I have recently been looking at some fairly interesting ideas about plotting a series using some of the more creative storytelling structures. Trilogies are fairly obvious, but there are also a few more exotic ideas like ring or chiastic structure (ABCCBA) as well as that of adapting a five act (Shakespearean tragedy) structure to the overall series.

Do those actually seem to be worth using or is it better to focus on structure for individual stories that explore different parts of a shared theme that extends throughout the series?


Hey Adam, great to hear from you again! 

When plotting a series, I have the same basic advice as I do for plotting a single story: figure out what your story needs first. Once you know that, it’ll be easier to figure out how many books the series will have. 

Let’s say the throughline of your series is overthrowing an evil king. What needs to happen for that story to be credible and tense? 

Maybe your hero first needs to defeat the local duke. That’s book one. It’s a victory, but it’s drawn the attention of the king, who is a much more powerful enemy. Your hero is closer to their goal, but the fight is also more difficult. That’s a good ending for book one. Your next book could then be about the hero using their newly acquired resources to take on the king, and you’ve got a great duology. 

Alternatively, you might start the series by defeating the duke for book one. Then, the confident rebels attack the capital, but it’s a trap by the crafty king! The rebels barely escape total destruction, and now the royal army is moving to take back the territory they’ve already liberated. That’s book two. Book three is a desperate defense as the king advances mercilessly, culminating in a final battle where his majesty is finally defeated. 

You can expand from there depending on how much meat your plot has. The key is that each book should feel like it’s moving closer to resolving the throughline, either for the heroes or against them. Defeating the duke brings the heroes closer to defeating the king and resolving the throughline, but getting beaten by the king also brings the story closer to a conclusion, just a negative one. 

The problem with picking a structure first is that you end up trying to warp the story into a number of books that could be higher or lower than what it needs. This happens with trilogies all the time. I’ve lost track of how many series I’ve read that only had enough story for two books but stretched it out to three because that was the convention. The same can happen with picking five books, four books, or ten books. 

In most cases, these so-called structures don’t have much bearing on what’s actually in the story. A trilogy could use the Star Wars format, where the heroes win in book one before losing in book two, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, a trilogy could have the heroes face steadily escalating enemies in each book. 

If you’re totally stuck and have no idea what you want in your story, you might get some inspiration by imagining it as different numbers of books. But even then, don’t get too attached to a specific number, or you’ll warp the story to fit an arbitrary requirement. 

As to chiastic structure, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and honestly it confuses me. I looked it up, and I have no more understanding than when I started. Supposedly this structure is found in the Iliad, but I’ve read the Iliad and didn’t register anything like what they were talking about. If it’s in there, it isn’t making an impression.

In general, I’m even less enthusiastic about ancient story structures than I am about modern ones. The Iliad is a “classic.” It can get away with being a meandering slog with no characters worth investing in and constant deus ex machina. Modern stories don’t have that luxury. Better to work on the fundamentals than repeat the mistakes of the past. 

Hope that helps, and good luck with your story!

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.