Why Trilogies are Successful & How to Plan One
Trilogies get a lot of flack in the fantasy and science fiction community for a few reasons, but I think the biggest reason is simply that they are so common and therefore have become to some like a gimmick. But trilogies are common for a reason--they work. The three-book series has been tried and tested for years and continues to sell. Much of the success of trilogies relies on how they are marketed by publishers, but I'm just going to focus on what you can do as a writer to ensure you plan out a successful trilogy.
I say plan instead of write because I'm a plotter and once my outline is complete the book, in my head, is complete also. The actual writing is just the final coat of paint. Not everyone writes like this and that's fine, so if you're a discovery writer the planning I'm talking about in this article will likely be work you do during or even after you have a first draft. And that's okay. If you're not a plotter don't be daunted by my system, just adjust for your own writing process.
First of all, there are a couple things a trilogy should NOT be:
1. one long book separated into three parts (The Lord of the Rings isn't a trilogy, though it's often referred to as one. You can write a book in three parts, it's just not a trilogy and therefore written differently and does not follow what I'm discussing int his article.)
2. a prequel followed by a duology.
3. three stand-alone stories.
A big reason trilogies get so much hate is the first do not on this list. Authors take one basic storyline and milk it for three books. This usually results in each book ending on an annoying cliff hanger, drawing the reader on to the next book. You want readers to reach the next book, but you need to do so without making your endings feel cheap.
Taboo number two is also very common. Usually, this happens when an author writes the first book without planning on it being a trilogy. It's important to have some foreshadowing for the second and third books in book one but many authors don't bother going back and adding in the necessary foreshadowing, or book one is already published which makes adding to it impossible.
The third do-not is less common in my opinion but does highlight an important distinction: a trilogy and a series are two different things. A series (even if it only consists of three books) is under no obligation to make those books share a conflict. Like sitcoms, even though there are many themes, characters, and issues that are carried throughout the series, each exists more or less as a stand-alone. If you happen upon an episode of Friends you can easily watch it without knowing which episode comes before (even if you've seen every episode, twice.) Series are the same way. Though intended to read in order it is possible to pick up in the middle and still find enjoyment because each book will have a unique conflict. A trilogy isn't like that. A trilogy is designed to share a conflict.
Before I continue I want to address that with all rules there are exceptions. I'm sure you could point to some great trilogies that suffer from these faux pas. What I'm going to outline is what I believe is the best structure for trilogies and should be used as a guideline, not a bible.
Book one is important in so far as it sets the stage for the trilogy. The way I look at it is you have to hook your audience here or not at all. You sell books two and three by marketing book one. So book one has to work. You already know the basics of what it needs to do (introduce the characters, world, conflict, etc.) but all books have to do that. So let's look a bit deeper into the structure and what it has to contain that make writing book 1 of a trilogy different.
Book 1 must...
Introduce Key Conflict Elements.
- in book one of my trilogy, the conflict revolves around the magic system and the conflict in books two and three continue to revolve around the magic system. So in book one, it was important I lay the groundwork for the magic system to make certain my readers understood how it worked. If your conflict revolves around politics (such as an ongoing war between kingdoms) then you have to ensure your readers have a good grasp of how politics work in your world.
- ask yourself how you're going to solve the conflict. The conflict in book one of my trilogy is solved with magic, big surprise, but the conflict and how your characters solve it are not always the same. If that's the case in your story then you have to set groundwork for that too--long before the time comes to solve the conflict. For example, if your character solves a problem with a hidden talent he keeps to himself because he's embarrassed by it, then that talent must be acknowledged early on. In fact the earlier the better.
Pro-Tip: If you know how your characters are going to solve the conflicts in books one and two mention those in book one. The earlier you can foreshadow something the more of an impact it will have on readers.
Contain a Full Arc
- absolutely no cliff hangers. Create a fully fleshed out story and see it through to the end. Whatever conflict you've created must be solved by the last page. You can have unanswered questions and you can have layered conflict (really they want to overthrow the evil empire but in book one they're just focused on breaking their rebel leader out of prison). Because you have more books planned you don't want to give your readers happily ever after but you also don't want to leave them hanging. One of the most common ways this is done is by creating a conflict in book one, say, slaying a demon, while also creating a budding romance between your protagonists, then by the end, the demon is slain but your protagonists still aren't hooked up. This way readers are satisfied but also want to know more about how this character relationship develops.
Pro-Tip: Epilogues are a great way to hint to readers there is more to come without writing a cliff hanger. That way you can wrap up the main conflict in the last chapter and then use the epilogue to give a little teaser of what's to come.
Book two is often guilty of being the fluff book--the book that is equal amounts of 'info dumps that need to go somewhere' and 'stuff the author really loves but isn't necessary tot he plot'. I've read so many bad second books like this. The problem is they don't do their job in the overall narrative. A trilogy is a unit and must be treated as such. Therefore it has a unique role to play to support the book before and after it.
Book 2 must...
Reflect On Book 1
- refrain from summarizing the events of book 1. That's the luxury of trilogies that series don't have: it's okay to assume your reader read book one. What you will want to do is reintroduce concepts from book one that are going to be important to the plot. If the magic system is again going to be the focus then start with that.
- answer any questions you left unanswered at the end of the first book. Those unanswered questions are essentially the hooks for book two and probably what made a reader pick up the second instalment. Those unanswered questions are what made readers want more, so answer them as soon as you can in the narrative. Unlike book one it is okay to leave things less tidy at the end of book two, but you do want to put a bow on all those questions. Tie them up and get them out fo the way--show your readers you make good on your promises and they will be more likely to see things through to the end.
Foreshadow Book Three
- this is where you have to be careful not to make your last two books into a duology. There is a fine line between having related conflicts and drawing one conflict out for two books. The easiest way to avoid this problem is by stating a very particular problem that will be the conflict for book two. So even if the overall conflict is still overthrowing the evil empire, the problem for book two can be the impossibility of gathering an army fo rebels capable of doing that. The point of amassing the army is obviously overthrowing the empire, but so long as you've made it apparent the problem of the book is the army then readers will still be satisfied when the books end on the army marching to prepare for war. Even though you leave the cliff hanger of 'do they destroy the empire or not' you've made good on the arc you started and heavily foreshadowed what book three will contain, ie. the destruction of the empire.
- book two has to make readers not just want to read more but need to read more. So there's usually no happy ever afters for your characters in book two. We often talk about giving characters something to want even if it's as simple as a glass of water. This is important to do at the beginning of a story because it makes them relatable to the reader (we all desire things, right?) so revisit that concept at the end of book two. What do your characters still want that they don't have? This will foreshadow the events to come in book three when they try to attain those desires.
Pro-Tip: when twists are done poorly it's usually because they are done too early or too late, which makes them feel either unimportant or gimmicky. If you're going to risk a twist, book two is where you want to do it. If you land it then it hooks readers into wanting that last book. And if you do it poorly...well you have a whole other book to make a recovery.
Book three is the book where you really have to focus on delivery. Let's be honest, everyone knows what's going to happen; the bad guys are defeated and the good guys ride off into the sunset. Roughly. Sure not every book has a fairytale ending but more or less whatever the conflict was is now resolved and the characters either go back to their normal lives or settle into a new normal. So how you present the curtain close matters. The idea is to disguise the fact that your book will end just like every other book--with THE END.
Book 3 must...
Perform the Proverbial (or literal) Flashback
- book three has to give the readers the old 'look how far we've come' feeling. This can be done with a literal flashback or by referencing things or events from book one. I recommend doing both and I recommend doing them early in the novel. It's nice to have a little pan over of the Shire as the end credits are rolling, but it's better if you say 'hey, look at what we've given up, what we've lost' before your characters have won the day. It adds more tension and higher stakes and makes readers remember what the characters had to go through to get this far--and they may yet lose even more. That way when they get to the end it feels less like a traditional happily ever after and more bittersweet.
Pro-Tip: Bring back those big-ticket moments, but to it tastefully rather than with a generic flashback. If you killed off a character in books one or two, have a memorial for him in book three before the big battle, name a warship after him, have the protagonist wear his tabard into battle. Pluck those heartstrings until they will sing no more.
- you laugh, but so many trilogies don't end properly. They leave so much open-ended, unanswered questions, or plotlines that just sort of went nowhere or were made redundant by the action being over (The Last Jedi, I'm looking at you). Avoid this by gathering up all those desires your characters had in book 1 and 2 and making sure they have either attained them or, due to character growth, no longer want those things and have found something they do want.
P̶r̶o̶-̶T̶i̶p̶ Actually this is just my personal opinion, but I will die on this hill: do not do an 'X years in the future' chapter. All writing is merely implication. So imply what the future looks like. Writing takes imagination, but so does reading. Don't take that imagination away. As we read we fill in the gaps in our heads, we visualize gestures and emotions that the text doesn't explicitly state, and those white pages at the end of the book are where we get to do the best kind of imagining.