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Outlining And Series

I have lovely co-blogger Amanda to thank for deciding to write on this topic. She is a genius brainstormer of topics.

Series (or trilogies) are quite different beasts from standalone books. They require planning for not just one, but multiple books tied together by some overarching plot element. This, of course, creates some unique challenges when you’re preparing to tackle writing that first book.*

I know there are people who can write entire series on zero outlines, but I’m not one of those people. I am a huge fan of outlining; I do it with all my WIPs, because past experience has taught me that my results are disastrous when I don’t outline.

Now, I’m sure everyone reading this blog has heard the advice, “make sure the first book of a planned series can stand alone” at least a million times, but I think it’s great advice, and relevant, so here it is again. I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, it’s frustrating when the first book of a series leaves me on a complete and total cliffhanger. I don’t want to feel like I read a 70,000 word prologue. Something needs to be resolved, a central thread that’s been woven through the whole book, even if some other threads are left untied.

But, then, you don’t want things to wrap up too satisfyingly. If your readers are so satisfied with the conclusion of book one that they don’t want to ruin it by picking up book two, that’s a problem. I can think of two books right off the top of my head that I haven’t bothered to read sequels of, for that exact reason (I’m not going to list them, obviously.)

This is where, for me, outlining gets a little complicated. In a way, it helps to picture your series as one big book, and each individual book as a plot point leading to the finish. Where, ultimately, do you see the thing ending? Think about Harry Potter: no matter what else is going on in each book, you know that the ultimate problem to be solved is Lord Voldemort. He’s not always the immediate problem, but he’s everpresent as an overarching threat. Who or what is the Lord Voldemort of your book? Write it down and then consider what’s going to need to happen to bring your characters to a place where they can confront this issue/person/creature/whatever at the very end. Separate these happenings into books that wrap up individually. I’m going to use Harry Potter as a (slightly spoilery) example, because if you haven’t read the first Harry Potter book by now…well, just go read it before you finish reading this post, and then you won’t be spoiled. The first Harry Potter book primarily about a) Harry learning he’s a wizard and acclimating to his new strange (and super awesome) world and b) keeping the sorcerer’s stone safe. However, by the time the plot’s all wrapped up, we’re aware that Voldemort is a threat and we know we’ll be seeing him again. The problem of the book is resolved, the question of what will happen with Voldemort remains, enticing you to continue on to future books in the series.

I find that thinking about it this way makes it much easier to then outline the first book. Once I have a vague idea what’s going to happen throughout the whole thing (and how all the characters will matter to the plot, both in this and future planned books), I can go back and outline the first book like I would any other, ensuring that I slip in details that’ll matter later on. I find this easier than thinking of the book as a complete standalone and then later deciding I should try adding random details when a brilliant idea for a sequel comes to me (I might as well confess that when I tried doing it this way, I failed spectacularly. My current WIP is a rewrite--with a completely different plot--of the failure.)

So, different things work for everyone, but I hope that, if you’re doing this and feeling a little lost, you might find my suggestions helpful!

*Disclaimer: I’m going to give a lot of advice in this post, and remember, it’s just that: advice. Also, I know that sometimes series start as standalone books and become series or are intended to be three and turn into four or any number of other unique circumstances, and the same suggestions can’t necessarily apply to those.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. I think there's some brilliant suggestions in here. And to be honest, I completely suck at outlining- but I think it's a great idea to do it if you're writing a series and the advice in here is awesome for that!

    Also, I think my head just exploded even trying to understand JKRowling's outline!

  2. Sweet post!

    Suzanne Collins says something similar. She tries to answer at least one important dramatic question at the end of each book. And lets the rest go hang (off a cliff).

    I should say that at the time, she was fending off a baying mob of Hunger Games fans, all prepared to unleash the combat tactics they learned from reading her books on Suzanne in retaliation for the ending of Catching Fire. But I guarantee you every single one of them bought Mockingjay.

    *beetles off to plot world domination through fiction*

  3. haha I just knew you were someone who could totally explain it well ;)

    GREAT advice. Ouliner or not, this is definitely stuff writers need to keep in their mind while working on a series.

  4. when i explained to my hopefully-soon-to-be agent that i had other stories written for the characters in the manuscript she was reading, she said that was fine -- but i had to go All Out in that first book. there couldn't be any holding back on what was put into that book, or there might not be a chance at getting the second book published.

    HP1 is clearly the first in a series, but it holds up well as a stand-alone story. that's part of why it works so well. there's so much action, drama and character development that, by the end, i was exhausted from the action and still wanted to read more.

    that's the secret in writing a series, i think: tell a complete story that fully involves the reader with the plot, the action and character arc -- then do it even better in the next book.

    the Rowling outline is also a Timeline for the book, something i just needed a kick in the head about. ( a Timeline is essential for any series in which Book Two takes place right after Book One.

    -- Tom

  5. Great advice! I've just started outlining this past year, and it's made a huge difference! I'm no longer lost or all over the place in my story.

  6. Kaitlin and Amanda you were reading my mind. This is something I've been struggling with in my current story. I want it to stand alone and answer all questions in case there isn't a No. 2. But I also want it to have series potential in case I do get to finish the story. This was super helpful.

    Now get out of my brain. ;)

  7. Series are so tough to write, I think. Not sure I could do it! Can't imagine writing one without an outline! A stand alone book is hard enough! Great advice!

  8. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    Also - that picture made my brain hurt. =)

  9. Some great suggestions. I try to outline, it doesn't really work. What I do have (especially if I'm doing a series), I know where I'm going and what end point I'm aiming for. My characters seem to have a life of their own, so telling them exactly what to do is impossible.

  10. A great post. I'm such a pantser and when I try to formally outline, I break out into a sweat! I plan to tackle it again and your post has helped enormously in clarifying how to think about it. Thanks!


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Item Reviewed: Outlining And Series Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward