What does a fiction writer do when you have a great story concept but it’s too big for a single book? Make a series of course! Today, an Advanced Fiction Writing blog reader, William, asks how to structure a series and how to best pitch it in a fiction book proposal.
My concept is too large for a single book. I’m compelled to break it into a series…Do I need a storyline for the series? The storyline for my first book doesn’t make much sense without first reading the storyline of the series even though both are less than 20 words. When talking to a publisher, can I start with the series storyline?
Let’s look at William’s first question: Do you need a storyline that goes through the entire series?
My answer: It depends on what sort of series you have planned. There is always something that ties a series together–either the setting, the characters, or the storyline. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a series—just a set of books written by the same author. Series that are connected by the setting or by the same set of characters don’t necessarily need a storyline that weaves through the entire series. If Joe, Bob, and Carlos are the three main characters in the story, then each might have a whole book that tells their story, and the other two might only make cameo appearances. In those cases, each book in the series is really a stand-alone book and could be read in any order the reader wishes.
But William’s idea sounds like it is a story that is too big to put into one book, so he is thinking of breaking up the story into multiple books. In this case, having a unifying storyline that runs through all the books is essential. The trick here is to craft each book so the book as a single unit ALSO has an entire story structure of its own. This means you have to plot on two different levels: book level and series level.
It used to be that you could get away with having a cliff-hanger ending in a series book, or having a series where each individual book really could not stand on its own as a single unit. But times have changed and readers today expect that even a book in a series should be a complete read in its own right. If you leave the story hanging at the end of book one, or it doesn’t feel complete, then readers will often accuse you of manipulating them for fun and profit, and they’ll refuse to buy your book out of the sheer principle of the matter. As an avid reader myself, I get where they are coming from. When you buy a book—even one that’s part of a series—you expect to get a complete story, not a teaser to get you to buy the next book.
So to structure that, I advise that you take the following steps:
- Plot out the entire series first. You’ll need several major turning points–and those turning points should correspond to the number of books you want to have in the series. The turning points should move the series forward in the story, and they should be strong enough to become the climax of each book in the series. You need to have a series climax, too. This can serve as the climax of the final book. Each turning point should escalate the story and raise the stakes for the characters.
- Divide the series plotline into sections for individual books, using those turning points as the climax for each book. Then plot out the individual books, making sure that you provide a resolution for each book that will give a satisfactory ending to that story, even though it leaves room for the series to continue.
- Remember to include internal conflict and personal transformation as part of your series plotline, and individual book plotlines. In an epic story, the hero undergoes a journey that results in personal transformation as well as achievement of the Story Goal or Series Goal. So you have to build that into your series and on a smaller level into your individual books in the series.
From there, the same structural principles apply as for any work of full-length fiction. You still need Story Goals (as well as Series Goals), Motivations, Conflicts, lots of increasing tension, Climax, and Resolution. You just need them on the Book level and the Series level.
How to pitch a series? I’d recommend pitching the first book, using your 20-25 word pitch, and then letting the editor know it’s part of a “x # of books” series called…and then go into a short description of the whole series. In a fiction book proposal, do the same thing. Focus the book proposal on the first book in the series, and then toward the end, include brief summaries of the other books and the whole storyline. This is how my own agent structures fiction book proposals for series, and it makes sense to me.
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