Tag Archives: series

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.



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.

The Series Trap

So you want to write an epic sci-fi or fantasy series…

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Been there, done that.

I know authors who have written double-digit books in their series. I suppose that’s a great thing if it’s making money. But to me there’s a sort of hidden trap in creating a series that becomes self-perpetuating and endless. Part of that may just be my own proclivities as a reader. In general I find three or four books to be about as long as even the best writers can keep my interest in one story, one protagonist, and/or one set of supporting characters.

I just have too much interest in other stories to keep going back to that same water hole.

So when I started my War Chronicles epic fantasy series, I very deliberately set a story line that would be finished after three, maybe four books. I had no intention or desire to be writing War Chronicles books for years. I wanted to write other stories.

Now, had that series taken off like Harry Potter, and publishers were flying to my home to shove money in my mailbox, maybe I’d have a different perspective. But that didn’t happen, so I’m happy with what I did earn on my first series, and am glad that I have since written a sci-fi novel, and am now working on a contemporary murder mystery novel. From the first time I decided to pursue writing as a hobby and (hopefully) a career, I wanted to keep my options open and write widely in different genres.

I think that will make me a better writer in all genres.

Now, from a career perspective, maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe sticking with one sub-genre for my entire career might be a better way to establish a loyal fan base and churn out stories that are eagerly anticipated by those fans.

But even if it is, I’m enjoying my foray into contemporary murder mystery. Who knows, my next book might be a romance novel.

Seeding the Future

Some series are structured from the beginning; others are open-ended.  If you don’t know how long your series will go on–if you want the possibility to add more books if it does well–then you’ll do yourself a favour by seeding ideas for the future.

This technique might not be useful for you if your series is highly structured and working towards a certain predetermined end.  For example, the Harry Potter series was planned from the beginning to be seven books long–one for each of Harry’s years at Hogwarts.

But suppose your series is about the crew of a starship.  You’re sure you could write a lot of books about their adventures.  Or suppose your series is about a detective.  You’d like to be able to write a number of stories about her cases.   How long these two series will be is going to depend in large part on how well the early books sell.  Based on sales, you’ll choose whether to extend the series, or whether to write something else.

If you’re extending your series, you don’t want each book to become Episode of the Week.  A new crime to solve, a new planet to explore–but so what?  One way to make each book “count” is to reveal more about your characters.  Maybe one of them changes in a meaningful way.  Or maybe we find out about someone’s past.  Or maybe two characters start (or end) a relationship.

And then there’s your seeds.

The navigator of your starship crew always wears a helmet.  Nobody’s ever seen his face.  In the first few books, this fact is just a matter of mild curiosity.  But if you need a story idea for a later book—take off that helmet.  Has he assumed someone else’s identity?  Is he an alien?  Is he hiding an injury or a secret?

Your detective believes that her son died after meeting with foul play.  His body was never recovered.  In the first few books, this tragic past is why she became a detective.  But if you need a story idea for a later book–one of the criminals she arrests has a tip that her son may be alive.

If you choose not to extend the series, these “hooks” become background information, matters of curiosity, things mentioned in passing, general “flavor.”  But if you do choose to write more books later, you’ll have ideas to explore that have been “written into” the series from the beginning.

It is possible to go overboard on the story seeds.  If your starship crew spend the earlier books constantly wonder what’s under the navigator’s helmet, then your audience will feel dissatisfied if they don’t ever find out.  You also don’t want to overly restrict future stories by laying too many hints that you can’t contradict later on.  You’ll have trouble making your detective the youngest of six daughtersif you mentioned in book one that she’s an only child!

But if you seed ideas into your earlier books, then if you extend your series, your later books won’t feel like “add-ons made up off the top of your head”.  They’ll tie into previous books, expanding on ideas that you suggested from the very beginning.  And if your characters grow and change, or if your audience learns more about them, then your series will maintain a sense of continuity–and possibly take both you and your readers to some surprising new places.