Friday, June 17, 2022


Of Arcs and Standalones, Part 2: Series Arcs

This is the eighth of fifteen posts dealing with surprising things I learned in the course of writing a science fiction series.

Last week, we established that every story must have a story arc and we got a basic understanding of what that entails. Now let’s talk about the series arc.

Most series will have an overall series arc (sometimes there are more than one series arcs) along with the individual story arcs specific to a single installment of the series. A series arc is a plot thread that’s introduced in the first book in the series, is alluded to in some way in every single subsequent book, but is only fully resolved in the final book in the series. The series arc is usually separate from the individual story arcs, but both are crucial and must fit together seamlessly. The individual story arcs, as we established last in last week's post, are short-term. They’re introduced, developed, and concluded in each individual book. The series arcs are long-term. As an example, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the story arc is the chamber of secrets plotline. The overall series arc, in the most simplified terms, is good (Harry) overcomes evil (Voldemort)—and that’s true for every book in that series. The series arc runs beneath the individual story arcs in each book, expanding and intensifying through each book. In that way, each story installment has a piece of the series arc to tell.

In my Arrow of Time Chronicles, I actually had a few series arcs. The major one dealt with the warring faction of aliens that intended to conquer every other culture. A minor series arc was an organic phantom energy that's "eating" its way across the universe. A second minor series arc was that all the cultures in the galaxy, despite their outward physical differences and coming from different planets widely scattered across the galaxy, have similar DNA. All three of these series arcs were introduced in the first installment in the series, touched on in different degrees over the course of the middle two books, but only resolved in the final story in the series. 

There are two types of series that all series can be classified under. Let's lay down the foundation for them. Once we've established the types, we'll talk more in-depth about Overarching Series and the distinguishing qualities of this unique breed of series and its connection to speculative fiction.

Standalone Series

The most common kind of series that can include series in any genre imaginable is the Standalone. In this type of series, every story within the series can stand alone (hence the name). In other words, readers can read each one separately, potentially even out of order, and still derive satisfaction that way without too much confusion. The individual installments of the series include story arcs that conclude within that particular story, providing the reader gratification necessary at the end of each book.

Standalone Series Subgroup: The Open-ended Series

There is an exception to every rule, and I would be remiss in not mentioning this one. There is a type of series set up and developed almost exactly like writing a standalone story and therefore it's simply a subgroup of the Standalone Series.

An Open-ended Series doesn't need a series arc because no clear end is in sight, and therefore there's less need for a tightly-delineated series arc that must resolve in the final book. In an open-ended series (such as some sleuth mysteries with a single recurring character--i.e., Hercule Poirot and the like), each book in the series is a standalone title. There’s little need to come up with a series arc since the author isn’t planning to have a long-term plot thread running through the entire series that will conclude in the final story. Though the Hercule Poirot Series eventually did end, a series arc didn’t run through each of the stories. Even Poirot’s final case was a standalone (though this case connected to details of the very first mystery he solved). In an Open-ended Series with a potentially infinite number of books, any resolution the author has promised readers at the start of one installment in a series will stem from story arcs at the end of that individual book, not at the end of the series. Those resolutions are the ones that fans are looking for and must be given in order to feel satisfied.

Note that developing a Standalone Series is the focus my previous writing manual on the topic of crafting a series. Originally that book was published by Writer's Digest Books and titled Writing the Fiction Series. It will be reissued soon as part of my writing manual collection under the title Writing the Standalone Series


This leads us to the second type of series: An Overarching Series, which will be the focus of my upcoming craft manual to be titled Writing the Overarching Series {or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl to Outer Space}. An Overarching Series is a specialized type of series that requires complex and multifaceted character- and world-building as well as necessitating series arc sequel hook endings in all but the final installment. Overarching Series dominate speculative fiction more so than any other category of fiction, though it is possible for one to be in other genres as well.

In the Overarching type of series, none of the books can truly be standalones because the series arc that's introduced in the first book in the series will run through every installment in that series, expanding and intensifying as it goes, only concluding in the final volume of the series. In other words, it's unlikely that the individual titles in the series can be fully understood without the others in that series. This is true even of the first installment of a series because that one won't and can't be complete on its own without subsequent installments.

In addition to the requirement of being read as a set, an Overarching Series needs to be read in the proper, chronological sequence in order to make sense and to become as opulent and robust, as any series needs to be or otherwise what's the point? While this doesn't preclude the possibility that someone could enjoy the stories separately, it's almost a foregone conclusion that they'll miss a lot in doing so and ultimately might end up confused and even disgruntled.

There's a very good reason why Overarching Series can be complicated to write and read: Reader satisfaction is only partially achieved in each book in this kind of series. The story arcs that are specific to individual titles in an Overarching Series will resolve within their particular book, providing the necessary satisfaction when completing the story, while the series arc almost always produces a less upsetting form of cliffhanger ending called series arc sequel hooks in all volumes other than the final book of that kind of series, where it's finally resolved.

While authors do need to find a natural, logical place to leave the series arc from one volume to the next so the "to be continued" aspect won't infuriate readers so much as build anticipation for what's to come, keep in mind that each volume needs to be assigned its own piece of the series arc to tell in an Overarching Series.

Next week, we'll talk about how to establish your series arcs early in the writing process, including a technique for developing yours.

Happy writing!

Based on
Writing the Overarching Series (or How I Sent a Clumsy Girl into Outer Space: 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection 
by Karen S. Wiesner (release date TBA)

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 140 titles and 16 series, including the romantic science fiction series, ARROW OF TIME CHRONICLES

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