So, I do talk a little bit about the “series beat sheet” in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, but clearly not enough because the questions keep coming! And they’re good questions! What about series? One day, in a dream world when I have all the free time and none of the deadlines, I would love to write Save the Cat! Writes a Series (and who knows, maybe that dream world will be a reality one day), but for now, let me add a little more insight to the topic here, via my newsletter.
I think the root of the question boils down to the main character, or hero. How do they continue to change and transform and arc through multiple books? If you’ve done your job well, then yes, your hero should have transformed in book 1. They should have learned an important lesson about life and conquered a debilitating flaw that’s been holding them back or causing problems in their life. After all, that’s why we write stories: to transform heroes (which by extension transforms our readers!. But what about book 2 and 3 and maybe even 4 or 5 if you’re super ambitious? What happens to the heroes there? Do they continue to arc and change?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is: well, it sort of depends.
So, the way I see it, you have a few options depending on the kind of series you’re writing and the kind of story you’re seeking to tell. Let’s take a look at a few of the more popular scenarios and how we might conquer the multi-book hero problem in each of them.
Scenario 1: You have a series with one main protagonist who continues to be the lead throughout all the books (i.e. the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling.) In this scenario, you’re probably going to have a larger arc across the entire series which is then broken down into smaller arcs (or steps toward the larger arc). Look at Katniss and Harry. They both have larger arcs about accepting and fulfilling their destiny (Katniss to become the Mockingjay, Harry to become the “boy who lived” and defeat Voldemort for good.) And in each of the installments, we see them work toward that larger arc. In book 1, The Hunger Games, we see Katniss first learning how to defy the Capitol, in book 2, we see her learning how to take a bigger role against them, including dealing with President Snow, and in book 3, we see her resisting her role as the Mockingjay before finally embracing it for good.) And in each book, she has smaller flaws that she must conquer in service to her larger arc.
Scenario 2: You have a series with multiple protagonists and each book focuses more on one of these protagonists (i.e. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, The System Divine series by myself and Joanne Rendell). In this scenario you’re probably going to have a larger arc for the “star hero” of each book and smaller arcs in each book for the other heroes. In The Lunar Chronicles, book 1 is all about Cinder, book 2 about Scarlet and so forth and those are the heroes that arc the most in their respective installments. But as Marissa Meyer continues to add heroes to her saga, the “stars” of the previous books do continue to have mini-arcs along the way. Cinder continues to fight demons, fears, and setbacks as she works toward her destiny. Cress continues to work on her confidence, and so forth. So by the time we get to the final installment of Winter, the hero, Winter, is having her big arc, while the rest of the characters are still dealing with their smaller arcs.
When Joanne and I wrote the second book in the System Divine series, Between Burning Worlds, we really struggled with this element. In book 1, Sky Without Stars, Chatine is the “star” hero among the three protagonists. So she arcs the most. She goes from selfish to selfless, eventually proving that she’s changed by sacrificing herself for a bigger cause. But then, what do we with her in book 2? We finally came up with a continuation of her book 1 arc, learning to accept the help of others and not always relying on herself. And now, as we plot book 3 (title to be announced soon!!!), we’ve come up with yet another continuation for Chatine: learning how to be a team player and allowing herself to be vulnerable. So, as you can see, the arcs are related and they’re smaller parts of a larger whole. They work in steps, building up to a series-long transformation.
Scenario 3: You have an ongoing series that doesn’t have a definitive end and usually has one main protagonist (i.e. most ongoing mystery series). This is sort of the exception to the rule. In these situations, where you don’t have an end in sight, the hero usually only arcs in the first book, and after that, is usually just the impetus or catalyst for change in another character’s life. We see this done a lot in mystery series like the Amos Decker series by David Baldacci or The C.B. Strike series by Robert Galbraith (Rowling strikes, again!). In Memory Man by Baldacci (the first in the Amos Decker series), we see Amos having a significant personal transformation. He has to deal with his grief and find closure in the murder of his family. But in book 2, The Last Mile more of the “emotional” work is done with the “guest star” of the novel, Melvin Mars, who must find closure with his own family tragedy. And how appropriate is it that Amos is the one to facilitate that, after he’s dealt with a similar transformation in book 1?
And in The Cuckoo’s Calling by Galbraith, Cormoran Strike conquers the flaw of being emotionally locked in an abusive relationship, while in the second novel, The Silkworm, it’s Strike’s partner, Robin, who does more personal growing in her own relationship with her fiancé.
So hopefully your situation falls somewhere within these scenarios or some combination of them. No one said writing a series was easy (I learned that the hard way!) but if you can pull it off, kudos to you! The key thing to remember when writing a series (or a standalone, for that matter) is that someone has to arc in each book, whether that be the same hero, a new hero, or a “guest star.” Someone must be changed by this story. Otherwise, what’s the point? Where did we go? Why did we take this journey?