Are you a writer with big ideas? Are you always imagining epics, sweeping stories, great tales of human struggle and sacrifice, interlaced with personal stories of love, sadness and triumph? If so, you ought to consider turning your book or story idea into a trilogy.
Why a trilogy? Believe it or not, there are deep psychological reasons that we do things in threes. The holy trinity is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Triple Goddess is Maiden, Mother, Crone, detailing the feminine journey through life. How many times have you heard the phrase “third time lucky”, or given someone “three guesses” or “three chances”? And of course in baseball it’s “three strikes and you’re out!”
You will have no doubt heard of the traditional “three act play”. Almost all big Hollywood screenplays are based on this structure and it’s certainly a tried and true form of storytelling that captures viewers and keeps them going back to the cinema in droves. And the world of fantasy writing is packed with trilogies: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (that’s two trilogies in fact), and any story by Sara Douglass, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan or pretty much any fantasy writer in the world today is told across at least one, if not more, trilogies.
Add to that the success of such popular movie franchises as Star Wars, Pirates Of The Carribean and the Bourne movies, and you will see that a well planned and executed trilogy is a one way ticket to success.
So how do you do it? Do you just take an idea and spin it out over three stories? Or do you just come up with a great character and three great premises and you’re home and hosed?
The success of the trilogy is based on the traditional three act play, where book or movie one is act one, book or movie two is act two, and book or movie three is act three. The only ingredients you need are one great big story running behind three stories compelling enough to carry a movie or book on their own, and you’ve got the basic ingredients you need to succeed.
So if you are the type of writer who thinks big, if your scope is broad and your plots complex and intertwined, and your characters are people on a life’s journey, then trying to squash that all into one book may be too many chocolate chips in the cookie. Giving yourself the room to think, plan and write a larger journey over three books will make each one a better book in its own right, and if you do get it right, you’ve got a guaranteed audience for books two and three. And publishers love that!
The most important element to grasp as you embark on the trilogy adventure is that you are dealing with a multilayered project. Unlike the acts of a play, the individual stories in a trilogy need to stand up on their own, in addition to playing a part in a larger drama.
So let’s take a look at how you can go about turning your dreams of epic tales into the reality of a trilogy.
How To Build Your Trilogy
1. Decide on your over-arcing or larger story.
This is definitely the most important first step by far. Without it you don’t have any story, let alone a trilogy.
Some examples of great larger stories are:
a) a leper passes out on the floor of his lounge room and wakes to find himself in a strange land. There, instead of being treated as an outcast, he is considered a savior and the question is asked, will Thomas Covenant accept his destiny and save The Land? The larger story: will Lord Foul prevail or will Covenant save The Land?
b) a farm boy dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. He meets a Jedi Knight and trains in the ancient art. The question is asked, will Luke Skywalker become a Jedi, save the Rebels and bring freedom to the Galaxy, or will he turn to the Dark Side like his father? The larger story: who will prevail, light or dark, good or evil, The Rebels or The Empire?
c) a man is found floating off the coast of Marseilles. He has no idea who he is. As he attempts to find out, will he learn his true identity, or will Jason Bourne wish he’d never asked? The larger story: it is one man against the world, as Jason Bourne challenges the might of the CIA, and who will prevail?
These are just a few examples of the initial questions asked, the initial journeys laid out before the heroes and the ultimate possibilities open to the creator of a great trilogy. Nail your larger story, and backdrop it against anything from war to a love story and you’ll have a great basis to work from.
2. Each book in the trilogy is roughly the equivalent to an act in a screenplay.
In the three act play, Act One is “The Set Up” or “Decision To Act”, Act Two is “The Confrontation” or “The Action” and Act Three is “The Resolution” or “The Result Of The Action”.
When you are planning out your larger story (which you will do first) this breakdown will help you form the basis of each of the books in your trilogy. In Book One, you will cover the elements of the larger story that take that story through the set up phase and onto the threshold of another world, or some different action. Book Two will follow with the result of what was decided in Book One, as the story moves forward through the crisis/ordeal/midpoint and traditionally ends on a dark note. This leaves Book Three open to rescue the heroes from the jaws of defeat as the larger story reaches its climax and all the initial questions are answered. Planning this out in the earliest stages will give you very strong guidelines as to where to go with each individual book’s plot, structure and characters.
3. Each book must stand alone as a complete story in itself.
This is where you need to be very aware of the layered aspect of this process. You have a larger story you are telling in the style of the three act play. Now you need to plan, structure and write three stores within that structure that fulfill all the criteria of successful books in their own right. So take “The Set Up” phase and construct a story showing how you would set up your larger story. It’s very common here to have a reluctant hero, who hears the call to adventure and refuses. Thomas Covenant is a good example of this. Thus the entire first book can be the process of the hero trying to escape the call. In a different scenario, you may have a willing hero, like Luke Skywalker or Frodo for instance and the first book may be a complete hero’s journey in itself, showing how the hero is embracing the quest or task, but still leaves the greater part of the task to be completed.
Possibly the most important thing to remember is to hold information or events back as long as you can. It’s tempting when you’re writing a trilogy to put too much in up front, but doing that is a mistake. Give your readers some credit for intelligence and imagination, and don’t tell them everything up front. Trilogies are a great tool for holding back secrets and springing surprises on your readers to keep them guessing. Good examples of this are Darth Vader revealing he is Luke’s father at the end of the second episode in that trilogy, the interesting faux “love story” between Elizabeth and Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Carribean and the scene at the end of the second Bourne film which is repeated right near the climax of the third film. You are in a great position to lead your readers wherever you want them to go so use it!
4. Your characters must have “legs”.
There is nothing worse than flat, lifeless characters and there is definitely nothing worse than trying to hold our attention with these flat and lifeless characters for three whole books. Make sure you do your homework on your characters just as you would with any other book you write. Put their flaws and universal needs right there up front for us to see, you still need to grab your reader’s attention from page 1. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you have three books you have more time and space to develop your story and characters. Wrong! If anything you are under more pressure to hook us straight away, because we’re not going to keep reading if we’re not interested, as we know that the story doesn’t actually finish until the end of the third book.
5. Your “golden thread” must run throughout all the three books.
This is where the intricate weaving of story on story and the skill of balancing the separate elements becomes critical. Your golden thread could be a war, a family saga over generations, a love story or a ring quest, but regardless of what it is, remember that THIS IS THE STORY YOU ARE ULTIMATELY TELLING. Star Wars is ultimately about the battle between the Rebels and the Empire, the Bourne movies are the story of one man against the CIA, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are about a leper who becomes a savior in a different world, and The Lord Of The Rings is the war of Middle-Earth. While there are countless subplots, character journeys, love stories and red herrings in all these tales, they all still have their own individual “golden threads” and ultimately the telling of the story is to serve this golden thread.
If you are prone to larger ideas, give this system a go. It may be just the breakthrough you need to get yourself on the publisher’s lists.