Plotting just one novel is challenging, never mind plotting a multi-book arc. Having structure and a plan helps. Here’s how to plot a series in 8, structured steps:
Step 1: Find your ‘Central Idea’
Step 2: Brainstorm key plot points for each book in your series
Step 3: List ideas for the end-goal your series leads towards
Step 4: Decide on the setting scope of your series: time and place
Step 5: Create summaries of successful series’ plot structure for insights
Step 6: Brainstorm central characters and relationships that make readers long for each book
Step 7: Create an outline of your series’ main events and themes
Step 8: Choose a starting point and strengthen arcs between books later
Let’s explore each of these steps deeper:
1. Finding your ‘Central Idea’
Every great series grew from the kernel of an idea. J.K. Rowling, for example, famously said that the idea for her wildly successful Harry Potter series formed while stuck on a delayed train between Manchester and King’s Cross, London in 1990. She plotted the 7 books of the series over the next 5 years – a massive commitment that paid off.
You might summarize Rowling’s central idea thus:
‘A seemingly ordinary boy, Harry Potter, orphaned and raised by his mean aunt and uncle, discovers he has magical abilities and is invited to attend a school for wizards. As a student and increasingly able wizard he forms deep friendships (and enmities), and must eventually face his parents’ killer.’
This central idea has plenty of room for expansion across multiple books. It has room for backstory about how Harry was orphaned. The adventures, magical discoveries, friends and foes he finds at his magical school. The overarching looming confrontation with his parents’ killer.
To take another example of a series idea, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series from the 1950’s could be summarised thus:
‘A mythical lion builds alternate worlds that earth-born children accidentally discover. Yet through their discovery, they also introduce evil but with the help of the lion Aslan, subsequent generations safeguard Narnia from malevolent forces that wreak destruction in their quest for power.’
Both these famous examples of fantasy series have central ideas that leave whole worlds to be discovered. Both launch characters into unknown environments, challenges and conflicts that intrigue us in their potential for obstacles and character development.
2. Brainstorming key plot points for each book in your series
A challenge when tackling a large-scale project such as how to plot a series is getting lost in detail. It’s hard to see the big picture if there isn’t one yet. That’s why it’s a good idea to draft and sketch an outline of key plot points.
For example, here’s a summary of key plot events [spoilers alert] in the first four novels of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series [in Harper Collins’ chronological reading order, not the original publishing order]:
[Book 1 – a prequel published 5 years after Book 2] The Magician’s Nephew (1955): First encounter with the world of Narnia. Children Polly and Diggory (who is grown up and hosting the child protagonists in Book 2) are transported to another world. This happens when Digory’s uncle tricks Polly into trying on a magical ring that allows one-way teleportation, forcing Digory to go after her.
The children end up in a magical wood containing pools that are portals to other worlds. Entering one of the pools leads to an encounter with a witch queen, Jadis. Jadis killed every living creature in her world in battle by speaking ‘the Deplorable Word’. She follows them back into another pool, where they encounter Aslan, a mythical lion, who sings the land of Narnia into being. Jadis attacks Aslan and flees into his world, and Aslan tasks Digory with protecting the world from Jadis for having brought her there.
[Book 2] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950): The four Pevensie siblings are evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II. They stay in now-older Digory Kirke’s house and discover a portal to another world at the back of a wardrobe while playing hide and seek. Here they encounter the White Witch aka Jadis, who holds the world in eternal winter. Eventually, they undo her enchantment and become kings and queens of Narnia, starting a Golden Age.
[Book 3] The Horse and His Boy (1954): During the Pevensie siblings’ reign over Narnia, a boy named Shasta is sold as a slave in the land of Calormen. In a stable he encounter a talking horse that was captured from Narnia named Bree, and together they plan their escape to Narnia and freedom. They meet another pair of escapees, Aravis, a local woman who is fleeing an arranged marriage and her talking horse and travel together.
Shasta overhears a Calormene plan to kidnap Queen Susan (one of the children of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, now grown up and a ruler of Narnia), so that she can be forced into a marriage with the leader of Calormen’s son. On the party’s travels, an encounter with a lion (that later turns out to be Aslan) frightens them into outrunning the antagonist’s pursuing cavalrymen. Shasta reaches Narnia’s neighbouring country, Archenland, in time to warn both of the Calormene invasion, giving them a chance to prepare and be victorious.
[Book 4] Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951): The story takes place during the Pevensie siblings’ second trip to the mythical land of Narnia.
They return because Prince Caspian blows a horn left behind by one of the siblings, Susan, a horn enchanted to summon help in an hour of need. While they have been on earth, in their mortal world, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia, and their former castle lies in ruins (time passes faster in Narnia). Caspian has fled into Narnia’s woods to escape his uncle, Miraz, who has usurped the throne, and the children help him save Narnia from tyrannical rule.
The key plot points from the first four novels in Lewis’ series show important features of series plotting:
- There is continuity between the series’ plot points: Lewis weaves the events of individual books into each other, creating history and folklore for his fictional world. Characters age and their roles and tasks alter (Digory, for example, develops from being a courageous young protagonist to being a secondary part, the avuncular host to the children protagonists of Book 2). Aslan, the lion, is the one main character who appears through all 7 books, a God-like benevolent figure who guides the protagonists through peril.
- There are key themes that echo across the books: Courage vs fear, creation vs destruction, the need to restore order when malevolent individuals gain power and the collective suffers.
- The world builds from the start: First, in The Magician’s Nephew, it is a new world. Then it becomes a winter vault under Jadis’ rule and then we see (in The Horse and his Boy) it’s multiple peoples and cultures. It develops its own horrors (a slave trade, kidnap marriages) and wonders (talking horses and other magic).
Take time (remember Rowling’s 5 years of toil) to plan how individual books’ plot lines will ripple out through your series. Think how each book can add extra detail, conflicts and resolutions to your fictional world. Even the setting of a series such as a detective or thriller series should evolve, presenting new challenges. After all, think of how our technology or global politics have shifted and changed in the last 30 years alone.
3. Listing ideas for your series’ end-goal
Each book will ideally reach a smaller goal within your series broader arc. Yet unfinished business keeps readers coming back for more.
For example, by the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK title), the first book in Rowling’s series, Harry has had his first major (yet inconclusive) confrontation with the arch villain, Lord Voldemort.
In the first novel of James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, the titular protagonist’s final encounter with the antagonist implies future peril. The killer bribes a prison guard to leave a message threatening Cross and his family on the protagonist’s windshield outside the facility.
While each book might bring confrontations (or, in the case of romance, romantic union) to a head, in a strong series there are lingering questions subsequent books will answer.
In learning how to plot a series, try end-weighting your planning for each book, brainstorming what minor conclusion each book might come to. You don’t have to stick with your first idea, but it’s a start. For example,
we could imagine alternate endings to Rowling’s first book such as:
- Incriminating evidence makes it look as though Harry created a dangerous situation at his school, when it was really Lord Voldemort’s handiwork. The book ends on his suspension as the Ministry of Magic investigates
- Harry’s friend Hermione overhears an ominous conversation between two teachers who the main characters thought they could trust, throwing into doubt much of their behaviour throughout the preceding story
Introducing questions and unknowns about your characters’ future (and what readers think they know about your world) will leave readers hungry to follow more of your series.
If you can already see this far ahead, list ideas for your series’ end-goal. In Harry Potter, it’s the final Voldemort vs Harry showdown. In Narnia, it’s the restoration of good leadership and freedom to Aslan’s parallel world. Make the end-goal of your series one that is sure to entail conflict, obstacles, journeys and discoveries.
4: Deciding on the setting scope for your series
The entire seven-book arc of your series could take place in the space of 24-hours (like the TV series 24), with each book showing a different character’s overlapping experience of these 24 hours. Or else, you could do like C.S. Lewis and have parallel worlds where time passes at different rates.
Whatever you choose, try to plan the time period of your multi-book arc. This will help you when it comes to creating the historical and cultural backdrop for the events of each individual book. There will be necessary constraints and limitations. If, for example, the first book of your series is set in a realistic 1950 and the second in a realistic 2019, there will be major differences (no internet vs fibre internet, modern medicine vs back then, and so forth).
Understanding the ‘scope’ of your series’ setting helps because:
- You will have a finite list of places and time periods you can research for creating detail and authenticity
- You can think about the incremental ways these crucial elements of fiction – place and time – change
5: Creating summaries of successful series’ structure
To gain valuable series plotting insights, create your own summaries of your favourite series’ plot structure. Using summaries from Wikipedia or writing websites, jot down, in note form, the core events of each book. Ask yourself questions, such as:
- If I look at the series as a whole, what is the individual purpose of this book? (e.g. for The Magician’s Nephew: Introducing the world of Narnia and how and why evil (Jadis the witch) was accidentally introduced to it
- Who are the main characters in each book, do they appear as central characters or in cameos elsewhere in the series?
- How do the themes of this book relate to others in the series?
Think of additional questions to ask. Creating a summary or two will give you broader insights into how your favourite authors weave individual books’ threads together to create successful series.
6: Brainstorming central characters and relationships that make each book engrossing
In deciding how to plot a series, taking a character-centric approach is helpful. Characters, after all, are the lifeblood of your story. If we look at C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy series, central characters’ roles shift. They go from protagonists to minor, supporting characters. The one main character who appears in all seven books is the lion/creator, Aslan.
Take Harry Potter as an example. We can imagine having Harry as a starting character before sketching out the story. When you write your own series, think about primary and secondary characters in a successful series such as Rowling’s. What roles do they play?
Characters’ relations to Harry include:
- Helpful, steadfast friends with interesting, contrasting (often conflicting) personalities. Laid back, slightly lazy Ron and energetic, academic star Hermione
- Characters who give Harry the psychological wounds that inform his struggles. His bullying aunt and uncle, or the main villain
- Enemies. Voldemort’s supporters, sadistic teachers, envious school bullies (Draco and his goons) and moe
- Neutral characters who are also detailed. The owner of the wand shop, for example, or the minor characters who fill Hogwarts’ halls (students such as Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil)
When you brainstorm characters for plotting a series, think about what function they will serve in narrative terms. Will they help or hinder your protagonist, or are they neutral characters who serve basic, once-off story functions?
Read this guide to making character relationships real to making each connection between members of your series’ cast count.
7. Creating an outline of your series’ main events and themes
This is a process you ideally complete before you start drafting. If you have pantsed your way through the first book or two, it’s also a productive process when revising. An outline will help you see where the plot gets thin or forced.
Try to write a one-page synopsis for each book. Or even condense it into a paragraph or two (as in the C.S. Lewis examples above). What are its core events, conflicts, character goals and plot twists? Print and lay these synopses out side by side. Are there any holes? Is there enough cohesion across the entire breadth of your series?
Once you know themes your budding series already tackles, outline ways you could develop them in the next books.
For example, knowing Harry’s mean aunt and uncle after reading Book 1, we could plan plot details for Book 2:
‘Harry is due to return home for the holidays, but an incident involving magic (his aunt and uncle forbade him using magic in their presence) means he’s forced to stay at Hermione’s house.’
This change of setting alone could present plenty to explore. For example, Hermione’s more inclusive home situation. This plot point could create dramatic contrast with the difficult of Harry’s home life, increasing our empathy for him as the series advances.
Think about lines of continuity such as this, how you can extend and develop your characters’ backstory and ongoing development.
8: Choosing a starting point and working in connective threads later
If you want to write a multi-novel arc, don’t agonise over how to plot a series. As we see with C.S. Lewis, you could start at any point and later write a prequel. Tolkien didn’t intend The Lord of the Rings as a series but as a single volume. You can work out the connective tissue between books when you are further along in the drafting process, too. Whatever method you choose, make sure your series has continuity. Make sure it has development, a diverse cast of characters and intriguing scenarios.