Ciao, SEers. We’re rounding out the year, and everyone is likely in planning mode for 2018. I know the six of us have been discussing it among ourselves. So, I thought this would be a great time to talk about a particular type of planning—plotting a series.
I’ve written both standalone works and series, and there are many similarities. And, of course, as you plot each individual novel within the series, the majority of the steps are the same. But plotting a series requires a few special considerations that we’ll talk about below.
- Decide on the Theme of the Series
Each individual novel may have its own theme, but there needs to be an over-arching theme to the series itself. It’s that one core message holding everything together.
- Pin Down the Setting
Time and place are important factors in the plotting of a book or a series. Novels set in Victorian England will progress differently than novels set in the modern-day United States, and both of those will be different than futuristic novels set on Mars. You need to consider modern conveniences (or lack thereof), climate, technology, government, economics. (Thank you, Craig, for reminding us of many of these things in your post, An Odd Bit of World Buliding.) Setting is crucial for plotting the saga.
- Choose the Number of Books for the Series*
This can either be laughably simple or incredibly difficult to do. In addition to keeping the theme in mind, you’ll essentially be determining the length of the series and possibly the number of main characters you’ll need.
- A series like Harry Potter follows the same POV character throughout. In fact, it says so in the title of each book. In such a case, plot will determine the structure of the series. J.K. Rowling used school grades to define her series length—seven expected years of schooling, seven books. Each novel stands on its own, but the overarching problem isn’t solved until the final novel’s climax. Stakes do get higher with each novel, though.
- A series like Nora Roberts’ Blood Brothers series stays in the same town and follows the same core group of people, but each novel focuses on a different “blood brother”. The number of books is determined by the number of boys, in this case, three. As with the Harry Potter series, each novel works as a standalone, but the series problem isn’t solved until the end of book three. And stakes grow more serious as the saga progresses.
- Did you notice the asterisk above? There’s a case where you really never have to determine the length of the series. In cases like Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, James Bond… there’s no overarching mystery to solve. Each novel is self-contained and the entire compilation can be read in any order. The only thing defining books like these as series is the fact that each novel follows the same POV character and the same general plot structure.
- Create Character Sketches
This can be as basic as thinking about who you need to advance your plot or as complex as actually filling out character sheets. But you’ll need to know who your hero and villain are if you’re going to understand their character arcs and the progression of the action.
- Determine the Over-Arching Problem of the Series
The method you choose to plot the main storyline of an individual novel will come into play here. Expand that process across all your books. Make sure each novel shows the progression of the over-arching theme and increases the stakes, but don’t resolve the problem until you intend to end the series.
- Plot Each Novel
You’re used to this. Even pantsers “plot” their novels. They have themes and characters and an idea of where things need to go. Whether you outline or not, you need to figure out the main purpose of each novel at this point so you’re certain your overall series will achieve its goals.
The seventh step is to start writing, but you already knew that.
Let’s look more closely at the Cathedral Lake series.
- Theme of Series
Love overcoming family dysfunction.
Cathedral Lake, a fictional town in modern-day Western Pennsylvania. (And, without giving away spoilers, the setting plays a crucial role in the saga.)
- Number of Books in the Series
It’s a three-book series spanning several years following the Keller family.
- Character Sketches
Once I determined the main characters would be the Kellers, I had to develop villains to oppose them, mentors to guide them, friends to confide in, and in the last two books, co-heroes/love interests. Only the big names need to be determined before the novels start. Minor characters can be developed and added later should the plot require it. (And I did quite a lot of that.)
- Over-Arching Problem
Most important was healing a damaged family. A second, yet strong, plot issue was the ramifications of the death of a family member and the dangers the remaining family members faced.
- Plotting Each Novel
Book one (Type and Cross) focuses on the parents and their many struggles while dealing with the loss of their daughter. Book two (Out and About) focuses on the son and his issues with his father while coming to terms with the release of his sister’s killer. And book three (Pride and Fall) focuses on the daughter, her issues with her family, and the PTSD she developed due to events occurring after her sister’s murder. Each novel took us closer to healing the family and eliminating the dangers they faced. (I don’t want to reveal more because there are a lot of surprises in those novels.)
This series didn’t take me long to plan, but then, I enjoy creating general outlines for my work. My publisher released one novel each year for three consecutive years, but it didn’t take me that long to write them.
If you follow this general blueprint, put up decent daily word counts (here is a post by me and another from P. H. that can help you increase your output), and self-publish, you could conceivably publish an entire series in a single year.
Have you ever plotted a series? Is your method different? Let’s talk about it.