Series Structure

The story I’m writing is a series, because of the sheer amount of stuff that happens (and the quantity of words required to tell it). It does include some natural book-sized endings and conflict arcs, as well, although I have not yet figured that out for all the pieces of the story. I’ve been thinking about series a lot lately, in trying to get my own more organized, and doing research about writing them.

There seem to be two main types of series. The first is like the Bond books, with the same protagonist and basic world in each book, but independent plots. You can pick up any book in the series and start reading without being confused – you don’t need to start at the beginning and read in order. Maybe there is some character growth over the series, but it doesn’t require that the books be read in order. I think this type is common in crime and thriller series.

The second type is a long story told over several books. It does require the books to be read in order, at least for maximum enjoyment. A lot of epic fantasy is like this. However, you can usually figure out what you missed if you start in the middle, and each book has its own story arc. My series is this type.

Rachel Aaron talks about using the three-act structure (set up, complications, climax and resolution) in writing a series in her great book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. Not only can each individual book use the three-act structure, but the series can as well. In this approach, the first book serves as Act 1. It sets up the world and introduces the main characters and the conflict. The final book is Act 3, the big crescendo of all the action the series has been building to, and then the resolution of the whole series. All the books in between play the role of Act 2, which is where most of the story takes place, with a series of conflicts and complications.

I found this a really helpful way to think about the over-arching story of the series. Thinking about it in terms of three acts, I realized that the story that underpins my whole series is my villain’s story! Although he’s the antagonist, and doesn’t get nearly as much page-time as my protagonists, it’s his desires and actions which are driving the story. This looks like a great way to organize the story. I’m breaking down what his ultimate goal is and the steps he’ll need to take to reach it, and I think it will map nicely onto the story I want to tell, hopefully in book-sized chunks!

The first book introduces the world and characters and sets up the conflict that will occupy everyone. So far, so good…

Do you prefer one type of series over the other? Have you seen, or come up with, a cool way of organizing a series?

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