Lessons Learned While Writing a Trilogy
My work on the Taken trilogy is pretty much complete. Sure, Forged doesn't come out until April, but as far as writing and revision is concerned, I'm off the hook. All that remains is printing and production of the book. And then of course, promotion.
As I move on to new projects, I've been thinking a lot about the process of writing a trilogy. I've learned a lot since I began working on Gray's story in 2010, and I want to share some of those lessons now. Naturally, no writing experience is universal, but to anyone sitting down to draft a trilogy for the first time... Well, maybe this will be helpful...
1. Know your ending
It might change, but you should have an end goal in mind from the very beginning. Who is the person your main character needs to become? What massive battle (figuratively or literally) needs to be fought to get him/her there? If these questions are answered by the end of book one, you might be better off sticking to just that: one book, a stand-alone. No one likes a series where subsequent books feel like repeats of book one. Or worse, like nothing happens.
2. Similarly, know your secrets
Is the main character hiding something? Is the villain? If there is going to be any type of game-changing twist in your series, you want to prepare for it upfront. Sometimes a twist reveals itself in the act of drafting, and this is great if you can introduce and resolve the twist all in that book, but the long-term surprises are most effective if you can weave them in throughout the series. Foreshadowing, people! Think of Harry Potter. We don't learn what a Horcrux is until book six, but once we realize that Harry's been interacting with them as early as book two, they're importance in the series is that much more powerful.
3. Start your series bible early
It can be a physical notebook or a document on your computer, but start keeping track of your characters. Their ages, birthdays, appearances, wants and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. I went as detailed as recording injuries that occurred throughout my series, especially anything that would scar (if you've read my books, you know why). Basically, anything that will affect how your characters react moving forward is worth noting. Also be sure to include maps, world-building details/rules, tech and terminology, etc, etc. The sooner you begin gathering this information in one place, the better. Trust me. It's way easier to fact-check against your series bible while doing copy-edits than flip aimlessly through book one, trying to find that one place where you mention Secondary Character's birth month.
4. Book 1 is just the tip of the iceberg
It has it's own beginning, middle, and end, but that end—whatever conflict the hero overcomes—is merely the start of a much bigger battle. In a trilogy, you need the stakes to rise with each book, until the true enemy is beaten. Think of The Hunger Games. Katniss is just trying to survive the Games, and she does. Conflict of book one resolved. However, her trick with the berries creates a new series of conflicts, and the true enemy begins to reveal itself. It's not just the Games Katniss is fighting against, but the Capitol.
5. Book 2 is your bridge to the final conflict
Or perhaps more importantly, Book 2 is the point of no return. There's a lot of setup that happens in book twos—tensions rising, getting the characters in place for the final showdown, etc, etc—but if this is all that happens, you're left with a book of preparing. You have the bridge, but no oomph. Just as every book has a point of no return, so should your series. Again using Harry Potter as an example, book four is when everything changes. Elana Johnson points out in her "writing a trilogy" posts that this is when "we realize how far Voldemort will go to achieve his desires. He will kill and kidnap. He will send in spies. He will do whatever it takes." Realizations like this often leads to a dark moment for the hero, a feeling that all hope is lost. For Harry, it's the fact that Voldemort can now touch him, that his last defense is gone. For Katniss, she's lost Peeta despite surviving the Games yet again. Work these emotional stakes into your middle book.
6. Don't lose sight of the end game
If you're writing the trilogy under contract, there will come a time when part of the story is in the world and the rest is still on your computer, a work in progress. I've found it useful to not read reviews in general, but one way or another, reader reactions will reach you. Don't kill the sidekick! I ship so-and-so! If such-and-such happens I will be so freaking mad! People are passionate about your story. This is great. But don't let these voices get in your head. Block them out, carve out a safe place to work, and write your story exactly as you see fit!
7. There will be loose ends
No matter how much you try, there will be a few plot threads left dangling by the end of your trilogy. The goal is to make sure they're not the main ones. Because...
8. The entire point of Book 3 is conclusion
Remember what I said back in point #1? Who is the person your main character needs to become? What massive battle needs to be fought to get him/her there? This is the soul of your final book. There shouldn't be an onslaught of new characters introduced. There's no need for new sub-plots. You're wrapping things up, not making it more complicated. If you did your job right in books one and two, you should already have all the threads in place for a strong conclusion. Grab hold and wrangle them into the best looking bow you can manage.
(And then have a good cry. Because no matter how many headaches writing a trilogy may cause you, it's bittersweet to say goodbye to a world you've spent so much time in. There's a good chance it will hit you harder than you expect.)