Does Your Mystery Novel Series Need an Overall Story Arc?


When my first novel, A Deadly Fall, was accepted by a publisher, she urged me to create an overall story arc for the whole Paula Savard Mystery Series I intended to write. I thought, that’s a great idea. J.K. Rowling outlined her seven Harry Potter books before she started the first one and that series was pretty successful.

A problem was I wrote A Deadly Fall as a standalone novel and didn’t consider it might launch a series until the second draft, when I realized I’d like to spend more time with these characters. When my publisher accepted the book, I’d already started the sequel with no view to larger overall storylines.

From my reading, I don’t think series arcs are common in crime fiction. While character and plot developments often continue through the novels and some authors write a series finale—Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot died—I can’t think of a series with a progressive build to a final climax and resolution. Prolific authors produce numerous books in their series, sometimes over many years. It would be hard to plan an arc in advance and limit natural developments.

My initial thoughts for a series involved writing four books—one for each Calgary season. After the fall and summer novels, I arbitrarily chose winter for book number three. Perhaps it was images of cold, ice and snow that led Winter’s Rage into darker material than the first two books. When I reached its unsettling end, I discovered my overall arc.

I write my novels using the Three Act Structure, with aspects of The Hero’s Journey. Since the middle act is twice as long as the others, I treat it as a four-act structure. As I finished Winter’s Rage, it struck me that the first three books in the series echoed the first three acts of each novel.

Act One—the first quarter of my novels and first Paula Savard book—sets the stage. During act one, the heroine receives a challenge, leaves her familiar world, and gradually commits to the new journey. A Deadly Fall introduced my sleuth, Paula, and her supporting cast of characters. Paula was an amateur sleuth who stumbled into solving a crime. A Deadly Fall concludes with Paula committing to a new relationship and new focus in her insurance job—crime investigation.

In Act Two A—the second quarter—the hero generally progresses toward his story goal. Ten Days in Summer is the sunniest of the Paula Savard books. Paula isn’t personally devasted by the murder, as she was in A Deadly Fall. This time her primary goal is to succeed in her work. At the end of Ten Days, she’s successful and confident her career and personal life are on the right path.

Serious complications begin in Act Two B, when the heroine faces obstacles and setbacks, but is in too deep to turn back. Events beat her down to the story’s low point, when the goal seems out of reach. Winter’s Rage isn’t all misery, but the story events leave Paula questioning everything she’s held true.

Now I’ve started writing the fourth book, set in spring. Awareness of my overall series arc is helping me understand what this story needs to be. The first quarter draws a reluctant Paula into solving this particular crime. The rest of the book will build to her final battle, which will resolve her personal and career questions.

Despite my publisher’s urgings, I don’t think authors need a mystery series overall story arc. But contemplating one might prompt ideas for your books and give your series another dimension.

Susan Calder, author of To Catch a Fox (BWL Publishing, 2019) and A Deadly Fall (BWL 2019), Ten Days in Summer (BWL 2017), and Winter’s Rage (BWL 2021), books 1, 2 & 3 of the Paula Savard mystery series.

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