Planning trilogies/series


I told you last time around that I would address how to plan a series or a trilogy. I should probably confess, I don’t know. Or rather, I do it one way and I think there must be better ways. Which is why I’m hoping some of my compatriots here will chime in. How is Faith handling the Jane Yellowrock series in terms of planning? Will David’s Thieftaker books be a trilogy or longer? How do you decide? How do you know how many books will be available?

The first thing is this: It isn’t always about what you want. Publishers sometimes buy 2 books or 3 books, and then play the “we’ll see what the numbers do” card. Well, that means if you’re planning on five books or six, then you may not get to finish out the series because your numbers aren’t good enough for the publisher to want to keep going. Or you may get told to wrap it up in four rather than in six books because they aren’t going to want more (cue writerly panic). The nice thing is that in this new world of publishing, you CAN actually finish a series through self publishing and sometimes small publishing. It allows you to come through for your readers and complete your vision.

On the other hand, what if your books are planned for three, but then take off and suddenly your editor wants three more. And then later, three more. So there is no plannable end in sight. You can say no. You can say this is the whole story and that’s all I’ve got. But let’s face it, if the publisher wants more, a writer wants to give it. For one, it means money in the bank and food on the table. For two, you get to keep writing characters you love and what could be better than that?  How do you plan those books with any kind of arc?

The easy answer is that you don’t. You plan smaller arcs you know you can fulfill (which is to say, you think the editor may want more books in the series, but you aren’t sure, so if you wrap the books under contract reasonably well, then readers will be satisfied if no more books are forthcoming). So for instance, Yasmine Galenorn just sold more books in a long series, same for Ilona Andrews. Each of their books has a story arc for the book, but reaches out to a larger arc that reaches over several books, but tends to somewhat wrap up the major plot lines after several books, while introducing more possible arcs that do dovetail into what’s come before. It’s a delicate task, but doable.

But let’s take a moment and just suppose you can write all the books you want and the editor will take everything. And that you can say no when more are asked for. Which is to say, suppose you can plan your series exactly. How do you do it?

The awful answer is that you have to plot them out. At least the big movements. You know every book has a beginning, middle, and end. You know your characters and you have an idea of what the major conflicts will be. You know what a story needs to give it enough heft to be a novel. You just have to sketch it out for each book. Sure, it might not all fall out that way. Most of the time in won’t. But you can get a sense of how much room it will take to tell the full scope of the story you want to tell. Even if, like me, you hate to plot such things out. Even if sometimes you write in something like, “here’s there will be a big blowup and there will be total disaster, causing death, mayhem, and my hero will be forced to run for his life.” Or maybe you’ll say, “here is where the ultimate evil is finally completely loosed on the world.” Or, “Here is where I resolve everything that’s come so far.”  The more detail you have the better off you are.

When you think about what sort of structure a book needs, it helps to block things out. So in a little more detail:  beginning/character introductions/worldbuilding/initial conflicts; then you need a middle/increasing conflicts/dangers/making everything look terribly bleak; and the end: make everything as bad as they can get/solve it all/denoument. That’s a fairly standard sense of a novel. So plug in your actions and pieces and see how many books you’ll need to tell the story that you want to tell.

Unless of course you do it differently. Let’s hear it. Other ideas for plotting multiple books (presuming the best of all possible worlds where you can write and sell all you want)?

Oh, and I wanted to mention here that on my blog we’ve been doing an online book club. Our next meeting is April 13th on my blog, and we’re reading Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light. Please come and join us if you’ve a mind to.


19 comments to Planning trilogies/series

  • I usually build in little jump points while I’m writing, thinking about possible future books. Things that, if left dangling, no one will really notice but I can use, should the need arise. Even my standalones have those little bits in there, just in case it takes off and I need to make another. Just pull cord.

    For series’, I haven’t really done much planning on how many books I’ll try for in each. I do have probably 2, maybe 3 series’ planned so far, but I’ve not guessed how far I might take it. Right now, I’m just concerned with getting the first book finished. 😉 Though I do have one that I fully planned would be sort of like 3 trilogies, for 9 books in the total series. It would be ambitious, but as you mention, more prone to possibly not being completed if numbers dropped. I did plan it that way though just in case it got dropped after the first three. The third book would still have a satisfactory ending, but there would still be that “what if” factor in there, that ripcord thread, that I usually add just in case.

    As far as Extended Story Arcs (duologies, trilogies), I have one that I’d at first thought would be a duology, but ran to trilogy, and another that I think will be just a duology. I guess I’m still working on deducing how many books I’ll need to finish an ESA. But as far as planning each one, I’m tending to treat each as a full novel, but I also try to break up what you’d normally have in a full novel (the beginning/intro/initial conflict, middle/heightened conflict/falling to bleakness, darkest before dawn/solution/denoument) and spread that out as well along the full story arc. It just feels right. Not sure how well it’s working; I’ll just have to see when I try to sell the thing. 😉

  • I like the idea of books being self-contained, while still telling a larger story. I don’t mind reading trilogies, but I would like to see more books of that don’t force themselves into that mode.

    In a related matter, I wish films were more like that. There’s really not much story that can be done in 2 hours of film (especially these days, with movies being so predictable and slow), and a film series could really develop a character.

  • When Sarah and I started laying out our trilogy (which can go longer, but we’ve got three books as a kind of first movement), I realized I wanted to follow (very very very loosely) Star Wars. The book is about a changling human who goes to faerie to find her father so she won’t be killed by her own magic.

    First book: Good gal discovers the world, has some trials and tribulations, wins, finds her place in the world. (Star Wars)

    Second book: Good gal has a hard time functioning in her role and learning the world, makes some bad (but understandable!) choices. The good gal is caught, her sidekicks/helpers out of reach and out of comission, and her family has been lost. Upside: she did manage to save her family members’ lives, but at great cost to herself and her world. In short, the bad guy wins. (The Empire Strikes Back)

    Third book: Good gal struggles against the bad guys, but must work with them for the sake of her world. Sidekicks and family plan to come back. Good gal thinks no one is coming to help her. Sidekicks show up, help, but Good Gal plays a huge role in helping the sidekicks coup. Now the fam is back, but the bad guys have done real damage in trust, love in the fam, and that conflict finishes out the story (it’s sort of two parts), and the romance that started in book one gets wrapped up. At the end, the reclaimed world is stable, etc. (Return of the Jedi).

    Now, if folks want more, the third book ends with the start of a war between the Winter Court (the good gal and fam) and the Summer Court (persistent bad guys through 1-3, in minor ways, now coming into full Big Bad Position).

    The events important to Star Wars aren’t the same as the events important to our story (the plots are different) but the basic structure of 1, 2, 3–discover calling, lose calling, redeem calling in new way–do hold.

    I hope this made sense.

  • It’s hard to say for me. I’ve got a couple of stories that in each case, I planned to be one self-contained story, only to realize that they have to be split up. In this case books 2 and 3 would definitely be at least partly dependent on what came before. My beef with trilogies is when the second book serves as filler, and doesn’t do much to advance the plot or character.

    Forest – There totally needs to be a Fantasy sort of Masterpiece Theatre show on TV that brings all those books to life, and gives them enough time to do it *right*. 🙂

  • Cindy

    There already is a Masterpiece Theatre for Fantasy in a way. HBO has done “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones”. 🙂

    For myself, I am not working on anything but stand alone novels now. I am world building for an epic fantasy, that has more possibilities. Great Post and very helpful.

  • Daniel: Jump points are smart. I call them dangling threads, but really, I like jump points as a metaphor much better.

    DeepForestGreen: Interestingly, that’s what I did with my Crosspointe books. Larger story arc, but each book tells a self contained story about different characters. Unfortunately, the series was canceled before I was done because people didn’t seem to like that format. However Iplan to finish it. I’m working on that. Luckily I have options for that I didn’t have a few years ago.

    Pea_faerie: Star Wars is done in groups of relatively self-contained trilogies. That’s something Mercedes Lackey did also with the Valdemar books. It’s a good structure because while the series goes on, it allows readers to feel that they’ve completed the story at the end of a grouping.

  • sagablessed

    As I am currently working on a quartet (it was NOT planned that way), I think you must be psychic.
    This post will be invaluable to me.
    Thanks!! 🙂

  • Laura: Middle books are really really hard to do. That’s why planning (much as I hate it–help me David!) is fundamental to make sure that those books have a a complete and compelling story. The problem is that you know already that it has to end with a significant problem to be solved in the next book. Which of course is what happens in a first book, but in a first book you get to introduce things and rise up to a point. In a second, you have to go from the previous point and rise again and take it to the darkest before the dawn sort of point. Maybe not darkest, but significantly dark, and that makes it hard to have a satisfying ending. But that’s a post for another day.

    Cindy: true, except that there’s no end in sight. And they could get canceled at any time. Each episode has to carry the larger ark, but it doesn’t have to be truly satisfying as a contained story. Usually a season tend to be more like a novel. Babylon 5 did it pretty well, though frankly the 5th season of the story ark was really more denoument than not.

  • sagablessed: you just keep thinking of me of psychic 😀

  • Excellent post! I call myself a seriesalolic, I almost always think of a BIG arc and a smaller book arc. I leave little details so that if the book does get picked up, and my master plan of world domination though sequels is realized, I have lines to pull through all of the books. Two of my series are trilogies in my head- aka a more solid three book arc; the other two are open ended.

    While I would LOVE to have an editor want more books than I have planned, I also have seen far too many favorite authors of mine stay in their worlds too long.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Oy… Di, I planned on 3 books for Jane Yellowrock. I also put in a few unanswered questions, so I could add more books later if needed. This was smart, as ROC did want more, and while the series didn’t rocket to the moon, it is still growing. The 6th will be out on April 2, and I am hard into WIP — book 7 — now. I also signed a contract for three more books, for a total of 10. I am not letting myself think about what will happen if they want more beyond that, but I’ll find a way to give them more if they want it. Like you said. Food on the table. But I also hope they’ll let me do something different in between, a spinoff or something, to get me thinking about new directions.

  • PS — David is on the road doing the family vacation and birthday trip and may not answer.

  • Aaaacckkkk!!! Planning series? [Runs back to vacationland to hide . . .]

    The fact is that this is a very different question depending on whether you’re writing a true serial — a series of stand-alone novels in the same universe, with recurring central characters, like the Jane Yellowrock and Thieftaker books — or an extended story arc, like the Song of Ice and Fire books or my own Forelands and Southlands books. With the latter, I believe that it is easier and safer to have the series mapped out entirely at the outset. Otherwise one runs the risk of writing the never-ending series — an open-ended story arc that keeps on evolving and spinning its wheels without ever getting anywhere. We all know examples of this, and so I’ll say no more. The key to this kind of series is giving each volume in the series a beginning middle and end, even as it operates within the larger story structure. You want your readers to feel upon finishing that they have a) completed a novel that offers a satisfying story arc of its own, and b) that they have made progress toward the completion of the larger series story. It’s a tricky balance, but certainly possible. It does demand planning though.

    On the other hand, true serials can begin and end pretty much anywhere. Thieftaker could have ended after book 1 and would have been satisfying to my readers. It could end after book 2. Now, I’m glad that it didn’t, and I have books 3 and 4 in the works. But the episodic nature of the larger project makes each book self-contained and makes it possible to write new books without the same sort of advanced planning necessary for extended story arcs. Does that make sense?

    Hope so. ‘Cause I’m on vacation….

  • I was wrong! He popped in!

  • Vyton

    Diana, this is a very interesting post. My WIP is the second story with the same characters, but very little connection between the events of the first story and the second. Each could be a stand alone with minor tweaking of the WIP. The first time I really understood the whole story arc concept was when some one used the first (the one released in 1977) Star Wars movie as an example. It became crystal clear. Thank you for this expansion. Very good.

  • Marie: You are organized in your planning. *envy*

    Faith: It’s so nice to have more books bought, but at the same time, it must be tough to figure out how to go farther with the storylines and still not lose control of the stories. Do you find yourself thinking in terms of arcs that cover how many books you know you’ll be able to write? So maybe for 7-10, you can think of them as having a longer arc as well as shorter ones, even if you end up doing more in the series?

    DAvid: I would totally be running for vacationland. So serious. I’m working on a fantasy series/trilogy. Not sure yet. Might only be duology. I haven’t been able to seriously think through some of the planning. Some of it I have solid, other elements, not so much. But what I do know about the way I write is that the story sometimes proliferates and becomes larger–in good ways for the story–in bad ways for length. And that worries me.

  • Vyton: glad I could be of help!

  • […] forgot to mention I have a post up on Magical Words today about writing a series and trilogy and how to plan them […]

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm. Like Daniel, I have a planned 9-book story arc, conveniently arranged into three trilogies. (Working on the second book now. I too dislike the second-book syndrome. Making very sure it aspires to even greater things than the first.) Naturally, I realllly hope I’d be able to publish the whole thing – I’ll write it regardless, for my own satisfaction if no one else’s. (I’ve been planning this thing for years.) If not…well, the first trilogy has a fairly satisfactory ending. There’d just be a few unanswered questions, some potential future storylines. (Again, like Daniel’s. We should compare notes ;)) From the fourth book onwards, the tension rises steadily, people dying, plotlines branching out, stakes getting higher and all that. And since it is, in a sense, one giant trilogy (a trilogy of trilogies; Brandon Sanderson’s term, I think), the sixth book ends on a major cliffhanger. I’m hoping that if I can get that far, I’ll have built up enough fans to carry the series on to the end.