The apocalypse, post-apocalypse, and dystopian novels make a perfectly good trilogy. They flow into one another and show a logic chronological sequence of events – like all good trilogies do.
Today’s post is going to not only help you decide if you should write a trilogy but show you the mechanics behind writing a great one.
Should You Write a Trilogy?
Ah, the big question. Before you even put pen to paper – or fingers to the keyboard – you need to figure out if you are going to write a sequel.
And to figure that out, you’re going to have to plan. (I know this is frightening for a lot of you pantser out there, but bear with me.) It doesn’t have to be a set in stone plan, but it should outline what you want to cover in each installment.
If you’ve done that with your idea and you’ve got lots to talk about, then congratulations, you can start writing your trilogy. If not, well, you’re going to want to start with a standalone piece and go from there.
I’m not saying that your standalone story can’t be teased out into more books – quite the opposite, actually! It could be that you come to the end of your novel and find out that you have enough material to write a follow-up.
Trust me, it’s happened to many authors. Like, Janice Hardy, for example. It’s happened to me too – but with short stories.
Basically, it all comes down to what stories your characters want you to tell, how the characters develop over time, and what you have in terms of a plot. All of which you’ll jot down in your initial outline.
Regardless of whether you have three books or not, you’re going to want to make sure that the first book in your trilogy can stand on its own. We’ll talk more about that below.
What You Need to Know About Writing a Trilogy
Because you’re writing three books at (possibly) one time – more on that below – you have the chance to take your readers on a bonafide journey. You can deeply explore themes, worlds, and character arcs.
However, trilogies also come with a lot of challenges as well. Not only are you in charge of keeping track of one book with all its characters and unique worldbuilding elements, you now have to do that for three books.
Plus, you need to make sure that those three books all make sense and don’t contain any plot holes. And on top of that, you have three stories to keep track of along with that overarching narrative.
It’s a lot to organize and keep straight.
But don’t worry. I’m going to break down for you to help you through the process.
Let’s Talk About Trilogy Structures
First off, we’re going to throw-back to a plot structure post from earlier this year. We know that a standalone novel contains one main plot, a subplot or two, and character arcs for your main characters. Each book, and for the series as a whole, needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.
This video by Reedsy sums up the plot nicely:
If you want a better visual representation of what a trilogy is going to look like plot-wise, then this graphic from NovelSmithy is for you:
NovelSmithy’s and Reedsy’s plot structures are straightforward, which is good. But there are three types of trilogies out there, and they can make small changes to the typical plot structure or character arcs.
Here are the three types of trilogies:
- Dynamic trilogies. This is the most common type of trilogy. We’ve seen it in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The characters in these trilogies undergo either a positive or negative character development over the three books. In other words, the main character begins the first book as one person and emerges at the end of book three forever changed. They experience a deep-seated internal transformation, overcoming a flaw or fear — of falling victim to it — as the story progresses.
- Static trilogies. Or your character fights to stay true to who they are while facing doubts, fears, and temptations throughout their three-book journey. For example, the Indiana Jones movie trilogy. Our protagonist never changes throughout any of the movies. He remains a badass, whip-wielding archaeologist no matter what the adventure is.
- Anthology series. In anthology trilogies, each book is only loosely related to the others. Each book stands alone, and the stories can often be read out of order without having any part of the trilogy spoiled. Examples include the Beautiful series by Christina Lauren and The Hudson Valley trilogy by Alice Clayton.
Of course, these types of trilogies predominantly have to deal with character arcs. Our story’s plot is only as good as the characters that move through them. Let’s look at our characters next.
Crafting Character Arcs for a Trilogy
According to Well-Storied, there are four types of character arcs that you can use in your story:
- The positive change. As previously hinted at, your character has something holding them back, and it is your mission as a writer to make that character overcome that challenge. This could be a complete change in one book or a gradual change throughout the three books.
- The negative change. This is the exact same thing as the positive change, but instead of overcoming their limitations, your character succumbs to them. They become a worse version of themselves. Think The Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights. And if you know of any trilogies that fit the bill, let me know. I seriously can’t think of any.
- The flat arc. Your characters aren’t hindered by anything in this one. They’re our full-blown hero, and they don’t need to change. That’s not to say that they don’t face challenges – they do – but their resolution to be good (or bad) is challenged time and time, and they fight to remain true to who they are.
- Complex arcs. This is where you get to have fun and use whatever type of arc that you want, within any book that you want. Maybe by the end of the first book they have a negative arc and spend the next two books fixing it. Or maybe they’re positive and then static and then finish by going back to who they originally were at the start. The sky’s the limit on this one.
In most cases, you won’t write a single character arc for each book in your trilogy because trilogies often feature a cast of characters. Most of your major characters will be affected by the plot in some way or another. And don’t be dissuaded by having to map out multiple character arcs – it’s not as hard as it seems. All you need to do is identify which style of arc you’d like each of your characters to face.
If you’re unsure, consider how your story’s events affect them. If your plot forces your character to face insecurity, they’ll likely experience a positive change arc. If it challenges their beliefs, you have a flat arc on your hands. Or if it preys on their fears too heavily, it may force them to experience a negative change arc.
The important thing to remember is that plot and character are closely-related. One will always affect the other. If you keep this in mind when you’re writing things will always go well.
Should You Write Your Trilogy in One Go?
A common question that popped up in my research was whether or not you should write all three books at once. Or to query the first book and keep books two and three on the back burner until you have a contract.
Here’s the thing. Writing the trilogy in one go is great – until your first book flops and there’s no reason for you to write the next two installments. Or your first book goes off like a rocket and now your agent is asking for a follow-up. Then you’re writing like a madman/woman trying to reach a deadline.
Neither situation is ideal and there’ no “right” answer to the question. You need to do what you’re comfortable with.
That being said, authors that have published a trilogy suggest that at the very least you have an outline for each book in the series and to know where you’re going to take that overall narrative. That way if you do get asked to write the full trilogy you don’t have to start from scratch. You also haven’t wasted a bunch of time writing another book or two that would do just as poorly as the first.
How do you know which way to go? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Can the first book stand alone even if I never write the others?
- Do I need to see how it ends before I’ll be happy with submitting it?
- Do I know where the story is going or am I still figuring out the major plot points?
- Do I have other stories I’d rather write or feel might be more marketable?
- Which way do I want to go?
- Will the trilogy be better if I wrote the whole thing at once? Or do I want agent/editor/reviewer feedback before I write the rest?
Your answers to these questions will boil down to whether you’re a planner or a pantser and what type of story you have. Again, do whatever you’re most comfortable with.
The Do’s and the Don’t’s of Writing a Trilogy.
Alright, you’ve figured out that you have enough of a story to write that trilogy, you’ve outlined your character arcs, overarching plotline, and each book’s plot. And you’ve decided to write it either all at once or after you’ve gotten some feedback on it.
Now you’ve got to pull all of that together. Here are the do’s and don’t’s to get you through the process:
- Do your research! Read other trilogies to see how things were set up. Catch any mistakes that may have been made and try your hardest not to do that same thing.
- Figure out your plot in advance. Each book needs its own arc and that arc needs to fit into the series arc. Figuring this out makes it easier for you to write those books because you’ll know what goes in and where. Plus, you don’t just want to rehash the same book – you want to raise the stakes and present something new each time.
- Figure out your characters in advance. It’s going to be easy to add in characters here and there as you work through your trilogy. The issue with this is that they tend to show up in the final book in droves. Then you have way too many subplots and characters to deal with. Save yourself the trouble by figuring out who shows up and when – and if they should make it to the end of the series.
- Plan your secrets ahead of time. If you generally know what twists you’d like to introduce – plot them out. It’ll help you add in foreshadowing to clue your readers into what’s coming up in the big reveal.
- Treat each book as a standalone book. This is a personal preference on my part. I have a tendency to pick a book in the middle of the series, read it, and then find out that there were books that came before it. It’s nice to be able to do that and not have everything spoiled.
- Plan your world rules carefully. If your world doesn’t have magic, then it shouldn’t have magic under any circumstances or if your character is blonde they should stay blonde – unless you tell your reader that your character dyed their hair. You’re going to want to write all the details down to keep them straight.
- Draw maps and pictures. This is especially useful for those of you who are going to be doing a lot of traveling in your story. It’ll help you – and your reader – visualize what’s going on and where.
- The second book is always the hardest to write. Your readers know your characters and the conflict and you need to live up to the expectations you set forth in book one. Look for new things in your world or new characters to join your adventure. Think about expanding your world, adding or killing characters, and subverting reader expectations.
- Don’t forget to increase the tension and uncertainty in the sequels. Give your characters new challenges to overcome or have characters come back into your story. Introducing new characters can work as well.
- Don’t forget to tie up loose ends. Readers like their stories neat and tidy and you should be wrapping up loose ends in each book. And whatever is not tied up in one book must be wrapped up by the very end.
- Don’t provide too much backstory. Your readers aren’t going to forget everything that happened in the last book. Give them a short recap and then move on.
- Your book titles need to compliment each other. Your titles should work together to help clue the reader into the plot of that story as well as the chronological order.
If you keep these things in mind, you’re sure to have a great trilogy that tickles your reader’s fancy. Trilogies are go-to favorites for writers and fans alike because they let us dive deeply into these fantastic worlds and characters.
What’s your favorite trilogy or series? Why is it your favorite? Tell me in the comments below.
That’s it for me today!
This week, we’re going to switch gears from the writing side of things and into marketing and getting ourselves out there. So check in on Thursday for our discussion on search engine optimization (SEO).
Stay safe, everyone!
Until next time!
I am so happy to see this. My Jagged Coast story is book 1 of a trilogy. And of course I have to tie the ongoing elements together so it all fits together, there’s new character growth in each installment, and there’s no plot holes. (I need my Maguleth villain character to make it through all three books so he represents and persistent and great enough evil for Fawnlum to stand against). And as you know, I’m not trying for the apocalyptic/dystopian storyline. Mine is a Fantasy-adventure inspired by the original Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore.
BTW, as I’m revising my story, do you think it’s better to update it on the site as I go along, or wait until I’ve got it all finished, and change it to the revised form all at once?
Yay! I’m glad that you enjoyed the post!
I’d personally wait until you have it all revised before posting the update. Just in case you change your mind on anything that happens as you’re editing. It’ll save you time and the headache if someone notices you revising the revision.
I can’t wait to read the revised version!
Thank you 😊
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