How to Write a Trilogy: Q&A Session!
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Who’s ready to talk trilogies?
Hello, writer, and welcome back to the third and (possibly?) final installment of our blog miniseries on crafting trilogies. In the first article, we broke down the three basic types of trilogies and four ways you can plot your own. We then picked up in article two with a breakdown of the many different ways you can craft character arcs for your trilogy, but we’re not stopping there!
When I was first asked to write an article on trilogies, I knew I wanted to talk about plot and character arcs, but many of you also had related questions and concerns. Because many of those concerns couldn’t quite fill out articles of their own, I’ve decided to tackle them today in a blog Q&A session. Ready to dive in?
Question #1: How can I ensure each book in my trilogy engages readers without relying on cliffhangers or other gimmicks?
Trilogies often suffer from saggy middle syndrome with book two acting as filler, its sole purpose being to connect the establishing conflict of book one to the big showdown of book three.
Writers who feel pressured to write a trilogy when their story’s plot doesn’t justify it will often fill book two will contrived conflict, ramping up meaningless drama and increasing shock factor in an attempt to keep readers engaged until their series’ finale.
In my opinion, if you’re struggling to create a stimulating second installment for your trilogy, it’s likely your story shouldn’t consist of three books in the first place. Instead, consider writing a duology — a two-book series. Though they're nowhere near as popular as their three-booked companions, duologies have found their way into the limelight in recent years. So, you needn’t worry that limiting your series will somehow drive readers away.
That said, if your story can’t be reduced to two books but you’re still worried about keeping readers engaged, I recommend going back to basics. Consider the methods authors employ to create new conflict and stimulate character growth, how each book in their trilogy ties together, and what changes they make to ensure each book feels fresh and exciting.
There are so many ways to go about achieving these ends. I highly recommend reading as many trilogies as you can if you plan to write your own. Study the structures and techniques utilized by popular trilogy authors, then begin applying them to your own work!
Question #2: How can I control my trilogy’s pacing while also escalating the tension in each book?
Way back in 2015, I wrote an article about pacing in which I described the Pacing Cycle, a sequence of external and internal events that occurs in between the major plot points of a story. Here’s a quick recap:
1. Major Plot Point. A significant event occurs.
2. The Aftermath. The main character deals with the immediate physical and emotional consequences of the plot point.
3. Acceptance. After handling the aftermath, the MC comes to terms with their new reality.
4. The Set-Up. Having accepted their present situation, the MC physically and/or mentally prepares to tackle a new hurdle.
5. The Suspense. Tensions rise as the MC moves to confront a new hurdle. Danger lurks and things may not be as they seem or go to plan.
6. Major Plot Point. The MC is thrust into the next major event in your book.
Sometimes, a character may skip a stage in the Pacing Cycle (most often the Acceptance stage) or stages may occur simultaneously, but generally speaking this cycle of events recurs — in many cases, naturally — throughout an author's book.
As you can see from the Pacing Cycle, good pacing is all about cause and effect. About events and their physical and emotional consequences. Maintaining even pacing means hitting each of these cause-and-effect beats over and over at a solid tempo.
However, contrary to popular belief, increasing tension isn’t often about increasing the pacing of your story, which is a common mistake that can make a story’s climax seem rushed. Rather, it’s all about increasing the stakes.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself: How can my MC's motivation to take action deepen? How can I make all my MC has to lose seem more momentous? How might my antagonist pose even more of a threat to the MC's goal? Utilize your answers to these questions throughout your trilogy, and you’ll have no problem increasing the tension in each book without your pacing running amok.
Question #3: How can I foreshadow plot twists and big reveals in the first book of my trilogy?
The simple answer here is planning. While it's possible to drop clues accidentally, you can only rest assured that you’ve set your readers up for a big payoff when you purposefully craft moments of foreshadowing into your trilogy. That means outlining your trilogy to some degree before writing.
If, however, you’re a diehard pantser, drafting all three books first is a possibility. Once you've discovered your trilogy's big events and reveals, you can add in key moments of foreshadowing during revisions.
When it comes to integrating foreshadowing into your series, remember that subtlety is key. Readers are smart. They don’t need you leaning in and winking heavily for them to get the picture. Foreshadow with a light hand, and allow readers to form their own theories. The worst you can do is surprise an unsuspecting reader. (Unless you foreshadow heavily, in which case, you've spoiled your big reveal.)
Question #4: How do I know when to end one book in my trilogy and begin the next?
There are many different ways to plot a trilogy, which we talked about in the first article in our miniseries, which I do recommend checking out. After all, you can’t know when to end an installment in your trilogy if you don’t know what kind of trilogy you’re writing.
That said, here’s a quick and dirty overview of how the books in each trilogy plot structure usually end:
An Individual Arc Trilogy: If you have individual arcs for each of your trilogy’s installments, knowing when to end them should be pretty simple. Wrap up your arc and, if and when necessary, hint at the next book to come.
A Complex Arc Trilogy: Though this type of trilogy has an overarching plot line, each book should end when its individual plot arc comes to a close. You may wish to spend a scene or two setting up the next book if your individual plot arc wraps up too neatly.
A Long Arc Trilogy: If your trilogy only features a single main plot arc, choosing an ending for individual books can be tough. Look for moments when your main character is in extreme physical or emotional peril.
You can end your book in the midst of that peril, leaving a bit of a cliffhanger between books, or you can end it after that peril is resolved and your character’s journey is forever changed, which will leave readers wondering “What will they do now?”
A Two Arcs, Three Books Trilogy: If only your trilogy's last two installments feature an overarching plot arc, you’ll first treat book one’s ending as you would the ending of an individual arc, while book two’s ending will more closely mimic that of a long arc.
Question #5: How can I expand a standalone book into a trilogy?
Oftentimes, publishers will only issue a contract for the first book in a potential trilogy. If that book does well, they’ll then commission the remaining two books and the writer will get to continue the story. For this reason, querying the first book in a trilogy as a standalone with trilogy potential can make your manuscript more attractive.
Self-published authors also have good reason to turn a standalone book into a trilogy, as producing a series is a great marketing tactic and can help expand an indie writer's career.
To understand how to expand a standalone book into a series, I recommend going back and learning about the different ways to structure your trilogy’s plot. You can choose to tell an anthology trilogy, to plot according to the Two Arcs, Three Books method, or to simply continue with additional individual arcs using the same main character.
If, however, you want to go the Complex Arcs route, I recommend knowing what overall arc you’d like to tell before publishing your first book so you can set up your overarching plot line and add in vital foreshadowing elements. If your book then does well, you already have threads you can pick up and begin playing around with as you look to continue your series.
Question #6: Do I have to plot all three books in my trilogy before beginning to write book one?
The simple answer? It depends on what style of trilogy you’re telling. If you’re writing an anthology series or a trilogy that features the Two Arcs, Three Books or Individual Arc structures, then planning all three books ahead of time isn’t strictly necessary.
But if you’re planning a trilogy that has an overarching plot line that spans all three books, there isn’t much room to cut corners. Keep in mind, you don’t have to outline your whole trilogy in depth. Just knowing the basic beats of your three-book plot arc should be fine if you’re a pantser who’s accustomed to filling in the gaps.
Question #7: Can I split one massive book into a trilogy? And if so, how?
Yes, absolutely! If you have a manuscript that’s grown far too long to be a single book, you can split it into several, whether that be a duology, trilogy, quartet, or a full-blown series.
Unless you plan to do major rewrites, splitting one long work into multiple will likely mean you’re going to utilize the Long Arc plot structure for your new trilogy. Make sure to read up on that structure so you can plan appropriately. You may also wish to check out my answer to question #4 above to know when each book in your new series should end.
Question #8: How can I stay organized when working on a trilogy? My notes are so complicated.
I hear you! I wish I had a bit universal advice to offer on this topic, but every writer organizes their work in their own way. For me, utilizing Scrivener is absolutely vital. I store all of my character, plot, and world-building notes, as well as research, old drafts, cut scenes, and so on inside a single Scrivener file.
Scrivener’s Binder then makes organization easy thanks to features like labelling, key words, and corkboard view. You can check out some of my tutorials on how to use Scrivener here!
Outside of that, I’d simply recommend keeping all of your notes in one place and organizing them often. Make sure to update your material whenever you make changes, move old notes to a separate folder or file, and mark everything as clearly as you can.
Remember, you don’t have to know every detail of your trilogy when writing. You just have to maintain clear notes you can refer back to when you get stuck.
Question #9: How do I know writing a trilogy is the right choice for my story? Why not a duology or a quartet?
If you’re unsure of how many books should be in your series, I’d highly recommend outlining your plot and character arcs before deciding. You don’t have to go in-depth if you don’t want to. Just know the basic beats.
Who are your characters? What do you want them to achieve? Who are they at the beginning of the story, and how do they change by the end? Do they achieve their goal? Who tries to stop them, and what events occur along the way?
Once you’ve laid this out, look for moments of conflict or character development. When are the stakes the highest? When does your character undergo an irrevocable change? These spikes in your story will serve as early plot points, midpoints, and climactic sequences for the individual books in your trilogy.
Figuring out the length of your series may prove to be more complex than this, and if that’s the case, I’d recommend plotting the entirety of your story in more detail and taking as much time as you need to play around with structure. Organize your story’s events as a trilogy and see how they play out. Is the pacing off? Will the word count be too high or too low for each book? Is there not enough tension to end each book at a climax?
Fiddle around until you find the perfect fit. This process may take time, but it’s the only way you'll figure out if you’ve chosen the right number of books in which to tell your story.