Shannon Messenger is the author of Legacy, the eighth book in the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Keeper of the Lost Cities series, out available now! Below, she outlines some things to keep in mind when writing a fantasy series of your very own!
Writing a fantasy series can feel a lot like going on a really long road trip. No matter how prepared you think you are, you’re probably still going to get lost a zillion times and realize that you didn’t pack half the things you need. But none of that will matter because you’ll have all kinds of adventures along the journey!
Or … your characters will at least.
As the author? You’re mostly going to consume a lot of caffeine.
I’ll be honest: I had no idea how to write a book when I first got the idea for Keeper of the Lost Cities. And I knew right away that the story would need to be told throughout the course of a series, so it felt extra daunting. I tried studying the craft of writing, but it was all a bit too abstract to be useful for me. What helped me so much more was devouring as many fantasy series as I could get my hands on—which brings me to the first thing to keep in mind if you’re writing a fantasy series.
Tip #1: Read as abundantly and diversely as possible
As you do, try to ask yourself things like: Am I enjoying this scene? Did I see that plot twist coming? Do I believe that the world I’m reading about could exist? Do I care about these characters? Then ask yourself: Why or why not? And try to remember that you’re not judging the quality of what you’re reading. You’re figuring out your own personal preferences, which will help guide you when it’s time to start making choices for your own story.
And that brings me to the second thing to keep in mind when you create a fantasy series.
Tip #2: Prepare to make a LOT of decisions
Every world detail.
Every character trait.
Every plot point.
It’s all up to you.
And figuring it all out can be super exciting and a little addictive and incredibly overwhelming especially when you consider how often your choices will ripple through the entire series. I’d wager that every series author has something they look back on in the early books and think, “why did I say that?”
But it happens less often if you keep in mind a third, very important thing.
Tip #3: Focus on logic
Ask yourself: If I choose Thing A, how is that going to affect Thing B and Thing C and Thing D, etc.? Then follow that question as far as you can go, and repeat with the next choice and the next and the next. The process can be a bit tedious, but it’s well worth the effort, because it connects everything you’re creating from the beginning, and helps you to see a lot of the ripples before they happen.
Another useful trick is the fourth thing to keep in mind.
Tip #4: Leave yourself breadcrumbs
Toss in some details as you go along—maybe mention another location, or drop the name of an unknown character, or give hints about something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. Don’t spend more than a sentence or two on any of it because you may never go back and do anything with it. You’re just giving yourself things to build on when you inevitably find yourself staring down a gaping plot hole or a seemingly unsolvable conundrum. Since the elements have been there all along, they’ll feel like they were always part of your plan for the series, even if you’re really just making it up as you go along.
And when you toss in that breadcrumb, I highly recommend making a note of it. In fact, that’s the fifth thing you should be keeping in mind when writing a fantasy series.
Tip #5: Keep very thorough notes
The more notes you make for yourself, the more you’ll thank yourself later—and make sure you update those notes if things change when you revise. I’m speaking from experience here. Past me thought, “of course I’ll remember this!”
Hahahahaha … no.
Keyword searches were my salvation—but boy are they time consuming. And it was even more time consuming to go back and retroactively create notes from the published books.
So learn from my mistake and make lots of detailed, organized notes as you go. Think of it like keeping a travel journal of the road trip you’re taking with your characters—a list of all the moments you want to make sure you never forget. And make sure you’re having fun on that journey—which is actually a sixth thing to keep in mind. Honestly the most important thing.
Tip #6: Writing should be something you enjoy
Yes, there will be hard days when the scenes or characters won’t cooperate. But there should also be plenty of days where you lose yourself so completely to your story that it almost feels like you’ve been sucked into the world you’ve created. If you’re not having fun with what you’re creating, you’re probably putting too much pressure on yourself to get everything perfect. So take a deep breath, remember that writing is re-writing and you’ll fix it in revision.
And I know I’ve now technically contradicted my title by adding a sixth tip—but that’s another thing about writing a series: it always gets bigger and more complicated than you initially think it’s going to be. Stories grow. Characters change. And the real magic comes when you step back and let it happen.
So grab some more caffeine and keep on writing!