.
A static series is one where the characters aren’t engaging in an overall plot. The status quo of the world isn’t changing, or isn’t changing much, from installment to installment. This doesn’t mean that nothing happens in each episode—the episodes themselves will have a clear structure with a conflict that must be solved by the end of the episode. From episode to episode, though, or from season to season, you’re not seeing a ton of character development.
If you’re writing a static series, you’ll need to decide what your stories will revolve around. Are you writing about ghost hunters going on creepy adventures in their small town? The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes works so well because each episode is about solving a mystery, which is super interesting. You’ll also need to create characters your audience loves—since there’s not a strong way to hook audiences into the next installment, they need to love the characters so much they’re willing to come back all on their own.
A dynamic series, by contrast, is one where the books follow one major plot over multiple installments, which need to be read in order to make the most possible sense. Twilight is a dynamic series—so is Percy Jackson & The Olympians.
A dynamic series is going to require major changes to the status quo as the books progress. Each individual book will contain its own arc, but the overarching arc won’t be completed until the last installment, where the climax is also the climax of the entire series. This is why books in a series tend to get longer as they go—there’s a lot to do in those later installments.
If you’re writing a dynamic series, you’ll want to make sure you focus on the overall plot and character arcs while you’re writing each installment so that the series remains focused. Otherwise, readers might get bored, confused, or both.
#2 – Make each book unique
Your series will have some overarching concept tying it together—that might be the series plot, or it might be the concept behind your static series (one-off adventures, mysteries, etc). This will keep the series cohesive, which is good.
What you want to avoid is having each book seem the same. If you fall into the same formula or don’t vary each book enough, you could have reasonably well-paced books that get through the overarching plot and wrap up nicely and still end up with a flat finished product.
Think of it like a Mario game. There’s usually the traditional Super Mario map, some kind of cloud map, some kind of desert map, some kind of water map, and some kind of Bowser map, each with their own strong aesthetic theme. The aesthetics tie each map together, while the components of the games—Mario’s mechanics, the question blocks, the leveling of different enemies, coin collection, and of course the ultimate goal of rescuing Peach—tie the entire game together.
You want to do something similar with your series. Each installment will contain roughly the same characters, and maybe even the same setting, but don’t be afraid to change things up from book to book. Maybe in one book, a major character is replaced or missing, and someone has to fill their spot. In another, they might have to leave their small town to visit the big city.
#3 – Plan your books in advance
Sagging middle syndrome is when you’re writing your book, things are fine, you get about halfway in and suddenly you feel like you’ve fallen into quicksand. You’ve got a climax to get to, you’ve got an ending in mind, and you’ve got no idea how to get there. Characters end up pacing around doing nothing in particular until the climax comes and rescues everyone from immense boredom.
This can happen on a bigger scale in a series. How many times have you read a series with a stellar first and third installment, but a weak middle that felt like it was just eating up time?
This is usually a result of poor planning. If you, like me, loathe outlining, this might seem disgusting, but I promise it’s not as bad as it seems. You don’t need to have your books down beat for beat, but you do need to know roughly what each book needs to accomplish. This way, you’ll be able to pace the series as well as each book efficiently.
Tips for marketing a horror book series
Now that you’ve written your horror book series, it’s time to publish, and that means marketing. There are a few tricks unique to book series that you can use, and you absolutely should use them!
Plan your books in advance
Again, plan your books in advance. Again, this can be just an idea of what’s going on in each one. Ideally, you’ll be one full, completed book ahead of whatever’s currently being published.
This will enable you to take full advantage of some of the tools we’ll talk about later, and it’ll make it easier to talk about what’s coming next, since it’s already written and prepared. It also gives you some buffer time in case life happens and you have to put writing on pause for a little while.
Hook your reader
There are three main ways to hook your reader into pre-ordering or ordering the next book in a series. You can (and should) use these in conjunction with each other for maximum impact.
The first is a call to action. At the end of book one, you tell your readers to check out book two, or to check out your website/sign up for your mailing list to be notified about the next installment.
This is an absolute must—you should be doing this kind of thing even if you’re not writing a series. Enthusiastic readers want to be the first to know about new work, and they’ll be glad for the chance to sign up.
The second is a teaser. At the end of book one, include the first chapter of book two. The reader gets hooked on that chapter and has to know how things work out, so they pre-order or order the next book.
The third way to hook your reader is a plain ol’ cliffhanger. Be careful with this—a blatant cliffhanger might feel cheap or cash-grabby and turn off readers, especially adults. The cliffhanger shouldn’t be so jarring that the book isn’t at all satisfying on its own, but it should be jarring enough that there’s a little itch left to scratch.
Create a strong title
It might sound simple, but a strong series title will make branding and marketing your series much easier. If the names are too complicated and vary too much from book to book, it’s literally harder to find them in a bookstore—you want to make things as easy for the reader as possible.
Create a name for the entire series, as well as for each individual book. These names might have some kind of a gimmick or theme that ties them together—American Girl Doll books, for example, all follow the same format in the same order from Girl to Girl. ‘X’s Surprise: a Christmas Story is always about that character’s Christmas traditions, for example, and it always comes between ‘X Learns a Lesson’ and ‘Happy Birthday, X.’
Make it snappy, on-theme, and easy to remember.
Keep titles and covers consistent and cohesive
Speaking of on-theme—you want your books to look like they’re in a series. You might want to work with a cover artist who has done covers for series before.
Just as the books themselves should be unique while also falling into place alongside the others, so should the covers.
Aesthetically, you want enough variance that the audience can tell them easily apart, but you want the art style, colors, and titles to reflect their differences. If it all looks the same, it probably won’t stand out much.
What to do next
Ready to outline your book and get your series started?