The Chaotic Way to Plot a Serial Story for Recovering Novel Writers and Over-Plotters

If you did not know, I've been releasing a serial titled THE LAST PAGE on my Ream. This actually started off as a novel, but it had a TON of subplots and it was just too much going on all at once. When I discovered the serial format, I knew that this story was meant to be a serial, not a novel. And upon reflection, I am realizing that STARS AND SOIL might have been better suited as a serial, too. Here, I am gonna take a few minutes to explain why I believe some of my stories would be better told as serials and give you a rundown of how I have been plotting my serials in case you, too, wish to use this storytelling structure!

As I am reflecting on the format and my storytelling goals and hopes, I realized that at least one of my planned novels would be better as a serial. I am reworking the outline now and hope to start releasing it in July.

However, as I was discussing this with some other writers, I was asked a lot of questions about how I plan and plot my books. I am a heavy plotter. I like to do not just chapter-by-chapter outlines, but scene-by-scene outlines. The outline for SMOKE AND STEEL was around 25k words, and the book itself is around 100,000 words. Yes, I plan. A lot.

I've been reading Save the Cat! Writes for TV and Become an Unstoppable Storyteller (affiliate links) in addition to taking the Serial Lab from Storytellers Rule the World to get a handle on this. When it comes to novel writing, I've made a sort of Frankenstein's monster structure out of the Hero's Journey, The Plot Dot, Save the Cat!, and the Four Act Structure. It works for me. So, of course, I had to do the same for serial plotting.

I've tried to demonstrate what I do with enough detail that others can build on top of it without being beholden to my specific proclivities. I present, the Chaotic Way to Plot a Serial.

This method is all about layering. I usually use an 8-point structure to start my outlining process and use those 8 points as the guideposts for the rest of my plotting. My plot points are:

You can use whatever you want here. Just pick a structure and stick to it. Each star on that image is meant to represent one of my plot points. No, I don't have 8 stars for each “Arc,” this is just meant to be representative and not adhering to any one specific structure.

But as you can see, the arcs overlap and when you smoosh them onto one timeline, you can get an idea of how things should be paced.

Before I go any further, I want to quickly define some terms before getting into the nitty gritty.

The Long Arc: This is the “Main” storyline that spans the entire serial. If this were a novel, this would be your “Main Plot.”

Season Arcs: Like TV Seasons, they have complete narratives. Think of them like “subplots” and structure it so the Seasons with the lowest stakes are your early seasons and the ones with the highest stakes happen later.

Bridge Arcs: These are like sub-subplots. They are low stakes in the grand story, but they might be very personal to the hero. Think of Han Solo being captured/frozen. Low stakes in the scale of the galaxy being ruled by the Sith, but VERY personal to the heroes.

Why bridge arcs? Because you still want something of a cliffhanger at the end of the season. BUT if you end the season with the main plot of the season being a cliffhanger, readers will feel betrayed. You need a season to stand on its own as a complete story, but these bridge arcs let you still have forward momentum/tension, and give your heroes something to resolve at the start of the next season while you are still building up that season’s arc.

Episodes or Chapters: These can be side quests (sometimes called “Filler”) or focus on whatever plot beat for whichever arc you have to address at that point. If you are doing “Side quests,” make sure you drop at least one or two hints about one of the other ongoing arcs to keep people engaged. In a novel chapter, the end has a resolution, and your hero decides on their next course of action. In serials, you want to end on a “cliffhanger.” It does NOT need to be life or death, but there should be something unresolved and a bit of tension. Episode length is genre dependent, with Romance being around 1000 to 1500 words, and Fantasy or Sci-Fi being around 2000-2500. Keep it consistent, whatever length you settle on!

Optional Intro Arc: The optional intro arc is to make up for the fact that you do not have the tail end of a Bridge Arc to start the season with Tension and Conflict while introducing your characters and world. If you are doing fantasy or sci-fi, this is a great place to “show, don’t tell” your worldbuilding and establish your setting or layout the rules of your world. Weave it in just as you would other bridge arc.

I do a lot of comparison to a novel there. For demonstration purposes, here is what that serial might look if it were structured as a novel.

The Long Arc

If this was a novel, the Long Arc would be your “Main Plot.”

This is the big, huge story! The main quest. The whole point of the serial. This is what you will want to use as your main way to progress your characters on their developmental journey (if you are writing a serial that is not a flat character arc, that is).

Pick your structure to map out your beats (Save the Cat!, Beat Sheet, Hero’s Journey, Plot Dot, etc.) and figure out how long you want your serial to be.

These do not have to happen at exactly X% of the way through. Like novels, you will have wiggle room! If your midpoint comes in at 45% or 55%, it’s not the end of the world so long as you don’t go an entire season without hitting on a single beat!

I personally suggest mapping out your Long Arc first or having a rough idea of the major beats. But you can do this beat mapping in any order.

Examples of Long Arcs: * Avatar The Last Airbender: Aang’s journey to battle the Ozai * Star Wars: Luke’s Journey to Redeem Vader/End the Empire

The Season Arcs

Season Arcs: If this was a novel, these would be subplots. If this was a series of novels, these would be the individual novels.

In a novel, your subplots are all interwoven and happen almost all concurrently or within quick succession. In serials, your subplots can take center stage and be given lots of room to breathe and grow! If you are working on a novel with a lot of moving parts, it might be worth it to consider if it should be a serial so that none of your plots get the short end of the stick.

Again, figure out which plotting or beat structure you want to use and then map out the beats for each season. Make sure that your seasons are arranged from lowest stakes to highest stakes. It is possible to have a mixture of low and high-stake seasons interwoven, but it can be very hard to pull off. In novels, you might start off by showing the antagonist’s henchmen to begin with before the battle with the Big Bad herself. Same thing here!

Another way to think of this would be that each season is a book in a series. The lowest stakes book usually happens first. In Hunger Games, the stakes are simply “Win The Game,” but by book 3, the stakes are a violent revolt of all the districts against the Capital.

It is very important that a season be a full, complete narrative. That does not mean it has to stand on its own, but it DOES have to have a Beginning, Middle, and End to the main plot. The season’s plot HAS to be resolved! You might have heard that serials are all about the cliffhangers, and this is true.

“But what about Empire Strikes Back! That had a cliffhanger!” It had a cliffhanger for a “Bridge Arc” or a sub-plot. The Main plot of Empire Strikes Back was Luke furthering his Jedi training and confronting Vader. That plot was resolved. It resolved on a downer ending, but Luke did confront Vader, even if he lost. The whole thing with Han Solo being frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba? That was a subplot, or in Serial terms, a Bridge Arc.

The Bridge Arcs

Bridge Arcs: This is how you end seasons on cliffhangers without people feeling betrayed.

If this were a novel, these would be the romantic subplots (if you aren’t writing Romance) or the contrasting subplots. These are the arcs that might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things. The Big Bad doesn’t care if Leia and Han end up together or not; but the characters? Oh, they care very, very much. These arcs are personal. These are the Arcs that make the character go, “screw this journey, screw this mission! Someone stole my emotional support stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder, and this whole rebellion can just manage itself without me until I get him back.”

These are how you build anticipation for the next season! You want to start these around 50% of the way through the season and reach the midpoint or the “all is lost” moment right before the end of the season, depending on how much angst you like during season finales. Lucas put a LOT of angst at the end of Empire Strikes Back by ending the Solo-On-The-Rocks Bridge Arc on the All Is Lost moment.

These also serve to make sure the next season starts with tension, conflict, and action. It takes TIME to establish a new plot. You have to have a new set of Somethings Peculiar and a new Inciting Incident, and a new Refusal of The Call, etc. All that slow stuff you just want to skip over when reading or writing a novel. So how do you start a new story, with all the slowness that comes with it, when you just had a huge season finale with an epic battle? You wrap up the Bridge Arc.

Now, I love Return of the Jedi. It’s actually my favorite of the movies. But I think it pulled this off very badly. While you are wrapping up the Bridge Arc from the last season, you should be weaving in the Inciting Incidents and the Weird Goings-On and be past the Refusal of the Call by the time you finish the Bridge Arc. The climax of the Bridge Arc should roughly line up with Break into Two/Plot Point 1/Point of No Return of Season Arc. In RotJ, the resolution Bridge Arc felt like a side quest before getting into the actual next “season.” There should have been some overlap. Still love the movie, but it’s a good example of how not to pick up the second half of a Bridge Arc.

Intro Arc: This is Optional, but it can be a great tool for getting your serial going from the get-go. You don’t have the second half of a Bridge Arc to wrap up, so where do you get all that tension and conflict when you’re establishing your world? Intro Arcs are super condensed “side quests” that give a sort of tour-de-force of the world and establish settings. If you’ve played any modern video game, you know that instead of giving you a leaflet in the jewel case explaining the controls and UI, they drop you into a mini mission with a mentor figure who kind of sort of breaks the fourth wall to explain it to you in the game? Imagine that. But with actual stakes. This should be mostly resolved by the time you get to your Season’s Break into Two/Plot Point 1/Point of No Return.


This might be one of the most confusing parts of understanding a serial. It might be useful to think of them as chapters or maybe even as scenes. But chapters and scenes have a beginning, middle, and end. In that order. The chapter or scene ends with the resolution of the conflict or tension and the character setting a new goal for what to do next.

Episodes have: * a resolution, * a beginning, * a middle, * and an almost end.

They start with the resolution of the conflict from the previous episode and end just before the new conflict is resolved.

They usually have their own story, some theme or narrative arc that could feasible almost stand on its own, somewhat like a side quest.

You might have heard the term “Filler Episode,” especially if you are familiar with anime. Serials can have that, too. But I would advise against it. If you DO need one, for whatever reason, make sure that a clue or two about some of the on-going arcs does come up.

Length: A lot of serial readers prefer shorter works. They enjoy reading while they take the train to work, or during their lunch break, or in that 15 minutes they have between dropping one kid off at soccer and picking up the other from piano lessons. The length of an episode is very genre dependent. Romance is around 1000 words to 1500 words. In genres with world-building like fantasy and sci-fi, an episode might be between 2000 and 2500 words. Decide how long you want them to be and then try to stick to that length from then on, give or take 10-15%. Your readers need to know what to expect!

Putting it All Together

Now, you should have all the plot beats for your various arcs and where they should land with regard to your other plots. You don’t really need to know what exactly these beats are or all of the details. You don’t need to know what happens between them if you aren’t that much of a planner and prefer to write live!

But you have a roadmap. You know what you are writing towards. You can have one episode that features plot beats from two arcs, you can have a beat that spans three episodes. That’s all up to you!

Why Serials?

The novel is actually a fairly recent invention in terms of storytelling structures. Not every story will fit or should fit neatly into the novel structure. If you have multiple plot lines and feel like they are being done a disservice by being condensed to keep your page count under control, you might be better off serializing your story.

The reason why I am excited to find this structure and am having a lot of fun writing in it is because I feel like it lets me give appropriate space to weighty subplots. In the process of drafting and then editing STARS AND SOIL, I had to cut several subplots, two of which were very near and dear to my heart. One of those—Scorched Scars—you can now read on Ream as a novella, the other of which I am using to draft another short story. (Yes, STARS AND SOIL was originally multi-POV, and Kegan was one of the POV characters).

If you've seen the recent update on my home page, you might have noticed “Crossroads of Fate” now listed under my “Releasing on Ream” section.

I outlined this as a novel in 2018. A lengthy outline. There is a LOT going on in this story and I was leaning towards making it into a trilogy at the end. But I set the outline aside to wrap up my other projects first. But as I have been learning more about serials, I realized that this story was meant to be a serial. I was having trouble fitting it into a novel structure because it is not meant to be a novel!   This structure that I outlined can also work really well if you are trying to write a series of novels, novellas, or short stories!

Next time you are having trouble molding a story into a novel structure, consider if the serial structure might be better!

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