As I was discussing plot arcs in last week’s post, I realized that I didn’t yet have a post discussing multi-book arcs or how to handle the first novel in a series. Series are a puzzle. Each book must have an arc of its own as well as a place in the larger series arc. Multibook arcs are challenging, but also incredibly rewarding since writing a series ultimately means that you can broaden the scope of the story to include more characters, a bigger world, and a more complex plot, as well as going deeper with what you already have. But, before you can get there, you need to make book one work. Below, I lay out two common pitfalls of the first novels in a series and how to avoid them.
1. Everything, All At Once
You know your world, you know your characters, and you’re excited to get them all down on the page. But, even if they’re all fully conceptualized and you’re eager to show how they interact with each other, they don’t all need to appear in the first installment. Too many characters, locations, or plot points means that there may not be space to develop any one thing in depth. Rather than giving readers a chance to become attached to a core group of characters or a single country in your world, bombarding them with new elements makes it impossible to latch onto anything in particular and makes it hard to tell what they should be paying attention to.
Think about when each element in your story becomes important. Remember that you have lots of time to roll things out as they become relevant. By starting small and developing things deeply, you give readers a solid foothold in your world which you can build on later.
2. The Setup Novel
Another common issue is when the first book in the series serves only to introduce new elements but doesn’t have a plot arc of its own. It sets up the plotlines to come and serves as a teaser, but doesn’t provide readers with a satisfying story in and of itself. This is different from leaving a few loose ends or finishing the first book in a way that creates more problems than it solves; even if the ending of the book is open, it should still have an inciting incident early on, rising tension, and a climax that follows directly from the main conflict.
Look at how the status quo changes, not just between the first page and the last page but also how it changes throughout the rising action and climax. A common problem stems from the tendency to mistake the change in status quo that happens during the inciting incident for evidence of forwards momentum in a plot. A good example of this is Kiera Cass’s Selection series. The first book features an abrupt change in status quo early on when the protagonist is raised from poverty to compete for the prince’s hand in marriage, but after that point, very little else changes. The protagonist’s position remains static from the beginning of the rising action to the climax. She breaks into act two as the leading contender and finishes the story…still the leading contender. Rather than having a change that will jolt the reader into the next installment, book one introduces a scenario and then holds its breath so that all of the exciting things can begin to happen in the next book.
If the status quo doesn’t change after the inciting incident, ask yourself why. If the answer is that you’re saving those changes for book two, again, ask yourself why. Having a plan for book two is excellent, but book one needs to give readers a reason to keep going. It’s okay to ramp up the action early. The best thing that you can do for your series is to give book one the love and attention it deserves–it should not be a vehicle for the rest of the series, but a story in its own right.