Plotting a Trilogy
You’ve found it—the One True Story you want to work on. You’re excited! This is going to be awesome! You start writing and you fall in love with the characters, and the world, and the story—
Oh no. This isn’t going to be a standalone like you originally thought. The character arcs need more time to develop, and the plot is a lot longer and more complicated than you expected. Or maybe you finished the book and thought, “I don’t want to leave these characters or this world just yet! There’s a lot more to explore!”
What you have here is a classic case of “oh boy, I’m writing a trilogy now.” As someone who’s had this strike multiple times, I feel you. Trilogies are difficult, because each book has its own challenges, and you have to keep the big trilogy-wide picture in your line of sight at all times.
But don’t despair! Trilogies may seem daunting, but there are some tips and tricks you can use to make outlining them (yes, outlining, sorry pantsers*) a little easier.
* As someone who is half pantser, half outliner, I understand this pain. But when you’re writing a series, you have to plan ahead of time to know what the end game is going to be.
Let’s break down the basic structure of a trilogy.
- Book One: Introduction to the hero(es), the villain(s), the stakes, the world. Who are these characters, why are we rooting for them, and what obstacles are they facing?
- Book Two: Expanding the world, deepening character arcs and relationships, bigger stakes. We know who everyone is now—or do we? Maybe some new characters get introduced, or something is revealed about a character you thought you knew from book one. How does the Big Scary Thing they’re facing get worse? What happens if they succeed? If they fail?
- Book Three: The climax, ending character arcs. Your characters should be thoroughly fleshed out by now, but you still have to bring them full circle by either giving them what they want or making them fail, depending. What’s the highest stake of them all? Meet it.
So how exactly should you approach writing a three-book series? Generally, from my experience, there are two methods:
- You know ahead of time that you’re writing a trilogy.
- The fact that you’re writing a trilogy will sneak up and club you in the head when you least expect it.
The First Approach
Congratulations, you’re embarking on a series! This means you get to plan things ahead of time, which is, trust me, your best friend. In terms of what to plan for, here are some things I find most helpful:
- Character Arcs: Who are your characters in the first book? Who will your characters be at the end of the series? What will happen to them in the middle to change them into those people?
- Helpful Hint: character arc and plot MUST be intertwined. Find an internal conflict for your character, i.e. not knowing what their super special power is, and find their external conflict, i.e. a war on the horizon. Now find a way to make these intersect.
- Escalation of Plot: My number one rule for writing a series is that the last book has to be the worst possible scenario in your world. After that terrible thing happens, that’s it—there’s no more story to tell. So all the books that come before have to somehow ramp up this tension in lesser, but still dramatic, ways. For example, let’s say that worst thing that could happen in your world/to your characters is the destruction of the planet. In earlier books, you could show the destruction of smaller things: a city, a continent. This will ramp up to that big terrible thing in the last book’s climax.
- Helpful Hint: to me, each book of a trilogy should have its own arc while still contributing to the overall trilogy arc. For example, in my TIMEKEEPER trilogy, book one is all about introductions; who are these characters, and the world, and the big obstacle the main character faces? Then in book two, I open up the world the reader is already familiar with and introduce a new threat that was hinted at in book one, that will then carry over to book three. Make sure each book has its own separate climax, without deviating from your overall arc!
- Themes: What type of story are you trying to tell, and what themes should you explore in each book? What are your overarching series themes that will come to a head in the last book? How can you show those themes being developed in the middle books?
- Helpful Hint: like having a separate arc for each book while having an overall trilogy arc, the same can be said for themes. Look at the Harry Potter books: each one has its own plot and themes, but when you look at the series as a whole, you can see the overarching themes of friendship, grief, prejudice, and conflict.
The Second Approach
Oh no, this is going to be a series. What now? This approach is harder, because you have to make sure that everything lines up, and you’ll frequently return to the first book to add threads connecting it to the others.
Here are some useful tips if you find yourself in this situation:
- Find the most linear approach to your storytelling. Always keep in mind what comes next in the plot or what came before. Think of your plot as a line of dominos: if you do a certain thing in book one, how can that come up again/influence something that happens in book two, and then book three? Cause and effect is your friend.
- Read through the first book again and find ways in which your characters can develop, what new information they can learn, what new obstacles can get in their way (that most make sense to their character/role in the story).
- What is the one thing that most connects these books? If someone was looking at your series and had to choose one image to portray it, what would that image be? (For example, TIMEKEEPER’s would be clock towers).
This may sound daunting, but challenging yourself is all part of being a writer. You get to develop your characters to their full potential, and think of new ways to torture challenge them. You can expand your world and make it fun for your readers to see just how far your imagination can go.
Writing a trilogy can be intimidating, but it’s also amazing to watch your story, your world, and your characters evolve—sometimes in ways you never even expected.