A few weeks ago, I got this question in my inbox:
How would you go about outlining [a trilogy]? Would you outline it as a whole or each book individually?
Awesome question! And obviously, everyone outlines/plans series differently, so I can only tell you how I plan a series. Hopefully that information is still helpful, though.
Step 1: Plan the first book.
If you want to see how I do that, you can read my series on it here. As you’re planning this book, decide if you can tell the whole story in a single book or if the story will need multiple books.
If you’re starting to realize that you’re definitely going to need multiple books, then it’s time for…
Step 2: How many books will you need?
To answer this question, we first need to figure out why you even think you’ll need multiple books. What is it about the story that makes you think you can’t contain it in a single volume? Write these reasons down.
So for example, I knew as soon as my WIP Screechers morphed into an epic fantasy series that I would need >1 book to tell the story. These were my reasons why:
- Lots of POVs (like 8 in the first book alone), each with their own goals/motivations/growth.
- Lots of places to visit. 2 continents + tons of cities/landscapes in each.
- At least 3 romances, and romance always takes time to develop (I like slow burns!).
- Lots of plots/subplots. There’s a missing sister, the screechers threat + origin mystery, an occupying army, a rebellion, a corrupt church, an ancient evil villain, and more. It all intertwines and will clearly take a lot of page space to wrap up…
Clearly I was going to need a ton of pages to cover all that! Now I just needed to decide how many books it might all add up to. To estimate HOW MANY books you’ll need, write down any sort of big events you have in mind. Where do those events naturally feel like happening? Or, where do certain character arcs or romances naturally feel like wrapping up?
While you’re doing that, take a look at other series in your genre. Do they tend to be trilogies? Do they tend to be long, interconnected series (e.g. Game of Thrones) or maybe long, standalone series (e.g. Hercule Poirot)? You can use the comparison titles as a guide for your own story.
Another important reason for looking at comp titles is because you want to make sure your series has structure. Consider how a trilogy follows a 3-act structure on a series-scale (e.g. Star Wars) while longer series tend to have less strict structure (though each book would have a strict structure, of course!). The key, of course, is to follow the well-known rising action scale, but to do it over the course of the whole series as well as in each book.
I ended up estimating 5 books for Screechers, and even though I only have a VERY hazy idea of what happens in those last 2 books (erm, war?), I’ve also read enough fantasy series to naturally know that 5 books feels like the right number to cover the scale of the story.
Step 3: Start a special/file notebook for ideas.
I personally plan my series in the same way I plan an individual book: I write down ideas and snowball from there.
For a series, though, I tend to snowball WHILE I’m drafting the first book. Ideas will thunderbolt in the middle of a sentence, so I’ll scroll down to my special Scrivener page and write down the idea while I have it. Those ideas might then grow into something more or just get cut as new ideas unfurl, but the point is that I take note of EVERYTHING.
So here’s an example of the ideas that I’ve been snowballing for book 2 in the Screecher series. This is a screencap of my Scrivener file:
This is just the beginning of the ideas for book 2—this list continues on for 6 pages. 🙂 I have a TON of pretty specific ideas and snippets of dialogue since book 2 is in the nearby future in terms of plot, and it’s often on my mind while drafting.
Book 3, on the other hand…
My ideas for book 3 only continue for 2 pages, and they’re definitely skimpier than my book 2 ideas. BUT, they’re still more flushed-out than my books 4 & 5 ideas:
As you can see, I don’t really know how everything will connect in book 4, but I DO have a general idea of some big plot points. As I write books 2 and 3, then my list for books 4 and 5 will get meatier.
And, by the time I finish book 1, I’ll have a very detailed/solid idea of what needs to happen in book 2. In fact, I’ll likely have a full outline all ready to go that will allow me to dive write in to drafting.
So there you have it: that’s how I plan a series! It’s very much like how I plan a book, just on a much larger, more general scale. 🙂
You tell me: how do YOU plan series?