Six Steps to Plotting a Series

PlannerCiao, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

I have two series under my belt now, one completely published (the Cathedral Lake series) and one wrapping up in 2018 (the Medici Protectorate series).

Let’s look more closely at the Cathedral Lake series.

  1. Theme of Series
    Love overcoming family dysfunction.
  2. Setting
    Cathedral Lake, a fictional town in modern-day Western Pennsylvania. (And, without giving away spoilers, the setting plays a crucial role in the saga.)
  3. Number of Books in the Series
    It’s a three-book series spanning several years following the Keller family.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Staci Troilo

48 thoughts on “Six Steps to Plotting a Series

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  4. Great post, Staci! I haven’t plotted a series where the books continue through a story arc (like traditional fantasy epics), but mostly episodic, like Bond or Reacher. Still, good reminder to still have a plan for character development through the progress of the series. And I agree, Mae’s PP series feels plotted, and I’m really surprised she’s a pantser 🙂

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  5. Thank you for this post! I needed it to remind me I need to think through my series as a whole.

    I hope my science fiction novel Undercover is just the first in the series of Modifieds. Actually, it took me too long to create the world and think through its history to waste it in a standalone story. I’d like to write a trilogy at least, starring the main male and female heroes. Each book should expand the conflict they’re facing (national, international, planetary) while bringing them closer.

    I’d also like to explore history and others aspects of this fictional world with prequels and stories following minor characters, but I’m not decided about it yet. Maybe I’ll come to hate the entire thing once the trilogy is complete!

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    • I think your idea of raising the stakes with each novel is brilliant. I hope you don’t get tired of it. Such intricately-designed worlds are so much fun for readers to explore; related shorts in that world will be fun for your readers.

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  6. I’m currently plotting a six-book fantasy series (yikes!) and I think one of the most important things is to have a very good understanding of the main plot and where the story is going. When it comes to fantasy, it can be very obvious when a writer hasn’t planned because pacing and event continuity become befuddled and there is a certain lack of consistency in world building. Plus, it’s stacks of fun to set out little hints and questions and subplota that won’t come to fruition until later in the series….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow. Six books? Wishing you success with that.

      You are so right about pre-planning fantasy. Those worlds have to be grand and vast and incredibly detailed. And the longer a saga runs, the more readers will immerse themselves. That investment also means they’ll be able to more easily find flaws in the world and the plot. I don’t know how a pantser would do it.

      Very insightful comment, Rebecca. (By the way, I think foreshadowing is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing, too.) I’m glad you shared your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve completed one series and am currently writing the second book of a second series. Although each book can stand on its own, I do have plot threads that carry throughout, to be resolved at the conclusion of each series. I don’t plan very well (as you know, LOL) and generally don’t start thinking about the next book in the series until it’s time to start writing it. Yes, that’s bad, but somehow things manage to fall into place–although not without an excess of grief and panic on my end, which I could probably avoid by following a blueprint such as you’ve outlined above.

    With series writing, I like that most of the framework (i.e, setting, secondary characters) are established in book one, so it’s easy to return and pick up those threads. I know the layout of the town and history of many of the characters, making it easier to “fall into the groove.”

    Informative post, Staci!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t write without a plan, Mae, so believe me when I tell you that you make it look effortless. Your Point Pleasant series feels plotted; you left no open threads.

      As for the framework, I agree. It’s nice coming back to a world you don’t have to make up from scratch. That makes series writing easier than standalones.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent advice, Staci. I’m glad you mentioned stand-alone novels that also serve as part of series, which often is the norm in the crime genre. My Grafton County series grew due to reader response, so I had no idea it would morph into an entire series when I wrote MARRED. At most, I thought I’d write a sequel and that would be it. Because of this, the series is tricky to write. Conversely, I planned to write my Mayhem Series long-term, so I know exactly where I’m going in at least the next two or three books. In both series, I’ve grown so attached to the characters. They feel like family! Did you find it difficult to end your series?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love both your series, Sue, regardless of how they came to be.

      With the Cathedral Lake series, ending wasn’t too bad. I had known it was going to be the story of the Keller family, but I introduced so many new characters along the way, I can easily expand past the trilogy in the future. So it wasn’t really goodbye. The Medici Protectorate series, on the other hand, was really hard for me. It was conceived as a four-book series, and there was really no way to go past it with these characters. THEN, however, an idea struck me. It might not really be goodbye, after all. I’m okay with leaving Cathedral Lake, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to the Brothers.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post as usual, Staci. I’m getting ready to plan and write book three of a series. I intended the first book to be a stand-alone novel, but it didn’t turn out that way. Would have been great to have planned the entire series in the beginning.

    I enjoyed writing a series and am thinking of doing a second one. If so, I’ll be sure to use your guidelines.

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