Writing a Fantasy Series: How Far Ahead Should You Plot?

There’s a lot of fun to be had writing a big long fat fantasy series. After all, you’re the creator of an entire world, a world with endless possibilities. At the outset, these possibilities are liberating. Anything can happen. And the ideas for plots come easy. You feel you can take things in any direction you choose, follow any wild fancy. But in the back of your mind you know that at some point, probably after years of work, you will need to bring the whole great sprawling mess to a close.

Writing a plot over multiple novels, complete with a broad cast of characters each with their own intertwining arcs, is a daunting prospect. With so many unforeseen twists and turns that could take place, it’s a miracle that these sprawling works get finished at all. Writing a fantasy series is a bit like trying to find your way through a vast hedge maze that’s growing up around you as you walk through it. And it will take years to find your way out, with no guarantees your exit will be a satisfying one. There’s always a chance you’ll get stuck in a dark dead end somewhere, or fall into a nasty hole and not get out.

Surely having some kind of plan to get through the maze is a good idea. But writing is a creative act, and authors need to leave themselves open to surprise and serendipity. No plot line should be set in stone. With that in mind, how far ahead should you plan your fantasy series?

I’d like to know, because I’m writing one at the moment. I’m two years in, and am only just winding up the first installment. These things take time. (Just ask Patrick Rothfuss or GRRM.)

Writing the Wandering Knife series has been a convoluted process. This first novel has taken longer to finish than I would like. This is because the more I develop the world it is set in, and the further ahead I plan my series, the more additions and deletions I need to make to that first cornerstone story. But one thing that makes life easier is that, about a year into the process, I sat down and planned out an overarching plot with a conclusion. Yes, I know how my series will end. Or at least, I think I do.

If you are a writer of a series of books, fantasy or otherwise, my belief is that you’ll fall into one of two camps.

1. When you begin your series, you have no idea how it will end.

2. When you begin your series, you have an ending that will definitely change.

I have an ending. But I am still riddled with doubts and fears. I’m terrified of reaching book six of a series after years of work, only to realise that I made an omission or error back in book one or two. I’m terrified of leaving out a key element of worldbuilding, or putting something in that fatally undermines the premise. I’m also terrified of getting several novels into a series and reaching a point where I realise I have no way of resolving it.

But at a certain point, you just have to pick a path, and stride boldly into the maze as though you know exactly where you’re going.