Guest Post: Hard Work Comes In Threes

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. 

About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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19 Responses to Guest Post: Hard Work Comes In Threes

  1. Pete Denton says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Thank you for guest posting. 🙂

    Fascinating insight into writing a trilogy. With my crime novel it is the first in what I hope will be a series. I like your deliberate thinking of sowing the seeds that will eventually all click into place during the later books in the series.

    Careful planning will certainly help you achieve results with the little details that hopefully make the trilogy a great read. It is all in the detail, as they say.

    Hard work indeed but worth all the effort.

    • Julie says:

      Thank you very much for having me.

      The post, of course, deals with what I might call closed series, one that have a specific arc, a set story to tell across multiple books. Doing open-ended ones would be different, something I haven’t tried. It just doesn’t seem to be the way I think.

  2. Very nice guest blog. Thank you.

  3. Subtlekate says:

    I’m a pantser who diligently notes what I have done so I can look back and then pants some more.

    • Julie says:

      Yeah, I tried that before. I killed four or five novels before I gave in and admitted that I wasn’t the romantic ideal, the pantser. Oh well. I’m glad that works for you though. 🙂

      • Subtlekate says:

        lol I don’t know that’s it working, but every time I do a plan I move so far away from it I get frustrated.

        • Julie says:

          Outlines should be organic, but you also have to give them enough time to mature before you start writing. My current work was outlined 3 weeks before I started writing, except for minor tweaks over the weekend right before. And by working, I mean finishing books. If you can’t ever get to write those awesome two words, “The End”, I do tend to suggest examining what isn’t working.

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  5. Thanks for tackling this topic. I didn’t mean to write anything other than a one-off fun fantasy piece, but it keeps growing and it’s nice to hear how other people deal with such problems and structure them. I’ve been letting my WIP ferment (i.e. I’ve been procrastinating) for awhile and think that I’m going to do a major push this fall. I think some of this post will be quite helpful.


    • Julie says:

      Excellent. While I always do things like this with a giant asterisk of Your Mileage May Vary, it’s nice to help people out, to know that my experience is useful to others. I feel like my lessons learned have extra value then. 🙂

  6. 4amWriter says:

    I am trying to move away from being a pantser to being an outliner, because I have heard that it is a better system.

    My biggest fear is that I won’t be exploring enough of the story possibilities if I know ahead of time how things are “supposed to happen.” That if an idea pops up that is out of synch with my outline, then I will stifle it because “that’s not how it happens in my outline” lol.

    You make a wonderful guest blogger, Julie 🙂

    • Julie says:

      I think the problem is that some people think of outlines as being prescriptive (Thou shalt do this and nothing else), rather than the guide that it should be. I’ve had whole scenes appear that weren’t in the outline. I once rewrote half of one. I have other times where I only use half of what was supposed to be in the scene because something better comes to mind. My rule for myself is to use the tool, not to let it rule me.

      As for it being a better system, I’m hesitant to use absolute terms. It’s a system that works better for me, but I know it wouldn’t work for everyone. Give it a try, see if it yields better results for you. If it does, keep at it. If not, don’t bang your head into the wall over it. Every person’s process will be different.

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    Just a word of reassurance to pantsers (I’m one) — some of the most successful writers belong to that club. Stephen King, for example, believes that outlining stifles true creativity. 😉

    That aside, I think pantsers can do series/sequels type books, but it requires a good note-taking system at the very least. A spreadsheet to keep track of characters and important details about them certainly helps. And we do have to be careful about avoiding plot holes or inconsistencies between the books. A loose outline wouldn’t hurt. 😉

    Great points to discuss, Julie, and an interesting and informative post as always. 🙂

    • Julie says:

      Absolutely, pantsing can work for many people. I’m just not one of them, and we don’t need to discuss the pain I went through trying very unsuccessfully to jam myself into that mould. I think everyone has to find what works for them, and by works, I mean finishing what they start. Shocking concept, I know 😉

  8. Wow, as a panster, I can totally see how that wouldn’t work with a trilogy. I’ve always thought it’s a very impressive skill to do something like that, where each book has to have enough detail to stand on its own so that people could just read one without feeling they’ve missed out, but not so much detail that people reading all three feel like there is too much repetitiveness on the background. Not sure I could tackle writing a trilogy.

    • Julie says:

      I don’t really write each book in the trilogy to totally stand alone though. Each one does have some of the previous story sprinkled in, but only so much and only where it becomes pertinent. I’m going to make it loud and clear that this is a trilogy, but I think it’s fair to assume if you see it’s book 2 of 3, you might go find book 1. That’s my hope anyway.

      I honestly never set out to write, trilogies. They just keep happening. I keep finding that bigger arc when I have ideas. I think my brain’s stuck in that mode. 🙂

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