How To Outline Your Book Series

How to Outline a Series of Bestselling Books

How To Outline Your Book SeriesEvery good series has to start somewhere. If you’re of the mindset (as I am) that a problem as complicated as the novel is best approached from the big-picture view of an outline, then it only makes sense that the even greater complexities of serial fiction will benefit even more when their authors understand how to outline a series.

These days, books run in packs. The vast majority of authors are writing sequels and series. Aside from the fact that series are fun and offer the opportunity to return to beloved characters and settings, they’re also a smart marketing decision. Hook readers with one book, and they’re likely to return for the rest of the series.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Easily the most frequent follow-up question I’ve gotten over the years to my book Outlining Your Novel is: “How to outline a series?” I’ve hedged and hawed on that, offering a few logical suggestions here and there. But up until now, it isn’t a subject I’ve felt qualified to write about since… I’d never written a series.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

And I’m glad I waited. Last year, I began my first-ever series when my originally standalone portal fantasy Dreamlander turned into a trilogy on me. Outlining the follow-up books has been an entirely different, multi-faceted, and incredibly rewarding experience. Figuring out the real-time steps of how to outline a series has exploded several of my preconceptions about the process and taught me much more about both outlining and storycraft in general.

Ready to find out how to outline a series of books you’ll be proud of and readers will love? Let’s get started!

Should You Outline the Whole Series or One Book at Time?

This is probably the most common question I receive about how to outline a series. Obviously, my approach to the Dreamlander trilogy has been a little wonky, since I wrote and published the first book with no intention of following it up. I outlined the first book with no idea there would be sequels, and now that I am outlining the sequels, the first book in the trilogy is already set in stone and I only have to worry about the remaining two.

The approach I’m finding works best is basically the one I’ve been recommending all along: outline the overarching story upfront, but not all the books.

The whole point of outlining, whether you’re working on a standalone or a series, is that you discover the story’s end, so you can then appropriately set up the beginning. This is arguably even more true of a series, in which the big-picture resonance of the overall plot and theme will be even more hotly anticipated by patient readers, who sometimes wait years for the payoff in the end.

The secret of tremendously powerful and popular series is that the ending is always present in the beginning. Authors such as J.K. Rowling knew how the story would end right from the beginning.

Voldemort Deathly Hallows

However, this does not mean you need to write a complete outline for each book in your series right at the start. Especially if you’re like me and your outlining process is in-depth and detail-oriented, it may actually be counter-productive to hammer down all the details of your later stories until you’ve written the earlier ones.

An outline, however thorough, is never the final story. Many important details will inevitably change during the writing of the first draft. If too many of those changed details pile up, you may find the original outline you wrote for Book 3 or Book 4 suddenly doesn’t work.

Josip Novakovich Quote

Your Game Plan for How to Outline a Series #1:

As you’re working your way through your story’s plot holes, figuring out where events are going and what your character’s transformation will be in the end, you should end up with an overall picture of your series’ arc. It’s good if you have an idea of at least the shape of each of the three acts in your planned follow-up books. Keep track of the big moments you discover, which may turn into your major plot points in later books.

Beyond that, you only need to explore future books insofar as you have questions about them that affect your current book. Go ahead and finish this book’s outline and first draft. After that, you’ll have a solid foundation for the books to follow, and you can dive into their individual outlines one by one.

How Should You Plot Each Book in a Series?

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logo

Use the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software to help you outline your series!

Another question I frequently hear is: “How can I keep the main conflict going in my series without making the individual books feel incomplete?

This is an excellent question, because there’s little readers detest more than stories that cliffhang them for no good reason.

Now, it’s important to differentiate between a cliffhanger that hooks readers into the next book (see the final section in this post) and a cliffhanger that simply leaves all the book’s conflict questions unanswered. Even within a series that features a focused overall plot, each episode within that series must be complete unto itself.

Otherwise, you risk reader frustration. Why did they spend six hours reading this crazy book if they don’t get to find out what happens?

Your Game Plan for How to Outline a Series #2:

Your overarching series will have a dramatic premise of its own. The protagonist’s main goal within the plot and main Lie within the theme will not be resolved until the Climax of the last book within the series.

However, each book within the series must also have its own “mini” dramatic premise. The protagonist will not reach his main plot goal until the end of the series, but she will definitely gain or lose the individual plot goals she is seeking within each story.

For example, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s overall goal in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series is to “defeat Napoleon.” The series goes into the double digits without them accomplishing this. Each book, however, features its own dramatic premise, centered around a specific plot goal, which the characters either definitively succeed or fail in reaching. Each book feels complete unto itself, even as the overall story keeps on trucking.

Master and Commander Russell Crowe

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series is a standalone series, in which each book presents its own independent adventure, even as the story’s overarching goal of “defeat Napoleon” continues from book to book.

This is even more important within a series that does not feature a prominent overarching plot. In a series that is more episodic in nature (such as some romance and mystery series), each story essentially functions as a standalone, even though a few subplots may continue from book to book to tie it all together.

How Should You Structure Your Series?

Each book within the series will, of course, maintain its own proper adherence to the pacing of the main structural beats. But what about the larger story? How can you structure that over the course of multiple books? This is where I had to challenge some of my preconceptions about outlining a series.

I’ve written previously about how you can simply divide the number of books in your series into the overall structure to figure out where to place your major structural moments. (For example, in a trilogy or a quartet, each book can, essentially, function as either one of the acts or one of the quarters of the overall structure.) While this approach isn’t wrong, I’m learning it’s pretty simplistic.

The overall story structure will usually not line up quite so neatly, book by book, in a big, complicated series that features multiple turning points, perhaps multiple character arcs (see next section), and possibly an uncooperatively uneven number of books.

Your Game Plan for How to Outline a Series #3:

What I discovered was that figuring out how to outline a series is where a solid understanding of structure becomes even more useful. Because you can no longer rely so heavily on the easy timing equations of a single-book structure, you must step beyond the facts and into the theory of structure, using your own story instincts to determine how best to control the emotional flow of the overall series.

For example, in a trilogy, you’re usually going to find the following:

  • Book 1 functions as set-up, an origins story of sorts—in which the protagonist first encounters the main conflict and probably experiences an early victory.

Star Wars New Hope Ending

  • Book 2 is a descent into the darkness of the conflict—in which the protagonist is often temporarily overcome, facing a dark moment of defeat.

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Luke Skywalker Noooo

  • Book 3 then signals the climactic period—in which the character rises from his defeat into his final heroic pose.

Luke Skywalker Star Wars Return of the Jedi

That said, you definitely still want to make sure your major structural moments are obvious within the overall flow of the story. The middle book should feature an obvious Midpoint that signals a shift into the full-on conflict of the second half (as we see, for example, in Goblet of Fire). In a trilogy, the second book will often end with the low moment of the overall story’s Third Plot Point (but remember, of course, that the third and final book will still feature its own complete structure with its own individual Third Plot Point).

The timing will depend entirely on how many books you’re featuring—which is yet another reason outlining your overall story idea in the beginning is incredibly helpful.

What Role Should Character Arcs Play in Your Series?

Here’s another question I hear: “Can your protagonist follow more than one character arc over the course of a series?” Originally, I thought, Naw. It’s an overarching story, right? So there should be an overarching character arc. That may be true, but it’s not quite as simplistic as it looks on the surface.

As I dug into character arcs for my sequel Dreambreaker, I realized one of the characters would be demonstrating a different arc in each of the three books. I wanted this character to ultimately follow a Positive Change Arc, but along the way, this character first had to follow two different types of Negative Change Arcs: a Disillusionment Arc in Book 1 and a Corruption Arc in Book 2, before finally being able to enter a Positive Arc in Book 3. Another character, however, clearly followed an overarching Positive Arc over the course of all three books—while still overcoming individual Lies/Truths in each book.

Your Game Plan for How to Outline a Series #4:

Just as your series will have an overarching dramatic premise to guide its plot, it will also have an overarching thematic premise to guide its theme and your characters’ arcs. You need to know right from Book 1 where your characters will end up in Book Z and what Truth their end will be proving.

However, just as structure is surprisingly flexible within the overarching story of a series, so are character arcs and theme. Pay attention to what feels right and allow your characters to follow logical paths of light and darkness on their way to their final Climactic encounter.

What’s important is making sure your character’s ultimate end in the final book is foreshadowed in the beginning. The last thing you want is for your character’s redemption or fall to come out of the blue. It needs to be a steady progression of everything that’s happened to him. Fortunately, in a series, you have all kinds of space in which to explore and develop this inner journey.

How Should You Plan to Connect Each Book in the Series?

In my exclusive Wordplayers group on Facebook (which you can find out how to join here), Vickie Owens asked me,

How should you connect book one and book two in a series? I’m looking for how to end the first book in the last chapter (create a hook or something) and start the first chapter in the second book.

As I touched on briefly in the second section in this post, one of the keys to a solid series is making sure each book is a solid episode within that series. Each book’s individual plot and its loose ends must be tied off within itself.

However, that is still going to leave hanging the loose ends from the main overarching plot. The protagonist will have reached his mini-goal for this episode, but his big plot goal is still out there beckoning—the main antagonist is still out there leering in the darkness. There’s plenty of unfinished business.

That’s what you use to hook readers into your next book.

Your Game Plan for How to Outline a Series #5:

Your individual book’s Climactic Moment will have answered its individual dramatic question. You can then use that book’s Resolution to tie off the loose ends remaining from this individual plot line. What you get to do then is to, in essence, raise the next book’s dramatic question.

  • What aspect of the main conflict will be most pressing in the next book?
  • What will be the individual main conflict in the next book?

These are both questions you can use to create a hook of uncertainty that will grab readers’ curiosity and pull them right into the next adventure. Consider how Thor: The Dark World ends with the antagonist Loki on the throne of Asgard. His presence there doesn’t affect the resolution of that individual story’s plot questions, but it does raise a whole slew of questions for the next story.

Loki on the Throne Thor Dark World

After resolving its main conflict with the Dark Elves, Thor: The Dark World then teases the series’ continuing conflict with antagonist Loki.

As I’m discovering, figuring out how to outline a series is a tremendously exciting and fun challenge that takes the principles of storytelling up to a whole new level. As useful as outlining is when writing a standalone book, it becomes vastly more so in creating a cohesive and powerful series that grabs reader from installment to installment and resonates deeply in its final resolution. Are you up to the challenge?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you figured out how to outline a series of your own? Or do you prefer to skip the prep stage? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good stuff! Thank you K.M. I follow you on your stream of consciousness as it relates to outlining a trilogy. However, my dilemma is two-fold. Even though each story is written as a stand alone. How much story line from the first book should be included in the second story. The third? I’ve read a large amount of books with sequels and series. It gets boring to read about the characters’ life history repeated over and over in the other books that follow. Can that be avoided? Secondly, I always usually know how my story is going to begin( the invitation) and how it will end( the gift bag). What critical elements of an outline(not just a trilogy) should I stress regarding the middle(the party)to keep the reader excited to read to the end. Or is that a question for yet another post? Or one you’ve previously addressed. Thank you so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Treat the events of previous books the same way you would standard backstory: only reiterate it if it is important and only as it becomes important to the current plot. Otherwise, readers don’t need to be reminded.

  2. Hello, Katie… long time no see. 😉
    Life got crazy there for a bit.

    Thanks for sharing this post— extremely helpful. Unfortunately it came too late to save me a long mental battle over my own series, but it was great confirmation that I’m on the right track.
    One of the things I’ve realized more and more as I went through planning for my series (eleven books is a tad trickier than three 😛 ) is that foreshadowing really is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. Like, Difficult-To-Stress-Just-How-Incredibly-Important-Important. My series is a bit odd in that most of the books are literally stand-alones (quite literally— completely different casts and everything) but overall they tell the story of a world’s creation, fall, redemption, rejection, and finally repentance, and though each book stands more or less by itself the threads of the overall picture still need to be there— running through and setting up the end from the very first book.

    Anyway. Thank you for the lovely post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree about foreshadowing. That was one of my concerns about turning Dreamlander into an unintended trilogy–since I didn’t cosnciously sow anything that foreshadows later books. I think it’s turned out all right, but definitely not as smooth as if I’d intended the sequels from the start.

  3. Amy LeTourneur says:

    Thanks for the post, Katie! Very timely for me as my stand-alone book just expanded into what I thought was a series…until I read this. And now I’m just not sure. 😉

    I’ve been finishing up my NaNoWriMo novel, and out of the blue one of my “what if?” brainstorming sessions opened a door in my mind and BOOM – there was a second book dancing around in there. Happy times. 😀

    But here’s the problem: the MC of Book 1 is NOT the MC of Book 2. The second book is set in the same town with most of the same characters (including Book 1’s MC) and it expands on a theme introduced in the first book, but this story focuses on a new MC. If it helps, both books are new adult coming-of-age novels with a romance angle.

    So would this be considered a series and need to be outlined as such (overarching theme, structure, etc., across all books)? Or should I treat each book as a stand-alone?

    Thank you! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Technically, it would be a standalone book within a series. This is a popular approach, particularly in romance series. Susan May Warren’s Noble Legacy series comes to mind.

  4. Hannah Killian says:

    I skimmed through Dreamlander today, and I have a question: Is Yemas the character who undergoes the disillusionment arc, corruption arc, and then the positive arc?

    He seems pretty disillusioned with Allara.

  5. So… does each book in a series have a three act structure? Or must the three act structure be spread out over the entire series? What if the books are more episodic and feature different main characters in the books to come? If character arc and book structure are linked, that would mean that in a standalone book, the book’s Midpoint and the character’s arc Midpoint happen at the same moment? But what about in a series? Are they still linked like that, with both Midpoints happening at the same moment? Or does each book have a three act structure that’s separate from the character arc structure? Or not, since they’re linked…?

    Madi

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, each book within the series must have its own complete structure. Think of both the structure and the character arc within a series as getting “mini-stories” within each individual book. Each book’s arc is a building block in the overall arc of the series.

      • Ah, okay. So the book’s complete structure still stands within the series–but what about the overarching character arc? If I’m focusing on just the first three books of the series right now, the character arc’s timing and its one Midpoint would be separate from each of the three books’ Midpoints? This is all new to me. :p

  6. Hannah Killian says:

    Okay, so in an earlier comment, I mentioned I wanted to do a duology. That duology is now a trilogy, and I’m doing the first book for NaNo 2017.

    I think the protagonist may have a Positive Change Arc. His Lie is that keeping his wife in the dark about his activities (aka fighting the bad guys) is keeping her safe. The Truth he needs is that keeping secrets has the potential to destroy their relationship.

    Another Truth, the one for the outer conflict, is that you can’t erase history anymore than you can change it. So I guess you could say he’s a bit like Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park. For the outer conflict, he’s a Flat Arc. For the inner conflict, he’s a Positive Change.

    However, I think he might end up with at least two Positive Arcs, and I’m trying to figure out how they’ll fit with the trilogy’s structure.

    The first Lie, which is in the first book, is that keeping his activities a secret from his wife will protect her. While he can see the Truth of what keeping secrets is doing to their relationship from the very beginning, it isn’t until the end that he finally accepts that Truth, but he doesn’t get the chance to tell her because bad guys. Also, he goes ‘missing’.

    The second Lie, which comes in the second book, is that staying away from his wife will protect her better. This actually comes from the character who saved his life, and the protagonist begans to wonder if he (the other character) is right, especially after the Low Moment. But his goal of defeating the bad guys for good stays firm, and his former goal of living in peace with his wife (that is, he doesn’t have to worry about the bad guys) blends into Book #2’s goal of getting back to her.

    And then in Book #3, he overcomes both Lies for good.

    My only problem is the structuring.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds to me like the two Lies are so closely related that they’re really just facets of one another–which is great thematically.

      • Hannah Killian says:

        So, if they’re just facets of each other, does that mean that instead of accepting the Truth at the Midpoint of Book 1, he accepts the other Lie?

        His arc seems to be complicated, at least to me. I wrote it down several times, and this is the most recent. It’s kinda a mix of the outlines I’ve already done:

        1% – Believes the Lie that keeping his activities a secret from his wife will protect her.
        12% – The first hint his Lie will no longer work is when his wife has a brush with a baddie, but nothing happens, except escalating his wife’s suspicions about what her husband’s been doing. (Hint: It ain’t pretty). He initially refuses to believe that the bad guys found out he’s married, but he becomes uncomfortable when it seems like they’re getting closer.
        25% – The Lie is no longer effective when they’re shot at in the middle of the night, and he realizes he can’t keep it from her any longer. Should he tell her at this point?
        37% – He’s torn between the Truth – relationships can’t survive without trust and communication – and a new Lie – defeating the bad guys is the only way he can repair the damage he’s caused to their marriage.
        50% – He sees the Truth, but accepts the new Lie. Yet at the same time, he doesn’t fully reject the Truth either.
        62% – This is where I’m stuck. I don’t know what happens here.
        75% – He embraces the Lie that he must defeat the bad guys for good in order for his marriage to be repaired. (Not)
        88% – He pushes to gain what he Wants, and at the moment, it’s defeating the baddies.
        98% – He ends up failing when he, believing a certain character is a bad guy, starts fighting with that guy, who’s trying to disarm the bomb. Way to go, Henry.
        100% – He’s now gone missing, and his wife is realizing that she never did anything to try to fix their marriage either. There’s also a little something she never told him.

        So. . .it kinds starts out as Positive, but then goes into Corruption. The only problem is the 62% mark. I have no idea what happens, except I literally just thought of him calling his wife to tell her he’s sorry he won’t be coming home that night, because he’s pretty sure he could die trying to stop the supposed bad guy.

        HENRY, WHY ARE YOU SO COMPLICATED?!

        • Hannah Killian says:

          Actually, maybe Fall did end up in there somewhere. Like, maybe he does have a half-hearted attempt at the Truth alongside being torn between the Truth and the new Lie?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It kind of looks to me like he realizes the Lie too soon (at the 25%) mark. Although he will be put into a situation at the First Plot Point where the Lie begins to become ineffective, he won’t consciously recognize that right away.

            The character will recognize the Truth at the Midpoint, but *not* reject the Lie until the Third Plot Point.

            This is in a Positive Change Arc, of course.

  7. Hannah Killian says:

    So, would it be possible for my protagonist to tell his wife the truth about his activities before he realizes he needs to stop keeping secrets from her?

    Like, after they’re shot at, she’s definitely gonna want some answers, and so he tells her, but he doesn’t yet realize that he literally just took the first step into realizing/admitting that keeping secrets is baaaad.

  8. Hannah Killian says:

    What about series that are like the Indiana Jones movies? They’re all standalone stories, but are about the same character.

    I have a duology that’s two different stories completely unrelated to each other except that they’re about the same characters, and I literally just thought a few minutes ago that there could be an overarching story, but the story is about the relationship between two of the characters. They meet in the first book, fall in love, and then get engaged and married in the second book.

    So would I outline that using their relationship as the overarching story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, often in series with standalone plots in the character relationship subplots that create the overarching continuation from book to book.

      • Hannah Killian says:

        *thumbs up*

        What’s funny is that these two characters were supposed to be deuteragonists, but they ended up stealing the spotlight. 🙂

  9. Great info.
    The thing I’m having the most trouble is, I understand in full the whole three act story structure and all its points – from the hook, inciting incident and first plot point, all the way to the third plot point, climax and resolution.
    For standalone stories within a series, where each book is its own story with its own characters but just set in the same fictional world, that’s easy to work out.
    It’s also easy to wrangle when you have a trilogy or series such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, where you have the overarching series plot, with identifiable plot points and such, but each book is also its own story with its own plot, and is therefore able to follow its own self-contained story structure.

    But.

    What if you’re not doing that, what if you’re going with the classic three-volume novel style, where you have one single gigantic story that’s just written in three volumes? Ie, like Lord of the Rings – one single epic story published as three separate volumes. The overall plot is easy to fit to the story structure, and it’s certainly easy to outline the entire “series” – but since each individual book doesn’t have its own individual story as well, you can’t really fit the typical three-act story structure to it. All you can really do is, perhaps, outline the entire novel and then publish Act 1 as the first volume, Act 2 as the second, and Act 3 as the third. But then you get into the problem that I ran into when trying to read Lord of the Rings – feeling like you’re reading forever without anything actually happening.
    The first volume will hardly be satisfying if you essentially spend the entire book just setting the scene, as it were, and then ending on the “point of no return” that is the first plot point. When I read Fellowship of the Ring, what would be the first pinch point, first plot point, etc etc, didn’t show up until much later than it would normally in a standalone book, so it felt like it took ages for the story to progress (granted I was 9 at the time, so probably too heavy reading at that age, but I noticed how it felt all the same). And the second and third volume won’t be able to have the usual hook or key point that you can only get in Act 1, so it will feel like it’s just jumped straight into the main event without drawing the reader in first or building up to anything. Having a “to be continued” feel would just not work that well in terms of structure, I feel.
    Lord of the Rings made it work because there were enough sub-plots and events that you could *almost*, with a bit of work, fit the three act story structure to each individual volume, just minus the proper resolution. But something as complex as that is beyond most mere mortals. So what would you suggest in terms of structure and outlining, when you have an overarching plot across multiple books in the “series”, but you don’t have the standalone subplots within each individual book that allows each book to also follow a structure?

  10. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    I haven’t read Lord of the Rings, but assuming it’s structured like the movies, it *does* have an individual Three-Act structure for each book. It’s all connected, but each story is still focused. All good trilogies are structured this way. Every book has thematic question, raised in its specific Inciting Event, which must be answered by that same book’s Climactic Moment. Think of these individual questions/answers as clues on the way to the ultimate resolution in the final book.

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  1. […] One of the big reasons why authors write series, of course, is simply because they enjoy them! K.M Weiland, who’s written a number of successful standalone books, had this to say about writing a series: […]

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