I’m a hardcore binger. TV, movies, books—you name it. And when I’ve caught up to a show that’s still airing in real-time, I throw a fit. I want the whole story, and I want it now! Yes, it’s a tantrum worthy of a toddler. It’s why I only try to watch anime that’s already completed (damn you, Fairy Tail, for keeping me on the hook), and why I love a good romance series. Granted, I typically have to wait for those (insert uncontrollable eye-twitching), but my point is, the more content, the better.
Romance series are unique in that they typically go down one of two ways: standalone or sequential.
Options are great. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a standalone or a sequential series—just that there’s more to the world and characters I’ve fallen in love with. But if you’re planning on writing a romance series of your own, you’ll have to decide which route to go down (and which plotting style suits you best).
Plotting a Standalone Series
Since there’s been a lot of content already on All The Kissing about plotting a romance novel, I won’t go into those details too heavily. I mean, you’ve all either got your beat sheets or you’re a bonafide pantser, so the structure of a standalone novel probably isn’t news to you at this point in the game.
But what about a standalone romance series?
No, I’m not trying to confuse you. A standalone series is a set of romance books where the world and characters are the same, but each book could stand on its own two feet, with its own romance arc and issues that are neatly resolved (HEA for the win) by the time the epilogue rolls around. Typically, the focus shifts from one couple—the main characters of the first story—to a new couple, likely secondary characters from the first story.
For the sake of this article, let’s name our characters. Couple one will be Dean and Jo, and couple two will be Sam and Ruby (props if you know who I’m referencing). When it comes to plotting Dean and Jo’s story, you’ve got that one down pat. But now that you’ve outlined their HEA, what do you do about Sam and Ruby?
The first thing you want to do is make sure you give a little juicy goodness about them during book one—even if they’re not the central focus.
Dean and Jo off on a romantic date? Maybe Sam and Ruby join them. Maybe there’s some unspoken tension. Some lingering gazes and splitting of desserts. Nothing to draw attention away from the makeout session Dean and Jo are enjoying, but enough interaction to plant the seed. Now, when you’re ready to draft book two, your readers will already be shipping the Sam and Ruby connection, and their relationship won’t come as a surprise.
Hot tip: The more golden nuggets you can leave behind in book one, the better. So long as they’re not distracting readers from the main plotline—save those heart-wrenching moments for later.
As far as plotting goes? You’re already familiar with it! Because the storylines aren’t contingent upon each other (usually, though it’s possible), you follow the same techniques for any standalone romance novel—inciting incident (though this could vary a tad, given they are already familiar with each other at this stage in their world), reasons why they can’t be together but want to be, why they try anyway, the black moment … you catch my drift.
The best part? You can write as many follow-up books as you want, so long as you’ve got the characters to back ‘em! It’s always fun to see the original characters come back and interact with the new main characters, too. Because while their romantic woes have been resolved, they still do exist in the world.
Plotting a Sequence Series
My favorite thing about a sequential series? The story isn’t over. Think about some of your favorite books out there. There are a number of standalone or standalone series that I love, but my favorites all tend to lean the way of sequential series. Harry Potter. A Court of Thorns and Roses. A Promise of Fire. The Lord of the Rings. I get so invested in the main characters that one story simply isn’t enough—and a lot of other readers agree.
Plotting a sequential romance series is not for the faint of heart.
Typically written in chronological order following the natural progression of your characters—Dean and Jo—there’s enough resolution to satisfy immediate, demanding needs, but there are still loose ends that require attention and harken back to the main plot (even if it’s not fully revealed or even understood by your characters as of yet).
Planning is Everything
Plotting any sequence series, romance or not, requires careful planning. Even as a pantser, you’ll want to, in the very least, outline your main plot. You don’t need to know exactly how Dean is going to get Jo to the top of the mountain, you just have to know that she’s going to get there. Maybe they take six turns instead of your expected three, but that’s okay.
You want to do everything possible to avoid plot holes. If you have even an inkling that something could be perceived as inconsistent in later books, revisit it. Immediately. Because once it’s out there in your readers’ hands, you can’t change it.
You’ll also want to do things like:
- Create extensive character sheets, touching on everything from physical characteristics to nuanced personality traits.
- List and describe prominent/recurring locations.
- Understand the inner workings of your world (if it’s not contemporary, how does the economy work? What about travel? Communication? Sports? Landscape? Anything you can think of.).
- Map out your story’s timeline. Yes, this is key in single-title books, too, but definitely a must for a series. The last thing you want is awkward timing jumps!
Understanding these key components helps you stay consistent in your storytelling. You don’t want your readers to feel like they shifted from one story into something entirely different come the second book.
I’m definitely not trying to scare you, here, but let’s be real—it’s hard and frustrating and sometimes nauseating to try and plot a story arc that spans two or more books. As a fantasy romance author, I get it. Because while there needs to be a big enough plotline that drives the story for the entire world throughout the whole series, there also needs to be a constant romantic arc—and usually a subsequent conflict and resolution that comes with it—for each book.
It’s really, really hard (no pun intended … maybe). But while we’re here, thinking about innuendos, let’s address the romance factor.
Keep the Romance Strong
In my humble opinion, this boils down to two things: character growth and different problems.
No one wants to read a story—or several, since this is a series—where Dean and Jo learn … absolutely nothing. Not just about the world or their external predicament, but about each other and their relationship.
Let’s say in book one Dean and Jo transitioned from enemies to lovers (my favorite trope) and had to band together to take down a big bad monster. There were some serious trust issues, since apparently Dean’s family was responsible for Jo’s father’s death, but emotions spark, connections are made, and your readers are happy! Yay!
Book two rolls around, and there’s … still trust issues between Dean and Jo? Weren’t those resolved in book one? They probably were, because your characters experienced some growth and became different versions of themselves—together.
Character growth is important in any novel, but when you’re looking at a long-term plot, you need to make sure the new tensions and reactions make sense based off the previous experiences they’ve had.
For example, maybe that climatic monster battle nearly killed Jo, and now Dean is super protective of her in book two. Watching the life dwindle in her eyes means he’s done letting her go on hunts with him—and Jo doesn’t react kindly to being told what to do. That’s some believable tension, which speaks to my second point: different problems.
Notice how I said “different,” not “new.” New problems are a given. But do they have the same structure as the first book? Does Dean have to get Jo to a mountain yet again? The same concept repeated over the course of several books shouldn’t be your main goal. Instead, give them different struggles that work in tandem with their character issues, keeping their relationship fresh while still working through the main plotline.
Pick Your Pois—Er, Romance Series
Let me wrap things up by saying I am, in no way shape or form, an expert at plotting a romance series. Heck, I still struggle with this all the freakin’ time (resident pantser, right here). But I love creating robust and unique worlds, and so I’ll grin and bear it as I sort through character motivations and plot development with my loose outline and a stack of world-building details. In the end, whether you’re looking to write a standalone series or a sequential series, you’re going to want to plan at least a smidge from the get-go to make things smoother for yourself down the road.