Monday, November 11, 2013

How to Plan A Book Series

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

I've had a couple questions come in about writing series so I'll tackle those today.

"So I finally plotted out my story idea for my first novel, but how do I plot all four? Meaning if I want this one story idea to be a trilogy, or better yet a series, how do I go about that?"

I'm sure this process is unique for each writer. As I've mentioned on here before, I'm not a super plotter but I can talk about some guiding principles for plotting a series

1. Don't feel like you have to have everything figured out.

When I was working on So Over It, the third book in The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, I had a plot twist idea that I was really excited about. But I couldn't do it exactly like I wanted to because of some things I had said in the first book. Which hadn't been published yet but was too far along in the process for me to make big changes.



And while I grumbled in frustration for a bit, I eventually made the plot twist work in a way that was more creative than my initial idea. Don't be afraid of that moment when you've written yourself into a corner. That's just an opportunity to creatively write your way out.

2. Each story should feel bigger than the last.

This is one of the reasons why the Harry Potter series is worthy of the literary praise it receives, because each book has a fresh plot and yet builds onto the story as a whole. Each book has a fresh feel to it. Other series, even wildly successful ones like the Twilight saga or The Hunger Games trilogy, don't do as well with this. (In my opinion.)

With those principles in mind, what's worked for me is to write a detailed synopsis of the first book, and then to write long-ish blurbs (2-3 paragraphs) of what I think could happen in later books. This has helped me to keep the story on course but to still have the freedom to explore new plot ideas that crop up in the writing process.

Jill has written several series as well (fabulous, award-winning series) so I asked her about what she's tried. She said something similar:


I had a spreadsheet for The Mission League. I had a spreadsheet for that series before I ever finished book one. But on the Blood of Kings trilogy, I didn't. I had some vague ideas of how things would end, but that was it.
I didn't like that, though. So on my newest series, I'm trying to do a mix of the two. I want to plot out enough so that I'm confident in where I'm going. But not to the point of huge spreadsheets.
One thing I want you to notice is that even as published writers, neither Jill nor I have The Perfect System or The Secret Plotting Device. We're both always looking for ways to improve our process, and we figure it out by trial and error. Don't be afraid of that.

The second question I received about writing a series was:

"I'm wondering if during a second book it's okay to introduce a few more newer characters while older characters are temporarily gone (but will return). I mean, obviously I'm keeping the same protagonist but as for friends and family go, I really want to add some new people in. I'm just scared it will be too much going on."

I think it's a great idea to bring in new characters. I know it's popular to hate the Twilight saga these days, but one of the things I thought worked really well in those books was that Edward was basically gone for all of book two. That's a bold move for a writer to make, to rip away the hero like that. It works because Jake, who hardly had any role in book one, is so darn likable.

Jake also has a big part in the story that eventually unfolds, which is another thing that makes the addition of him work. It isn't nearly as effective to add characters just for the sake of adding a character. They need to fit into the story as a whole.

Any other questions of series that I can help answer?

Speaking of series, there are a couple of giveaways for my Ellie Sweet series going on right now. (These are in addition to the ones I posted last Tuesday.) Here's where you can enter to win:

Also the first book in the Culper Ring series by Roseanna M. White, who blogs here frequently, is a steal right now for 1.99 on your e-reader. It's a series that follows several generations of a spy family, and it's excellent.


39 comments:

  1. Great post! Really enjoyed it, especially since I'm writing a trilogy now and am almost done with the second book.

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    1. I'm glad it came at such a good time, Zara!

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  2. Wonderful post! When I started my trilogy, I was a beginner writer and plotted it as one book. The first two pages were really detailed and became the first book while the last three paragraphs on page three became book two. Book three is still in the works.
    I have a hard time with the story arcs of books in a series, because I want to have a good ending, but still leave the reader wanting more.

    Thanks for posting, Stephanie!

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. Ha! I love that the first TWO PAGES became a book. It's amazing how learning how to pace a story can make such a difference.

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  3. Thank you for this post! It is very helpful.

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  4. One question, should I plot out a series individually, book by book, with their own separate plot arcs and weave in the connection through revision? Or should I connect the stories more by keeping sequels/prequels in mind? If I did that, wouldn't it fade the plot arc of the individual stories?

    Thanks.

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    1. I don't know if there's a wrong or right way in this situation, WordWeaver. I think there's a place for both, honestly. When I think through a series, I spend a period of time planning the arc of each book, and a period of time planning the overall arc of the series.

      Is that helpful?

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  5. Interesting. The book I'm writing has a sequel, I figured out as soon as I started plotting it. Which of course left me with the "How on earth do I write a book that has a sequel? And um, how on earth do I write the sequel?!" What I've done so far is found the logical ending place for book one. I've plotted it out using the three act structure and it's been working wonderfully. I also made a rough plot chart the same way for the sequel, but I know it'll be changed some. Basically, I've gotten an idea of where the stories are going and how I might get there. As for the repeated themes and changes between the two, I'm still trying to figure that out. How do you create that sort of unity between the two books? How much needs to change, would you say, and what kinds of things are good to...refer to, I guess? Those little details and such.

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    1. Writing a series certainly has its own unique challenges. And there are different kinds of series. Roseanna's Culper Ring books are generational, which creates a stronger need for each book to stand on its own because each story is a different main character and a different time in history. Yet the books explore similar themes.

      But with a series like Jill's Safe Lands trilogy, it's more like one big story is taking place, and that story will grow with each book.

      Does that make sense?

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    2. It does. (Same with her Blood of Kings trilogy, which has been excellent for picking out plot elements. I'm learning a lot just by reading it several times.) Mine is the second type. Same main characters. Same story. So basically, I was asking about what sorts of things might be added or changed in this second book, even though it's a continuing plot.

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  6. Is there such a series that the stories are all connected, but they are all kind of like stand alones?
    I've had this idea in my head for a while, but I'm not sure if that type of series actually exists.

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    1. Do they all have different main characters? Kristin Cashore's fantasy novels all take place in the same universe and have some of the same main characters but each one has a different main character and a totally different plotline. There are other examples too, I'm just blanking right now. But yes, it definitely has been done before if you're talking about having different main characters for each one :)

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    2. Oh haha I just scrolled up and remembered Roseanna M. White's Culper Ring books are supposed to be like that too. I haven't gotten a chance to read them yet, but I'm pretty sure it's different generations of a family for each book with some recurring characters. Is that sort of similar to your idea?

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    3. Yeah, it's pretty close to that! Thanks! And I remember some kind of like that: The Gates of Heaven Series and The Chronicles of Narnia!

      Thank you!

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    4. From Amo Libros:
      Would Marvel's superhero movies count? Each one works as a stand-alone, but they all tie into The Avengers, and certain "larger plot" elements and continuity details flow from one to the other.

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    5. Those kinds of series are happening more and more, actually. I had dinner with my editor a few weeks ago and she shared that they just acquired a "series" that really just has the genre and theme in common. That's appealing to publishers because, while some series are really successful as a whole (Harry Potter, etc.) the majority of series see a major drop off after the first book.

      So that could work very well.

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    6. Those are called non consecutive series. You can read them in order or out of order. They often take place in the same town.

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    7. I knew there was a name for them! Thank you :)

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  7. Thanks for this, Mrs. Morrill! :-) I recently started thinking maybe I should try writing a series or trilogy...
    I started plotting a series a while ago and ended up writing the third book first. ;)

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  8. This is exactly what I needed! I had recently been trying to decide which of two ideas to make my next project, and if I'm being honest, one of the main reasons I shied away from the one I didn't pick was because it was a trilogy with a spin-off -- too big and scary for someone who'd only written 55,000 words with any one cast of characters before! This will be great for when I'm done with WIP I'm planning (whenever that may be.) Thanks Stephanie!

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  9. This is so helpful Stephanie, thank you!!!! :D I am writing a series, but it's like its own book, but they all have the same topic...does this make ANY sense? If you have read the Pet Trouble series, its kinda like that. :P Thanks again for posting!

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    1. I haven't read that series, but yes, it makes sense. Those can work really well because it's not like the entire series hinges on the success of the first book.

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  10. Gosh, this is so interesting! I've definitely used the idea of adding new characters and limiting old ones in a 2nd book. I wasn't sure if it was okay...so now I know! Thanks. :)

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  11. In my second book the hero of the first book is mentioned once.

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    1. One of my favorite books is like that! Lyddie by Katherine Paterson has a stand alone sequel called Jip in which the main character from the first book is a side character in the second. The second book answers a few questions from the first :)

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  12. Great post Stephanie, and exactly in time. I had one question though about writing series. As I'm revising the first book right now, and then hopefully soon move on to book two, would you say it's wise to edit the first book after that again (if needed), before moving on to the third? (as I'm planning it to be a triology)

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    1. Well...that's a tough one. If it's something you're wanting to try and publish, you can get the first one all polished and then start working on the other books while you send out query letters. Some writers prefer to move on to other ideas and only write books two and three if they get a contract. Really, it's up to you.

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    2. All right, thank you Stephanie!

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  13. Heh. This really could not have come at a better time. I was literally just thinking I should go work on one of my WIPs, but decided to check my email first and saw this post. Alright, point taken, I shall stop procrastinating on the internet. XD
    Besides being fantastic timing in that sense. I have two main story ideas that I'm working on right now, and they're both two different series. I've kind of been putting off working on them, because I'm finding them kind of intimidating. :P (The one series is rapidly growing past 10 books and has a spin-off series already, too. :P) This is fantastic advice, and I'm going to go work on one of them now! ^_^ Thank you! <3
    ~hannah!♥

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      I just had to say, I LOVE the title of your blog!

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  14. Could you pin/post a picture of your spreadsheets? Or maybe a link?

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    1. I do blurbs and lists not spreadsheets, but Jill does. We included the spreadsheet in the Go Teen Writers book, and you can find the free download on my site: http://www.stephaniemorrill.com/goteenwriters/free-downloads-for-teen-writers/ It's called the "scene plotting chart."

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  15. Interesting post! Definitely helped. It's popular to hate the Twilight series right now? Really?! I didn't know that! Finally, culture is coming back around. :)

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  16. I'd never thought about making my book a series until just recently. I know this is an old post, but... Is it okay to publish a book and say it's part of series even if I may not get to the second book for a while? My idea is to make it so that the books aren't exactly connected. Just kind of the same theme. It may not even have any of the same characters. Do you have any advice?

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