Pete was kind enough to invite me to be a guest here on his blog. I’m thrilled to be here to talk to you about something that I find both fun and occasionally daunting. I’m talking about writing trilogies.
Most of my ideas seem to grow into those, which I suspect is a result of reading a lot of them over my life. I wouldn’t say every idea I have for a story becomes a trilogy (or more), but only because I can’t be sure. I have more ideas than I’ve had time to explore. It’s an interesting, somewhat intricate process, planning, writing and editing a trilogy. It isn’t just writing three books. There’s much more involved than just that, as the stories have to come together to tell a complete story that spans the three books.
I’ll start out by mentioning that I am not a pantser. I am a hardcore planner and outliner. I’m not sure how pantsers get through trilogies, as I’m sure I couldn’t if I tried it that way.
For me, it’s in the early planning out of an idea, where I’m making heavy notes, that I start to sense I’m working on something bigger than a single book. For me, there’s a sense of story arc, a general path for the story. In the case of a book that’s the beginning of a trilogy (or more), I get the sense of more than one arc, almost like a double-lift-off. The first is, of course, for the book, but the other, the one that’s a slower rise, is for the trilogy/series. I need to know both as I make my notes, though, to be aware of them and how the affect each other. I need to figure out where the story of the book fits in the overall story of the trilogy. So I explore and ask myself a lot of questions, until I’m ready to go further.
I outline every book I write these days, and I find that it’s even more necessary for me to do so in multi-book projects. I can’t remember everything that’s going on. I don’t have that kind of memory, and I have a day-job that eats up valuable brain power. So the notes, and later the outline, save me from forgetting important things. In the outline, I feel out the story for the book, from beginning to end. I spend at least some of that time thinking about how things fit together in the larger context of the series and what I know I need to set up for the later books. When you know you’re writing a trilogy, you can’t ever forget that there’s more to come (except when you write the final book, that is) and so that has to be part of the process of preparing even a single book in the trilogy. While I don’t presently outline the whole trilogy in similar fashion, I may start doing so as my projects and ideas become more complex. We’ll have to see what happens there.
This is where things can get intricate. When you’re writing either the first or the second books, there are some threads you have weave in subtly, so that they’re there to pick up when it’s time to close the trilogy. That said, you can’t make those threads too obviously important or the book itself will not have the necessary feeling of closure at the end. Even the first book needs this, something being solved by the end of the book, even if there are still things left open for the next book. I’ve read some books where they just kind of drop you at the end of the book, then the next book picks up as if they’re really just the same book, split in two parts. As a reader, I dislike when they do that, so I refuse to do it as a writer. Maybe some people like that, but I’m not one of them, and neither are any of the other readers I know well. This is why I talked about that double-arc. I follow the book’s arc as I’m writing, adding in the things from the larger story that I put into my outline. I write the way I outline, by the way, from beginning to end. It’s just the way I do it, as I like to feel the story build, since that build is part of the reading experience.
Part of the intricacy I was talking about is the ending. Yes, I know, I just said that you want a sense of closure at the end of the book, but there’s another aspect to the ending of a single volume of the trilogy that isn’t the final book. The ending should also push the overall story forward, and lead into the next book. As if endings weren’t hard enough, I know.
And if that weren’t enough pressure, I tend to be of the opinion that, at least in a trilogy, you should be pushing the tension and the risk up another notch with each book. I mean, you’re building up to that glorious end in the third book, the close of the trilogy, the thing that everyone will remember you for forever. Hmm, yeah, no pressure. But seriously, as a story builds in tension through its length, so should the trilogy. And I do mean the part about the ending of the final book. That’s the time when you have to wrap all the threads up, pay off any promises you’ve made through the trilogy, where the near-misses you’ve been playing around with have to become something. And it should be something that rewards the readers for reading not just one book, but all three.
Where I find the planning part fun, and the writing part sometimes breath-taking in the sense of seeing things start to take shape, I have to tell you, editing a trilogy is a bit of a marathon. At least, it is the way I write. For one thing, I don’t write the first book, edit and finish before I start the second one. No, I write the first, start editing it, then write the second while I’m still editing the first. I suppose it might be best to say that I write a trilogy a bit like singing a round of music. But I find this helps keep the bigger picture in my mind as I’m editing and ensuring continuity across the trilogy. In a way, it allows the books to cross-pollenate. I would not, however, recommend this for everyone. It’s just what works for me.
What I would like to point out is that, like the planning and the writing, you can’t forget that there’s more than the one book going on when you’re editing. This is the time to make sure that the book fits into the whole trilogy, that the rising tension of the book fits into the larger work. One of the things I like to do is make sure there are some subtle things built into the books that, after reading the whole trilogy, or on rereading it, will have another layer of meaning that was not entirely accessible that first time. Those things should still have meaning on first reading. They shouldn’t be confusing, but I’m sure everyone has read books like that, where the second reading has another level to it. It isn’t easy, but I think your readers will reward you by coming back for more if you can accomplish it. Editing is also the time to ensure you have maintained consistency across the books. You can’t suddenly change the rules on your reader in Book 3, or they’ll get very angry with you. I would also suggest that, however you choose to end the trilogy, it should never be in a way that was accessible to the main characters in the first or second books. That would make the rest of the story look like filler, and no one wants all that work we put in to be thought of that way.
As you can see, multi-book projects can be tremendous amounts of work. They aren’t easy and I tend to believe that the more books you have, depending on how you handle them, the more complex it becomes. But, for all of that, I find trilogies very rewarding. I get to spend more time with my characters. They grow more than a single book usually allows for. I also get more time and latitude to explore the world they live in. I think that, for readers, it’s nice to come back to the familiar people and places the way a series offers. I know that I’m almost always happier as a reader with series than with one-offs. For me, in the end, writing them is worth it, so I’ll keep doing so, especially when the story demands it, and the characters insist that they need more than a single book to show me everything.
My thanks again to Julie for agreeing to guest post. You probably already follow her blog Word Flows. If not, WHY NOT? Get yourself over there and follow her inspirational writing journey.