by Randy Ingermanson
Mapping Out Your Series
Readers like a series, so it’s good marketing sense to write your novels in a series.
But that raises a question. How do you map out a series of novels?
Mapping out one novel is hard enough that many novelists choose not to do it. They write their novels without a plan and then work extra hard on the editing to build in a plan retroactively. That works for a standalone novel, and if that’s your style, then that’s your style. Do what works for you.
But can you get away with not planning a series?
The answer is that it depends.
There are two extremes in a series:
- Each novel stands alone, and the series is essentially a collection of one-book stories built around a setting or a character. For example, the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child.
- All the novels in the series work together to form one gigantic story. For example, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
If you’re writing a series of standalone novels, then you really don’t need to plan out the series. You can write each book as it comes along, and your instincts will guide you just fine. Romance series and mystery series often fall in this camp.
If the books need to work together to tell a larger story, then you’re going to need to plan things out in advance. But how do you do that?
There are two separate issues you need to think about:
- The character arc in a series
- The plot arc in a series
The Character Arc in a Series
Normally, a standalone novel shows a character making some fundamental change through the course of a book.
But that’s a problem in a series. If you show massive character change in Book 1 of your series, what do you do for an encore in Book 2?
The more amazing your character change in Book 1, the less room you have for character change in Book 2.
This tells us that we’re going to have to manage character arcs differently in a series than we would in a standalone novel.
Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how the masters of the craft have handled their series.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien weaves together multiple story threads. The story thread for the lead character Frodo takes up only a fraction of the total story. Frodo does change by the end—so much that he’s now too big for the Shire he loves. But The Lord of the Rings is a single story told in three volumes, not three different novels in a true series. Tolkien shows us one character arc for Frodo—strung out across three volumes where Frodo doesn’t get full air-time. If you’re doing a single story in multiple volumes, this is a good way to do it.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has the advantage that she’s starting with an eleven-year-old boy, so she has some room to grow him up to an adult. But even so, the changes aren’t radical. Harry is a decent kid at eleven, and he grows up into a decent adult with better control of his emotions. Most of his changes are what you’d expect for a kid growing into an adult. Of course, he has magical powers, and those get more mature through the series, but magical powers don’t make a character arc.
But something is changing in the Potter series.
What changes is the portrayal of the story world itself. Each book has a mystery to be solved by Harry, gradually revealing a much more complicated world than appeared at first sight.
In Book 1, the magical world seems small and childish. Fun and games. Yes, there are trolls to be dealt with. Yes, there are bad witches and wizards. Yes, there’s a bit of unpleasantness long ago with Lord Voldemort, but that’s all apparently in the past.
As the series continues, Lord Voldemort begins to make a comeback. And it becomes clear that those pesky bad witches and wizards are not merely naughty, they’re Evil Incarnate. The Death Eaters are growing in power. Lord Voldemort gets a body, followers, a government, a plan, a path to victory.
All of this takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once. Book by book, the story world grows up from a kid’s story into an adult’s story.
And characters who seemed in Book 1 to be one-dimensional are slowly revealed to be much more complex. As the series unfolds, we learn some major surprises about Sirius Black, Severus Snape, and Albus Dumbledore. Even Harry’s parents, James and Lily Potter, turn out to be more than we had imagined.
If you want to have a character arc in a series, that’s a good way to do it—you keep growing the story world and the other characters, and you make your lead character evolve along with them, bit by bit. Evolution, not revolution.
But a series is not only about characters. It’s also about plot. Let’s look at that next.
The Plot Arc in a Series
Plot matters in a novel. If there’s a higher-level story that guides your series, then your series needs to have a plot. How is it structured?
I believe it should be structured much like the Three-Act Structure in a novel, but with one important difference.
Let’s review how it works in a novel. In a novel, you think of your story as if it were the four quarters of a football game. We call the first quarter of your story Act 1. By the end of Act 1, your lead character commits to the full story. The second and third quarters of your story are called Act 2. By the end of Act 2, your lead character (and your villain if you have one) commit to some final showdown. The fourth quarter is called Act 3, in which you take your lead character through the final showdown to either victory or defeat, and then you wrap things up.
Now how do you structure the plot of a series?
Again you have an Act 1, an Act 2, and an Act 3.
Act 1 is the first book in the series.
Act 3 is the last book in the series.
Act 2 is all the books in between.
Note that this does not apply to The Lord of the Rings, which is not really a series—it’s one single story in three volumes. Act 1 ends at the Council of Elrond, when Frodo commits to taking the Ring to Mount Doom. Act 3 begins when he and Sam enter Mordor.
But it does apply to the Harry Potter series.
Act 1 ends at the conclusion of Book 1, when Harry defeats Professor Quirrell, but learns that the spirit of Lord Voldemort is in fact alive on the earth, and it means Harry harm. Harry realizes that he’s going to be in an ongoing battle with Voldemort, whether he likes it or not.
Act 2 covers all of Harry’s adventures in Books 2 through 6, up to the point when Professor Dumbledore shows Harry the only possible way to finally defeat Lord Voldemort. Harry must find and destroy all of Voldemort’s horcruxes—evil talismans that contain the shards of Voldemort’s shattered soul. Harry learns that if all the horcruxes were destroyed, Voldemort could at last be killed and he would stay dead.
Act 3 is Book 7 of the series, in which Harry and his friends search out and destroy one horcrux after another, culminating in a devastating discovery that forces the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.
As I noted above, this is similar to the way the acts are structured in a novel. The only difference is in the proportions. Act 1 and Act 3 in a series are typically one book apiece, no matter how many other books are in the series. Whereas in a novel, they’re each very roughly a quarter of the book.
- Are you working on a series of novels?
- If so, do the novels in the series stand alone, or do they work together to form a larger story?
- If they form a larger story, how do you handle the character arc of your lead character? And how do you handle the plot arc?