When planning my latest series, I noticed that there were very few blog posts on the subject, so after several people asked me to write one, I thought it couldn’t hurt to write about my process.
When I get an idea for a new book, I like to decide fairly early on whether it’ll be a series or a standalone. I’ve only ever written one standalone (a YA fantasy) - I’m naturally drawn to big, world-spanning ideas which would take several books to do justice to. But sometimes when reading a series, I get the sense that it’s being dragged out too much, and that fewer books would mean a tighter, better story. People talk about “middle book syndrome” (usually when discussing trilogies) and I think that can happen when an author tries to stretch a story too far, resulting in filler and a slow pace. To avoid this, I try to plan in advance.
Firstly, there are two types of series. One is effectively one long story broken into smaller sections which are, usually, complete stories in themselves (the Harry Potter series comes to mind) and are intended to be read in one order. And the other is a series of interconnected self-contained stories set in the same world (a famous example is the Sherlock Holmes series) which can be read in any order. I write the first kind of series, where each book builds on the last, until it comes to a natural end-point. Some writers expand their books into longer series when fans demand it, others write the first book and figure the rest out later. But as an outliner, I always want to figure out as early as possible how long a series will take to complete. It depends on the following:
1. Overarching idea. If it’s a big, world-spanning idea, I need to figure out how many books it will naturally take to resolve the overall plot. From the beginning, I knew the Alliance series would be at least five or six books because of the nature of the plot: it’s big. There are several entire worlds involved, and various conspiracies, conflicts and earth-shattering - possibly literally ;) - secrets.
2. Characters. The central characters need to be strong enough to carry the series over the course of more than one story and to undergo believable development.
3. Genre, to some extent. Certain genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, are more likely to be part of a series because they are often - but not always - based on big ideas. If you’ve created an expansive world packed with exciting conflict, wrapping it up in one book can be a challenge. On the other hand, romance novels are more likely to be standalones. The danger of dragging out a romance in a series is that obstacles can start to feel contrived. (On the other hand, I’ve noticed quite a few romance authors having success with the second type of series, where each book is focused on a different couple but set in the same “story world” as the others.)
So, here are some of my tips for planning and writing a series.
1. Give each book its own storyline. Many readers hate cliffhangers, especially if they picked up the book without realising it was part of a series. It’s fine not to resolve everything in the first book, but I try to create one major problem to solve per book, and then have some other, bigger conflicts to leave hanging in the background until it’s their time to come forward. A lot of authors use this method - again, the Harry Potter series is a great example. In the first book, the conflict revolves around the Philosopher’s Stone and is solved by the end. But the ultimate series goal - defeating Voldemort - doesn’t fully come into play until later in the series. As each book is a complete, satisfying story, readers don’t feel cheated or impatient. This is a great lesson to learn.
2. Raise the stakes with each book. One danger is repetitiveness, so to avoid this, I try to plan so that each story’s conflict builds on the previous ones. This is really tricky, I admit. But think of the series as one big story, with its own three acts, and plan accordingly. The first act is setup. The second builds the conflict, and the third is the climax. The first book in a series has its own major conflict which is resolved by the end, but it's also an introduction to the series as a whole. The second ups the stakes, introduces more of the world, sometimes new characters and settings. And in a trilogy, the third is where the climax begins and the stakes are sky-high. Managing the timing over a longer series can be a challenge, but you can still use the three-act structure as a guide. This blog post is a great help. I also used this post on planning character arcs across a series. And to write a synopsis, this post is a lifesaver!
For the actual planning, a lot depends on your own writing method. Even if you're a panster, I definitely recommend writing down certain things like character appearances and the "rules" of your story's world (if you're writing fantasy) - trust me, you'll need them later on. Personally, I'd recommend a series notebook, or a document in Scrivener, which I use to plan all my books now. I create separate folders for each book, and others for characters, settings, and a "series bible" with the rules on magic and the various worldbuilding areas.
I outline based on the snowflake method, where I'll start with a one-sentence summary for each book, centred on the main conflict. Like I said, I want the stakes to get higher with each volume, so by figuring out what the conflict actually is, before anything else, I can hopefully avoid issues later down the line. There'll always be one huge conflict happening either in the background or even in plain sight, which will take the whole series to resolve. Each book then needs a smaller dilemma. With the Alliance series, Adamant starts with a murder (which then escalates into something bigger). The second book involves a more high-profile killing (which again escalates), and the third involves the fate of an entire world. And so on.
I then write a paragraph-long summary for each book. For each main character, I also write down their goal, motivation, flaw and conflict, in each book, and then a one-paragraph summary. Now I've written more than one series, I know I have a habit of wandering off-outline, but the one thing that stays the same is the main character's arc. An excellent resource for planning a novel/series based on the main character's flaw is Libbie Hawker's book, Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing. By keeping the main character's journey at the centre, I find it easier to work out what direction the story will take even if it ends up looking very different to the original outline.
Then I write a synopsis for each book, which I expand into an outline. I don't plot every single detail, and I like to leave space in case the characters take the story in directions I didn't expect. Sometimes things just naturally come together as I'm writing, so I make a note of them in the Scrivener file and carry on. Obviously, this is only one way of doing things. I sometimes just write short synopses for sequels before drafting the first book, and expand them into outlines later. With the Alliance series, I've been revisiting my outlines after I complete each book and adapting them to fit with any changes I've made. I always do this while drafting, which is why I consider myself a "plotser" - I know the main pieces of the plot and the key background information, but not every single scene, and sometimes my characters surprise me.
I also like to draft series books back-to-back if I can (as I'm doing with my Alliance series) in order to minimise inconsistencies and make sure the foreshadowing works. But this is because I'm self-publishing. If I was querying the first book, I'd then move on to a new project, because the first book might not sell (I've made this mistake before, spending a year drafting the sequel to the first book I queried, before I realised the whole series was deeply flawed). On the other hand, it can be an advantage to have synopses for the other books in the series ready if your agent or publisher asks for them. And, of course, it can be hard to leave your characters behind once you've finished the first book. Ultimately, it's up to you as the writer.
Click to tweet