There are a truckload of considerations for a writer during the planning stages of a novel. Sure, you have to come up with compelling characters with relatable flaws, the amazing setting that will develop in the reader’s imagination and whisk them away to sprawling urban centers or fantastic fantasy realms, the main conflict that will have them squirming in their seats, etc., but there’s a bigger decision that needs to be made before any of that. Standalone novel? Or series?
Whether series or not, every novel is generally broken into a three act structure. The first act contains the Hook (the delicious little bit in the first chapter that raises questions the reader will be compelled to discover the answers to), Backstory (what happened before the story) and trigger (some intense moment that launches the protagonist into the main conflict).
The second act includes the crisis (the character’s emotional reaction to the trigger because of the flaw) , struggle (overcoming of obstacles) and the epiphany (the protagonist realizes their flaw and overcomes it somehow).
The third act is where the plan (where the character decides how to overcome the antagonist in a way that wasn’t possible before the epiphany), climax (the final showdown to end the main conflict) and ending (the nice bits at the end that close out the story).
So, how is writing the first novel in a trilogy or series different than a standalone if their basic structures are the same?
The answer is in pacing and backstory, and as well (and this applies to a 2-4 book series), a broader three act structure should encompass all of the novels at a very high level, which will most likely go unnoticed by all but the author, though no less important.
When planning a standalone, the only backstory you have to worry about is what led up to the crisis which is about to hit the protagonist, and what needs to happen to make the character overcome their flaw and beat the antagonist. Weaving all of the subplots in this sort of novel is relatively simple when you compare it to a series.
When planning a trilogy or a series, there’s much more to consider, especially if there’s one central conflict or goal that spans all of the books. The author has to consider all of the events up until the big showdown at the end of the trilogy/series –not just the ones that take place in that book–and how he or she wants to get there, then pace the story over the novels correctly. Some subplots may span books as well, characters will come and go, and they’ll change and grow, too. The author needs to have a clear vision of the tangled web they’re weaving so that no storylines are left dangling in the wind without being tied up by the end. Also, each book after the first needs to contain enough information about the previous book(s) so a new reader could pick it up and know what’s happening without drowning in information.
Not as easy as it sounds. Along with that, the author has to know enough about the next books in the series to drop foreshadowing hints into the first few books of the series, making the upcoming events plausible.
I’m not a big planner, nor am I an outliner. I do, however, have a clear path in my head from book one to book three in the current series I’m writing, and have had since I sat down to write The Glass Man. Now that I’m writing the second book in the Lila Gray trilogy, I’m discovering just how hard it is to find the balance between too much information and not enough, and to tie up my storylines before book three.
How do you plan your novels?