Four Ways to Plot a Trilogy
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Are you interested in writing a trilogy? From The Lord of the Rings to The Hunger Games and beyond, it’s plain to see that trilogies stand the test of time among readers. But writing a trilogy? Well, that can be tough.
A good trilogy must hook readers and keep them engaged, maintain good pacing and consistency, and steadily increase in tension toward an epic series climax. Mapping that out? Well, it’s certainly a tall order. No wonder so many authors find the task of writing such a trilogy daunting!
Recently, one of my lovely Patreon supporters asked if I had any tips or tricks for planning a trilogy, and I was shocked to realize I hadn’t yet written any articles on this subject. But better late than never, right? Over the coming weeks, I’m going to break down the process of crafting a trilogy in depth so you can better plan your own.
What’s on today’s agenda? An overview of the common styles of trilogy and the plot structures behind them. Let’s dive in!
The Three Styles of Trilogies
Just like any other form of storytelling, trilogies often follow storytelling structures. Specifically, there are three main styles of trilogies an author can choose to write. These are the same three styles I outlined in our two-part blog series on plotting a book series, but let’s briefly review them below today.
1. Dynamic Trilogies
By far the most common style of trilogy, the main character in a dynamic trilogy undergoes character development — whether it be positive or negative — over the course of 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 — or falling victim to it — as the story progresses.
Because a character’s physical journey so often sparks internal change as well, a dynamic storyline is by far the most common style of trilogy. Examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
2. Static Trilogies
However, you may wish to write a trilogy in which your main character does not undergo an emotional change. Instead, they fight to stay true to who they are while facing doubts, fears, and temptations over the course of their three-book journey.
This type of storyline is known as a static arc, and it’s the second-most popular style of storytelling employed in trilogies. Examples include The Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson and the Indiana Jones film trilogy.
3. Anthology Series
In anthology trilogies, each book is only loosely related to the others. Each book stands alone and the books can often be read out of order without having any part of the trilogy spoiled.
There are two common ways this style of trilogy can play out. Some anthology trilogies feature the same main character who returns in each subsequent book for a new adventure.
Other anthologies feature a new main character in each book who experiences events related to, but not dependent upon, the other books in the series. Usually, this type of anthology series shares a setting or secondary characters.
Examples include Anna and The French Kiss trilogy by Stephanie Perkins and The Graceling Realm trilogy by Kristin Cashore.
These styles of trilogy map out their basic storytelling formats, but they don’t provide much insight into how you can actually plot out your series. Which brings us to the second portion of our article today…
Plotting a Trilogy
While there are seemingly endless ways to plot a trilogy, there are indeed a few specific plot structures you can follow to help you better map out a plot that will really wow your readers. Let’s break them down below!
1. Complex Arcs
In this style of trilogy, each book has its own defined beginning, middle, and end. The main conflict in each book is resolved, but threads of tension do carry on into the next book in the series, sparking another central conflict.
Meanwhile, a larger conflict slowly plays out its beginning, middle, and end over the course of the trilogy, with the climax of this plot arc often also serving as the final climax of third book’s individual conflict. In some cases, the overarching plot arc may completely merge with the individual plot of the third book in the trilogy.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a great example of this plot structure. Be warned: spoilers ahead!
In the first The Hunger Games book, Katniss Everdeen is forced to participate in a gladiator-style fight to the death in an arena with 23 other children. The book’s individual conflict comes to a close when she survives the Games and returns home.
However, President Snow is unhappy with how her quick-witted trickery, which won her the Games, embarrassed his public image. In the trilogy’s second installment, he holds a special Games in which Katniss is once again forced to compete — this time, against other past winners of the Games.
What Katniss doesn’t know is that a rebellion against the corrupt government is brewing, and its leaders are using her image as its figurehead. At the end of book two, the story’s individual conflict closes with Katniss being rescued from the arena by the rebel leaders.
Book three picks up with Katniss in the hands of the rebel leaders, who wish her to actively lead their rebellion. Both the third book and the trilogy wrap up in the finale’s climax when the corrupt government is overthrown and Katniss takes striking action to eliminate a new corrupt leader who was on the rise.
The book’s overarching plot arc begins in book one with an introduction to the evils of Panem’s government and leader, President Snow. In the second book, the overarching plot arc picks up as rebels begin to mount a rebellion against this government. Finally, the overarching plot and the third book’s plot arc merge in book three as the mounting rebellion spills into a full-blown revolution.
2. The Long Arc
Some trilogies act as a single work broken into three installments, with the same plot arc(s) playing out over the course of all three books. There are no individual plot arcs in this style of trilogy and often the first two books end on cliffhangers, with many threads of conflict still unresolved.
A prime example of this is The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Again, mild spoilers ahead.
The Fellowship of the Ring begins with Frodo Baggins learning that he possesses the One Ring, which must be taken into the Dark Lord Sauron’s lands and destroyed. He sets out on his quest, amassing a fellowship of helpers along the way, and faces many trials.
The book ends on a cliffhanger when the fellowship is broken and Frodo must leave behind all but his best friend Sam so that the Ring does corrupt them.
The trilogy picks up in book two as Frodo and Sam meet a new helper named Gollum, who has already been driven mad by the Ring and may be secretly plotting against them to obtain it for himself once again.
The three make their way to Mordor, but get captured along the way. Meanwhile, the others members of the Fellowship face the first big battle against Sauron’s forces.
Finally, book three picks up with Sam rescuing Frodo from the enemy. Now in the Dark Lord’s territory, they make a perilous final journey into the heart of Mordor to destroy the Ring, while the other members of the fellowship fight and win a continued war against the enemy.
With the Ring destroyed, Middle Earth is set free and Frodo returns home.
3. Individual Arcs
Some trilogies have no overarching plot line. Instead, they feature three individual related plot arcs that often increase in tension as the trilogy progresses. The Graceling Realm trilogy by Kristin Cashore is a great example. Spoilers ahead, of course!
In the first book, Graceling, a skilled fighter named Katsa goes on a journey to uncover a king’s corrupt plot. Along the way, she rescues his daughter, fights to save them both, and ultimately kills the psychotic king to spare the kingdom his cruelty.
The trilogy’s second installment, Fire, takes place in the years before the events of Graceling. It follows the story of a feared human monster named Fire, who must convince the realm’s mistrustful leaders that she can help them keep the tumultuous nation from civil war.
Ultimately, her efforts prove successful, though along the way she meets a cruel and dangerous boy who will later become the evil king in Graceling.
In the final book in the trilogy, which takes place several years after the first, the evil king’s daughter Bitterblue comes to power and begins to make right the horrible wrongs her father did to her kingdom.
However, the further she digs, the more horrifying the misdeeds she uncovers—some of which still wreak destruction today. Bitterblue fights a dangerous battle against her dead father’s corruption until her kingdom can once again thrive.
4. Two Arcs, Three Books
This trilogy plot structure is by far the least common of the four we’ve discussed today, but it’s still worth exploring as it happens to be the structure behind one of the most popular fantasy trilogies published in recent years.
With this structure, the characters and world are introduced in an initial book that can be read on its own. The trilogy then continues with a heightened new plot arc that spans the remaining two books in the series. In some cases, there may be some small link between the plot arc of the first book and the second two, but nothing of enough consequence that it would shift this style of trilogy into one of the others we’ve listed above.
A prime example of this style of trilogy plot structure is the NYT bestselling Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. Spoilers ahead.
In the first book in this trilogy, readers are introduced to Kell, Lila, and Rhy — a magician, a thief, and a prince, respectively — who get into a world of trouble thanks to Kell’s seemingly innocent smuggling.
They then must use their skills to fight back against two evil twins who threaten to overthrow their kingdom. This central conflict is resolved by the end of the book and the characters go their separate ways.
However, they’re once again drawn together in book two when the kingdom holds a magical tournament. But things at the tournament aren’t all as they seem, with a new and darker danger brewing that once again threatens to overtake their kingdom.
Kell, Lila, and Rhy — along with the privateer Alucard and Holland, a tortured magician — must fight to destroy the all-powerful Osaron and protect their loved ones.
There is no set way a trilogy must be structured.
You have plenty of options to play around with! But if you want to write a proper trilogy, you can’t focus solely on mapping out your plot. You must also give your character arcs a little attention, which is exactly what we’ll talk about in our next article here on the blog.