Category Archives: Plot Structure

The Series Arc – A Story Within a Story

Writing a series is the process of telling multiple complete stories within the context of a greater story arc. Each book must be a complete tale in and of itself—with a standalone beginning, middle, and end all sparkling with vivid settings, rich characters, and intricate conflict. Each book sheds only enough light to reveal its portion of the grand design while steadily building tension, book to book, until all is revealed in the final installment.I speak to beginning writers all the time about crafting series. And, after leading off with the whole complete story deal above, I break out the Inception-esque logic of a book-within a book-within a book. Because, really, that’s what we’re writing. The story arc is our overall plot and each book can be seen as an act within the epic structure.

 

As a hardcore story plotter, or outliner, I need to flesh out the high-level arc enough to figure out where each book begins and ends along with the major concepts or plot points that need to be introduced or even resolved. But nothing is set in stone. The outline is more of a guideline as opposed to an absolute. During the writing process, the story and characters evolve. As they do, they affect the overall series arc, kinda like what Doc Brown harangued Marty McFly about—Be careful, Marty, changes in book one could alter the planned events in book four. Yes, they surely will. And that’s all cool and groovy with me because it means the story is deepening, the events stretching between books tightening, interweaving, becoming more connected to the main line.

Let’s see…talked about writing a complete story, shedding light, book within a book, each book like an act…what else? Ah, the hooks. Gotta keep the readers reading.

Just like when ending a chapter on a key revelation or decision point to keep the reader turning the pages, in the case of a series, we do the same. Only, it’s done on a grander scale. In the first book of a series, the writer introduces the conflicts that must be resolved in that book and sets the stage for the main series conflict. Of course, that can’t be resolved within the pages of a single book. If it could, we’d call that a stand-alone novel. The writer builds up the action and leaves the right open conflict threads to ensure the reader comes back for the next book. After the denouement, some riveting scene should occur that grabs the reader by the eyes and says, “OMG!”, whetting the reader’s appetite and leaving them wanting more.

Hooks in books in arcs.

Later,

Scott

Plotting a Series

A guest post by Gama Martinez

How do you approach a series? How do you make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for difficulties because the rules you established for your world in book 1 make the ending of book 6 not work? One way, naturally, is to outline the whole series, but that can be an equally daunting task. Like outlining a book, outlining a series is not for everyone. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s not for most people, and you won’t really know if it’s for you unless you try it. Here’s the method I use.

A number of years ago, I was talking to Brandon Sanderson, and I told him that the second book in the Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance, felt like the end of act 1, and I asked him if that was deliberate. He said that it really was. Books 1 and 2 are act 1. Books 3 and 4 are act 2, and book 5 is act 3. That completely opened my eyes to plotting a series.

The traditional three act structure has a number of parts. What I realized in my conversation with Brandon was that many of these could be applied to a series. It’s not as detailed as can be applied to a novel, but the major parts still apply. The first act is a setup. The second, which can be longer than the others, is the protagonist taking a more active role in their journey. Generally, halfway through, there is a shift. We learn that the world is not what it appeared to be. This act ends when things are pretty much as bad as they can possibly get. The third act is recovering and clawing your way toward victory. Fair warning. I am about to be giving a lot of Harry Potter spoilers, because that series illustrates this beautifully, but given that that series ended ten years ago, I’m going to assume that if you want to read it, you have. If that’s not the case, just skip over the next paragraph.

For Harry Potter, books 1-2 are act 1. Books 3-6 are act 2, and book 7 is act 3. Books 1 and 2 are basically “Harry goes to Hogwarts and something happens.” We’re introduced to the characters, and they start to come into their own. Sure, a couple of important plot details happen, namely, the destruction of the first horocrux, but it’s mainly getting to know the setting and people. In book 3, there is an immediate change. Harry starts off with a specific goal. He wants to kill Sirius Black. From then on, Harry is a more active protagonist. The shift in tone happens at the end of book 4, with the death of Cedric. Someone has died. They weren’t a monster. They were a friend. This is no longer a story for children. The low point, obviously, is the death of Dumbledore. Hogwarts has always been a safe place. Sure, dangerous things happened, but it was home. Harry was always happy to get there and sad to leave. Now, “father” is dead. Home belongs to the bad guys, and Harry cannot return.

I applied many of the same concepts to my Pharim War series. I changed how long each “act” was, but having these points in mind allowed me to outline the entire series fairly early on. I knew what had to happen in book 3. I knew that in book 4, there had to be a shift. I knew where to put the catastrophe. I never follow my outlines exactly, so book 2 didn’t end where I planned. As a result, I had to make minor adjustments to the outline of book 3 before I started, but I knew where the story was going, and that let me jump fairly easily from one book to the next. The ultimate result was a seven book series released entirely in the space of just under a year and a half. Try it out. See if it works for you.

 

Gama Ray Martinez lives near Salt Lake City, Utah. He moved there solely because he likes mountains. He collects weapons in case he ever needs to supply a medieval battalion, and he greatly resents when work or other real life things get in the way of writing. One of his greatest accomplishments is getting Brandon Sanderson to give him a cover quote for his book, Shadowguard. He secretly hopes to one day slay a dragon in single combat and doesn’t believe in letting pesky little things like reality stand in the way of dreams.

Melding the Series Arc and Story Arc

Does a series need an overarching story arc where a question or problem takes several books to resolve? Not all series have an overarching story arc and whether or not you need one largely depends on genre.

Fantasy and science fiction series often have a broader question which needs to be solved or an antagonist who needs to be conquered. Sometimes it is the same antagonist, like Voldemorte in the Harry Potter series, or an antagonist who can change like Larry Brooks’ Shannara Chronicles where after season one in the television series, the antagonist got a new face (but he’s still past of the evil cesspool) and the struggles continue.

Children’s series and crime/mystery or thriller novels don’t need to have an overarching plot problem to be a successful series. Both these genres rely on strong character development and setting to keep the series together. These books stand alone in that they deal with a crime or issue independently and the antagonist or issue is completely resolved. In these series, the character doesn’t need to grow or change, not a lot at any rate. Readers enjoy the characters unique quirks and relationships and they come to rely on their unchanging nature. That is why some series, such as James Bond have lasted for so long. Viewers know what to expect and that’s why they keep coming back.

Crime novels which have stand alone plots can still be tied into a series through their subplots. Such subplots can deal with relationships or fatal flaws such as alcoholism. In these novels, the crime may be solved, but the personal issues are not. Crimes become the setting for character development and the theme of each book speaks to some personal element of the subplot. An excellent example of this is James Runcie’s Grantchester Mystery Series which has been made into a BBC television series in which amateur sleuth and vicar, Sydney Chambers, helps solve a crime. Subplots in the form of personal and local issues resonate in the theme of each episode for main and secondary characters. At the end of each episode, Sydney’s Sunday sermon sums up the theme quire brilliantly.

To create a series whether it be fantasy, science fiction or crime and which has an overarching plot or question, it’s best to map out a few things so that series focus and perspective isn’t lost. Even if you’re a pantser, there are a few things to know before you start writing. Writing a series with an overarching plot or question looks like an umbrella.

The unbrella metaphor helps keep the series in perspective and allows me to include things where they’re the most needed. It keeps issues separated, at least for plotting purposes, helps avoid the murky middle issue for the series and helps keep the series plot unresolved until the end. Here are a few tips for planning hte series and book arcs:

  1. Determine the plot or character problem to be solved by the end of the series. If the protagonist is after a villain, then the climax at the end of the series will be when the two battle it out. If unrequited love creates the resulting climax, know if it will be a happily ever after, an unresolved tragedy, or an acceptance or a moving on with a new person.
  2. Determine each book’s plot or character problem. Resolve that to a satisfactory conclusion. In a crime novel, the criminal is caught. In a fantasy, the fortress is safe and secure from the evil wizard.
  3. Develop the setting and determine key elements so they are consistent throughout the novels.
  4. If your character needs to grow and change, know the degree of this change in each novel. You can’t have the protagonist acting the put together and able to handle things effectively in Book 2 when their great ‘aha! moment’ isn’t supposed to happen until Book 3. If that happens, in Book 2, Book 3 will be redundant.
  5. Think of each book as an act in the series arc (for example, it could be a three or five arc plot). In a trilogy, Book 1/Act 1 introduced the problem and reveals clues. If it is a fantasy, for example, it may be that this is part 1 of the hero’s tussle with the villain and a resolution of some sort happens. The hero may have won the skirmish for now, but the bigger battle is yet to come. Book 2/Act 2 there are more clues and tension increases (murky middles are not allowed!). The hero tussles with the villain more, stakes increase, losses and wins occur. An unrequited love is so close yet so far – hope is won and lost. Whatever the series problem is, now is the time to keep it interesting and happening. Book 3/Act 3 is the most complex and fun to write. Both the book arc and the series arc are dealt with and concluded. All the clues, ideals, character quirks are resolved. But, keep a series diary so that details ad clues are consistent because if you mess up, your readers will tell you.
  6. If the book arcs don’t directly relate to the series arc, but support it, make sure the events reflect, at least in a thematic way the series issues. Think of it this way: whatever personal issues the protagonist faces, he will see the world through those lenses. For example, the self-absorbed alcoholic detective struggles for self control on the job. He will observe and understand issues of self control because he can relate to them. Or, the thriller hero. She may be the stereotypical adventurer who has no desire for long lasting relationships and approaches the world with an abject lack of sensitivity when it comes to understanding people on a personal level.

Have fun creating your own series umbrella. As you saw in the diagram, I like crayons and squiggles when brainstorming.

Some final tips:

  1. Understand the overall gist of what you’d like to write. Know the beginning, the climax and the end result of the series.
  2. Write Book 1.
  3. Step back and note the problem and the clues you’ve planted. Ask if this is going in the direction you want and most importantly as if the larger problem is sustainable? Does it have enough traction for the series or can it be easily resolved? This is the time to up the tension, the stakes and the problems to avoid the murky middle novels!
  4. Revise Book 1 with Book 2 in mind. In fact, I prefer to have even a broad outline. This will help ensure that factors, character traits, clues and setting issues don’t come back to haunt you in subsequent books. I have heard authors complain after Book 1 has been published that they have written themselves into a corner in Book 2 because they can’t change a small detail in Book 1 which greatly affects the plot in Book 2. So, plan and think ahead as much as you can and keep a series diary!

A series can be along and rewarding journey and you must be in love with it in the middle of Book 4 as you were in Book 1. With a little planning, and an eye on the series and individual book arcs, your writing journey will be filled with adventure, personal accomplishment, and the gratitude of loyal readers.

Ending a Series

Years ago, I started Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. The first book, Mister Monday, was so great. Intriguing, strange, fun and imaginative. It set up so many mysteries that I could hardly wait for book two to come out. Then book three…

But after that my attention waned. The plot become convoluted. I struggled with the fact that each book posed more questions, but did not answer them. By book five, I didn’t bother to read it until a friend had reminded me that it was out. In the end I finished the series. Monday through Sunday. Seven books. The first two or three had captured my imagination. The rest tried to soar, but didn’t get far.

By the time I got to the last book, I remember distinctly giving the great big reveal—the thing we’d been waiting for since Arthur had been dragged into this whole mess by Mister Monday—a slow blink.

Really? That’s it? All this trouble, and ruining this kid’s life, for…that?

Now I’m not here to diss on Garth Nix, because he’s pretty much brilliant. What I’m here to address, is the difficulty in keeping a series going. A multi-book character journey is not as easy to write as one might think. Because your characters need to grow and learn each book, but they still can’t be perfect. They still can’t quite get over it, because if they do, then there’s nowhere for them to go at the end.

How many of us were slightly disappointed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Either because the Hallows seemingly came out of nowhere, or because the big reveal didn’t shock us? Again, I’m not putting J.K. Rowling down. She’s amazing, and somehow kept her sanity while writing seven books of one of the most successful series of all times.

Think about it. How many times have you been let down by a series finale? Either on Netflix, in a book series or a last movie?

I used to wonder why that was, but now I have a few ides.

I started my Jagged Scars series four years ago. I was vaguely familiar with this problem, so I combed through the internet to find answers. One woman had a brief synopsis of each Harry Potter book and Harry’s character arc in it. This was most helpful, and I used it as a guide to outline Wendy’s journey through Jagged Scars.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Fractured Memories: After a bitter betrayal, Wendy learns to trust others again.
  • Severed Ties: Wendy learns to trust herself.
  • Shattered Dreams: Wendy finds love, and feels worthy of it.
  • Crippled Hope: Wendy has to face the fact that not everyone wants to fight their way through life, and that that’s okay.
  • Broken Worlds…

Well, I had a plan for book 5, the final book in the series. I thought it was brilliant, but as I started writing the book, it felt forced. The journey I thought I wanted to take Wendy on turned out to be someone else’s journey, and I literally spent nine months writing the book four times—each time finding at the end that it lacked.

People around me accused me of needing the perfect story, and that it was probably fine. After round four, I sent it to my beta readers…and as I had suspected, they hated it. Every conflict I had tried to shove in felt forced, even to them.

So I started again. Only this time I decided that the book was a finale, and I didn’t need a big character arc for Wendy. I’d write the dang book and then see where it took me. Which I did. And as I did, I realized that I’d let Wendy grow too much in the other books. She’s gotten over her fear of the Skinnies, and of the monster inside her head telling her to be horrible. She can think about her dad again and she loves people—something she couldn’t do at the beginning. She’s even started to understand others when they’re not like her.

I’m still not quite finished with the book, but I think I understand how to fix it. However, the next time I start a series, the first thing I’m going to decide is what the main character’s overall arc is going to be. Once I figure that out, I’m going to make sure I have a really good, but hard, place for the character to go in the last book.

Because the reason we read books or watch TV is to see people overcome, and the stories that stick with me are those in which the character overcomes themselves, in addition to the big bad. The moment when the character chooses teamwork over winning the big game. The moment when he/she chooses family instead of fame, or the moment when they let go of their hate, and learn to love.