It’s hard enough just to write a good story. But with book series at the pinnacle of popularity, both for readers and writers, the challenge is greater — telling a good story across multiple books.
How can discovery writers “plot” future books when they embark on book one? What if book one is already written and published when you start plotting book two? Is it possible to “backwards-brainstorm” a series arc?
Gillian Adams, speculative fiction writer and author of The Songkeeper Chronicles, discusses these topics and more, sharing her insight and process on plotting a great series!
Thanks for having me! I’m thrilled to be here. I am a speculative fiction author from the great state of Texas. I write epic fantasy about broken characters who get drawn into adventures and battles way bigger than they are! My current series, the Songkeeper Chronicles, is about a girl who discovers that she can hear the song that created the world … launching her into the midst of an ancient struggle between the Songkeepers and the warlord who seeks to control their power.
I knew I wanted to make a series out of it, because the story wouldn’t be complete in the first book, so when I finished writing the first book, I pitched it as a trilogy. But all I had was an itty bitty little blurb for the second and third books in the series. So when it came time to flesh out those little blurbs for books two and three into actual novels, I had to do a lot of brainstorming!
I am becoming more of an outliner, but I am still definitely a discovery writer in many ways. My stories tend to grow very organically!
Because I hadn’t planned out the series as a whole before beginning, I wrote myself into a bind by stating things in book one that had larger implications than I realized at a time. I knew I would have to provide payoff for many of the threads that I’d dropped without really planning out where they were going. So when I began to grow the series, plot, and characters in books two and three, I had to do “backward” brainstorming to fill in the gaps, explain things, and take advantage of foreshadowing – in some instances, making foreshadowing out of things that hadn’t originally been intended that way.
While I don’t think it was an ideal way to plan a series, it’s been a learning experience, and it’s been kind of cool to see how all the elements eventually do come together! And there are threads that were placed in book one that are finally really woven into the story in book three (coming out this spring!) and I’m really excited for that!
Yes! With the third and final book in the Songkeeper Chronicles in the midst of the publishing process right now, I have dived headfirst into a new series!
This time, I spent a ton of time on world and character building before I started writing. And I came up with a synopsis for all three books – a very broad synopsis – so I know where the entire story is going.
At the same time, that “discovery writer” side of me keeps rearing its head, so even as I’m now over 50k into the first book, I’m discovering huge things about the story as a whole that will have massive implications on the next books in the series. So as I’m making discoveries, I’m trying to continue plotting the whole thing out in advance. Each book, of course, has its own story arc, but I’m also trying to keep that bird’s eye view of the overall series story arc in mind.
Just putting more forethought into the series as a whole and trying not to write myself into too many corners this time around!
Yes, I do think there are times when a story is better as a stand-alone. I think it comes down to the stakes involved and the personal character growth that needs to happen in the story. This next series I’m building has huge stakes involved, and given all of the characters, their personal journeys, and the world, it’s just way too big for a single book.
But I also have an idea for a WWII alternate history/fantasy novel that I will write one day, and while the stakes are huge, the personal journeys of the characters can, I think, be resolved in a single story arc. And that’s not at all less of a task than writing a series!
I don’t want to force my idea of a series on the story or the characters. If I can wrap it up in one book, I’m going to write one book! (That way I don’t wind up with three Hobbit movies instead of one.)
I think it’s important to have the series end in sight. Take the time to build your world (and that applies not just to fantasy authors). Take the time to deeply know your characters. And really think through the implications of what you write. It comes down to the idea of the plant and the payoff. In a first book, you’re exploring everything and it’s all so exciting! But don’t plant something that you can’t or won’t payoff later.
It’s also important to bear in mind the increasing growth of each story. I picture books in a series as expanding concentric rings. Each one should provide a bigger, broader, deeper, and more dangerous story for the character and the reader than the one before.
I almost wrote myself into another bind between books two and three, because I put some really big and crazy things into book two, and I started panic because I didn’t know how I was going to top them! That’s another instance where viewing the series arc as a whole beforehand would have helped! (Spoiler: book three eventually came together with even bigger and crazier things than book two, so crisis averted!)
Know your antagonist and what he (or she) is doing behind the scenes. I think stories tend to stall when the antagonist isn’t living up to their reputation and disappears from the story for lengthy periods of time.
Just as your protagonist should be pressing forward toward a goal, readers need to sense your antagonist working and achieving. You have to be willing to let your antagonist win in startling ways at times, derailing the protagonist’s plan and forcing you as the author to keep doing the brainstorming!
I would be totally lost in this new series without Scrivener, simply because I am trying to juggle so many different elements and mounds of worldbuilding and character notes. I love the way I can reorganize chapters so easily and also jump back and forth between my worldbuilding “research” and current scene.
I also do a lot of brainstorming with plain old pen and paper. I buy (at least) one big notebook for each book/series and that becomes my lifeline for the series. Sometimes, I spend years brainstorming a project while I’m working on another book, so it’s kind of fun to be able to flip back through it and see notes from a few years ago, and then laugh over where I thought the story would go.
Recently, I read something by Douglas McKelvey that presented the idea of “loving our stories into being.” And I fell in love with that concept. Because I think when we love our stories and our characters and our worlds, and we take the time to build into them, that really is evident in the finished product!
So much of the writing business is about pushing for more and more quantity, but if you’re like me, that can make you almost forget what it is that you love about the whole writing business anyway! So, let’s love our worlds, love our stories, love our characters, and really dive deep into the storytelling process, and who knows, we might be surprised with what we discover!
I really appreciate Gillian taking time to visit the blog, and I hope you benefited from her insight and experience. Follow Gillian on her Website and Facebook to keep up with all of her adventures, and if you enjoyed this interview, how about dropping her a note to let her know?
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As always, be inspired and Write On!