5 Steps To Start Planning Your Book Series

story structure
5 Steps To Start Planning Your Book Series

A good book series allows readers to immerse themselves in a world and stay there. But how do you write a book series that works? How do you keep conflicts and character arcs going over such a long time span? How do you create a sense of resolution at the end of each book but still allow the plot to continue into the next one? 

In this post, I’ll show you how to answer these questions by taking an organic approach to your series planning process. But before we get into that, let’s talk about what kind of series you’re writing first.

What kind of series are you planning? 

  • A static series of books features the same character or group of characters, but the stories aren’t connected, and there’s typically no overarching storyline or character arc. For example, the Goosebumps books.
  • A dynamic series follows a character (or group of characters) across multiple books in which the plot problem grows, escalates, and complicates. Both plot and character must evolve over time. For example, the Hunger Games series.
  • An anthology series includes books that are linked by a defining element (like theme or setting) and often feature a different cast of characters per book (though not always). For example, The Giver series.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume you’re writing a dynamic book series since that is the most common choice. So, with that being said, let’s dive into the first 5 steps to take when planning a dynamic book series!


How To Write A Book Series

Step 1: Identify the theme of your series (and each book).

Just like each individual book, your series needs a strong central theme to tie it all together. It’s usually something you can express in one sentence, and it’s dependent on the content genre of your series.

For example, a series of romance novels will speak to themes of love, intimacy, and relationships with other people. A series of action stories set in a fantasy world will speak to themes of life, death, survival, and sacrifice.

If you can identify the theme of your series during the planning stage, you’ll have an easier time mapping out the plot and character arcs in each individual book. 

For example, let’s say you’re writing a series that speaks to an individual’s power (and responsibility) to stand up to evil. What are some micro-lessons (or themes) you could explore in each individual book? 

  • Book 1 could be about learning that evil actually exists in the world. 
  • Book 2 could be about what it means to take action and stand up to evil. Now that you’ve seen evil, what will you do about it?
  • Book 3 could be about what happens if friends aren’t willing to stand against evil with you. Will you do it alone or give up?

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect example, but that’s okay! Can you see how each individual book’s theme could build on the one before it to form the final takeaway (or series theme)? This is what you’re aiming for in the planning stage. 

Step 2: Determine Your Series Genre & Each Book

In most cases, the external and internal genre of each individual story will match that of your series. For example, the Harry Potter series is a combination of the Action and Worldview genres. The same is true of each individual book in the series. The Bridgerton books are all a combination of the Love and Worldview genres—each book speaks to the power of love, and so does the series.

When you’re in the planning stage, you can use your genre framework to help you map out your series and each individual book within the series. 

For example, if you’re writing a series of action books, you might have some ideas about what the climax could look like in a few of your books. But maybe the beginning and middle of the story is pretty unclear. That’s okay! You can use your genre framework to flesh out your ideas and get those creative juices flowing. 

Remember, your story’s content genre can give you insight into things like:

  • What your protagonist wants and needs
  • What’s at stake (or what your protagonist has to lose or gain)
  • Which key scenes and conventions you need to include
  • What theme or topic your story explores
  • And so much more…

Now, you might be wondering…

Should my series be made up of multiple genres or just one? 

The short answer is to keep it simple. 

Don’t overcomplicate this, especially in the planning stage!

You will have multiple genres at play within your books. For example, you might have a romance subplot in each one of your stories. That’s great! 

But what you don’t want to do is mix up the genres of each book within your series. For example, you wouldn’t want book 1 to be a love story while book 2 is a mystery and book 3 is horror. This won’t be a good experience for readers, and will likely result in them feeling disappointed (if they even finish your series).

As an example of this, I loved book 1 in the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness. It’s called A Discovery of Witches and it has witches, vampires, romance, secrets, and life-and-death stakes—all the things I love in a good fantasy book. But when I read book 2 in the series (Shadow of Night), I was disappointed because it felt like a totally different kind of book. It was slower than book 1 and read more like historical fiction than fantasy (which I was not expecting). Because of this, I didn’t finish book 2 or the trilogy. In this scenario, the author had broken my trust and I moved on to another book.

So, the key point here is that the key to making books within a series work is to grow, escalate, and complicate the conflict and stakes from book to book—not to mix up the genres. Escalating the conflict and stakes will pull readers into your series while mixing up the genres from book to book will push them away. So, just something to keep in mind while working through step 2–determining the genre of your series and of each individual book within your series as well. 

Step 3: Map Your Character Arcs Across the Series

A character arc describes how a character changes because of the external conflict they face. So, just as a single novel in your series must transform someone (or multiple someones), so must your series as a whole.

This means you need to explore two things during the planning stage:

  • How does your character start the series? 
  • How does your character end the series?

Ideally, who your character is at the beginning of your series must be in direct conflict with who they are at the end of the series. And once you know your series theme, you can back out how your character will change.

At the beginning of your series, your character will believe the opposite of your series theme. For example, if you’re writing a series that speaks to an individual’s power (and responsibility) to stand up to evil, your character might start the story feeling powerless and small. They might be naive and sheltered and have no idea of the greater evil that exists in the world. By the end of the series, not only would your character know evil exists, but they’d be someone who believes (and has internalized) the series theme—and who takes action against evil—as well. 

So, look for your character’s internal obstacle at the start of your series. This is the lie, misbelief, or worldview that they need to unlearn in order to accept the series theme and achieve their goals.

From there, consider what new problems could arise once your character learns part of this overarching lesson in book one. Life lessons often lead to more questioning, more exploring, and more lessons along a similar track or theme.

Consider Katniss’s growth arc in the Hunger Games trilogy. By the end of the series, she’s led a team of rebels through the burning streets of the Capital, killed the president, and helped give rise to a new Panem. The Katniss we met at the start of book one wouldn’t have wanted to or been capable of doing all of this—she had to grow and change first. With each book in the trilogy, she moves closer to becoming the ultimate version of herself, taking steps forward (and back) along the way. 

The same will be true for your character, too. 

As they make decisions motivated by their internal obstacle in each book, they’ll experience the consequences of those choices moving forward. Over time, those consequences add up until the character is finally forced to confront their internal obstacle (within each book) to create their overarching series arc. 

In other words, each book pushes the character forward (and sometimes backward) until they reach their ultimate destiny at the end of your series. So, that’s step 3—map out your character’s arc across the series.

Step 4: Brainstorm Your Antagonist Throughout The Series

When you’re plotting a dynamic series, there has to be a larger thread holding the books together. That thread usually comes in the form of an overarching goal, conflict, or oftentimes both. And it all starts with your antagonist because, without them, there would be nothing for your protagonist to react to. This is why understanding your antagonist’s goals, motivations, and plans is KEY to planning your book series.

Your antagonist's goal and the actions they take to accomplish that goal will help you form the plot of each book in your series. The misguided way your protagonist reacts to whatever your antagonist is doing will create consequences for them to deal with until they finally learn the lesson (your theme). 

In the Hunger Games trilogy, there’s a uniting thread and overarching goal that’s the revolution of Panem and whether or not the districts will defeat the Capitol. And who spearheads everything the Capitol is doing? The President (specifically, President Snow and then in later books, President Coin). 

Your series antagonist provides the main conflict your protagonist will face—but there will most likely be a hierarchy of antagonists across your individual books. 

For example, Voldemort is the series antagonist in the Harry Potter books, but in most of the earlier books, Harry faces multiple levels of antagonism (Malfoy, Snape, etc.) before confronting Voldemort. Both must grow and change until they can properly (and more or less evenly) confront each other.

If we look at Voldemort as a case study, his ultimate goal is immortality and power. He fears death and views it as a mortal weakness. Even though Voldemort has lost his corporeal form by the start of book one, he still takes action on his quest for immortality and power throughout each book in the series.

  • In book 1, Voldemort wants to acquire (and use) the Sorcerer’s Stone with Professor Quirrell’s help. Harry isn’t on his (immediate) radar until he interferes.
  • In book 2, present-day Voldemort is recuperating, however, he’s still destroying “less than” witches and wizards (via Tom Riddle’s diary) by opening the Chamber of Secrets—and Harry is his prime target.
  • In book 3, Voldemort is using Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew) to get to Harry so that he can kill him (if the dementors hunting Sirius Black don’t do it for him).
  • In book 4,  Voldemort wants Harry to win the Triwizard Tournament so he can lure him to the graveyard and use the “flesh of the enemy” to cast a spell that rebuilds his body. One of his Death Eaters is helping under the disguise of a teacher.
  • In book 5, Voldemort (now in full corporeal form) wants to acquire the prophecy that details the fate of himself and Harry. To do this, he needs to thwart members of the Order of the Phoenix, which also allows him to get close to Harry (especially when he’s picking off Harry’s protectors).
  • In book 6, Voldemort has declared war on the Wizarding World and continues to pick off members of the Order of the Phoenix, including his main target, Dumbledore. He wants to destroy Harry based on what the prophecy said.
  • In book 7, Voldemort wants to find the Elder Wand so he can finally kill Harry. In the meantime, he must prevent Harry from destroying the Horocruxes so that he can be in full power and strength when he does face Harry.

So, as you can see in each book, Voldemort has a specific goal in his quest for immortality and power. When the series begins, Harry gets in the way of Voldemort’s goals in a reactive way. By the middle and end of the series, Harry is taking proactive measures to stop Voldemort and prevent him from coming into his full power.

Now, you might be wondering… What about a series of standalone books? 

The same guidelines apply, but there won’t be a specific overarching antagonist. However, in most cases, there will be a genre-appropriate antagonist archetype. For example, the Bridgerton books focus on a different couple in every book, so the antagonist is different. But the antagonist is always a love interest. 

Step 5: Layout the Plot of Your Series + Each Story

By now, you should see the plot of your series (and each individual book) start to develop organically. From this point on, there are two main things I recommend doing in terms of planning out the plot of each book:

  • Figure out the specific goal and conflict of each book
  • Escalating the conflict and stakes from book to book

Each book in a series must have its own set of goals and conflicts to be won, lost, or resolved by the end of each installment, but the series must also track a larger, overarching goal and conflict throughout all the books.

Figuring out your overarching goal and conflict as you plot and write your series will help you not only thread your books together cohesively but will also help you figure out those smaller book-wide goals and conflicts that can serve as building blocks to the larger series-wide ones.

That’s why Katniss does win the Hunger Games by the end of the first book and why she does get out of the arena by the end of the second book. Because without these smaller resolutions—book-long goals and conflicts—we’d feel cheated and eventually lose interest. Yet these smaller resolutions feed into the larger goal and conflict (defeating President Snow and overthrowing the Capitol for good) that is not resolved until the final book.

If you chose to track only a series-wide goal and conflict and therefore have no resolution whatsoever in any of the individual books, your readers will most likely feel frustrated and misled and might eventually give up on the series.

The same is true if your series does not properly escalate the central conflict from book to book. As an example we can look at the Harry Potter series: 

  • In book 1, Harry’s an 11-year-old boy who knows zero magic. In this book, Voldemort tries to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone while Harry tries to keep it safe. Harry succeeds, but he’s now on Voldemort’s radar more than he was before.
  • In book 2, Harry is now 12 years old with a little more magic under his belt. However, Tom Riddle (Voldemort via the diary) has opened a mysterious chamber underneath the school and has been sending a Basilisk (snake) to kill students. Harry stops this from happening, enraging Voldemort even more.
  • In book 3, Harry’s being hunted by a man who supposedly betrayed his parents. Also, dementors are patrolling the school grounds, and one of his teachers is secretly a werewolf. Talk about upping the stakes!
  • In book 4, Harry participates in the (very dangerous) Triwizard Tournament, where the “tasks” get more and more deadly. The Death Eaters are an even bigger presence now, and unbeknownst to Harry, one of his teachers is a Death Eater in disguise. By the end of this book, Voldemort has succeeded in part of his plan—he’s regained his body and is ready to take on the wizarding world.
  • In book 5, the Ministry of Magic doesn’t believe that Voldemort has returned even though the dementors are now in the Muggle World and attacking humans. Harry learns about the prophecy (which he must prevent Voldemort from retrieving), and the character death count goes up and up!
  • In book 6, Voldemort has declared war! Harry (still only 16) is grieving the loss of his godfather, Dumbledore appears to be gravely injured, Draco Malfoy may or may not be a Death Eater, and now Snape is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts! The students are learning more dangerous magic, and the attacks are getting more and more personal. The worst part? Harry learns about Voldemort’s Horocruxes, and Snape kills Dumbledore!
  • In book 7, Harry’s no longer under the protection of the school and is officially on the hunt for Voldemort’s Horocruxes. He has his friends (Ron and Hermione), but he’s lost his primary mentor (Dumbledore). According to the prophecy, this is it—“Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” The stakes are raised, and we see the ultimate confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in the series climax.

Can you see how the plot and stakes grow, escalate, and complicate from book to book? As Harry becomes a more skilled wizard, Voldemort gains more and more power. As the series progresses, Harry loses his adult mentors and must put himself (and his friends) in danger to stop Voldemort. In each book, Voldemort and Harry have specific goals that contribute to the plot’s formation—and each book builds on the previous to create a truly satisfying series.

Bonus Tip: Worldbuilding In A Book Series

Regardless of whether you write speculative or contemporary fiction, your story’s world plays an extremely important role in tying your series together. 

Not only do you want to make sure the worldbuilding is consistent across all books, but you also want to build a world that plays into your story’s themes and impacts the central conflict and arc of change.

Often, the events that trigger change in your protagonist can trigger change in your story world—and the groups, communities, political systems inside your world—as well. 

This means that the events in your series need to have larger repercussions, make bigger waves, affect more people, and possibly even change the world.

As you map out your series, consider how you can:

  • Expand the story world and visit new countries, territories, or lands previously mentioned but not yet visited. Taking your protagonist farther from home organically triggers new realizations about themselves and often leads to forward (or backward) progress along their arc.
  • Explore other characters within your story world and consider how they can help or harm your protagonist’s ability to deal with the central conflict. New points of view (and new relationships, whether helpful or harmful) can also trigger change in your character and lead to progress along their arc.

Although you don’t have to have everything figured out about your story world in the planning stage, it’s helpful to consider how you’ll expand and explore other parts of the world (and its inhabitants). This will help you grow, escalate, and complicate your central conflict, trigger change in your protagonist, and create a vivid and immersive world that serves a purpose in each book in your series.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into planning a book series. Don’t expect to have everything figured out in one or two sittings. This is something you’ll need to start and add to over time, so please know that going into this process!

If you want help mapping out your book series, click here to grab a FREE copy of my Story Starter Kit: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Start Writing, and print one out for each book in your series. 

The questions in this workbook will help you drill down to the most important pieces of your story and allow you to track ideas for your entire series, too. Enjoy!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →