Thursday, April 7, 2011

Plotting 102 - Breaking up plots in a series

Sorry, it seems like I've fallen off the face of this planet. I'm finally back and exhausted. But, at least, I'm doing well with my studying and critting. So, not all's lost. Sorry for missing out on everyone's blogs, but closing in on the end of higher education has sapped me of my time.

Soooo... I was saying something about discussing how to split a plot onto multiple books. Well, this is a challenge I've come face to face with since I do happen to write a series.
For me, it's been easy. I wrote the first book, and the second book, and part of the third one before I decided to actually tie them up with the same main plot line. As it happens, as dumb luck has it, I'd already unconsciously planted the links there.
But, now that I'm all grown up, it's time to do it properly.

Here are the things you should consider when writing a series.

#1. Have a common plot line

If it's one thing I admire about the Harry Potter series, it's how the main plot (Harry vs Voldemort) played out, subtly spread throughout Quidditch matches, classes, and teenage angst. There was a purpose to the series, a conclusion awaited at the end of the last book.
So, I think this is fairly important. Know your main plot - it's kinda like last week's A to B discussion, only that in this case, it's an A to Z (since the journey is much longer) - what is the underlining conflict in all of your books, just waiting to be solved?

As an example, in my series, I have 2 common plot lines that need to be solved.
A. The conflict between the Grants and Snitch Gravel (will he win, will they win OR will something utterly unexpected happen and this plot line will implode?)
B. The jewels - what happens after they find all of them? Who and what would they use them for?

There are parts of these two plot lines coming out in each and every book of the series, connecting them.

# 2. Each book should be a stand alone

I would advise against creating a - haven't read the first book, won't understand the second or third or fourth - situation. At least when it comes to the first book, it should be properly closed up. Why? Because before the second book comes out, the reader might just forget all the tension they left behind.

In order to pull this one off, you should have an alternative main plot line for each book - even if it's not the major series one.

Example from my work: In the first volume of my series, the characters search for the first jewel. They meet Snitch Gravel, face him and manage to get their hands on that first shiny rock. Both parts of the major plot are touched, and the book wraps up since they escape Snitch Gravel, come out of the jungle with the ruby, and go home. Task one, check!

#3. Don't give too much or too little information regarding the major plot

If you give too little information about that one line that pulls your series forward, the reader might later be unable to tie it up to the rest of the series - they should at least get a clue that there's more to the story, but leaving too much information out will make the (first) Book close unsatisfactory. Giving out all those nifty clues is pointless if the book ends without revealing even some of the answers.

If you give too much info - well, first off, you'll smother the book's main plot line with information that might appear useless at first. Then, the reader might realize what's going on, be thrilled, then be disappointed that the following books just seem to drag and give answers instead of rising any more questions.

So, here's what I do - (and what you can do as well) - I took my major plot and broke it off into clues which I then planted throughout the series.
Where do I want to go with this major plot? I want the Grants to find out who Snitch Gravel really is and why he wants to kill them. Okay, then I plant clues starting book 1 - things that seem minor at first - but when put together, will make the reader go Aaaah!
I wish I could go into more detail here, but it would be a major spoiler to reveal the ending ;)

So, I'll give an example from Harry Potter: remember all those times Harry escaped from Voldemort - well, it turned out all those near misses were Voldemort's fault because he couldn't foresee what killing his parents had really meant. (the creation of the Horrocrux and what not - sorry if I misspelled that).

Alas, you should try to carefully dose the information throughout the series to give the reader just enough to still find the twist masterful and also feed their interest and curiosity.

#4. Don't introduce the major plot later in the series

Really, that comes across as writing your own fan fiction - so you said all you had to say in your first book, and it's good and stand alone, but then books 2, 3 and 4 tie up together nicely. Make it a series from the very beginning.

#5. Don't stop character growth

Remember that in a series, your character mustn't  complete their arch after the first book - they have a whole load to grow from the first volume to the last. Also remember that they do have to grow in that first book. It's a bit tricky to get this right, but it helps if you take the #3 clues and try to assess how these situations change the character.

In my series, Sam grows up a lot after the first volume, but it's only until the last that he truly figures himself out and comes to terms with who he has become. He actually has an epiphany moment when he realizes who he didn't want to become :)

#6. Don't panic

Really. Writing a series should be fun. Enjoy fleshing out each book and creating many alternative plot lines around your characters. Don't leave your skeleton bare - each book should have it's own complex wire of relationships between character - make it full and clever and enticing.

#7. Don't forget to leave room for a sequel

Don't close your books all that well. Remind the reader why they want to know more, what has been left unfinished - this doesn't have to be straightforward - just enough to have them thinking, when they see your next book out, Oh, yeah! I had to find out what happened with the X.

In my work - the first book leaves Sam and his brothers and new girlfriends at the airport, as they reached home.
Things I hadn't closed up:

Snitch Gravel got away and still wants to kill them;

They are secret agents now - how does that change their lives?;

The ruby - what will the agency do with it in the end?;

And, of course, the most amusing and unimportant part - Sam's dad hates the idea of dating - how will he cope with all his children hooking up?

A conclusion

Splitting up a plot isn't a magical work of art. Most writers manage to do it following their instincts (much like me). Others have read books and blogs on the matter.
All you must remember is that, as long as it's clear inside your head, it will be clear to the reader as well (at least clearer than if you didn't have it clear inside your head either).
So enjoy every moment of writing every book and trying to surprise your readers. Enjoy the time you spend with your characters. Have fun!


  1. Great post! I'm already thinking about the sequels of my WIP, but whenever I do that, I start to panic a little. A step-by-step process like this might help me relax...

  2. Lol, hope so. #6 - Don't panic ;) I'm sure it's gonna be great!

  3. I’m attempting to write a series of Novelette sized stories just now, and thankfully I think I’ve got all the bases covered.

    This is a good round-up of everything you need to look at though… I following you now ;)

  4. Good food for thought, Steph. I wrote my first (and one and only) novel as a standalone. I only started on a sequel by accident. It wasn't planned that way. So I have a sequel, but I would hesitate to call it a series. Yes, it's a logical continuation of a journey but it should be able to stand alone, and if there's an overarching goal I haven't fathomed it out yet.

    Do you think there's a difference between a series, and simply one or two sequels?

  5. I actually think there is a difference. I think a normal sequel just uses the same world and, sometimes, characters (not the main ones though). A series is one big old book :)


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