Planning a Series

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:

Planning a series, 1

Question marks denote I’m not feeling SUPER good about an idea…(Also ignore my embarrassing typos!)

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…

Planning a series, 2

Notice: shorter ideas that are also more vague.

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:

Planning a Series, 3

Notice these are SUPER vague and mostly questions.

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?

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17 Responses to Planning a Series

  1. Julie
    Julie Apr 21 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Sooz – Great post! I think it’s easy to jump into a series without really thinking it through first. This is a great guide. I will be bookmarking it!

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 21 2014 at 9:32 am #

    Plan?
    I found my first novel getting too large for one book. So I wrote a second book. The closest I have to a plan is when my kids and I bounce ideas back and forth over long car rides. And then I have to change stuff because that’s just the way I am. A plan is simply stuff to change that hasn’t been written yet.

  3. K. L. Martin Apr 21 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    I go about planning a series in a similar way. I mainly plan a book when it comes to me (which is why I have 7 novels going at once and 3 of them are series). Let’s take my Keeper series for an example.

    For step 1: When I first started thinking of this series on my own (originally got it from someone else and we were going to collaborate on it, but they jumped off the ride), I came to my own conclusion that 3 books sounded about right but with a prequel added in to explain one o my characters more deeply.

    For step 2: I do have multiple viewpoints for my story. The only problem is, I don’t really plan out the next two books. There’s a small amount of them written out with a hint of flow from the first novel in them. My genre is fantasy and I see it coming from an Inheritance Cycle stand-off.

    Step 3: With writing down events…I don’t really write out what the story’s events are. They just come to me when I’m writing and I start to write them out. I completely ignore my book 1 and work on book 2 or 3. It just depends on where I’m at in my story.

  4. Rosanna Silverlight Apr 21 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Ahhh, this is brilliant! I’ve known for quite a while that my story would cover more than one book, but I had ZERO ideas on how to go about planning for it. Even now, when I’m a solid way into revisions (read: rewrites) on book 1, I’m still only thinking of book 2 and beyond in terms of idea kernels, nothing fully grown or developed.

    Your Scrivener example is really good. I use Scrivener, and having an easily accessible file at the bottom of the binder sounds like a great way to jot down ideas. Maybe once I start doing that, I’ll be able to start planning properly. It’s hard to make sense of a jumble of ideas when they’re not written down anywhere!

  5. L Apr 21 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    I wish I could be as organized as you. My current WIP will be divided into three books because of the heroine’s young age and due to her predicament, I thought it would be fun if each book was equivalent to one year. For each book, she would go through three different worlds in order to find a way back home, back to her own time period. The main romance between the heroine and the hero is another factor; she’s only 15 in the first book and the hero is older. It would be better if she goes through plenty of learning experiences and realizes her feelings for the hero later on in the last book.
    I also happen to have a rule which is that my books can never be more than a trilogy unless I had solid ideas for more than 3 books.

  6. Andrea Apr 21 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Great post! This is really helpful! The only thing is that after I feel like I’ve planned out my story and I’ve been writing it for a while, my ideas snowball again and I have a whole new, more complex story that makes even more sense and is even better and just fits with what I’m trying to accomplish more perfectly. This has happened four times now. It makes me wonder if I’ll regret a plot point (or several) in the first book because I’ll think, “Man, if only the story had gone in this direction, and/or if only I had planted this seed in the beginning, this great mind-blowing series-ending I have in mind would work and/or everything would fall into place.” Is that something that’s common among writers or is it something that you improve with more writing and more experience brainstorming?

  7. Erin Latimer Apr 22 2014 at 12:31 am #

    And Susan Dennard strikes again! 🙂 Every time I come across great plotting/revising advice it’s always Susan .

  8. JoSVolpe Apr 22 2014 at 6:52 am #

    Awesome advice, as always!

  9. Suzy Riddolls Apr 27 2014 at 11:32 am #

    I have watched my partner, Patrick Laughy, write his series on WWll called The 4th Reich, over the past almost two years. Since I edit and publish his books I have had an intimate view of this process and how he has approached it. Initially he had no idea how long the series would be, because weaving the fictional story of the German family into the facts of the war was somewhat difficult. It is two parallel stories, fact and fiction. Because the books span several years and eventually will jump forward from the war years to the 80’s and then present day, the series will likely include 14 or more eBooks (seven paperbacks.). So far there have been eight eBooks and four paperbacks published and the year, at present writing is 1943.
    Lots of good ideas in the article and comments above but basically, Pat just sat down with an idea of writing his story, a lot of research resources at hand and a passionate interest in the war and started typing.
    One advantage was that he had written and published a large number of books in the 60’s and had completed two mystery/detective books in 2012. Writing, pretty much every day, is what he does now that he has retired.
    His books are available on Amazon.com and Smashwords.

  10. Sean Apr 27 2014 at 11:38 am #

    I knew the story was big but I wasn’t sure quite how large. So I started outlining and writing on book one. I quickly started to see a good place to wrap things up, where the book felt complete but also like the first part. I of course by this point had a good chunk of the first half of book two outlined. So that was when I realized that I was also looking at five books. I jotted down where each book ended and then set about outlining the rest of book two. I’m now on three, and the things happening there are about half the things I orginially thought would happen there. So The story is very malleable, but the A to B point of each book is set in stone as are the titles, mostly because I already got all the covers made.

    I feel with a series you need enough structure from the start to know where you are going, and where ruffly your books will end but with enough wiggle room so that you can still create and change things on the fly.

  11. Chris Cook Apr 27 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Very good article. I find one of the hardest things is keeping consistency across the series. Meticulous documenting of each character (I interview them in my mind) and lots of good notes about who did what when.

  12. Mark Cusco Ailes Apr 27 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    I agree what she had advised, but here is a tip. I’m currently working on the fourth book in my fantasy series. When I started the series I didn’t plan ahead and figure it would be four books. I worried about book one only. When I was finished I decided I would write a second book and so forth. Your last book in the series, though, has to tie all the other books together and remember that your characters will begin to mature as the series goes on. On this last book of the series I am writing, I had to go back and read the other three to make sure I don’t leave anything I have set up out of the story.

  13. Brad H Branham Apr 28 2014 at 1:39 am #

    I didn’t see anything I didn’t already use myself but it’s really nice to see someone else following the same sorts of structured planning and design for an extended series.

    I also change POV from chapter to chapter depending on who can “narrate the action” for the most entertainment and when I need to reveal something internal about the character. So it’s like I have an objective reality never exactly given to the reader. The world evolves through the perspectives of each character, their baggage and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of information history/events.

    Currently planning a five book length to the series (two published so far, third drafted but editing) … but we’ll see. Technically, I *could* follow this group throughout their careers until the last one alive is giving the eulogy at the funeral (I even wrote that epilogue out early in development) but we’ll send them off into the sunset when it seems appropriate.

  14. Hannah Steenbock Apr 28 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Thank you for your detailed description! And yay for using Scrivener. I’m working my way into using it for the series I’m developing right now.

    This series started out as novel with three different main characters and their individual plots designed to meet up later in the story. And I got stuck organizing the timeline for this so could get the chapters into the right order.

    So, stalling, I wrote a “short story” intended as teaser, set about two generations earlier. That one morphed into novella length, gave me some important backgroud as well as the basic plot for a second novella in the series. Of course, once I grasped the idea of a series, I decided to take apart the “novel” and tell each of the stories in a single episode, bringing them all together in an exciting final book. Which gives me an instant series of six episodes. Can’t wait what my mind comes up with next.

    Thank you for confirming that my ideas are not totally off and silly.
    – Hannah

  15. Rhonda Apr 29 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    I am writing a historical fiction series set in the Great Depression in Canada. I knew it was going to be a series when I started because I’m following a character through a whole decade with tons of through line plots and lots of history. I don’t know yet how many books it’ll take to tell the story because I kind of follow my character around and see what he does. I know where the major plot lines are going but not all the details. Lol.

    I planned my series by doing a lot of research and figuring out my major plot lines. I have a notebook for ideas and I use spreadsheets to keep track of where my events fit in with historical events of the time.

  16. article writing Sep 22 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    There’s definately a lot to find out about this topic.
    I really like all the points you’ve made.

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