I love nothing more than being approached with questions about writing. I actually had a dream the other day that I was teaching a class about writing to a group of men and women, and I woke up super sad that I wasn’t actually teaching a class, even though I don’t know at all if I’d be any good at it (I think I’d be okay). So when people ask me for advice, or for help, or want my opinion, I feel super awesome. I feel like other people think I’d be a good teacher, too.
So when a writer friend of mine asked me for some insight into planning a series of novels (as opposed to a solitary novel), of course, I wrote her a reply that was long enough to be its own blog post. I considered doing the “copy-paste” thing, but that felt lazy. Instead, I decided to re-write the same basic stuff I told her.
We’re all familiar with the basic story arc, right? It looks a little bit like this:
A basic story arc has the exposition (which establishes characters, settings, and the main conflict of the arc), the rising action (all the tense stuff that happens, including character and plot development), the climax (where everything hits the fan and the main problem is addressed), the falling action (where loose ends are tied up and tension begins to fall), to the denouement (basically just a fancy word for “end”).
When you outline a book, that’s pretty self-explanatory, but how does it work when you’re trying to outline a series?
Each individual book definitely has to have its own complete story arc, much like the one above, but the series as a whole has to have an arc, too. You need to introduce the series, develop characters, and continue to keep tensions rising until your final book, where your overarching climax will finally take place and the entire series can come to a complete close together. A lot of people either give each book its own plotline but let the overarching plotline suffer, or they give the books a great overarching plot and slack in the individual story arcs for each individual book.
The overarching story arc has the same five elements of the basic story arc: the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the denouement. However, these elements are spread across the series. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll look at a trilogy (because graphing The Martyr Series on this would be ridiculously large and I don’t want to photoshop it).
This is about what the overarching story arc looks like:
Your first book is the exposition of the entire plot arc, and it may cover part of the rising action. Whatever your individual story arc is, it must accomplish the primary points of the exposition for the overarching story arc (in other words, the first book must establish characters, develop settings, and establish the overarching problem), and it must do this while going through a basic story arc for the first book.
The second book similarly must maintain its own basic story arc, but in doing so it must accomplish the primary points of the rising action for the overarching story arc. The second book will make the problem more real, more concrete, and makes it really clear that shit’s about to get serious. When explaining this to my friend I equated it to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. By the end of the book, they’ve beaten the bad guys at Helm’s Deep, but not without losing a lot of men, and not without seeing what a huge threat Sauron really has become.
The third book in our hypothetical trilogy is the climax, falling action, and denouement. This may seem like rushing, but if you note even in the basic story arc, the climax, falling action, and denouement are a small part of the overall story arc. In the final book of the series, the basic story arc and the overarching story arc begin to blend, where the climax of both the final book and the overall series become the same climax. This is when everything you’ve spent two books developing comes together.
Developing a series this way lends to some really awesome things that I haven’t had the time to get into, such as when to introduce certain characters based on which basic plotlines they are involved in, as well as opportunities for foreshadowing and character building.
Maybe we’ll get into that later.