Writing a series is great fun, but it’s also a great challenge. It seems that no matter how well-plotted or carefully-documented, some event couldn’t possibly occur in Book 8 of a 12-book series because so-and-so did such-and-such in Book 5. We tear our hair out trying to figure how we can slot all our plot and character goodness onto a massive mind map or timeline or story board or spreadsheet or whatever our tool of choice is. When we succeed, we congratulate ourselves on how tightly we’ve woven the stories.
But when we fail, some of us find ourselves stuck in spreadsheet hell and inflict “analysis paralysis” on ourselves. The book we’re trying to write grinds to a halt because we can’t move forward until we figure out the conundrum that now stands as a roadblock.
Could it be that over-plotting causes the headaches we’re trying to avoid? I’ve found that to be the case more than once. So I’d like to propose that one solution to avoiding analysis paralysis might be less documentation rather than more.
It’s absolutely true that series writers need at least skeleton plots to ensure the main pieces and parts hang together in a unified whole. Both the series and the individual stories are a latticework of protagonists, secondary characters, incidental characters, plot points, and scenes. The great thing about latticework is that it offers plenty of space – gaps that allow later stories to thread into each other.
A concrete example: In Book 1 of my Promise House series, Caroline, one of the women living in the boarding house is seen walking with a fellow called Champ, who has no dialogue in the story whatsoever. In Book 2 of the series, Ruth, the protagonist has a brief conversation with a handsome, wealthy chap called Roger Greer. Both fellas show up as love interests in the third book, Evelyn.
When I was writing Caroline, did I know Champ would reappear in a later book? Nope. How about Roger? When I was writing Ruth, did I have a clue he’d show up again in Evelyn? Not at all.
But when I was hunting around for a love interest for Evie, these two guys came to mind because they’d already appeared. There was no need for me to dig around for a brand new guy or to spend paragraphs building their back stories; everything that I really needed was already there for me. The universe of incidental characters swirling around our protagonists offer us plenty of opportunities to pull them into later stories: when we need new secondary characters, gossips, foils, antagonists, or even, in the case of mysteries and thrillers, untimely deaths.
How about scenes? How can those be hooked back in?
I’ve found that, rather than keeping an elaborate spreadsheet of scenes and sequels, I do better to go back and reread the earlier books specifically for those open spaces in the latticework. Need the hero to get a particular piece of information at a particular time? Look for a previous character whose already-established habits would put him in the right place at the right time to convey the info. Need the heroine to be challenged by a difficult situation? Look for an earlier scene where a secondary or incidental character has caused trouble and consider whether that person might cause trouble again.
Those are just a couple of examples, but you can see where immersing yourself in your own universe of characters and scenes can yield many opportunities to cross-pollinate the stories. Yes, it takes time, but I’ve lost more time trying to sync up a spreadsheet than I would had I just reread the previous stories.
I’ve also learned that the immersive experience triggers options in my brain – it expands my thinking – rather than forcing my thinking into the structured cells of a spreadsheet. One process is creative and expansive; the other is analytic and reductive.
With immersive cross-pollination, the story universe can get richer and more textured, towns seem more complete, and entire worlds feel more comprehensive and whole.
This is just one way out of many of avoiding paralysis while writing a series. What’s yours?
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.