October 18, 2016

Writing a Series: How Much Do We Need to Plan Ahead?

Bundle of wires with different connectors with text: Connecting a Series: Do We Need a Plan?

It’s no secret that many authors who have found success write book series. With a series, when readers enjoy one story, they’re more likely to purchase other books in the series than they are to buy unrelated books. So an author who writes a series might see more sales than they would otherwise.

But that brings up the issue of how much a series should be planned in advance of later releases. Should authors have an idea of where the series is going in future books? Should they know how the series ends?

For authors who plot their stories before drafting, extensive planning might come naturally. However, for those who write by the seat of their pants or for those who like experimenting with ideas even as plotters, the story of their current book might be a mystery, much less the stories of future releases.

Is that a problem? Do we need to plan our series in advance?

Does a Series Need Planning? It Depends

As I’ve discussed before, there are different types of series. In general, books are designated a series because they share at least one element:

  • Setting: These series take place in the same “world” but might each feature different characters. The characters of book two may or may not have been introduced in book one. The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one.
    Many romance series fall into this category, each book featuring a different couple that receives their “happily ever after” by the end of their story.
  • Characters: These series feature the same characters. The events of book two may or may not be dependent on the events of book one. Many urban fantasy series fall into this category, each book featuring a different bad guy for the protagonist to defeat.
    However, series like Nancy Drew also fall into this category, where each book stands alone and can be read in any order.
  • Story Arc: These series follow a main story over several installments. Each book usually features at least some of the same characters. Sometimes a story will end with a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next book. These books need to be read in order to make sense.
    Typically, these series have a definitive ending rather than going on forever (a story arc needs to end sometime), but for sales reasons, some authors have attempted to turn a story arc series into an open-ended series (to mixed results).

Obviously, series can share more than one common element. Those with a common story arc usually share common characters and settings as well. The Harry Potter series has common characters and settings (and individual book arcs) in addition to its series-long story arc.

Depending on what the comment element(s) is, authors might need to plan ahead more for some types of series than for other types of series. Let’s take a closer look…

Least Complicated: Series without Plot Dependencies

Series that take place in a common setting or story world are often the easiest to write without prior planning. Each book follows different characters, who may or may not know the characters from the other books, so the interconnectedness of the series is limited.

For example, a series set in a small town might focus on the coffee-shop owner one book and the local sports celebrity the next. The only sense of continuity authors have to worry about is setting related. If the local sports celebrity visits the coffee shop, it shouldn’t have a different owner all of a sudden.

Obviously, authors can create more connections. The hero of one story could be introduced in a previous story (and may even be related to another major character). Past characters could show up in future books, etc., but the events of each story don’t have to be seen as chronological to each other unless we want them to be.

Similarly, series with common characters can potentially be uncomplicated as well. Nancy Drew type stories are written like episodic TV shows, where nothing happens to the characters that will affect them in future books, eliminating the need for continuity.

Even where characters can die and situations change, we as authors can often adapt to those changes. Our hero can change jobs, start a relationship, or mourn the death of a loved one without us needing to figure out those changes in advance. Each story simply becomes the backstory of the next.

Most Complicated: Series with an Overall Story Arc

Series with a long story arc, either set up as related episodes or as cliffhanger endings are the most complicated to write. Essentially, the series can behave as one big story, likely with carryover characters, settings, antagonists, problems, goals, etc.

This type of series is thus likely to need the most amount of planning. Some authors might even choose to write the whole series before releasing any books to ensure all the pieces and foreshadowing they want are in place.

At the very least, most authors will plan out the general arc to know what big events or problems are going to happen in each book. They might decide who needs to live and who can die without causing issues down the line.

However, pantsers can be a different breed. (I should know. *smile*) So now the question is, can pantsers write series with an overall arc?

Writing a Series Arc: Options for Pantsers

Pantsers often don’t know where their current scene is going, much less the whole story, much less the whole series. Whether this is a problem for writing story-arc-style series depends on their strengths and weaknesses.

If we break down pantsing authors into three different styles, we might be able to gain insights. Note, however, that authors could be a mix of these styles, especially from book to book. The point here is to see what we might need to watch out for…

Type #1: Extensive Editor:
“What Am I Writing Again?”

For some pantsers, their first draft is all about discovering their story. They might change their mind about story directions mid-draft as they narrow in on what they really want to write or say during the drafting process.

These types of pantsers often have to do extensive editing to eliminate plot holes, misleading information, and subplots or clues that never play out. Everything from who the main characters are or the genre of the story might change during drafting.

Series Writing Tip:
This type of pantser might find series arcs difficult, as once a story is released, they can’t go back to change those aspects to meet the new direction for the series. If they wish to write this style of series, they might find it better to write the whole series before release of the first book, so the stories can be edited as a whole.

Type #2: Normal Editor:
“I’ll Figure It Out”

Some pantsers don’t worry about plot holes because they avoid elements that need consistency (much like how episodic TV avoids killing anyone off). For example, these authors might not include foreshadowing in general, so they don’t worry about that element from one book to the next either. Or the changes from one book to another could be gentle, etc.

Other pantsers don’t worry about inconsistencies because they’ve learned how to incorporate them into the story. Much like with the approach for common characters above, they simply adapt as the situation changes. Elements they included in previous books might even inspire them for future plot events, turning existing descriptions into foreshadowing after the fact, etc.

Still other pantsers don’t worry about issues because they’ve become skilled at how to explain them away. For example, if their idea for the identity of the mystery bad guy changes during their series, they might include dialogue along the lines of:

What do you mean the bad guy is your father? How could we not have known that before now?”
“I don’t know, okay? I’m just as surprised as you are.”

Series Writing Tip:
This type of pantser might be just fine with series arcs. If they can adapt to changes in a single story rather than needing to go back and change early scenes, they might be able to do the same with a long, connected series and thus be able to release each book as it’s ready.

However, they also have to watch out for explanations that don’t make sense or create other plot holes. Outside of the old Scooby-Doo cartoon, where the villains often wore masks, an explanation where the bad guy switched from being a woman to being a man to accommodate the new “father” idea would just be cheesy.

Type #3: Instinctive Drafter
“My Muse Knows All”

Some (rare) pantsers are blessed with a logical subconscious. Even though they might not consciously know where their story is going, their subconscious already has it figured out, from clues and subtext to foreshadowing and themes, and their writing includes those elements naturally.

Their style of pantsing is essentially trying to capture on their keyboard the story that already exists in their subconscious brain. They might not understand why their subconscious wanted them to include an element until later books, but they’ve learned to trust their muse on what to include.

Series Writing Tip:
This type of pantser, if their subconscious is really as together as they assume, might be able to successfully write series arcs. But because it takes time and experience to know whether their subconscious actually works at this level, new authors should be cautious before trusting their ability to write connected series and release books as they’re ready.

Final Thoughts

Personally, I have a strong amount of Type #3. I’ve even talked about trusting my muse or discovering long afterward why my muse had me include an element. But I also often find myself inspired by elements after the fact, like the incorporating style of Type #2.

Back when I was drafting the fourth book in my Mythos Legacy series, I realized the bad guy’s arc could connect to a character mentioned once in the third book. Ta-da, instant foreshadowing that turned into a huge connecting element between the stories with lots of “Oh, that’s why…” reactions.

The point here is that plotters might not need to plan every element of their series if they recognize some of the skills of Type #2 and 3 in themselves. And even if we’re pantsers, we might also be able to write a connected series with an overall series arc, but knowing our pantsing style can help us know what to watch out for.

For example, if our stories often need extensive editing to correct plot holes, we’re likely to run into more problems with series arcs and need to write our series before releasing the first book. But if we’re not willing to hold our books until they’re all completed, we still might be able to enable faster releases if we can develop our skills at incorporating or explaining away inconsistencies.

Writing series can be good for authors, and hopefully this post helps give all writers ideas for how they can make series-writing work for them. *smile*

Do you write series? How connected are your books? Have you needed to plan future stories to prevent inconsistencies or plot holes? If you’re a pantser, have you struggled with writing series-arc stories? Does this give you some ideas for how to make those stories work for you?

P.S. Don’t forget that I’m taking guest post proposals to help me out during NaNoWriMo. Check out the details here!

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Comments — What do you think?

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Debbie Johansson

Thanks so much for this information Jami. I’m currently considering writing a series, so I’ve found this post both helpful and timely. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hmm I saw this post as essentially about what happens when you discover a plot hole?

Well, most of the time I’m able to explain them away (I’m pretty good at this), sometimes I find that it is logical later on, and in rare instances, I actually had to change the plot a bit. However, the latter plot changes tend to be very minor. There was once when I greatly increased the importance of a minor character and changed one main character’s personality a bit; but these modifications were to make the story more interesting, not to fix any inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, just in case, I’m writing all my books in a series before publishing them!

Tahlia Newland

I did that for my first series and I’m glad I did, but I wasn’t a confident writer then. I also knew that if I didn’t finish it then I might never do it.

Julie S
Julie S

Last year, I started a story, and it expanded into a three-part (possibly more) book story. I’m 3/4 of the way through the RD of the second book. As I’ve written, I’ve gone from seat of the pants to more planning. The method is still evolving, though. This series is more like one larger story chopped up into thirds, because otherwise it would be too huge. Kind of like Lord of the Rings in form. This is taking tons more planning than I expected, and I do a LOT of world-building and character building, too.

One thing I learned doing NaNo is to trust your subconscious. Seriously trust it – don’t edit what you write as you’re writing it, because there are usually reasons why things are put there. I have found my NaNo drafts to be more cohesive than the first book rough draft in this series, which I did *not* write NaNo style.
(There actually a term for the NaNo style rough draft but I forget what it is)

Tahlia Newland

This was really helpful because I’m writing a steampunk series at the moment and it’s one story arc which I’m planning to release in short segements. I have the first ready to go, but since it ends on a cliffhanger, I decided to write the second before releasing it. I didn’t know how many words the second one would be – I’m a pantser – and found a perfect ending at 30,000 words, about the same size as book one. But it also ends on a cliffhanger, and I suspect that since it’s turning out to be shortish episodes they all will. I have no idea how many books it will take to finish the story and I only have a vague idea of where it’s going (though I do know how it will end), but I plan to join them up into a bundle once it’s done. I don’t want to finish the whole lot before putting the first ones out, and I’m an experienced number 3/2 panster so I trust that I can just write and it will all hang together okay.

My question is, how far apart do you think I should release them? How long before a reader forgets that they’re waiting for the next installement? I have newsletter sign ups at the end of all my books with a free book enticement, but is that enough to not lose readers while they wait for the next book?

Laurie Evans

Thanks for this. I wrote a book last year, and decided to make it a series of four books. I was scrambling to keep up. I don’t want to scramble next time. Even a rough outline for each book would help.

Mark R Hunter

I just started plotting the fifth work in my Storm Chaser series … which I had no idea was a series until about the time I started working on the third one. Two are romantic comedies, one a YA adventure, and one a short story collection, all set in the same universe and sharing most of the same characters. It’s possibly the most unplanned series in history–and I’m a planner!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Please do not end your series books on cliffhangers!
Every review will mention this, and readers will call it a blatant attempt to get people to buy the next book, and say that you are unable to wrap up story threads and write a conclusion.

A YA book series I was reading – four books now – kept ending on an unexpected break which soon became a cliff-hanger and by now, some minor characters get scenes in a book with no connection to any other characters or any other scenes. The author presumably knows where she is going but to the rest of us, she’s just dropped in to see the minors once in a while and then got back to the main threads. Four novella length books with no conclusions is too much and I’m not reading any more.

Tahlia Newland

Yeah. I decided not to do that after all. I’ve combied the two short books into one and ended it on a ‘we’re okay, we’ll make it, we just aren’t quite there yet’ note. The reader knows they’ll get where they need to go now; there is no reason why they won’t, so it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s just leaving it open, leading into the next book.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

My best seller is a five book crime series. I wrote all of these in eighteen months – book lengths – and edited while checking out where to send them. However publishers have not the manners they were born with and none of them responded, apart from the ones which had just closed down. So I published independently and the books started selling right away and still do. People often buy all five, either in one swoop or one after the other. Yes, a series is a great idea.

However a series can make an author lazy. So I advise bringing in a new character to each new book, or changing the setting, or demonstrating something new.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Just to be different, my SF series grew in the telling and by now largely comes through my subconscious. Three books published to date. The first book covered several years and there are a couple of gaps. The second and third books go back to fill in, partly, a lengthy gap.

The characters had major story arcs and personal growth arcs through the first book, and each of the others shows a segment of that arc, still arcing though the individual tale.


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