Among writers there exists two camps: The Plotters and the Pantsters. Plotters are writers who plan out ever aspect of their story with detailed plot notes for where the story will go from beginning to end. Pantsters are the bold ones who sit down at their keyboards and just start writing with no real plan in mind other than where the story begins and ends…and sometimes, not even that much.
Then, there is a third group of writers who fall somewhere in-between. These writers start out with a brilliant flash of inspiration, start writing, and then realize they need a plan. All the while, they still allow themselves the flexibility of deviating within that plan as they go.
Writing a series is no different than writing a single, stand-alone novel. You need a beginning, you need an end. The only difference is, the whole story is on a much larger scale. Planning is unavoidable. Without it, you risk getting lost and confusing your readers in the process.
The Uber Plot
A story is a story, no matter how large or small. Telling one requires having at least three or four “acts” within each one:
- Introductions: We meet the characters, learn about the setting and the “rules” for that world or universe. We discover, along with the characters, what the stakes are. We meet the baddies (antagonists) and discover their motivations. In this part, we learn about the back story and what events lead up to this moment in time.
- Raising the Stakes: The heroes are on the run, trying to solve the problems the antagonists caused. In this part, the antagonists triumph.
- Heroes Take Action/Resolutions: The heroes get their act together and fight back, winning. Loose ends are tied up.
In each individual book, the story structure has four parts, with the last part listed here divided between the heroes taking action and the resolution.
There are many examples of the three act structure in movies and books, but my favorite one to use is the Star Wars series. The acts are clearly defined in the first (original) trilogy.
- Act One: A New Hope, we’re introduced to Luke Skywalker and the friends who help him. We learn about Luke’s back story and we see him embarking on a grand hero’s adventure out in the galaxy.
- Act Two: The Empire Strikes Back, the stakes are raised. Nothing goes right for our heroes and the evil Empire ends up winning.
- Act Three: Return of the Jedi, Luke has grown into a confident Jedi, and his friends have grown as well. They all know exactly what needs to be done to defeat the Empire and they pull together, accomplishing exactly that. Everything is resolved.
Creating a plan for your Uber Plot is as simple as writing a short outline just like above. A few sentences will define your goals for each book and help you stay on track.
Once you have this, you start breaking down each book in the same manner. Under Act One, you’ll create markers for the same sections. Every time you make a new level, you get more detailed, like so:
- Book One:In the Beginning
- Part One:The Primaries
- Chapter One: Meet the Hero—Reader meets the hero and learns about him/her. Location is set, blah, blah, blah.
- Chapter Two: Hero meets best friend—a chance meeting brings the two characters together
- Chapter Three: Hero and sidekick discover a clue—an exciting event happens and the main characters are set on their path
- Part One:The Primaries
Try not to get too carried away with details. Put in only the information you need to remember. You’re outlining key events at this point. Writing the plot in an outline allows you to shuffle around chapters and ideas without too much hassle. It’s a lot easier to move a sentence or two than moving whole chunks of text after they’ve been written.
This is similar to blocking out a live play or a drawing. Dave Farland explains it more in his Daily Kick blog here.
The thing about having a plan is, it’s only a guide. As you’re writing, twists and turns will come to you as your characters begin reacting in “real time”. A turn of a phrase, a bit of dialogue, a clue you hadn’t thought about before may present itself and before you know it, you and your readers are off on a grand adventure.
The trick is to stay flexible and open within the framework. You’ll have plenty of times where you suddenly go off in another direction and my sit staring at your computer wondering how in the hell you’re going to work with your plot now. The real skill comes in pulling it all back together. Your ending may change, your baddie may suddenly turn good and the hero may fall. Who knows? Or you may find a way to turn it around with an amazing twist you and your readers didn’t see coming.
Having a plan keeps you from getting too far off track. Refer to your notes often. A well thought out plan keeps you going through the sticking points and you won’t have to ask yourself “What’s next?”. You will already know and before you know it, the book and series will write itself.
How many of you are writing a series now? Have you tried pantsing it or do you plan? How did your plans work?