Last week I wrote about plotting the standard story structure through a series, this week I’m going to illustrate how you plot the beginning of the series as well as the beginning of a standalone book.
Not all people hate a cliffhanger, but I’d guess and say most people do. I do. I really hate getting to the end and I’m left hanging with no closure. And I know from reading Goodreads reviews that lots of people agree with me on this point. So avoid the cliffhanger in book one as much as possible. I sorta left CLUTCH as a cliffhanger – I tied up all the lose ends but then i introduced the story arc of book two as the last possible second – maybe this makes some readers angry, because it leaves that second story hanging, but since I put the first three books all out at the same time, I felt they’d forgive me on that.
Plus, this is a series, so you can’t have complete closure, otherwise you don’t have much to draw the reader on to the next book.
The answer to this dilemma (besides putting out more than the first installment at the same time) is to plot the first book to completion, while at the same time making the first book take the character through a certain stage in the overall story arc so that the second book is the set up for a new beginning and a new complete story arc.
I’m not gonna tell you something earth-shattering here, plotting the beginning a book is not a mystery. Here’s the rundown for anyone who’s missed it:
Beginning = character in her normal world, do her normal things, but there’s a call to action somewhere towards the end of the beginning and *suddenly* the MC’s world changes. This is a requirement if you follow the standard story structure. If you don’t follow the SSS, why are you reading this article? I can’t help you with that – certain writing geniuses can invent a new structure and get away with at times, but typically people don’t care for those books, no matter how well-written they might be. If you want to satisfy a reader, follow the SSS.
Pretty simple, right? You’d be surprised how many authors just blow this off. The beginning is almost always easy to write, especially in a series, because you know these characters and you want to make them do all kinds of stuff.
That’s fine too, if you’re gonna put bullshit in your plot, make it here where you can get away with it. But for F’s sake, do not put that fluff in the middle or the freaking end of the book! So many writers make this mistake. Especially in the middle because the middle is LONG. They get bored and just start making them do stupid stuff like go to parties or shopping or whatever.
Don’t do that unless there’s a major reason your character has to do mundane things to make it to the end. If your girl just needs to buy some shoes for the end to make sense, make her do that crap in the beginning. Save the middle for exciting stuff. I’ll get to the middle another day, but that’s just a general suggestion when plotting the beginning.
So that’s the beginning of a standalone book. But we’re writing a series here, so our first book is all the beginning. ALL OF IT. Let me repeat that, the first book in the series is the beginning of your story arc. If you have five books like me, this works out really well because you can make one the beginning, two the new world, three the middle, four the crisis, and five the climax. Five works well. Three also works, but you have to squish the beginning and the new world into one book – or whatever. You MUST still have all five elements, but how you structure it across three novels is up for grabs.
In book one of a five book series you main character (MC) must have all five of the elements listed above (beginning, new world, middle, crisis, and climax) in this book as well. That means that you must have more than one story to tell in a series – you must know that book one has a complete story and book two another, book three yet another and so on. You do not, repeat NOT want to make book one, one long freaking introduction (the beginning of the series only) and leave it at that. Fill in the blanks, make it all come together, leave the reader happy and satisfied when that first book ends. Answer all the important questions in the first book before you finish it up.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t leave some threads dangling, that’s a given for a series – you want readers to ask – but what happens next? You want to plant the seeds of books two and beyond in that first book.
This calls for a repeat – YOU MUST PLANT THE SEEDS FOR BOOKS TWO AND BEYOND IN THE FIRST BOOK.
Did you ever get to books three or four of a series and start to wonder if the author was just pulling shit out of his ass? I have. We all have. That’s probably because that author was pulling shit out of his ass.
Don’t be that author. Plan that out first, then execute. This means you foreshadow the end of the series right from the start. Which means you MUST know the end of your series before you write book one. I’m telling you, readers KNOW when you start pulling that shit out of your ass. They KNOW. Don’t do it.
Now, maybe the details aren’t worked out and maybe those details change a bit (maybe a lot) but you should have a firm end in mind before you write book one. Otherwise, yeah – out of ass. I’m thinking of one series in particular – a pretty popular SF series and I actually loved the first two books, but the later books I knew – those books were an afterthought. People wanted more or something, and the author started just making it up to fit.
To plot the series correctly, to make your first book both a complete standalone and the beginning of a series, you must know where you’re going and how you’re (generally) going to get there.
Recap – make book one a complete story based on the SSS. Make book one the entire beginning of the entire series as well, and set up your MC to enter the “new world” in book two. (See diagram, it sums up nice.)
I hope this helps – if you need more info on plotting I recommends Story Engineering and The Plot Whisperer. The first is very technical, the second, pretty touchy-feely. Something for everyone.
Oh, and I can’t resist – a few lines from Range – I’m at 60,000 words now. This scene is in the beginning…see – crazy Junco is doing all kinds of fluff shit here – generally causing trouble, pissing people off, and refusing to follow directions…
Cora stubs her cigarette out in an ashtray built into the arm of her chair and sneers over at me. “You know what? If I wasn’t harnessed into this goddamn seat and we weren’t about to enter free-G, I’d beat the shit out of you right now.”
I laugh and raise my eyebrows at her. “Would ya now? I don’t know you, so maybe you could.” I watch her face as I prepare the threat. “But I’d just like you to know that I killed almost a hundred people in free-G when I lived with the avians. So I’m ready to go when you are.”
“You have no remorse, do you?”
“Remorse for what? I didn’t drop those bombs on Peak City and Council 3! That place was like my fucking hometown! Besides, I was busy killing my best friend back in the Band the night that happened. I wasn’t even on Earth, so fuck you and your righteous judgment because everyone that lived in Runout knew what they were involved in and if they didn’t, then fuck them for being so stupid. You can’t live in a small mountain neighborhood that’s better protected than most countries and not suspect there might be secrets.”
She takes out another cigarette and I snatch the pack from her before she even knows what’s happening. I slide one out and strike it up, then throw the pack back, smacking her in the chest.
I take a long draw and then enjoy the nicotine as it courses through my body. “I might look approachable these days, what with the lack of battle scars and all the pretty new curves. But let me tell you something right now, I’ve got no conscious to stop me from killing. None. So do not fucking piss me off with your half-ass threats.”
She says nothing, just glares at me from behind her bloodshot gray eyes.
“That bitch Inanna, the goddamn representative for humanity and Earth? She took me against my will, stripped my entire body of skin, broke every bone in my body, ripped my muscles apart, stole my fucking wings for Christo’s sake. And then morphed me back into this girl you see before you. I never asked for any of this. I never wanted to be anything more than a silly wife to some backwater hick farmer in the RR, so fuck you and your remorse. I have zero remorse.”
I take a long draw on my cigarette to calm myself. It’s a lot easier to talk about than I thought it would be. Maybe because I can channel my anger against Cora. Or maybe I just don’t give a shit about anything anymore? It’s kinda hard to tell what motivates me these days.