The Middle Child #WritingaSeries

If you’re a middle child, you’re most likely the peacekeeper of the family with a penchant for loyalty. Your older sibling tends to be an over-achiever who assumes leadership positions, and your younger sibling is the creative one who can be on the manipulative side. Does any of this sound familiar?

These are traits psychologists have attributed to birth order. You’ve probably also heard of Middle Child Syndrome, a philosophy that children who fall in the middle of the birth order can often be resentful of their place in life and their siblings. Anyone remember Jan from the Brady Bunch, wailing “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” (Visualize the foot-stomping that goes with this). Middles sometimes feel like the odd one out.

a trio of cats, with the center cat different in coloring from those on each end

But, because of their birth order, middles are often more inclined to be independent, empathetic, and become skilled negotiators able to bring about compromise.

So why am I talking about birth order on a blog devoted to writing? Stick with me a minute—have you ever written a series?

The first book takes a leadership role. It sets the tone and stage, establishing setting and the characters who will become family and friends for the reader. It’s sparkly and new, often with a lot of fanfare to accompany its launch. The last book gets attention for wrapping up plot threads and­—hopefully­— leaves readers oohing and aahing over a satisfying conclusion.

But what about the middle child?

If you’re writing a series with an ongoing story arc, the middle is an opportunity to leave readers dangling in suspense (The Empire Strikes Back anyone?). If, however, you’re writing a series where each book serves as a standalone, the middle child has other challenges.

You need to carry through on continuity from book one, delivering elements and characters readers are familiar with. In addition, you need to foreshadow the story arc and characters for the final chapter (assuming you’re writing a three-book series)—all of this while delivering a fully fleshed story for book two.

As an author currently writing the second book of my second series (got that?), I’ve discovered a special fondness for the middle child. I loved all three books in my Point Pleasant series (what author doesn’t like their own work?) but the second book remains my favorite. I’m also currently in love with the second book of my Hode’s Hill series and have a feeling it may turn out to be my favorite as well.

When you’re writing a series there’s a lot to be said for easing into the second book. The setting is already established and many of the characters are familiar to the reader. That’s a huge plus. Being in a grounded world puts you immediately on firm footing. Ah, but what about those readers who weren’t with you for book one? Who decided to pick up book two on its own merits?

Now you’ve got provide enough history from the first book—in a manner that doesn’t come off like an information dump—while keeping it brief enough not to bore the readers who were with you for round one. Tricky, yes?

Your main characters, who likely played a secondary role in book one, are now center stage. But returning readers fell in love with your MCs from the first novel, so you can’t neglect bringing them back in a supporting role. On the plus side, you know these guys. You’ve worked with them before, and after 75K to 85K, should be able to dump them in any situation and know how they’ll respond. Even so, they’re background.

This is the middle child stepping into the leadership role. A book that demands its own story and its own special set of MCs. As an author, it’s time to rewire the brain and shift focus. In a novel, many readers find the middle of a book will sometimes drag. I see that often in reviews. You don’t want your series to drag any more than you want your novel to drag. The middle book should be approached with the same enthusiasm as the sparkly new beginning, and fanfare wrap-up ending.

Middles are special. They’re the bridge joining everything together. You may just find they even become stars that surpass the start and/or conclusion, and fit in just fine.

two mules with a dog between them walking down a dirt road, seen from the rear

If you’ve written a series, what challenges have you faced with the middle? Do you find it harder to write the middle than the preceding and closing books? If you haven’t written a series, can you see yourself undertaking one, and what do you perceive to be the greatest hurdles? Let’s get some discussion going!

53 thoughts on “The Middle Child #WritingaSeries

  1. Pingback: Writing Links 2/12/18 – Where Genres Collide

  2. Great post, Mae! I find that my series are more episodic than having an overall story arc. That said, I love the concept of the middle book bridging the first and last of a trilogy. Even though I haven’t written a trilogy yet, I am trying to fine-tune the whole info-dump/how much to remember from the first book issue with Book 2. That, I think, is more of a struggle, because the same main characters have the stage, rather than giving supporting characters the stage. Some readers know the MCs, but those who haven’t read Book 1 don’t know them. Still feeling that out. Good luck with your Book 2!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Book 2 can be a struggle in that respect, Julie. I’ve read a few reviews of series where someone complained of book 2 containing too much of a rehash from book 1, and others saying they were lost because they hadn’t read the first book in the series. It’s a fine balancing act and not always easy to find the sweet spot.

      I like a series is episodic as well as those that contain a story arc. One long series I follow is episodic but will occasionally have a three-book story arc within the overall series. Those are fun too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  4. The series I’ve written, so far, don’t have overall story arcs, and that makes them easier. Each shares the same characters and settings, but each book deals with a new issue. For the romances, each new book had different main characters, but they were all set in Mill Pond. I enjoy series with an overall story arc, but I haven’t tried to write one yet. I think Ilona Andrews did a great job with her Kate Daniels series, building more and more tension for the final book. I loved the TV series Sleepy Hollow when it had a story arc for the first season, and I didn’t think it was as good when the producers decided each show should be episodic. But in a three book series, the second book straddles the tension between the first and last book. And that can make it fun!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t realize they did that with Sleepy Hollow. I think I stopped watching after the first season.

      There are a lot of series out there that don’t have overall story arcs but the familiar setting and characters are always a plus. I love revisiting towns and people I’ve come to know through books when an author utilizes what you did with Mill Pond. I’m really looking forward to your cozy series. Will your mysteries be set in the same place like you did with Mill Pond?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, Mae. I like the bridge-span concept, it’s a good way to think about those sagging middles! I have three series on the go and handled each one differently. The first is seven books long now and still going strong. For the middle child 🙂 I did a couple of novellas highlighting characters readers wanted to hear more from. Their stories weren’t necessary to the overall conflict arc of the series, but I think they added to the world I’d created.
    The second, a paranormal series, has a strong overriding conflict between two angels that runs through the two books I’ve written so far.
    The third, a contemporary series, has a family as its main connection, but each book is a standalone.
    I love writing series because the first book (oldest child) goes through all the growing pains. The second is the link between ideas, and the third is the fun child, lol

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jacquie I loved the way you described a series with growing pains, link and fun! Given you’ve written the amount of series you have, you are clearly experienced at handling them and handling them well. I also think novellas are a great idea for adding more flavor to a series. I’ve seen authors offer a few as prequels or sequels (after the series ends) or to tide over in the middle. I keep thinking that someday I will have to write a few novellas on my Point Pleasant series. I think that’s a fun way to keep the characters alive!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Our conversations over the years have swayed me more toward series writing. I haven’t made the plunge yet, but I think a trilogy might be the best of both worlds from a business standpoint. Still debating that idea inside. I’m not used to changing main characters in a series, but several of the SE authors do it regularly. Right now, I have the idea that the entire series should be based upon three act structure. Then each individual book would break down in the same fashion. Does this seem about right? I don’t know if I could pull it off, because I like to be concise. I wouldn’t want to add fluff just to make the system work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I guess the question would be would you have to add fluff in order to reach book length? Individual acts could be lengthy without fluff, depending on what they would encompass. Right now series seem to be trending, at least in genre fiction, but there are some drawbacks–enticing new readers in mid or late series; what if book one doesn’t have the impact you want it to? As a series writer, I’ve noticed it’s easier getting reviews on the first book but getting readers to stick with the series through all three books–the reviews tend to drop on books 2 and 3. Is that because of the wait between releases? Hard to say. I know that publishers seem to love series releases and when they do well you do have a built-in fanbase, I read both standalones and series and love them both. I guess I think there is merit in both as well. If you do decide to give it a go, I have no doubt you would pull it off.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Joy. I prefer those series (both as a reader and a writer) where each of the books act as stand-alones. I like my books to have a complete finish, but I don’t mind a few arcing plot lines to continue. When I find a good series, I can easily neglect all else. There are several series I currently follow that I love, but each book has a complete finish.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts today! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Joy, a great series can be so fulfilling, and for me, they don’t have to be standalone. With a series I can get my teeth into a story and its characters. I have to agree that this is a great analogy from Mae! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    An interesting look a middle books on in a series on Story Empire today by Mae Clair. I had to face keeping An Arrow Against the Wind on track while bridging to the end of series. I found my characters changed based on events in the first book so letting them react was best. Nice work, Mae!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Maybe I’m weird. I’ve completed two series and am in the middle of a third. In the first series (three books), I liked the first book the best, although I liked the characters in the second book better. In the second series (four books), I liked the second book best, but I think it’s because the hero in that book was my favorite character (in other words, I think books three and four had stronger writing). So far, in my third series (length not yet determined), I like the first book (but that character is a spinoff from the four-book series, so I might be biased). I guess I’m all over the place. But I agree with your assessment of what needs to happen in those middle books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think we end up with personal favorites among our characters as well as the books, which probably slants our bias one way or the other. You’ve written a lot of series books and are currently writing more so you’ve got great experience with this and keeping the momentum going for your fans. I’ve had several readers share their favorite book among my Point Pleasant series with me and they’re all over the place–some liking the first the best, others the last chapter, and others still the middle. It’s interesting that what we like as an author isn’t always the same as what our readers like best.
      And you know where I stand on which character was my favorite among a certain series of yours 😉

      Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely, Jan. No matter how lengthy or short your series there is always a middle and it’s imperative to keep that span fresh and new.
      A few years ago I read a popular YA series that was 6 books long. The first three books were excellent as was the last, but I really had to struggle to get through books 4 and 5. In that case I thought the bridge span fell a bit flat 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  9. I’m writing a series for the first time. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll stop at three books or keep on with it. But I plan to have each book be a stand-alone for the most part, so that might help ease the middle-child role a little.

    Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Having recently published the middle book of my first series, I found it to be my favorite. So much so that I’m struggling with the youngest child. 🙂 You’ve made some great points and I do love the analogy of the middle book/middle child. It can be tricky to bring those MCs from book one into minor roles in book two, but you did it well in the Point Pleasant series. I look forward to your new books!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really liked your middle book too, Joan. Excellent characters and plot!
      When I started writing book 3 of Point Pleasant, I felt the same way as you did. I liked book two so much it was hard to find my footing, but I eventually did. A few readers have told me they liked the last book the best, so I guess the youngest child did its job, LOL.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. When I started, the middle books were a lot more daunting for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. I had to take from what I did and push to the future without saying too much, so it felt like a balancing act. I’ve found it’s easier by making them almost stand-alones and keeping notes as I write the previous books. The funny thing is that now I have trouble with the openers now because I’m thinking too far ahead. Just can’t win. :/

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL! Charles, I still find it mind-boggling that you created a series that spanned so many books and so many years. You built more than a world, you built a universe! 🙂
      I have found great value in keeping notes as I write my books too. After the first series, I learned that even minor things are apt to creep up again. It’s so much easier having a reference sheet then flipping through the previous book(s) to find what I named a particular street or what color car a minor character drives!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Irene! 🙂
      The middle one can definitely be tough, but I bet you’ll be eager to start it after finishing the first book of the series. One thing I’ve learned is to make LOTS of notes. It’s amazing how often you’ll want/need to reference seemingly insignificant things from book one. Happy writing!

      Liked by 2 people

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