We've handed over the blog to writer and the BIWC's Editor-in-Chief, PS Livingstone for her insights into writing a trilogy. It's a project she's currently wrestling with herself so she's already got firm views on the topic!
The trilogy is one of the most popular and revered formulas in literature, movies and beyond. Think Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, The First Law, and you’ll know what I mean. Of course, many talented writers have turned their world into longer series, but we’ll be focusing on the power of three.
Step 1: Define the trilogy?
In the most basic sense, a trilogy is three books, and this would seem to be the obvious answer. But is it? It’s easy to assume a trilogy follows a particular character through a series of adventures, culminating in an epic climax in the final book. Trilogies can be tightly or loosely bound, linked by a common theme or set of ideals rather than a specific world or character. Some do a little of both.
Cormack McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is set in the American frontier, exploring the lives of men on the edge of a changing world. Books 1 and 2 involve two different characters, who only come to together in book 3. It’s still a trilogy but not as obviously as some others.
Diverging from literature for a moment, the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, penned by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, is a series of films of different genres, but all exploring the themes of relationships and “the dangers of perpetual adolescence”. The movies share a common cast and, of course, Cornetto ice creams, albeit different flavours.
In the realm of non-fiction, some trilogies examine the stages of life; the change from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and perhaps death. Laurie Lee and Leo Tolstoy are famous for their autobiographical works.
Step 2: Know why you're writing a trilogy?
Agents and publishers like collections; if they’re investing in your career, they want longevity. Marketing and selling books are so much easier if there’s a built-in fan base, especially for a series. This is true if you’re self-published, too. Oh yeah, and there’s the movie deals and merchandise (we can only hope, right?).
Step 3: Planning the trilogy
Whether you’re a plotter or a 'pantser', you will have at least a rough idea of where your story is going. Planning is crucial in a trilogy. That’s not to say your characters won’t spring things on you – mine do it to me all the time – but you need to keep key events straight. If you’re a fantasy writer, you’ll already have put a lot of work into world-building, timelines and character sheets. I refer back to mine regularly.
One of the worst ways to end a novel is the deployment of deux ex machina (God from the machine), ruining what might be beautiful writing. Stephen King’s The Stand is one of the most famous cases of this. Fans were engrossed by his rich, detailed world, only to suffer a creative implosion at the end, in this case, the very literal hand of God. Now, this may have been completely planned by King, but it might seem to your readers that you wrote yourself into a corner and needed a miracle.
You’ll also want to ask if your idea is truly a trilogy. Do you have enough material for three books or are you cramming in more than you should? How many books have you read that rushed the ending or went on too long? The danger probably comes from the latter and a lot of modern readers lean towards the shorter novel. Fantasy writers do get a little leeway compared to other genres, but don’t bore your reader.
Come up with relevant titles, ones which tie the books together. If you’re writing about a single character, their name with a connection to the main conflict is a good choice. Using a broad title for the series helps sell your brand, and if you’re planning on ebooks (who isn’t these days), numbering is a good idea.
Step 4: Structure the trilogy
Depending on the type of trilogy you’re writing will obviously influence your structure. It’s not uncommon to have a two-act trilogy. Despite being part of one of the most famous movie trilogies in history, A New Hope can stand on its own. At the end, the Death Star is destroyed and it’s a massive win for the good guys. Empire and Jedi come as a pair – thanks to the cliffhanger ending. Making your first book a lone wolf can be smart, especially if the series doesn’t end up going anywhere, but you need to be careful you’ve included enough peeks into the future to make it all work.
I could spend a long time talking about how to structure each type of trilogy however, I’m going to focus on the traditional, mainly because it’s what I went with. First, ask yourself what the thread is. It needs to be woven through the whole series, and your conclusion had better be your crowning glory. That’s not to say each book doesn’t have its own plot – an arc for each one is still vital – but you can’t leave out the common thread. In all likelihood, the plot of the third book is mainly composed of your overarching plot.
Tension and conflict are what drive stories, whether emotional, physical or mental, and they have to build as you go on. I’m a big fan of foreshadowing, often (I hope) in ways that are so subtle people won’t realise they knew until after the event, and this is where your planning is invaluable.
Book 1: This is where you introduce your world and main characters. Trilogies generally have a larger cast, or at least a variety of supporting characters, to keep it fresh. Traditionally, the MC saves the day in the first instalment (we reserve the fall for round 2), and it ends on a positive note. Everything here is new, and you’re laying the groundwork for what follows. Of course, everything being new is what can make writing book 2 tough.
Book 2: A lot of writers say that book 2 is the hardest, because you want to keep up momentum, but the excitement from the first instalment is easily lost. It’s a good time to introduce new characters, kill old ones (if you write them long enough, it’ll probably happen anyway) or have them do something unexpected. Revealing a secret or turning something familiar on its head also makes for great reading – keeping your fans on their toes turns pages – and it’s the perfect time for that cliffhanger we talked about.
Book 3: So, our MC faced a setback, a great loss, or something equally unpleasant in book 2. If the night is darkest before the dawn, it’s book 3’s time to shine. Maybe you’re going for a twist before you offer closure, or maybe it’s the epic final battle you’ve been gearing up for. Whatever it is, here’s where all the loose ends are tied up and major plot points are secured. There’s nothing wrong with leaving a little something for readers to wonder about – roll on fan fiction – but glaring holes are never good.
Step 5: Getting characters in trilogies right
Your trilogy might be about the journey a person takes, becoming someone else over the course of the books, generally known as a dynamic trilogy. Or perhaps your MC struggles to stay who they are, overcoming the odds and holding true to their ideals. This is a static trilogy. If you’re looking for amazing characterisation, NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series is a brilliant place to start (it’s a damn good read anyway). None of her cast could be described as traditional, but she takes the time to explore and develop each of them over the course of the books.
Static character arcs are common in crime and thriller novels, often featuring the habitual rundown, alcoholic detective or private investigator. We don’t expect them to change very much, and their conflict is solving the crime. One static character who fascinates me is Lisbeth Salander from Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) – I’m pretending the fourth instalment doesn’t exist. Personal growth isn’t on the cards for Lisbeth, as her actions and behaviours are governed by her own moral code, one which she isn’t looking to change. Her flaws and limitations are partly what make her so good at what she does.
So, consider your character arcs – static or dynamic? Trilogies have room for a complex cast, so can you mix and match? If you’re going with one MC, what is their conflict, their goal, their
motivation? Although they rise and fall, characters generally show a positive change at the end of the journey: plenty of stand-alone books document a descent into madness but trilogies are trickier. Unless you’re writing about someone trapped alone in a submarine (and I don’t see trilogy material here) characters don’t live out their experiences in isolation. I have a large troupe in my novels, which gives me a lot of opportunity for contention and development, and exploring the different facets of each individual’s personality. Hopefully, the end result is that the reader really gets to know them as well.
Whatever you decide, get to know your characters. What’s their favourite Cornetto flavour or are they more a sorbet person? It might never come up, but you should know it anyway.
Step 6: four things to watch out for
If you’re going for the classic formula, have you got the balance between tension and reader satisfaction? We want suspense, we want people keen to know how it ends – that’s how books are sold – but not to the point of alienation. Write little victories and revelations.
Consider length when revisiting backstory in successive books. Some writers do this to remind readers what’s come before. In my opinion, keep this to a minimum or avoid it altogether. Readers are smart, and chances are they know the world and characters pretty well already – after all, they came back for more.
Whenever you’re making changes, ramping up the excitement, it has to fit within your world and characters. Don’t shoehorn in an event in order to get from A to B or create a tenuous link just so the finale fits. I recently read Nevernight by Jay Kristoff, and while I loved his writing style and luxurious world building, the MC did something I couldn’t quite reconcile. It stood out, and it’s not what you want right at the end of an epic tale.
Be prepared for a few of your readers to hate you. No matter what your ending, someone isn’t going to be happy. I know plenty of writers who get messages from fans, saying what they think should happen, or informing the author they don’t like how it ended. Think Misery via Twitter.
Just make sure you’ve followed these steps, because once it’s out in the world, there’s very little you can do about it. Plan ahead and do the best you can, and remember that the majority of readers want to devour and love your writing.
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