Friday, February 18

The Whole Story: Plotting Multibook Goals

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Goals are what drive a story, but in a series, there's always a larger goal looming over the entire tale. It's too big to ignore, but also frequently too big to make it the core conflict of the first novel in the series. To keep readers hooked, you have to work your way up to that all-important series goal.

Photo by Angie Torres via flikr
Long-Term Investments
A series is a complicated thing to plot, because you have to worry about an overall story goal that might span three books to ten books or even more. If the series is situational, like a mystery with a detective, each book will have its own goal and there probably won't be a larger issue hanging over the protag's head. (though there might be a larger character arc goal to work toward as the series develops). But for stories designed to be told over the course of several novels, it takes a lot more work to lead up to that final payoff. Because you essentially have one large story.

Basic rule of thumb says that every book should have a core conflict and that conflict should be resolved by the end of the book. This is the problem you're using to tease the reader into picking up the book. 

This is what readers expect to see resolved by the end of the novel, and if you don't do it, they will very likely be mad at you. This goal is the question posed early on in the novel. It's probably whatever your inciting event is, or leads you to. "Defeat the evil bad guy and stop the apocalypse" is a good goal to work toward, but it's vague since any number of things can occur to resolve that goal. Conceptually, your protag spends the entire series trying to do that, but every scene isn't about her "trying to defeat the evil bad guy." What specifically has to happen for that end goal to occur?

What are the steps that need to happen before your protag can do whatever specific thing they need to do to achieve their series goal?
Let's focus on a trilogy, one of the more common same-story series formats. Think of it like a stand alone book broken into acts. In a novel, you have Act One, the setup and inciting event, Act Two, where all the real trouble happens and the stakes escalate, and Act Three, the final showdown with the antag and the climax and wrap up. So your trilogy will have Book One be the setup and inciting event, Book Two will be the middle, and Book Three will be the resolution and climax.

And that's why trilogies are hard to write. Because Book Two is all middle, and we know how tough those can be.

If you look at your series goals the same way you look at your book goals, you can see the major plot points that need to happen over the course of that (three book) story.

Book One = Act One: It's setup, but not in the bad "too much exposition" way. Your protag learns about a problem, something major happens that sets them on the path to the larger story goal (the inciting event). Resolving that event usually resolves the book's core conflict. Just like there are a lot of steps from the inciting event to the plot catalyst (more on that here), the first book of a trilogy will have a lot of steps between the opening scene and the resolution of the book. The difference is that resolving the first book's conflict is also resolving the trilogy's "inciting event" and launches the second act of the story. 

Let's use The Shifter as an example.

The Book One, Act One, inciting event is all about Nya discovering her sister is missing. That discovery is what launches the core conflict of the story. By the time she resolves that problem (the end), she's uncovered the fact that the Duke is up to no good. That discovery launches Book Two, same as the discovery that her sister was missing launches the story in Book One. The series goal of defeating the Duke isn't even a blip on the radar yet, but you can see the story is heading in that direction. Nya doesn't know there's a larger series problem until the end of the book, just like she doesn't know there's a book problem at the start of the book. The structure of the first book mirrors the structure of a stand alone novel's Act One.

Book Two = Act Two: In Book Two, you have the middle. The inciting event has created a situation where things get worse and worse and sacrifices must be made. (more on middles here) The Book One goal will be carried over since that's usually what's launching Book Two, but now it's time to throw in the next step of the overall series goal. Just like the mid-point reversal, something will likely happen in Book Two that sends the story in a new direction, often toward what that series goal is.

For example: Nya knows the Duke is bad news by the end of Book One, and her Book Two goal is to prevent him from getting what he wants. She isn't out to defeat him yet, just throw a wrench in his plans. But her actions cause things to get worse, and then she reaches that tipping point where she realizes she's in way over her head and getting out of this mess won't be easy. In stand alone book terms, this is Act Two's dark moment of the soul, that point of no return that happens right before you launch Act Three and head into the climax. For a Book Two, it's often the resolution to the core conflict of that book. Ending on a down note is not uncommon, though you certainly don't have to.

Book Three = Act Three: In Book Three, it's the race to the climax, same as an Act Three. This is where that series goal is most likely going to come center stage. Events have occurred and put the protag on the path where the series goal is also the core conflict of that last novel. (more on endings here) The discovery or realization of that series goal is often Book Three's inciting event. The protag figures out what has to be done (same as they do in a stand alone Act Three) and then takes steps to do it.

For example: Nya finds herself in a situtaion in the beginning of Book Three where she realizes the only way to get what she needs (her book goal) is to defeat the Duke. This realization starts her on the path of the plot of Book Three, and she makes a lot of sacrifices to work her way toward that final showdown with the Duke. (same as your typical stand alone Act Three) She figures out what to do and resolves this conflict. The resolution is satisfying not only for Book Three, but it resolves the larger series goal that was hinted at in Book One, and deepened in Book Two.

Quick Breakdown
If you're plotting a trilogy, try breaking it into the three major turning points of the series goal and conflict.

What is the moment/event where the protag first realizes there's a larger series problem?
This is very likely connected to the resolution and core conflict goal of Book One.

What is the moment/event where the protag first realizes they're completely in over their head and have only made things worse?
This is very likely connected to your Book Two core conflict and goal.

What is the moment/event where your protag realizes the only way to win is to resolve the series goal?
This is very likely the core conflict and goal of Book Three.

Once you've pinpointed those bigger steps, treat each step as a goal that must be resolved per book, and plot from there. Treat it just as if you were plotting a stand alone novel, but instead of leaving things unresolved at the end of an Act (each book), resolve it in a way that would be satisfying to a reader, but still launch the next book in the series. Series goal subplots might be unresolved still, and that's okay. As long as the core conflicts for that book are resolved in some way.

Structure is remarkably the same no matter what part of the book. Scenes follow the same structure as a whole novel, so if you look at the overall series as one big story with parts, it makes it a little easier to see where your goals and conflicts need to be. Same as if you were looking at a scene or act of a single book.


  1. This was super helpful!! I'm working on an epic fantasy story that spans numerous books so plotting not only each book, but the big story is super important! That was definitely my starting point and then I mapped out how each book would fit into the big story. Still don't have all the kinks out but like I said, this post really helped!

  2. I love the idea of telling an ongoing, progressive story, so both my first novel and my current one are intended to be starting points for a longer series. Even though I'm not working on the later points yet, I do have general story models planned ahead like this for each.

  3. Thanks so much for this! Your thoughts last week really helped put things into perspective, and this post just solidified everything in my mind. I've been letting the series goal creep into my first book and push the book goal aside. As a result, the story has felt really unfocused--but I wasn't sure how to fix it. It's a lot clearer now, thanks!

  4. Margaret: Awesome, glad it was helpful :)

    Paul: That's great. If there's one thing I Learned from doing the Healing Wars trilogy, it was to plan ahead :) It really saves headaches later.

    Candance: Most welcome. Thank you for giving me the idea for this :) It's a good topic.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. As I'm contemplating a new project, I know it should be a trilogy, but wasn't sure how to plot it out in my head. This is really helpful. Thanks.

  6. I love this post. I'm writing a trilogy now and trying to plot out books 2 and 3 and this was very helpful. Thanks!

  7. This was a great post as I just finished what could potentially be book one. It's given me some great tips on books 2 and 3.

  8. Wow. Fabulous post!! Considering I'm in the process of editing a trilogy, this came at the perfect time! Thanks for posting this!

    I followed over from Stina's blog, Seeing Creative. Happy to meet you!


  9. Patti: Awesome! I love when the right article finds the right writer :) Good luck with it.

    Jen: And ditto for you. Welcome to the blog! Good to have you here.

  10. I would love to write a duology or trilogy but I can't start writing unless I have an idea of what I want the story to be. And I have no clue! I have a character and I have the universe and rules set but I'm just not sure what kind of story I want to tell. I have a very vague idea but nothing concrete and I can't start writing unless I have The Idea down. It's so frustrating. Any advice?

  11. Shaun, you caught me at the perfect time. I'm doing this right now with ideas of my own. What works for me is to start thinking in broad strokes and work down. Themes, concepts, etc. two books help here: Blake's "Save the Cat" and Tobias's "20 Master Plots." They offer generic types of stories. Like "The Monster in the House" type (Jaws is a good example) or "The Buddy Story." (Lethal Weapon or Grapes of Wrath)

    I look at those story categories and think about how my premise/characters would fit into that format. Ideas spark and I'm able to start expanding them.

    Once I have a general idea figured out, I write a query hook. I've found forcing myself to think about the core conflict and what has to happen for the protagonist to win helps me narrow down what the story is about. It's not a query I'd show an agent, but it crystallizes those critical elements in my mind.

  12. I was thinking about that. Having the first books theme be about "choice" and having the right to choose. The 2nd one would be about knowledge and having the right to know that knowledge. And the third would be about truth and having the right to know that truth and exposing it. Or something to that effect. Is that what you mean?

    Isn't Save The Cat for screen writing? I'll have to look into both of those. Thanks for the titles.

  13. Shaun, Save the Cat is for screenwriting, but it has a lot of really great advice that applies to novels as well.

    Your themes sound great. So next, try thinking about plots or situations where choice recurs a lot, and the core conflict depends on having the right to choose. If book two is about knowledge, then maybe the choice relates to that. Now that they've got the right to choose and have chosen, that knowledge causes problems. Which leads to exposing the truth.

  14. Thanks for the advice Janice. I really appreciate it. I'll be purchasing those two books soon. I hope they're great! Thanks again.

  15. Hi ive just found your blog and its super userful thanks very much for writing.

    A few years ago I used to write a story blog which lasted several years and had over 1000 posts. I was great and I loved doing it and eventually it got a small fanbase of loyal readers.

    The issue was that long term the story got tied up it knots I tied myself up so badly with unfinished and ill thought out plots the story didnt even make sence anymore. So much so that it became impossible for new readers to get into it because they couldnt jump in without reading 100s of posts.

    I want to start a new one! This time learning from my mistakes on of the biggest things I know I need is to keep down the number of charecters. Last blog had over 30 pov charecters towards the end, and dozens of storylines all running concurently and was just unfathomable to anyone but the most loyal readers.

    This time I was thinking of running 4 cocurrent storys, same world same time, different pov/main charecters. 4 distinct storys.?? The trick is that these 4 charecters while having thier own goals are somehow tied up in the same plot ultimate goal although they wont realise it to start. During the 4 stories these charecters may camio in each others stories but never play a major part.

    I may at some point have these charecters meet for a joined story, where they work together against thr main goal, I dont know if youve read the RA Salvator books but he plays well will different charecters in the same world, the books do have an order but they are all stand alone stories and charecters slip in and out of each others stories.

    The aim is to have small individual stories whic stand alone for the most part, but do have themes and underlying plot. Where charecters can pass from one story into another... cause and effect.

    Do you think this could work? Or am I setting myself up for failure again by over complicating it?

    1. Hard to say, but if you know what troubles you ran into last time, it should be easier to avoid them this round. The simpler you make it, the easier I'd imagine it will be for readers to follow it.

      Though it sounds like you might still run into the problem of having new losers get lost if they haven't kept up all along. Some potential pitfalls that come to mind:

      1. How long are the stories going to be? For example, if a reader has to read 50 posts, and there are four POVs to keep up with, that's 200 posts for new readers. If they find your blog on post 134, is that too much to go back and read?

      2. Will it be easy for readers to keep track of the different POVs? For example, will it stick with one for the entire story and then move to the next, or alternate?

      3. How often will you post? The longer between posts, the harder it will likely be for readers to keep up.

      You can certainly make it work, but it might be worth seeing if any other blogs have done serials successfully and look at what they did. You might gain some insights as to how to make yours work and avoid the trouble you ran into the first time.

  16. 1). I was thinking that if I changed it up so that posts where broken up into distinct stories rather than one long ramble... I could bookmark/seperate them out distinctly, if I made each one as stand alone as possible, the recommendation for new readers would be to simply start at the begining of the current book/story... or even just to start at the begining of the series. Im not sure it would really be any different to any new reader picking up an author for the first time? Authors often have lots of series in thier collectiom readers dont have to read then all to understand any single one? I think last time my biggest issue was there was no seperation of the work, storylines from one pov bled into storylines of others overlapped and there was no true start or end of any story. This time if I keep each in my head as a seperate story, yes sure there may be crossover but if an event effects multiple stories have it included in sure a way that it makes sence no matter which story they are following. so if someone reads just one story line its there... if they ready there entire timeline, they would read the scene as it occured and would place it into context of both stories. It might be tricky but I doubt there will be many total crossover events if I keep the storylines seperate in my head and avoid scenes which deal with multiple stories as much as possible.

    2) I think to keep it clear.. thr main pov will always be the person who the story is about. In cases where multiple Pov Charecters are equally important, there will be a lead for that story... but while a charecter is involved in a storyline as a prominant charecter, i'll set up a rule for myself that they cant appear as a pov charecter in any other stories to save confusion. Infact while active in a storyline they shouldnt appear elsewhere as anything beyond a 'bit part, guest appearance deal after all goal wise they should be focused on one as a time.

    3) update frequency isc a really good question, last time I posted really frequently sometimes 10+ posts per week. Posts hwere short designed so people could read them waiting for a bus, or in a break at work, not designed to take up huge chunks of time. This time I want to focus on quality, this style of story telling doesntt lead its self to revisions or re-writes so if I dontv post carefully a plot whime or ill thought out post can easily tie me in a knot I didnt foresee later. Im going to tie and plan the full story in advance so I know where its going because the readers see the intro. Any thoughts on a good rate of updates? Was a really good blog I loved her style and she used to do something similar to me (much better than mine though) but I do think she struggled with alof of the same continuity and confusion issues I did, im not sure she ever successfully solved them either. Ive been looking for others doing the same thing but they are really hard to find so its hard to know if anyone else as successfully gotten around the issues.

    1. That would probably work then. It sounds much easier for new and old readers to follow along.

      People tend to be pretty busy these days, so once a day feels good to me. But if they're short, you could go more. Maybe try a few different frequencies with the first few stories and see how the views go? You might even do a tester story or two that's just fun and not directly related to your larger series. Make it a "hey, I'm testing some new formats, which one do you guys like?" You could always ask, as well. I get great feedback when I ask m y readers here what they'd like to see.

      Good luck!