Structuring a story is challenging, especially when your story spans multiple books (or, in the case of TV, episodes). Read on for ideas to make your series arcs – of character and plot – rewarding:
1. Outline ideas for individual books’ arcs
A writing project as large-scale as a series particularly requires planning. Keeping track of the different threads within a single book is tricky. Keeping track of your plot lines across multiple books is even trickier.
Once you’ve found your first book’s central idea, think of longer-form developments you can take your time over.
Take, for example, the original Bourne thrillers by Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990).
You could summarize each book’s outline thus:
- Book One: Jason Bourne, struggling with amnesia, seeks to recover his identity after a conflict at sea with a terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Information about a Zurich bank account found on his person leads him to discover more information about his past
- Book Two: Jason Bourne, having regained his memory and recovered, is teaching Asian studies at a university in Maine. Yet he discovers someone posing as him in Asia is killing people. Then his girlfriend Marie is kidnapped.
- Book Three: Jason Bourne works to find his old enemy, Carlos the Jackal, who is plotting to kill him
These are oversimplified summaries that don’t cover all plot events, yet they show a simple outline of the development and arcs:
- The main character’s challenge: Bourne has lost his memory and must go on a journey to rediscover his identity, learning about ominous threats due to his spy past along the way
- The main character’s development: Bourne regains his memory but old and new threats appear, including the antagonist from book 1 who reappears in book 3
- Ongoing suspense and tension feeding subplots: What happened to the antagonist in book 1? Who is the imposter posing as Bourne? What will happen to Marie? Etc.
Outline your ideas and identify challenges that can span multiple books. For example, will some struggles (your characters’ personal struggles or antagonists) reappear in later novels? What will have changed by the time old conflicts return?
2. Reveal some unknowns in each book – keep others for your entire series arc
How you reveal and conceal key plot points is particularly important if you’re writing a series involving a major conflict such as a murder mystery series or epic fantasy saga.
If you reveal everything in your first book, you may well struggle to come up with ideas for book two. Instead, pace yourself and brainstorm conflicts or complications that can be bigger than a single book’s arc.
For example, in a spy saga, Book 1 could end with your main character facing a tribunal for flouting direct orders. This conflict could leave them in a state of uncertainty, paving the way for a sequel where you show how their hearing resolves and how they continue on their original, main mission.
A good place to find inspiration for pacing how your plot unfolds is in TV. Series will typically have a primary mystery that resolves by the end of the season, with leftover questions unanswered.
As an exercise, take a TV show you know was well. Search for the show on Wikipedia and read a summary of the events of each episode Then:
- Write a simplified timeline of how the plot develops from installment to installment.
- Note what the major climactic event is of the season. Is there a single big reveal?
- How did the writers continue this closing situation in the next season?
3. Give main characters individual series arcs
A series containing multiple key characters feels particularly rich to read when each has their own core goals.
If you think of Louise Penny’s successful Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, the series is made not only by her main character, investigator Armand Gamache, but a broader cast that breathes life into the setting of the fictional town of Three Pines.
Said Penny of her additional characters, in conversation with NPR:
‘There’s Gabri and Olivier who run the B and B. There’s Myrna Landers who runs – she’s a retired psychologist from Montréal. She runs the used bookstore. To be honest with you, when I was writing this book, I didn’t ever think it would be published. And I knew it would take years, probably, to write the first book of the series […] So I created a cast of characters I would choose as friends because I knew I would have to be in their company at least for a couple of years.’
Penny goes on to describe how it’s not only Gamache, the inspector himself, who comes and goes in the village. Other characters leave for their own reasons (her character Clara leaves on a quest with the inspector, having sought his help).
Even Penny’s secondary characters have problems, desires and motivations. These can remain unresolved across multiple books to create secondary plot lines your readers want to see resolved.
When coming up with character arcs for a series, ask:
- What immediate desires can this character fulfil in this book? (for example, finding out what happened to a lost husband)
- What desires will they work towards across this book and its sequel? (for example, getting justice for a murdered lost husband)
- How do this character’s desires and actions affect other characters’ arcs? (for example, Gamache is roped into the inhabitants of Three Pines’ individual problems)
4. Develop rising and falling action across your entire series
Rising and falling action in series both help to maintain forward momentum. When your characters’ have an end-goal for the series, whether it be defeating the primary villain (as in Rowling’s Harry Potter books) or finding love and personal fulfillment (as in the Bridget Jones books), give the route to that goal easy valleys and steep summits.
‘Rising action’ doesn’t necessarily mean (in a crime thriller) increasing gunfights or (in a romance) constant fighting between lovers. Across a series arc you can use changes such as a shift of location to introduce unpredictability. But to make your wins believable, give your main characters more to juggle and contend with as they go. The easiest-won challenges are often the most boring.
In the sequel to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the primary love interest from the previous book leaves Bridget for another woman who works at his firm. This leads to a solo adventure Bridget has in Southeast Asia where she has drugs planted in her luggage, among other mishaps.
In this example, putting the primary romance on the back-burner allows Fielding to explore new settings and develop secondary arcs (such as the drug bust) that have their own rising and falling action, their own heartbreaks and comical moments.
5. Find elements that make your series cohesive
A satisfying aspect of reading a series is that places, characters, even landmarks come to feel like old friends. In C.S. Lewis’ much-loved classic fantasy series, the Narnia books, the solitary lamp post one of the children sees when they discover the parallel world of Narnia by accident returns in other books as a key familiar landmark.
Details such as these, the familiar, anchoring details of place and a place’s inhabitants, make reading a series feel like a comfortable, familiar pair of slippers (or, in a thriller or crime novel, a roller-coaster you’re happy to wait again when the ride is over).
When you start planning a series arc, think not only of events and their unresolved strands that will tie it all together but also settings you’ll return to, or cast members who’ll return across multiple books. Planning and brainstorming these a little will give your series anchoring detail.
At another point in her NPR interview, Louise Penny says:
‘[H]aving been a journalist for a long time, I was getting the sense that the world was a very cruel, very dangerous place. And I didn’t like that feeling ’cause in my heart I thought that probably wasn’t true. It was a warped version of what the world was really like. And so I created this village. This village I would choose to live in where real life happens – bad things happen to all of the people. But there is a sense of community, of belonging.’
Something as simple as this – a village like Three Pines where there is a sense of community that prevails against bad things, a concrete sense of ‘place’ – makes a series unified.
Make a start: Join Now Novel for help brainstorming plot points, setting, characters and more for your first, second or third book.