Christine’s note: This is a guest post by Cary Plocher, a freelance editor and blogger at TheFriendlyEditor.com. She co-authored a chapter about Series in Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. Cary is kind enough to offer a free chapter download for Better Novel Project readers!
If you are struggling with the first draft of your novel, I recommend you follow in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling and begin with series.
Series Is the New Plot
“Series” is what author Stuart Horwitz says should replace plot. In his book Blueprint Your Bestseller, Stuart explains why he dislikes the word plot:
For one thing, it is a term with nearly unlimited associations. It’s hard to get anybody to focus on what is actually going on in their book while they are worried about whether their plot is good. For another thing, plot is singular, as if it somehow references everything. As such, you can’t work with a plot.
Series, on the other hand, is much more manageable. It is “the repetition of a narrative element (such as a person, an object, a phrase, or a place) in such a way that it undergoes a clear evolution.”
Instead of trying to chip away at one big beastly plot, you’re working with individual series and weaving them together to create a story tapestry.
Sounds much more feasible, doesn’t it? J. K. Rowling thought so. She used series to develop and organize Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Series in Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix
Order of the Phoenix weighs in at a hefty 250,000+ words—talk about trying to wrangle a beastly plot! How did she keep it from crumbling into chaos?
The answer is found in a one-page outline she released to the public nearly ten years ago. In the outline, Rowling identifies her different series in Order of the Phoenix and then organizes them all into a series grid.
I discuss these two concepts in-depth in a chapter I co-authored with Stuart for his second writing book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula.
For now, let’s look at the basic layout of Rowling’s outline:
At the top of the outline, Rowling lists six series she’s developing:
- Hall of Prophecy;
- Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny;
- the creation of both Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix;
- Harry’s relationship with Snape; and
- the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.
Then Rowling writes the passage of time down the side of the outline (October, November, etc.).
Next, Rowling fills in the grid with the when and where each series comes into play.
Notice that she only uses the word “plot” once on the outline—as a label for the column where she’s weaving together the different series to create a cohesive narrative.
This grid not only allows Rowling to organize her story but also helps her track any particular issues within the narrative, such as a series dropping off the radar for too long or a series standing off by itself or a series repeating too much instead of developing.
The series grid is a valuable tool, and Rowling hasn’t been the only author to recognize its worth. Joseph Heller, for one, took the concept to another level entirely in his outline for Catch-22.
Draft Your Own Series Outline
To reshape your first draft into a publishable story, first identify your different series. Remember that a series is anything you’ve repeated and varied throughout the narrative.
As Stuart explains in Book Architecture,
the repetitions and variations of series are how a person becomes a character, how a place becomes a setting, how a thing or object becomes a symbol, how a relationship becomes a dynamic, and how a repeated phrase becomes a key to the philosophy of the work.
Next, create a series grid. Start by listing your series at the top, and the time frames along the side; then fill in the middle based on when and where each series comes into play.
When you’re finished, step back and look at the grid for any gaping holes, excessive repetitions, or lack of interaction between series.
Congratulations! You’ve gotten a solid head start on the revision process.
If you’d like to perfect your story with more writing tools, such as the series arc and the series target, I’ve included a free chapter of Book Architecture to download here.
A special thanks to Cary. Plocher for stopping by!