Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Trouble With Triples: Writing Trilogies

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I first started writing my middle grade fantasy, The Shifter: The Healing Wars (Balzer & Bray, 2009), I had no idea it was going to be a trilogy.

I’d never written a trilogy before, but halfway through the story I saw the bigger story arc that my protagonist, Nya, could be part of if I nudged her in that direction.

I made some notes, finished the book, and sent it off to agents with a little, “this story stands alone but could continue as a trilogy” statement at the bottom of the query.

Eight months later, I sold a trilogy. What the heck was I gonna do now?

I plowed into the second book, Blue Fire (Balzer & Bray, 2010) and made every mistake a sophomore writer can make.

I learned a lot about writing sequels from that and was better prepared for book three. After going through the process once, I have several things I’ll do differently the next time I try another trilogy.

1. Figure out the entire plot in advance.

Sure, I knew the story of all three books, but knowing book three is “about the war” doesn’t do squat when you’re trying to figure out the plot for books leading up to that war. Each book needed its own plot arc, and that plot arc needed to fit into the series arc.

They also couldn’t just be rehashes of the same basic plot from the first book. They needed to offer new story and raise the stakes.

I won’t need to know every little subplot, but understanding the big set pieces in advance will save me a ton of tears later.

Things like: How does each book start? What’s the core conflict and major goal? What are the stakes? How does each book end? How does each book build off the previous book?

2. Figure out my characters in advance.

This might be a toughy, but characters tend to slip in as stories go on. Adding five or six each book didn’t seem like that big a deal until I got to book three, then suddenly everyone was in the same book. I had dozens and dozens of characters, each with their own small subplots, and it was way too much to deal with. Trying to wrap up all those characters and subplots was maddening.

Pre-planning some characters that I can recycle each book will help eliminate that “character creep.” It’ll also make me think twice every time I start to add another character to the story.

3. Figure out my big secrets in advance.

I had characters reveal awesome secrets to me in Blue Fire that I’d had no clue about in The Shifter. So I had to figure out how to make those delicious new secrets work with what I’d already written and couldn’t change. But if I can plan my big reveals and decide where in each book they are revealed, stuff won’t sneak up on me as much and hijack my plot. Uncovering secrets is also a great way to keep readers interested, so pre-planning those will help move the plot along as well.

Naturally, I won’t know everything before I start writing, and things are always revealed as the story develops. But a little more “forward thinking” on my part will save me a lot of frustration later. And probably lead to a much better trilogy in the end.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour on Cynsations.


  1. I can't seem to plan a book purely as a standalone story. I have a need to believe that the story could go in some form of larger series. My first book is intended as the start of an ongoing series, and I can see a lot of the advice you have here is relevant.

    I also have a fantasy-western trilogy in mind so I'll definitely be taking your advice when it comes to working on that.

  2. Yes a trilogy is like one long book. (And not just one book made longer by putting in more stuff.Rehashing can be a risk for some people even in a single story,too.)

    I particularly like what you say about secrets, though. Yes, knowing the secrets is the most important thing for helping pace a longer story.

    (And Paul - always looking forward to a fantasy-western.)

  3. You make excellent points here. I've been working on an outline for a sequel, but I have only basic ideas for a third book. This post reminds me I need to have a more comprehensive plot thread.

  4. Yay! I have a couple of series planned, and I'm happy to say that I have this stuff figured out. *whew* :)

  5. Good advice for anyone planning a trilogy. I am working on a second book in a series but the writing is a bit different than for a trilogy. Only my main characters reappear from book to book.

  6. Mercedes Lackey does a lot of trilogies in her Valdemar books, and she seems to have "gotten" the knack of writing each one so that it can stand alone, without returning fans being bored to tears rehashing "what happened before this."

    Plot isn't enough - great characters are imperative. Who wants to spends 1000 pages plus with people who aren't very interesting?

  7. Great post. There really isn't much else to it. You really do need to sort everything out before you even begin writing. In my case, I crafted the entire story like it was significant event in the character's lives. It didn't end at the end of the story their lives continue.

  8. So it can't just all be in my head??? Argh!

  9. Paul: Oo fantasy-western. There's not enough of those.

    The Daring Novelist: When to reveal info doesn't get enough credit I think. It's such a great way to keep the tension high and hook readers, but so often we want to give away all that info in the first few chapters.

    Beth: Glad I could help! good luck with your outline.

    Jami: Whoohoo! That must feel pretty good.

    Gail: An actual series has different rules (those some still apply) It's much closer to a stand alone novel.

    The Writing Goddess: Very true. Great characters are the cornerstone of great stories. But that's another post! LOL

    PW: Interesting approach!

    Laura: LOL, you can do it all in your head if you want. It's just hard to keep it all straight and maintain continuity. But if you have the memory for it, go for it.