Planning a Series

Planning a SeriesI set out to write one book and found myself planning a series. I’m defining a series as a number of stories linked by shared characters or settings. Simple, enough? Wrong.

There are different types of series. Oh, goody. Planning a series just got more difficult.

Why does it matter?

The approach to planning a series varies hugely depending on a number of things:

  • the richness of the characters and/or setting to support more books
  • the longevity of the ideas as the foundation of the series
  • the willingness or ability of the author(s) to keep going

Original versus Hijacking

Let’s treat a ‘series’ as a continuation of original stories by the original holder of the intellectual property. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is either a prequel or a spin-off story about Mrs Rochester, but NOT by original author Charlotte Bronte. So it’s not a series. Ordinarily, it would be labelled fan-fiction, but the lit-crits decided otherwise.

The difficulty with series

In planning a series, the author has to balance:

  • story arcs, pacing and structure for each book
  • arcs, pacing and structure across the whole series.

That’s more easily done if there’s a defined end for the series. But, to quote Cole Porter, it ain’t necessarily so.

Types of Series

Let’s consider the following types of series

The finite series

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example. It has a start point, a series goal – destroy the One Ring – and an end point. The ring is destroyed, the king returns, the Elves, Gandalf and the ring bearers leave Middle Earth. Done.

The finite series is least difficult. You can plainly see the character and plot arcs for each book, and the overall arc for the series.

The extended series

Frank Herbert’s son retained control of the Dune IP and continues to work with other authors to extend the Dune universe in ongoing, but infrequent sequels.

Also consider prequels and spin-offs.

The Tolkien estate worked with Brian Sibley to produce Children of Huron, while a ghost writer (allegedly Guy Gavriel Kay) completed the Silmarilion, extending the Middle Earth Books.

The extended series has to find more arcs, either extending the original premise, or finding a new premise. There has to be more plot for the characters to navigate and more growth for them to experience.

Sometimes there just isn’t room for growth and change if the characters already arrived at their end point.

What about the re-boot, re-wind and re-tread? Is there scope to extend the series without erasing, changing or inserting into the canon of previous works?

Like movies franchises, extended series can easily become repetitive, boring and derivative. Or, going the other way, over-blown, absurd and downright silly.

To paraphrase Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Producers of Jurassic Park, take note. Oh, you didn’t.

The issues get worse when it’s ad-hoc or unplanned extension.

Take a beloved character and explore their ‘hinterland.’ Witness the unseemly scramble for a plot idea on which to hang another installment. It’s the central problem with the movie Solo, where Disney decided to manufacture the missing jigsaw pieces in Han Solo’s backstory when every fan else had a better version in their head already.

Not all of these fail. Some authors make a bold step expanding side characters worthy of their own book without compromising existing canon.

Never-ending series

This is the most difficult, having all the issues of an extended series multiplied to… endless.

Never-ending series fall prey to repetition, running out of ideas and stretching an original idea beyond breaking point. How often do they reaching for sensationalism, melodrama and shock-tactics? Cue ever more outlandish murders, kidnappings, place crashes and nonsense, just like in TV Soaps – sorry, ‘continuing dramas.’

How do you sustain an idea over ten, twenty, or thirty books?

‘Standalone’ series

Lastly, the standalone series contains multiple stories directly or loosely connected by a characters or setting. You can read James Bond and Sherlock Holmes in (almost) any order as there is little or no reference to previous stories. Each concerns a separate mission or separate case with new supporting characters and antagonists.

Each standalone has licence to create new stories and characters with as much or as little reference to existing properties as it wants.

Standalones are less likely to be direct sequels, prequels or extensions to previous books.

Serial Killer

So what have I got? Books One to Three follow a finite arc to a definite resolution. I’m toying with Books Four and Five which transforms it into an extended series promoting side characters within the existing setting. There’s also a prequel novella centred on a side character with an appearance by my series protagonist as a child. I’ll outline how this all works in a later post.



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