As an author with three series under my belt, I’m often asked how to plot a series, and I thought it was finally time to share a few tips.
First thing is first, anyone considering traditional publishing should make book one a standalone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the dream of writing a series, but in traditional publishing, that choice is out of your control. Agents/editors will get discouraged by proposals that say, “this is first book in a five-book series,” because no one can guarantee that will happen. (In fact, a series can be very rare for a debut author.)
Repeat after me: “standalone with series potential”
But that’s more to do with traditional publishing than writing—and it doesn’t affect those who are self-publishing as much—so let’s get to those writing tips:
Identify the Sub-Genre of Each Book
When I set out to write a series, I know each book needs to feel special. The way that I do that is by identifying each book’s sub-genre. For example, in my Timely Death trilogy, book 1 is a paranormal romance, book 2 is a paranormal mystery, book 3 is a paranormal action. In the Tomo trilogy, book 1 is certainly dystopian action, but book 2 is dystopian horror. (Time will tell what book 3 is.)
When each book has its own sub-genre, it’ll help them stand apart while also inviting new energy into the storyline. Personally, I’d recommend every first book heavily lean toward your main genre in order to set the overall tone and expectation. Using my example above, the Timely Death trilogy is a paranormal romance, and book 1 is heavily focused on that, both in the main plot and the subplots. It’s the next books where I allow a little more deviation.
I encourage anyone writing a series to keep that tip in mind when plotting out numerous books that follow the same characters. If you’re unsure what sort of sub-genres might work with your overall genre, “20 Master Plots and How to Form Them” by Ronald Tobias is a fantastic resource that helps explain plot and genre expectations. Play around with a few and see how they feel.
Avoid the Dreaded Middle Book Slump
Avoid that middle book slump by throwing everything you can at it. What do I mean by that? I mean that a lot of writers stop themselves from using amazing material because they want to save it for the big, explosive finale. And that’s valid. But personally, I disagree with that method. Trust me when I say not to hold back. Give each book everything you got. You will come up with something even bigger for the next book. I know it can feel scary, but I’ve done it before, not knowing what I was going to do with the last book, and everything came together perfectly.
If you want that example, I’ll explain, but it does spoil book 2:
In the Timely Death trilogy, there’s a prophetic fight-to-the-death between two clans alluded to in the first book. Every reader expected it to be in book 3. And guess what? It’s in book 2. Though it seems to be set up as the ultimate climax from book 1, I knew I wanted to push against that formula the moment I started writing book 2, so I trusted my gut and used it in book 2. Book 3 ended up being even bigger and followed the fallout of that fight. Using everything I had in book 2 opened the series to even more dramatics, plot twists, and drama than I ever could’ve planned had I tried to save material for the finale.
Don’t Fear Character Change, Including Relationships
Too often I read series where characters’ friendships and romances remain intact book after book. Granted, the romance genre requires a happy ending, but you can still have a happy ending while pushing what it means for a couple to be together. You can break friendships and meld them—or break them up forever. You don’t have to have a happy ending for everyone. In fact, if I know my main couple won’t work out, I make sure to show one that will, and vice versa.
To me, this tip is reminiscent of being willing to kill your darlings.
If no one’s relationships ever suffer, then readers might get too comfortable with the stakes. Be willing to part family, friends, and lovers. Allow them to make new friends and find new families. This will allow for fresh scenes and stakes because new relationships mean something new to lose. New relationships will also show how your characters are changing. My favorite kind? A villain who joins the good side in the end. There’s something so interesting about showing what it takes to get the hero and villain to see eye-to-eye, even if one of them can’t exist in the end.
These are just my top three tips for planning a series.
How do you plan yours?