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

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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.

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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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011), Warner Bros.

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. (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Miramax Films.)

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

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), 20th Century Fox.

  • 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

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), 20th Century Fox.

  • 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

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), 20th Century Fox.

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. (Thor: The Dark World (2013), Marvel Studios.)

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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I’m currently reading your book on Character Arcs (it has been very helpful, even if it is making my mind spin at times because there is simply so much there. 😀 ). This article is helpful as I am trying to figure out the character arc of a MC in a trilogy. I think it is going to end up be a flat arc, a disillusionment arc, then a positive arc but I haven’t quite settled on if that is best route to go or not.

    Can one character arc be split over multiple books, with each book pulling them further along, or should there be smaller personal arcs and goals for the characters to resolve in each book while they work towards the main transformation?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although you want to demonstrate a cohesive overarching theme, in which the character is ultimately fueled through all the books by a single great Lie/Truth, you will inevitably end up exploring *many* related thematic questions. The longer the series, the more grist for the mill. These themes and sub-themes will (and should) twine and intertwine throughout the books, creating layers of complexity. But you still want everything, however disparate, to end up reflecting upon the main theme that will be finally proven in the climax of the series’ final book.

  2. Ms. Albina says

    I liked your article. Leilani and Zane is a book series of three books total and so is Lotus. In the daughter series there is a fire at a village on the island that she is in right on at the moment. Her parents are immortals and she has two siblings a brother and a sister. My characters live on a fictional planet. how any sentence so do you describe the planet where the characters are?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not sure what you’re asking in that last sentence.

      • Ms. Albina says

        Is there an outline for a book series for my books to use or did you put it in the the outline book.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          No, every outline will be unique to every book. The structure, however, will be the same as for a standalone book.

          • Ms. Albina says

            Okay, my lotus book will be a trilogy of three books and so is leilani and Zane. Do you call your character s by title like your highness delphino or mylady or goddess so and so. For leilani I think maybe goddess of the seas would be a good title. Lotus book 1 has20 chapters total.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Other characters call other characters by titles, where appropriate. But I never use those titles in the narrative.

          • Ms. Albina says

            Okay, my lotus book 1 has 23 characters and 20 chapter so. I am writing about a village fire that happens in the book and something else. in all books for characters do you do the character interview.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            No, only for the primary POV characters and antagonists.

          • Ms. Albina says

            One question on the character interview you have places traveled and ethnic back ground? Do you mean where the character comes from because I am confused on that.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            “Travel” is about places the character has been in his life–particularly places that have impacted him as a person.

            “Ethnic background” is their racial and cultural heritage–for example, I’m of mostly German ethnicity.

          • Okay, My characters are Avanarian all with different skin colors. Is that important to book in writing the skin color of the character?

            Example: A mermaid who had cream bronze, or mocha colored skin.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes, although I would use similar terminology in describing all skin colors, including white. Some people consider it a sort of discrimination when authors describe *only* dark skin colors, as if that’s the only thing that matters about those characters.

          • Ms. Albina says

            I am describing not just dark skinned mer-folk but white or cream colored.

            I am confused on this: Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him or her:

            Does your princess or queen in the Dreamland second book have powers?

            My characters do most of the them.

            How would you say if a character had the power of prophecy?

            I am still writing and hopefull to get my novella published this year and revising it.

            Are any of your characters as in the main character going to get married?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            The question about the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to your character has to do with something he’s ashamed of, such as, say, forgetting his lines in a school play when he was a kid.

            The princess in Dreamlander has a psychic link with the “Gifted” who are able to cross between worlds.

          • Ms. Albina says

            Okay, thank you. For Dylan, Lotus’s twin brother it was he forgot or writing runes in his not best hand writing.

            On planet Avanaria is only magic and no techology what so ever.

            All of the mer-folk in Leilani’s family has visions and her son Dylan has the gift of prophecy.

            Leilani, the goddess of the serene waters has gotten to be a powerful telepath on her planet but if she hears all of their voices in her head then she goes buserk.

      • I have a question about the overall main plot of a series. Would an individual arc feel incomplete if say there is a prophecy mentioned that ties into the individual plot of the story?

        I wanted to write a series that had the overall main plot about a prophecy but I fear this may make each book seem incomplete.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          No, as long as the prophecy is contributed to in each story and dealt with finally in the last book, that shouldn’t be a problem. Think of Harry Potter.

  3. For me, I have an idea of where I’m headed in the next 2-3 books for my Darby Shaw Chronicles in my head. The cases she encounters may or may not figure directly into the overall series, but the subplots surely do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, your series is a good example of a “episodic” series that uses its relationship subplot to create the effect of an overarching story.

    • Liberty,

      How long have you mean with splashdown books? Are they a good publisher? I was on publishing my Pearls of Avanaria novella but I do not know if you need to send them a query letter or not.

      My books are about fantasy with merfolk, elves, fairies, shape shifters, and gods who are god and evil and also dwarfts too.

      Do they also publish book triologies too?

  4. Ms. Albina says

    K.M., Do you always know the ending of your books before you write it? I mean in your squeal book to Dreamlander.

    Do you think it is good to end with a cliff hanger at the end of a book for the reader to be guessing what happens next?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t always know the ending when I start outlining, but thanks to the outline, I always know the ending before I start the first draft.

      As I mention in the article, you don’t want to cliffhang the main details of a book’s plot, but it’s fine to use loose ends from the series’ overarching story to pull readers into the next book.

  5. Tony Findora says

    I definitely needed this article! Hahaha. I’m currently working on a trilogy, so this info really has helped me make some decisions.

    Maybe you could do a “series outlining worksheet” of sorts? It sounds like it would be a great tag along with the outline workbook. 🙂

  6. Outlining has proved invaluable to most writers. Those who attempt a series without one may find themselves lost in the wilderness, which is one reason why I cannot appreciate any of Stephen King’s writing advice, because he is adamantly against outlining of any kind (which is a shame for him, since one of his biggest weaknesses is the inability to make satisfying endings).

    Even a loose outline is crucial when spreading the story across multiple books. You don’t want to look back at already published volumes and realize that you missed an important beat two books back.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Steven King is brilliant. But I have to agree on the notion that his stories could be *better* with a stronger focus on structural plotting upfront.

  7. A series, now THAT is a big bite to take. It sounds a little intimidating for me, but also exciting (maybe for the same reasons).
    I want to get a few one-offs under my belt first, but I do have a couple series in mind I’d love to write some day: one along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy about a interdimensional trucker trying to get home and another with some Narnia flare about people who have special abilities when they travel from our world to the other which explores main Biblical themes and how the special world itself changes through the passage of time and technological developments.

    Concerning hooks, I remember some good advice from the folks at Writing Excuses. Mainly, instead of ending it with a cheap suspense hook like, “he opened the door and then-” instead have a hook which both resolves the current mystery/conflict and also blows readers minds with a new reveal, “he opened the door and there was his mother and her captor, but they were sitting down and enjoying tea together.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That is great advice! You’re not ending with a blank, so much as a space that is suddenly *full* of potential reactions and consequences.

  8. This is pretty good advice. I tend to think of everything in stand-alone terms, either a stand-alone novel or trilogy. When you get into a full series beyond a single trilogy, there is so much more you can do. Outline single “expanded universe” novels, for example, or plan sequel and prequel trilogies.

    Buy maybe be careful with those prequel trilogies. Sometimes they can be real stinkers.

  9. Hannah Killian says


    Now I have one more book to look forward to!

    That being said, this article is going to be very helpful when I dive more into the trilogy I want to write. I also have a four books series and a duology planned.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Two more, actually. 😉 And, yes, totally out of the blue it morphed into a much bigger story than I suspected all those years ago. I’m having a total blast with the outline Book 2–more fun than ever before, dare I say?

      • Hannah Killian says

        I meant one more book because I was already looking forward to Dreambreaker and Wayfarer. . .which btw, what is the title for Dreamlander’s third book?

  10. Thanks for the tips, K.M.

  11. Kate Johnston says

    Great article and thoughtfully laid out! I started a MG adventure that was initially going to be a stand-alone, but as I wrapped up the second draft, all signs pointed to a sequel . . . and then a full-blown series. Yikes. Of course, had I outlined prior to all of this, maybe I would have figured out that my story is a a lot bigger than what can be contained in a single book! 😉

    The series is on hold for now while I tackle another book that foiled me, too. I am sure I’ll be putting your info here to good use when it’s time for me to go back to the series–and I’ll be starting from scratch. With an outline. (But don’t tell that to the pantser in me!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You never know! I fully outlined Dreamlander–no sign of a sequel in sight. But the ending just wouldn’t leave me alone and then, boom, two years later, a sequel!

  12. Andrewiswriting says

    “Each book feels complete unto itself, even as the overall story keeps on trucking”

    This to me is the key. I wonder whether the relationship between scenes (with their own goals and resolutions) and books is analogous to the relationship between books and the series as a whole?

    I found myself nodding while reading this, mentally ticking off things I’d done with outlining the Abraham Frost series. How well I execute is another story, but my approach had a lot in common with this. And as a former player and coach, I do like the football gameplan analogy.

    I think of my series outline as a project plan, with each book as a phase of the project. I know what the deliverables will be, and the main components that each phase will deliver, but the overall plan is pretty high-level, with the detail in each phase more fleshed out as I approach that phase. Book 1 is done, Book 2 (which I’m writing now) has a very detailed outline, Book 3 less so, Book 4 less again, and so on.

    Great post, thanks for sharing 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! That analogy about the need for complete scene structure within a book is great. Each episode is a working unit (kinda like an atom), while still being part of something much bigger.

  13. This is timely. Finished watching the series finale of Sherlock and noticed how the pace of the show (as well as the staging) helped smooth over some major issues in its story. But when it was all said and done, and I was thinking back over it (and previous episodes), glaring issues appeared one after the other. It’s like driving down a set of elongated steps really fast on a motorcycle, the bumps are noticeable going down, but not bad enough to make you stop. When you turn around and look back on it, however… more noticeable, more jarring.

    I hadn’t planned on a series, but after reading your post on starting with the antagonist, it blowing up my nice neat little flow chart, I had to expand and expand and expand…

    The writers of Sherlock are veteran writers and if they’ll blow passed glaring continuity issues, leave cliff-hangers/hooks for the next installment standing at the roadside unresolved/unused, simply because they found a different road to take… or discovered the track they were currently on wouldn’t get them to the conclusion/end point/destination that popped into their head halfway through shooting… well, it made the task seem all the more daunting.

    Foreshadowing has to be in place, continuity has to be maintained, character arcs need to be mapped out and believable. So, again, timely article appreciate you passing along your experience/insights.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, this is great: “It’s like driving down a set of elongated steps really fast on a motorcycle, the bumps are noticeable going down, but not bad enough to make you stop. When you turn around and look back on it, however… more noticeable, more jarring.”

      I’ve watched many a movie that’s made me feel this way. You don’t notice how bad it is until you’re done watching it. :p

  14. Cool! It’ll be nice to see what your trilogy or series looks like.

    I made it through a quarter of this post until losing precious brain power. Will be back to tomorrow in a more caffeinated state.

  15. Heh, I seem incapable of writing a standalone story… it always seems to cascade into more XD This article was very helpful because I tend to be a little– chaotic in outlining. I think some of my biggest weaknesses lies in the thematic areas, mostly because a lot of it is- instinctual, so trying to put it into actual words is harder for me, if that makes sense. I know, after reading Character Arcs, that theme and the character arcs go hand in hand, but it still leaves me feeling a little dazed at times when I try to think of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To put it in extremely simplistic terms: just think of what your character “learns” by the end of the story. That’s your theme in a nutshell.

  16. Wonderful post with lots of good insights! I listen to the Monday podcast while folding laundry and I kept nodding and going “Mhm. Mmmhmmm.” I especially liked that you came back to clarify (from your own experience now!) that spreading a character’s arc across multiple books is far from simplistic. I loved your insight into the first book being more of an origin story and the second really diving deep into the murk of the conflict. I’m outlining a second book in a trilogy right now, actually, so this post was also very timely. I’m finding many of those insights to be true as well in my own experience. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Coincidentally, I also listen to the podcast (to make sure no errors remain after editing it) while folding the laundry. 😉

  17. Max Woldhek says

    Currently I’m thinking of going the Terry Pratchett’s Discworld route with my books (if I ever manage to make them good enough for publication, ho ho ho). All in one setting, sometimes featuring the protagonists of a previous book, but with an stand-alone story for every book.

    Ps. I’ve read all of Creating Character Arcs, and I’ve reread Structuring Your Novel, and I was wondering where in the outline you’d advise me to start to consciously apply the lessons from those books. Currently I’m leaning towards the extended outline, since I’ve got the feeling that if I already start structuring at the general sketches stage, it’ll kill some of my creativity, but I’m not sure.

  18. Thanks for this post. My intentions is to have each book in my series be a standalone too. I still don’t know exactly how many books, but I know it will probably have to be more than a trilogy because all the events wouldn’t be able to fit in 3 books. It’s why I call it a saga.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Lots of successful series take this approach. It lets the author jump anywhere and the story still makes sense.

  19. 2016 brought me OUTLINE NIRVANA — 3 books ahead, I can clearly see, and now I can finally read these posts without feeling insanely jealous hahah 😉

    Awesome as always!

  20. I truly enjoy your blog. I am no author, but I have this story (idea) that I, in my mind, have been playing with. I came upon your blog by coincidence as I watched your video on the yWriter software that I just downloaded.

    I had to giggle a bit when I realized that you are the author of the books that my teenaged daughter (who is intent on becoming an author) have had me order on Amazon and express delivered to Norway. I believe the last on was the on on caracter arcs. I may have to ask her to lend me her books 🙂

    Thank you very much for sharing your skill and knowledge. I will definately be back for more inspiration.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. It’s a small world. Glad your daughter is enjoying the books, and I welcome you to the writing party as well! 🙂

    • That yWriter video is how I discovered this blog as well! I was looking for an actually useful writing software.

      I’ve since moved on to Evernote, because I do my outlining longhand, but being able to take notes on the go on my phone, and have everything there, is really useful. I’ve also organized my files on Evernote so that it is almost the same as yWriter (the way I was using it), but for multiple projects… which my monstrosity seems to necessitate.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        J.M., you may want to check out Scrivener one of these days. It’s a step up from yWriter and integrates beautifully (so I’ve been told) with Evernote.

        • Jeffrey Barlow says

          Does it have actual links between the two within the software? That was one thing sorely missing from yWriter.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I believe so. But I’ve never used Evernote myself, so can’t say for sure.

  21. You may remember a number of emails I sent you asking about this exact topic, and our discussions brought me to this exact conclusion. I’m glad it’s all been summed up well in an article.

    I have a Trilogy planned and partially outlined. This one will be outlined completely, and written in drafts 1-2-3. It is more of a single epic, broken into three parts – think Lord of the Rings.

    But I also have a plan for a series, which the content in this article directly applies to. I know the end (and it leads up to the Trilogy). I have a summarized outline for Book 1, most of book 2, and I know the plots for books 3 and 4 and I think 5 as well.

    I also have a slew of other stories (short as well as full novel size) planned that fill the gaps between the series and the trilogy.

    It’s a big world.

    But I’ve put it on hold (want to step back from the world, and jump back in for a fresh look) to work on a Graphic Novel on its own (less complicated) world. It’s an 8-volume work, so this article is, if anything, confirmation that I am on the right track.

    The outlining for this graphic novel is already about 2/5ths done. I’ve got to say, the knowledge I’ve gained from this blog has been a huge help in this project.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yours and other emails were the inspiration for this post! Figured I’d better just write it, so I’d have somewhere to send people when they asked about series. :p

      • Jeffrey Barlow says

        It certainly answers the most important queetions:
        – Know the ending, unless you want it to be episodic.
        – Outline the current book in the series, rough out the others, because things change in the writing process (this is a big on for me, because outlining is so fun I can’t stop doing it)
        – The overarching structure isn’t as strict, but should be applied for some of the major points.

        Those were the key points for me.

  22. Jen Freeman says

    Hi, l am about to write the ending of my first in a thriller trilogy. The planning of the individual endings of the three books came naturally, thank goodness. I have a huge amount of research already stored for the complicated plot, which involves quite a large cast of both good and extremely evil characters.

    It has been very exciting delving into research for the secret world of this group of protagonists who have already begun causing strife around the would with their plans. My PC, at one stage, was shut down repeatedly as l went hunting for certain murky elements. Wish me luck with my journey into the dark side…l will probably need it ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! If you know where each book ends, you know the most important pieces of the puzzle. Have fun!

  23. Thanks for this fantastic and timely post! I am structuring a first draft with the intention of making two more books to round out a trilogy. I would love to get your opinion about some issues related to the opposing force in books 1-3.

    1. Could it make sense for each book to have a different antagonist?
    After the MC vanquishes the antagonist in book 1, her goal changes and she faces a different antagonist in book 2. Then in book 3, she faces the largest more terrifying antagonist, who had been the ultimate opposing force all along in books 1-2, but behind the scenes.

    2. Is it ever possible for the protagonist to make peace with the antagonist?
    By the time my MC confronts the true antagonist in book 3, I would like the MC to have evolved so much that the MC realizes the need to ally with the antagonist. The plot twist, in a way, is that the antagonist was striving for the same thing that the MC was all along. Is there any precedent for such a switch? Can readers ever accept it?

    Thanks for your insight and feedback!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely possible for each book to feature a different antagonist, but be aware that if the antagonists are totally unconnected, the stories will necessarily become basically episodic standalones. However, it’s also possible to feature an overarching antagonist who isn’t truly confronted until the third book, if the previous books’ antagonists are essentially proxies (such as Darth Vader is essentially a proxy for the Emperor in Star Wars, until the final movie).

      As for the protagonist coming to peace with the antagonist, that’s a little trickier. It depends entirely on how the story is set up. Your ultimate goal is to give readers a satisfying experience, so if they’re going to be more satisfied by a union than a confrontation, that’s no problem. The protagonist doesn’t always have to *defeat* the antagonist; she just has to resolve the conflict.

    • Jeffrey Barlow says

      If you saw the outline of my 8-volume graphic novel, you would be happy to know that what you’re trying to do is fine, so long as you set it up properly.

      I think the switch should be foreshadowed, possibly necessary to the plot, and applicable to the theme. The more evil the work of this antagonist, the bigger reason you need to allow forgiveness.

      In my 8-Volume graphic novel, there are several antagonists, and one main one:

      V.1 – Antag A (lackey of Antag OVA (OVERALL)
      V.2 – Antag B (OVA contagonist/false enemy)
      V.3 – Antag OVA & Antag A (they win in this one)
      V.4 – Situation is antagonist.. Truth revealed…
      V.5 – Antag A (lackey)
      V.6 – Antag B (contagonist)
      V.7 – Antag C (a faction that A, OVA, MC, and an ally belong to)
      V.8 – Antag OVA

  24. Thank you so much for all these posts! Seriously, they help me crawl my way out of writing slumps and show me a path when I’m lost in the wilderness of ideas and inexperience. Dramatic, I know, but there’s no other way of putting it 🙂

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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…?


    • 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

  30. 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.


        • 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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. 🙂

  33. Thanks so much for all the information! It’s been such a help with my outlining.

    I was curious if you feel there should be a distinct lie & weakness for each novel in the series or just an overarching one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most stories will deal with an overarching Lie/Truth, with each individual story confronting some smaller aspect of same.

  34. Hi, with my 3 plan book series–the antagonist in book 1, later becomes the protagonist in Book 2. Could you change the role of a character (not sure if I am explaining this correctly) in a ‘3 book plan series?’ Would you have any examples?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In a continuous story, this usually isn’t the best choice. But if the series is more episodic, this is a common approach.

  35. Thea T. Kelley says

    Awesome advice. So, how does this all work in a duology? Would the Midpoint of the series be either the ending of book 1 or the beginning of book 2, or a combination of the two?

    • Thea T. Kelley says

      And an even tougher question is the timing of the series climax. I’d think it would have to overlap the book 2 climax, but that would have the Climax running late from a series point of view, or being early from a book 2 point of view. Split the difference?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Duologies are one of the more awkward series types to structure. But, yes, you can basically think of the first book as the setup and the second as the payoff.

  36. 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.


    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?

  37. 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.


  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: […]

  2. […] How to Outline a Series of Bestselling Books […]

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