Writers often ask me how to plan out a series of novels. They usually phrase the question like this: “Can I use the Snowflake Method on a series, instead of just using it on a single book?”
The answer is that it depends. You can always do it, but the way you do it will depend on what kind of series you’re writing. There are three kinds of series that authors typically write:
- Every book stands alone, so a reader can read them in any order without losing anything.
- Each book works as a story, all on its own, but they combine into a larger story, so a reader would typically want to read them in order, even though it’s not absolutely necessary.
- Each book is just one chunk of a single large story, so a reader must read them all exactly in order, or the story won’t really work.
Let’s look at each of these and talk about how you can plan your series.
When Every Book Stands Completely Alone
In some series, every book stands alone. You can read the books in any order, and you won’t miss anything. You can read some books and ignore others, and you won’t feel left out.
A classic example of this is the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is an ex-military cop who has left the service and hitchhikes around the country. He’s not looking for trouble, but trouble keeps finding him, and he finds ways to bring the bad guys to justice. The books are not in consecutive order.
If you’re writing a series like this, then you only have to plan out each book as you write it. If you’re using the Snowflake Method, then you just write up a standard Snowflake document for the book. But you don’t have to plan the series. You can let it evolve as you write more and more books. This method works nicely for seat-of-the-pants writers.
The books in a series like this might be out of chronological order, and there’s no harm if they are. In case they are chronological, some might refer back to earlier events that happened in another book in the series. If you do that, then give the reader any required backstory, because you can’t expect that the reader will have read the other books.
You do still need to keep your characters consistent, so you might want to keep a running character bible that you can use from one book to the next. That lets you keep your character consistent. You might also want to keep a running timeline, so you don’t accidentally create a backstory where one of your characters was in two different places at the same time in the past.
Step 7 in the Snowflake Method is all about creating a character bible. Snip that out from the Snowflake document for your first book and save it in a separate file for the series as a whole. Then you can use it to get a running start on the next book in your series. And after each book, update the character bible with any new characters, or any new character traits for old characters.
And that’s it. This is a simple way to go. The main disadvantage is that every book stands alone, so a reader will only read more books in your series if they’re invested in you, the author, rather than if they’re invested in the running story. (Because there is no running story.)
When Every Book Works Alone but is Part of a Larger Whole
In some series, each book makes a fully satisfying story in its own right. But it contributes to a larger narrative.
A classic example is the Harry Potter series. In each book, Harry faces some new challenge and wins. But each time he wins, a new facet of his battle with Lord Voldemort emerges, opening the way for the next book in the series.
This kind of story requires planning at two levels. You have to plan out the story of each book. But you also have to plan out the larger story for the series.
If you’re using the Snowflake Method, then you need to write a Snowflake document for each book. And you need a separate Snowflake document for the series as a whole.
Your character bible will probably live in the Snowflake document for the series. You probably don’t even need to revise it for each book.
But you’ll need a synopsis and scene list for each book separately. And you’ll need a separate synopsis for the series as a whole, where each book in the series has to be summarized in one or more paragraphs in the synopsis.
This is hard work, but it has the great advantage that once your reader buys into Book 1 in your series, they’re in for the duration. And that might mean a lot of other books.
When Every Book is Just a Chunk of the Larger Whole
Occasionally an author will create a really big story that just won’t fit into a single book.
The classic example is The Lord of the Rings. It was divided into three books by the publisher, but the author created it as a single very long story.
This kind of story only needs planning at one level. It’s just a very big level. No book stands alone, so you don’t need an individual Snowflake document for each book. You only need one big Snowflake documet for the series.
This can be quite challenging, because the bigger a story, the more moving parts it has. And the harder it is to keep it all from breaking. Again, this kind of series has the advantage that once your reader starts in with Book 1, they’ll keep reading. But it has the disadvantage that some readers might not want to commit to reading a long series. And other readers may not realize that the story doesn’t resolve at the end of Book 1. Until they finish the book, and then discover that there’s no resolution—the situation merely got worse for the lead characters.
Should You Write a Series?
A series of novels can “promote itself.” It does this in several ways.
- At the end of each book, you can write a blurb to promote the next one. In an e-book, you can add a link to the sales page for the next book in the series.
- Readers who read one book in the series may click a link at the back of the book to go to your website, where they can sign up for your newsletter. Then each time you launch a new book, your newsletter promotes it.
- When you have a series, Amazon will likely show the other books in the series in a carousel of images with the header, “You May Also Like…”
So if you like the idea of having your books promote each other, and if you can handle the complexity of a series, it makes good economic sense to write one.