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Plotting a Trilogy - advice or links?
Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2013 4:20 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227

Hey everyone! A short story of mine recently took hold of my muse and has threatened to hold my entire brain functioning hostage unless I expand it into three novels. Yeah. It's been that kind of week.

Anyway, I've never actually plotted a series like this, where there's an overarching plot arc. I've read a few blog posts that suggest to treat each novel like one act, and others that suggest writing each book like a standalone. I personally hate cliffhangers, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how to have a satisfying ending to books 1 and 2, when the main problem doesn't get solved until the end of book 3. 

Any suggestions of sites or books or personal anecdotes about how to tackle a trilogy before you start writing book 1? 

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 6:33 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Good question. Bumping this up so it's visible to the rest of the gang.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 8:41 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

My first question is, if you don't already three distinct arcs in mind for your overall story, are you sure you should be writing a trilogy? Perhaps you're just writing a single very long novel. That's not so fashionable these days, but if that's what the story is, that's what it is.

I've plotted two trilogies and finished one of them. The unfinished one was left unfinished because I wore myself out writing its first novel, and realized at the end of that book that I had nowhere left to go with the protagonist's personal arc. There was lots of plot left in the problem he faced, but I didn't have a direction for his personal growth to take as he faced it. Lesson: don't just know where you want the story to go in a trilogy -- know who you want the protagonist to be at the end of each stage.

The second trilogy was written because I had a specific novel in mind as the third book, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It featured a well-defined conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. The first book then became a mystery/hunting novel in which the protagonist was trying to figure out who the antagonist was, and the second book became a quest/caper novel in which the protagonist had to figure out how to get to the antagonist.

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 12:20 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227

That's great advice. I definitely have an arc in mind for the MC, and I can get her to three separate...plateaus, if you will. What I'm looking at in terms the plot is similar to your second trilogy - figure out who the antagonist is in book 1, get "proof" in book 2, and catch in book 3. 

It's possible my story is just a really long one, which is something I have to think about seriously. In the meantime, I might have come up with a solution of giving my MC a temporary, provisional reward at the end. She completes her original task, gets part of what she really wants, but with the idea that it's not truly the end of the story. 

Not sure if that would be satisfying enough, but I'm open to other suggestions.
Herb Mallette
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 1:07 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

You might want to consider the MC's relationships with other characters as an additional means of compartmentalizing the plot into three distinct arcs. You could have a secondary antagonist who needs to be defeated, or converted to an ally, with the development of that relationship a major arc within book one or book two. You might come up with a supporting character who has a specific role to play in book two and only book two. And of course, if there's a love interest, you can divide the romance into distinct stages across the three books: encounter and attraction in the first, courtship and possibly a rift in the second, fruition in the third.

Angela Martello
Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 8:42 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


Well, I've written a trilogy, so I can at least talk about how I approached it.

I wish I could say I had thoroughly mapped out the work ahead of time, but it simply didn't work that way. I had started the book many, many years ago, would pick it up from time to time, then would abandon it. A few years ago, I decided to dive back into it and just started writing, making myself write 1000 words a day. The story and the characters hijacked the process and I ended up with a behemoth single-volume work of 470,000 words! Since I had written the book to have five distinct parts, I thought of splitting it into three books. So, the entire editing and rewriting process these last couple of  years has been devoted to turning one book into three.

Some of my processes (mind you, it is a convoluted process and I often work across all three books at the same time):

I determined a good place for books 1 and 2 to end.

I reread each individual book to see if (a) it completes a significant portion of the story arc and (b) it encourages the reader to move on to the next book.

I tightened up the storytelling in each volume so that it accomplishes a particular aspect of the plot and character development. (The subtitles of the books more or less hint at that: A Kaliphian Matter: Revelations, A Kaliphian Matter: Transformations, and A Kaliphian Matter: Resolutions.)

Once I was satisfied with the content of each book, I then started the fine-tuning process: deleting unnecessary scenes and characters; tightening up the language; working on the POV(s) and character development, etc.

The beauty of working on a computer is that I can have all three files opened at the same time. So, if I make a major change in book 1, I can search throughout books 2 and 3 to find where that change would impact the plot or continuity and make the edits.

The only other piece of advice I can give you is to simply tell you to read trilogies. My two favorite authors tend to produce trilogies (which are parts of larger series), so I do read a lot of them. I prefer them because it means I can spend more time in those worlds.

Good luck!
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Monday, February 25, 2013 6:26 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

Wow, Angela, your process is inspiring. 

Noelle, from a reader's perspective, my advice is to beware the middle book. Middle books are often the least satisfying since they don't hold the excitement of the first one and the closure of the third one. They are middle and...middling. So, in addition to all the awesome advice Herb and Angela have for you, my two cents is the following: have the protagonist achieve a significant milestone in the second book--even if the main arc is left unresolved. 

Good luck from me as well!
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 1:06 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

Middles of stories--good stories--are the hinge section.  That's where the story turns--where the underlying deep logic begins to show what the story is really up to.   If that's the middle chapters of one volume, or Act Two of a three-act play, nobody minds, but if it's three separate volumes, people talk about middle book syndrome. 

If a trilogy is really a single very long story cut into thirds because 450,000 word books are inconveniently large, then the middle book is the hinge and cannot have a conclusion as satisfying as the final is structurally sound, but not (to the modern eye) recognized as as what it is.  (I keep wanting to write a blog post on How to Read Multi-Volume Stories...but I keep writing multi-volume stories instead.)  In a five volume group (like the one I'm finishing right now) the third is the hinge volume. 

The middle volume must have its own arc, but its most important function is to be the keystone of the long arc that connects the first and the final volume.  It may be (often is) the story in which the main character or characters change the most, though the depth and implications of that change will not play out until the final volume (in a longer-than-three group, some of that will show in the intermediate volume, but the full development comes at the end.)   So the end of the hinge volume may be a low point (it was in my first trilogy)  after a promising's clearly not the end of the whole story, but it's a reason to break there.  

In my opinion, groups with odd-numbers of volumes have a more natural structure than groups with even numbers (that is, a two-volume novel is inherently less effective than a three-volume one.)   That's because there's no place to put the keystone in even-numbered groups--it belongs in the middle, but there's no middle.  So volume one either has more than it needs of the story, or volume two does--the keystone or hinge has to be there, but it's not in its proper place, so the feel is off. 

This doesn't apply to series, of course, because series books, even if characters are the same, have a complete story arc in each book (thinking of mystery series.)

Herb Mallette
Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 8:42 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

"No, Luke. I am your father."

Great points about middle book syndrome and the hinge, Elizabeth. My favorite scene in the middle book of my trilogy is the emotional/thematic hinge of the trilogy. Ironically, I didn't even realize it was going to be the hinge until I got to it and found that my planned dialogue for the scene fell completely short of what it needed to be. My outline had built a plot hinge for the trilogy into the book, but not a spiritual hinge, and I kind of stumbled on it by luck.

Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 12:20 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227

Elizabeth, that's some fantastic information! I agree that even-numbered sets don't give the same feel as the odd-numbered sets. I have major character shifts (well, plotted, anyway, since I'm still working on the first book), as well as plot twists in the second book. Having thought about and planned the trilogy from the beginning, I think I'll be able to avoid what some of my author friends are experiencing: second book syndrome. They hadn't originally planned for their book to be part of a series, and now they struggle to piece together one for their contract. I wonder how often that happens, when the result becomes a second/middle book that's not as good as book 1 or even 3. 
Atthys Gage
Posted: Saturday, March 9, 2013 11:14 AM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

"Anyone can write a three-volume novel.  All it takes is a complete ignorance of Art and Life."
-Oscar Wilde

I won't pretend there is anything in the above quote but snark (Oscar Wilde was surely one of the forefathers of snark), but I think it interesting that he used the term 'three-volume novel' rather than trilogy.  Nor do I know that he meant there was a difference ("three-volume novels are trivial things, but a trilogy!  Now that's something challenging!" Naw, seems unlikely.)  But there is surely a difference.  As Herb pointed out, you may simply have a great big novel, which can be broken up into three volumes.  You'd be in good company.  Certainly The Lord of the Rings is one such, and certainly LofR is part of the reason so many genre writers choose trilogies (But only part.  There are good aesthetic reasons why we find sets of three inherently satisfying.)  

But this is also the age of the sequel.  It's seems rare to log on to a genre writer's homepage and not find them working on a series.  Serials are appealing.  Easier to market, of course, but also, perhaps, easier to write.  World and characters are set in place.  And people love them.  We tune in week after week to watch television shows because we like to see characters we've come to know deal with the snares and traps the writers have set for them.

My first novel was/is intended as Book One of a trilogy.  It didn't start out that way.  During writing, I realized there was a lot more story to tell.  I think of it more as one story, but I hope (assuming I ever finish the damn thing -- I am only halfway through Book Two) that the first two books, anyway, will be readable as stand-alones.  I doubt the third will.  I made a conscious effort to make the opening of Book Two as different from Book One as I could.  Same world, of course, but Book Two is about an entirely new character.  In fact, no one from Book One even shows up until a hundred pages in.  There is some risk here, I suppose, in terms of a reader tuning in to find a continuation of Book One and wondering where the familiar characters are, but if the new story is compelling enough, I don't think that will matter.  And the arrival of the familiar gives a splendid "Aha!" moment.  

At least I hope so.  As I said, I haven't even finished the thing.   Oddly, I think Book Two might end up being the best thing about the set, rather than a link between two stronger books.  But it won't be the most dramatic.  Probably, it is more the slow movement between two allegros.  (Doesn't that sound enticing!  Don't shove, dear agents!  An orderly line, please.)

Advice?  Plot the whole thing out.  See what threads run the course of the projected whole.  Look for dramatic hinges and natural culminations.  My guess is you'll figure out pretty quickly where the volume breaks go.  

By the way, if you've never read it, Ursula Leguin's Earthsea trilogy is a fine example of how to get it, right.  

Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 5:31 PM
I never meant to write a series. I was going to write Midnight and be done with it. All of it. HAHAHAHA

Friends kept asking if I was going to write a sequel, and I kept brushing them off. Then one day, all that changed - as they say. I was reading something in Midnight, and my imagination took off on its own. Next thing I knew, I had four more books. Whoops. I ended up going from my FMC's parents meeting to what happens after her own offspring take over the family.

I didn't plan anything. I just wrote. Now I'm going back and disentangling all the threads and cleaning everything up.

I've had people tell me you have to keep the tone/mood the same through a series. But I've found that my five books all have different tones -- because they're not all about the same thing. Sure there's the overall arcs, but they all five deal with very different things. So the tone isn't going to be the same. Having the same tone would be dull, I think. And possibly exhausting. For me and the reader.

If I were do to this all from scratch, I'd approach it all differently, I'm sure. When I first started Midnight, I didn't know what I was doing or where I was going, and I certainly had no clue I was birthing a series.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 1:43 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

MariAdkins! That is simply awesome. Five books, just like that! Without, as it were, even trying.

How long is your average writing session? Do you write daily? Revise as you go, or edit later? (Sweat the details to get every word and sentence "just right", or "let 'er rip" to get those words onto paper as fast as you can?) Do you experience doubt and trepidation while you're writing, or is it all unbridled enthusiasm and exaltation? 

Curious minds want to know! (Least-wise, this curious mind does . . .)    

Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 8:36 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227

That's fantastic! I love when the muse hits us in the head (or lights a fire under our butts) to expand. However, as much as I hate editing, I think untangling those threads you mentioned would send me to hide under my bed for years. I salute you. 

Most of my books are written with one eye on the secondary characters, to see if they'll end up with a story of their own. It's almost expected in romance. Previous characters also have cameos, but for the most part, they're series books only because of the related characters. I have that for my paranormal (already know the next 4-5 books' hero/ines, but don't have stories for ANY of them yet). 

As far as the tone being the same...I think that's subjective and whatever is needed for the books. Even the Harry Potter books got significantly darker and increasingly angsty as they went on. There are plenty of series where the books have different tones. 

Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 12:19 PM
Joined: 3/2/2013
Posts: 5

A writer that I really respect once told me to figure out how the book ends first, and then how long before that the story needs to start.  It might be tough to finish, but at least you know where you're going.

Another writer once told me to type first write later, by which he meant get it all out in great leaps and then go back and refine what you have.  

I think for a trilogy both would apply.  Thanks for starting this thread.  My goal is something multi-volume and trilogy-ish.  =)
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 2:41 PM
((edited this because the site ate my formatting))

Carl E Reed:

How long is your average writing session?As long as it needs to be. I sit down, I write. All day. All night. An hour. Two hours. Whatever it takes.

Do you write daily?  Totally not! I have to have breaks. If I force myself to write daily, I get burn out, I put out crap, and my brain turns to  mush. So I mix my schedule up between writing, editing for hire, editing for myself, reading for hire, and reading for myself (to publish and for fun). Oh, and journaling. I've gotten huge back into journaling lately - I even created a Facebook group! Otherwise, I just get too much junk in my head, the works get all gommed up, and I get miserable. I have ADHD and have to take things in segments.

Revise as you go, or edit later?  Well, that really depends on how you look at it. I write long hand. Again, it's an ADHD/dyslexia thing. I do better with pen in hand than I do at the laptop. I tend to leave out entire chunks of gods know what all when I try to compose at a keyboard (any kind of keyboard - computer or typewriter). I've left out thoughts, sentences, words, paragraphs. Not that I don't do that with pen and paper - but it doesn't happen as often, and I'm not left with the, "Now, I know I typed up that paragraph. Where is it?" syndrome.
            I just write. Pen to paper and go.
            But I'll let myself write so much, then I'll read it, then I type it. This latest project I've been working on -- the YA -- I've taught myself to write on the fronts of the sheets of paper. That way, any notes or thoughts or additions I have, I can put them on the backs. It's made my life so much saner. Then once I do all that, it gets typed up.
             Some people count a zero draft, a first draft, then the second (edited) draft. I guess, in a way, that's what I get, too.

Do you experience doubt and trepidation while you're writing, or is it all unbridled enthusiasm and exaltation?  There's unbridled enthusiasm and exaltation in writing? :falls over laughing:


That's fantastic!  Thanks! Y'all are going to make me blush. LOL

However, as much as I hate editing, I think untangling those threads you mentioned would send me to hide under my bed for years. I salute you.  The untangling is my favorite part! It's where I find the meat and lose the bullshit. (can I say bullshit here? LOL) It's where I go from, "I'm trying to say what here?" to "I said it".

There are plenty of series where the books have different tones.  Thank the gods for that! Midnight had to be dark-dark, but the rest of them didn't have that need. There's a similar atmosphere, but there's no deep-deep dark-darkness. Well, except where there is

Carl E Reed
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 3:26 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

MariAdkins: Thank you for your detailed response! That was a fun, informative read. As one who was diagnosed borderline Cyclothymic and/or suffering/blessed with ADHD I completely get that you have to intermix new creative writing with other reading and editing tasks; that's the only way I can function. When the writing bogs down I kick up my reading and editing time; when the writing is going something-other-than-a-glue-slathered-horse-stately-slow-mo-striding-through-congealing-rubber I keep writing until I either (a) hit the D.S.W.Q. or (b) my enthusiasm burns out.

In any event: Salute! You're actual, verifiable, living proof that practice and persistence pays off in the construction of a sizable body of work over time. And that is no small thing: No writer improves by moping about wishing they were improving in the craft by merely fretting about it.  
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 11:38 PM

It's nice, though, to know someone else who has to "mix it up" like I do to keep from going nuts.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 12:07 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Typo correction: (hasty edits made while multi-tasking at the nine-to-five = gibberish posted): The sentence should read: "No writer improves by moping about wishing they were improving in the craft; one must do the hard work of setting actual words down on paper or screen."
David Pearce
Posted: Friday, July 5, 2013 11:53 AM
Joined: 4/7/2013
Posts: 26

Ugh.  Procrastinating right now instead of writing the dreaded "middle" book of what I hope will be a trilogy.  The first book, "Less than Honorable," is more than 300k in word count.  Hope I didn't shoot myself in the foot by not creating a more detailed plot arc for the entire trilogy. 


For those of you who wrote or are planning to complete a trilogy, how do you sell an agent and/or publisher on the idea? When is the appropriate time to send an agent query if you know that you want to write a trilogy?  I would imagine that the idea of a trilogy from a new writer would scare many agents to death. 


My initial thoughts are to wait until I have a sizable chunk of the second book done before heading down that path. 

Ellie Isis
Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 9:38 PM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 60

I hope I'm not repeating what anyone else has said. I did skim the responses, but I did not read every word of every one, so if I'm repeating, I apologize.


A couple of things to consider that I don't think have been said.


1. If you are looking at traditional publishing, writing a trilogy before selling the first book of the series is a pretty risky business. Agents will likely want changes. Editors will as well. Often these changes can be major. Major changes in book one can drastically affect books two and three. You could find yourself rewriting major chunks if not entire books. You could also find yourself spending three times as long on writing a series that might not be right for today's market when instead you could have produced three books unconnected to one another and have three things to potentially sell. However, if you are self-publishing, then this likely does not apply to you. In fact, having a trilogy to put out in the self-pub world is, I'm told, a good thing. If book one is good, people immediately go looking for books two and three.


So, with traditional publishing, I'd recommend writing book one, and having a detailed synopsis for each of the other two books. Then see if you have any takers for book one and when they ask where the story is headed, you can show them the synopsis.


2. As for the question someone raised about approaching an agent with this, I've always been told to sell them on book one, make sure it can stand alone, and mention that you believe it has "series potential." Let them decide if it lends itself to books two and three. This may have changed. It's been a few years since I got my agent. And it may not apply as much to a set trilogy as it would to a longer series.


My two cents.

Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 11:51 PM
I have a five-book series, as I discussed above. I sold the first book last year. The publisher told me we'd see how sales went before we started talking about me pitching the sequel.

--edited by MariAdkins on 7/9/2013, 11:53 PM--

David Pearce
Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 12:12 PM
Joined: 4/7/2013
Posts: 26

Thanks, all.


That's good information.  Not sure if the book I wrote is "stand alone" because it leaves several strings hanging, but there is a definite beginning, middle, and end.  It could be a stand alone if I changed part of the ending and closed the loops.  C'est la vie. 


And I will add creating a synopsis for the other two books on my "to do" list, along with a synopsis for the completed novel.  The idea of traditional publishing intrigues me.  If it happens, great.  If not, well then I still have my day job. 


But I may as well keep writing while I wait for feedback from the friends and family that are reading the first book.




Posted: Friday, July 12, 2013 12:26 AM
Midnight started out totally stand alone and had a ton of loose ends when I sold it. Some of those loose ends are gone now, but many remain - and not because I have confidence the sequels will also sell, but because I don't feel stories necessarily need all the loose ends tied up in fancy bows at the end. Life's not that way. angel

Posted: Friday, July 12, 2013 12:28 AM

 The idea of traditional publishing intrigues me.  If it happens, great.  If not, well then I still have my day job.


I know people who have upwards of thirty and more full length popular novels sold and who are still working a day job, 40 hours / 5 days each week. And not because they're living beyond their means, either.


But I may as well keep writing while I wait for feedback from the friends and family that are reading the first book.


 Great plan. Many think they can finish a book, send it out, and then sit around waiting while stuff happens around them. It doesn't work that way.

--edited by MariAdkins on 7/12/2013, 12:29 AM--

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 4:19 PM
is noelle still here?
Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 4:33 PM
David Pearce wrote:

The first book, "Less than Honorable," is more than 300k in word count.


Wow. That's a trilogy all by itself! Seriously.


how do you sell an agent and/or publisher on the idea? When is the appropriate time to send an agent query if you know that you want to write a trilogy?
 I may have answered this already. I've not looked.
I've always been told "sell the first one." Also, my publisher told me, "We'll see how well the first one does, then we'll talk about buying the second, third, and fourth one." LOL