WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

I know I’ve discussed this little a bit in other articles before, but I wanted to talk specifically about the process of plotting a multi-book narrative. And how to make the ending satisfying because, from an emotional standpoint, this is the moment both you and your audience has been waiting for – the time when all the hints, all the adventures, all the hard work and suffering your characters (and you!) have gone through pays off.

First, let’s talk about the logistics of a series from a career point of view.

When do I start planning the series?

This is a complicated question because, depending on where you are in your career and in the book-writing process, the answer will be different.

If you’re an already-published or already-represented author, then you’re likely already quite familiar with the process of pitching a book to your publisher/agent. Pitching a series is not much different, except that you’d need to write a synopsis for all the books you plan to write in the series, and create a pitch document for the series as a whole, as well as for each individual book.

If you are querying agents or publishers for the first time though, it’s a different process. The first thing I would recommend you do is not write the series.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you plan to pitch the book you’re querying as the first in a series. But trust me. There are reasons:

  • What if the agent/editor/publisher comes up with something better? In discussing a novel with you, inevitably – if you are talking about doing a series – someone is going to say “So what’s happening in book two? What if you do XYZ?” and it’s very possible that this new idea might be a stronger choice or provide a more interesting outcome. In that case, you’ve wasted what is probably years on writing something that you may end up scraping.
  • You’re writing into a void, and without guidance. Your writing will improve as you work with your editor/agent on your first novel. Everyone would rather you wrote book two after having done all that work with your editor/agent, because it will inevitably be a stronger, better-written manuscript. It’s much better, and so much easier, to write a strong first draft than have to go back and rewrite a weak one. Or a whole series of already-written books.
  • Things can change in edits – a small change in book one can have a ripple effect in all the rest of the books, which can open you up to the risk of terrible continuity errors in later books, or even whole swathes of plot points or character moments that will need rewriting.
  • What if they don’t want the series, and only want the first book? It happens. (It also happens the other way around, too – the Accidental Turn Series was never meant to be a series, and I had never planned to write more than The Untold Tale.) They may ask you to put a less open ending on the book and just wrap it up, so there’s no further story to tell.  In that case, you’ll have wasted your time on the other books in the series, which can’t be published because your publisher likely has right of first refusal on works set in that IP, and has refused them. 
  • Your publisher may want to wait to see how book one does before investing more time and money in further books with you. And they may only want one or two more – even if you planned, say, five. You may need to restructure your story ideas to fit a smaller, or larger, number of books. It’s much easier to do that if the books don’t exist, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to make what already exists either squash or stretch.

So how do you get across to a publisher/agent that you’re querying that this is meant to be the first book of a series? These are the nine most important words for pitching a series: “This is a stand-alone novel with series potential.”

So what does that mean? It means that 1) you have to write a book that is fully contained, with a satisfying ending in and of itself, 2) that has enough plot seeds sown and open points where future plots could anchor that it could be the first of a series, 3) but not so many that if those seeds never get to grow or those open points remain gaping, it feels like a cheap and unsatisfactory ending. Think of it as a made-for-tv-movie that is also a back-door-pilot. If the MFTVM does very well, the producers may spin it out into a TV series. If it doesn’t, it remains just a movie. So it has to be both satisfying and stand-alone, but also useful as a kicking-off point to a longer and more involved narrative.

What’s different about writing a series?

The first, and most obvious difference between writing the books in a series and any other stand-alone  book, is that you have to draw the story out, and then finish what you start. Everything you set up, hint at, or have happen in previous books has to work toward the final climax scene in the final story, while also still providing satisfying novels individually.

It’s a lot to remember, and a lot to make pay off. (This is why I have a whiteboard wall and a pin-board in my office, so I can keep notes to myself about things I seeded when I started book one). 

And on top of that, you need to avoid Mushy Middle Syndrome – that is, writing books that happen between the first and last novels in the series that are clearly just made up of filler.  Each individual book in the series needs to be a whole story itself as well as part of the structure holding up the bridge of the overall narrative, and just as strong (ideally stronger) than the first book in the series.

 But how can you not only do this, but do it well?

As a Pantser at heart it pains me to say it, but the best way to make sure your foundation is solidly laid (and that you won’t have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of earlier books), you’ll need to Plan. At least a little.

As a trained playwright and screenwriter, I personally choose to write my books according to the three-act structure. 

Writing a book with the three-act structure generally looks like this:

When writing a series, each book will be structured to have three Acts.

BUT, when you are writing a series, (let’s say a trilogy for simplicity’s sake), each book itself becomes an Act in the narrative of the whole story.

So when you’re planning each book, not only do you have to write a whole, complete, compelling novel in and of itself (with no saggy middle book!), you also have to ensure that the tale you’re telling in each individual novel serves the overall narrative as well. Which means the final book in the series will be especially fussy to plan, because it must function both as a stand-alone novel, but also behave like the third act of the series and wrap everything up satisfactorily, and in a way that is not rushed.

To complicate things, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re telling, and what the structure tropes are for that particular narrative style. Going with my above example, The Accidental Turn Series is about a quintessential Tolkien-esque fantasy hero who never knew he was the main character all along, so had been acting like a sidekick. As such, each book follows the Hero’s Journey narrative map, while the characters deliberately attempt to escape from the Hero’s Journey cycle:

So each individual book looks like this:

But when you blow it out into the full series, the Hero’s Journey for each book looks more or less like this:

As you can see, some of the narrative beats overlap, because if there was a clear division between books, it would mean the first book has no real ending, the second book is filled with adventures that don’t culminate in any kind of climax, and the third book would be mostly denouement and return. So you do need to balance where the Revelations happen, how often, and how they drive the plot of not only that particular novel forward, but that of the whole series.

Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, or the only way you can divide up a series.  For The Skylark’s Saga, as a two-book series, I organized it like this:

Which meant a lot of conversations with my editor, a lot of scribbling on that white board, and what turned out to be a whole heck of a lot of rewrites, as the original ending wasn’t strong enough to finish off a duology and we had to reformat the final act of book two a few times.

No matter how you plan to plot your series, knowing which story structure you plan to use is vital, so you can mirror that structure into the layout of the series as a whole. Beyond the Three Act structure, This article offers a few more options for how to layout the narrative foundations of your novel.

For my next novel, The Maddening Science, (which is going to be a stand alone), I’m venturing away from both the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure. I’m not sure exactly which model I’ll be using, but Steve Seager lists some other fascinating possible story structures that I want to explore in more depth before I swing into this novel for NaNoWriMo

I’m also really into the way Alan Moore structured the overall graphic novel Watchmen. I’m enamored with the idea of seemingly disparate stories coming together to create a solid understanding of the world and a shocking realization as the climax is playing out. All the different tales come together in the end to form one picture – like different coloured threads knotting together to form a friendship bracelet – and that is what I’d like to explore in terms of storytelling next.

Shall we call this the Woven Structure? Maybe let’s see if I can make it work before we name it.

The point is, no matter which structure you use, having a solid understanding of how it works, and which beats you’re going to put in which books, is an extremely important part of planning a book series. Mapping the structure of the novel onto the series as a whole is a simple (if brain-knotting) way to ensure that the series conclusion is not only satisfying, but gripping.

Okay – so we’ve talked the plotting.

But what about the emotional payoff?

So here’s the meat of series. You have to satisfy all the promises you made in the prose of the previous novels.

I’m not saying this means you must create Happily Ever Afters for all the heroes and Come Uppances for all the baddies. Nothing so trite. I am saying that you have set up expectations in the prose that things that are brought up, actions that occur and events that happen, will be resolved.

For example, Lucas couldn’t just tell the viewers that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and then not address it in the later movies, and not resolve Luke and Vader’s relationship in the final climactic battle. It’s a revelation that promised satisfaction to that emotional arc, even if viewers had to wait for the next movie for that satisfaction.

There’s also this article on how to use the Chekhov’s Gun approach to plant promises in your text, and explains the concept in further detail. But it boils down to this – make sure you’re closing all the doors, tying up all the loose threads, and addressing all the questions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you need a seven-chapter denouement or an explanation of what happened to each character as the adventure ends. It just means that the ending you choose to give the novel has to end the series well, and leave readers content with the information that you chose to impart, and a feeling of being happy with knowing all they know.

As a big fan of fanfiction, I’m also okay with writers not closing every plot off. It is nice to have space to think about what might happen next, especially with side characters whose endings might not have been explained in greater detail or happened off screen.

To make sure I don’t miss anything like this, every time I make a Big Promise in my novels, I write it down on my whiteboard. Example: “Kin and Bevel have to talk about Bev’s desire to be a father / possibly agree to have a kid?” This was brought up in book two of The Accidental Turn series, as well as in the novellas Arrivals and Ghosts, in the short story Health, and the final novel. This promise was satisfied in the novella Magic, and finally tied up in the short story Pride (all of which can be found in The Accidental Collection).

These don’t have to be detailed notes – just a scrawl on the wall is usually enough to remind me when the time comes. And who doesn’t like checking things off a list when you’ve accomplished it?

There are lots of ways to make sure your final book packs an emotional punch. I asked fellow writers on Twitter to chime in, and these are the tips they offered:


Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series