By Dan Koboldt
Writing a trilogy or a multi-book series has numerous advantages, especially for writers of genre fiction. From an efficiency standpoint, it allows authors to tell multiple stories using the same characters and world. It also encourages reader loyalty, providing a built-in audience for each subsequent book. It’s no accident that most of the breakout bestsellers of our time—Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games—come in series form.
In speculative fiction, especially epic fantasy, readers expect books to be part of a series. Many of them won’t even start a book until there’s a sequel or two. Series length varies widely, but there’s no format more popular (or more revered) than the trilogy. It’s certainly my favorite length. I credit that to a couple of seminal works in the genre that came in three parts: The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies.
Of course, declaring that you’re planning on writing a trilogy and crafting a successful one are not quite the same thing. Having just completed my Gateways to Alissia trilogy with Harper Voyager, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned in case it’s helpful to other writers.
The first book in a trilogy is usually the easiest to write, for a couple of reasons. First of all, you usually don’t have a deadline. That’s a wonderful thing, because you have all the time you need to get it right. George R.R. Martin took ten years to write A Game of Thrones, and it shows. The appendix alone would have taken me about five years to put together.
Book one also enjoys the benefit of a complex revision gauntlet before getting published. Given how long it takes most authors to break in, the revision period may last years. Writer’s groups, critique partners, literary agents and editors all get a crack at the manuscript. Hopefully, it improves at every turn.
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If your goal is to pursue traditional publishing, then your first book needs to stand on its own as a complete story. You also have to write the whole thing before trying to get it published. Most agents won’t even look at a project from a new author unless it’s complete. These practicalities help simplify things when it comes to book one: You have as much time as you need to write it, and you can’t do anything with it until it’s done.
My Experience with Book One:
During NaNoWriMo 2012, I began writing a new project about a Las Vegas magician who gets hired by a large corporation to infiltrate a secret medieval world. It was my fourth NaNoWriMo project. After finishing the first half, I didn’t revisit it until the next NaNoWriMo a year later. As I neared the end, I began to fancy the idea that I might try to get it published. I knew very little about the industry then, so I dove into research. In 2014, I found an agent, and in 2015, we sold the book to HarperCollins. In between were many bouts of angst, interminable periods of waiting, and even the occasional flash of self-doubt. But I was lucky, and learned that The Rogue Retrieval would be published in early 2016. Then it was time to write book two.
The second book in a trilogy, by most accounts, is the most difficult. Writing book two means that you’ve sold the first novel, so now there’s a schedule to consider. Even if you don’t have a multi-book deal, most readers anticipate a sequel about a year after a book is published. In other words, you’re on the clock. And you have even less time to write, because you likely must devote some of your energies into promoting and marketing book one.
It does help that the characters and their relationships are already somewhat established. Yet many writers find themselves in a “sophomore slump” after the first book, and struggle to replicate the same magic in a second volume. When writing a trilogy, you need to continue the story from book one while escalating everything—conflict, tension and stakes—to pull readers along to the finale. Yet book two also needs to provide some satisfaction to readers. It requires a delicate balancing act, because you can’t get to the big ending until book three.
Since part one of a trilogy usually ends in a triumph, part two often features the antagonist’s devastating counterstroke. Look at The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie in the original Star Wars trilogy. The plucky rebels have won a major victory, but they still face a powerful enemy. This becomes apparent almost right away with the Empire’s destruction of the rebel base. We love the heroes, but they’re facing setback after setback. The wonderful dramatic tension that results from this is something to emulate when you’re writing a second installment.
My Experience with Book Two
I had a reasonable idea for my sequel’s plot direction. The Rogue Retrieval is about the magician’s first mission into the secret medieval world, and ends with his corporate employers planning a second one. Second book, second mission. Piece of cake. I started on October 1st, and had more than half of it written by the end of November (thanks to NaNoWriMo). That gave me December and January to write the rest. The Rogue Retrieval was published on January 19th, which kept me incredibly busy. Still, I managed to get the manuscript out to my critique partners by the end of January. They worked quickly, so I had it in my editor’s hands by early March.
Everything had gone reasonably well. I thought I’d dodged the second-book blues. And then I got my edit letter. My editor said that he enjoyed the manuscript, and with a bit of polishing it could be a good book. But he also thought it could be a great book, if I was willing to tackle some major revisions. I was willing, of course. I want every book to be great. That edit took almost three weeks and nearly killed me, but when I started getting reviews for The Island Deception, I knew I’d done the right thing.
Now we come to the third volume, the return of the king. Or the Jedi. In a trilogy, book three is the end. And in all of fiction, endings are everything. That may be why writing it can be so taxing. You face the same time crunch as before—now exacerbated by your promotional efforts for book two—and there’s all this pressure to get everything just right. You not only have to bring the story to its conclusion, but also deliver on the promises you’ve made to your readers. Some of which you may not have realized you made.
By the time you’re writing book three, people have read book one. Maybe even book two. Your series belongs to them, too. They’ll be leaving reviews, commenting on social media, and sending you e-mails (whether you like it or not). Maybe their favorite character is one who’s going to die in book three. Or they ship two characters who don’t end up together.
There is no way to satisfy everyone. Just look at how fans of the show LOST reacted to the series finale. Some of them loved it, and others hated it. There is no magic formula for writing book three of three. You simply write the best book you possibly can, and deliver an ending that satisfies the questions raised in books one and two. If you manage to do that, you’ve done your job as an author.
My Experience with Book Three
For me, the third book was the hardest to draft. Part of that was due to the timing: I didn’t have a NaNoWriMo to help me get down those first 50,000 words. I knew the broad plot direction—the battle for the pristine medieval world has begun, and everyone must choose a side—but the execution was challenging.
Even when I thought I was done, I wasn’t. My editor pointed out that I raised a question at the very end. I saw it as leaving things open for future stories. He saw it as diminishing the reader’s sense of satisfaction. He was right, of course. I tied up that dangling thread and ended the series in a way that felt just right. The World Awakening was recently published in February 2018, and I think my readers will be happy with how the story ends.
If you’re writing a series—especially a sci-fi or fantasy series—the trilogy is a wonderful format. It provides a natural story structure to which genre fans are already accustomed. If you give each book a satisfactory ending, maintain the tension, and deliver on the story promises, you’ll have done your part to entertain your readers.
Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager) and the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (upcoming from Writers Digest Books, 2018). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Every fall, he disappears into the woods to pursue whitetail deer with bow and arrow. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard. Find his fiction works at HarperCollins, Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play.