Writing a Trilogy: Good Things Come in Threes
Learn what you need to know to plan out and write a memorable trilogy.
If you’re an avid reader, it’s likely you have a trilogy or three sitting on your bookshelf. There is something gratifying about the number three. In the literary world, a trilogy is a powerful writing structure offering authors opportunities a standalone novel can’t. For readers, the format provides the time and space to enjoy a rich story, and deeply immerse themself in a world while getting to its principle characters. For authors, trilogies provide the chance to grow a stronger connection with your audience across multiple books, and the possibility of increased sales, as fans of the first novel will likely move on to purchase the next two. In addition, fans love buying box sets. By bundling your stories into a three-book package, you have another revenue stream.
While a trilogy might take a little extra planning, the rewards can have a far-reaching impact. Check out the tips below on writing a three-part story.
Warning: This article contains spoilers as it includes examples of trilogies, and discussions of how certain plot beats fit into a trilogy structure.
What is a Trilogy?
A trilogy is three books, best done as distinct stories on their own, with character arcs, events and resolutions, which work together to create a larger saga with its own character arcs, events and resolutions that is complete and satisfying by the end of the third book.
The “satisfying conclusion at the end of the third book” is critical. A trilogy is more than a universe of interconnected books with similar characters or locations. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams and The Saga of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr are all examples of long running book series that feature characters in a universe. Writing a series is a different challenge than completing a trilogy, so check out our article on that subject if you expect your project to run beyond three books. It is possible to write a trilogy and then turn it into a series later, perhaps with a sequel trilogy, a duology (two related books), or carry on with a more episodic structure.
As a self-publishing author, there is no set story structure in a trilogy, but the most popular and successful trilogies follow a three act set up. Each book in a trilogy follows its own beat structure, while the trilogy itself contains three acts. Let’s use J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example.
Book One—Act One: The Set up
Starts with the hook, ends with the first key plot point.
In The Fellowship of The Rings, readers are introduced to hobbits and other creatures, and the journey begins. At the end of the book, the Fellowship is formed, and Frodo sets out on a trek to destroy the ring.
Book Two—Act Two: Confrontation
Contains the crucial midpoint, ends with the third plot point.
In The Two Towers, our two hobbits take an arduous journey, meet new character Gollum, and end up being tricked by him. At the end, Frodo is paralyzed, and all seems lost.
Book Three—Act Three: Resolution
The big finale with the climax and resolution.
In The Return of the King, Sam saves Frodo and ultimately helps him fulfill his destiny of destroying the ring
Tips for Writing a Trilogy
Do the research
Finding the balance between individual book plots and the overarching plot is a tricky task. Before starting your own trilogy, read other books or watch movies in your genre that are trilogies and study the storyline of each. These can be extremely helpful in identifying the themes and tropes you can use in your trilogy to create a cohesive tale.
A reasonable place to start with this research would be to stop by Goodreads and check out user-generated lists of trilogies. Whether you’re looking for sci-fi, historical fiction, or epic fantasy books, readers have their lists of best trilogies and other book recommendations ready for you. Create your own reading list, build up that TBR (to-be-read) pile, and have fun!
Pick a scenario
A trilogy that lacks a driving force won’t hold together, leaving readers bored, or upset at the lack of a satisfying ending. If you want your trilogy to captivate your readers and become the “must-read” experience they tell their best friends about, it’s necessary to decide what propels the story forward. Will it be the characters themselves, or the plot they’re entangled in?
These trilogies focus on character development and follow the growth or resistance to growth of a character or group of characters.
Where character growth is the central theme, the protagonist becomes a radically different person by the end of book three. A character shift has happened, usually due to the events they’ve been forced to deal with, and these experiences impact the character, changing them into something new.
In the fantasy trilogy Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the protagonist Alina is an average teenager who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. In an attempt to cross the Shadow Fold, she discovers she is a powerful Sun Summoner, and her world changes. Alina’s character shifts across the books, and by the final book her character development is complete as she understands her powers, her capabilities, and her purpose.
Where there is resistance to character growth, the lead stays static throughout the three books. They stay true to who they are and don’t change, despite the events and experiences in the books.
In The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander stays her same determined, anti-social, somewhat prickly but brilliant self across the journey she goes through in three books as she discovers who she is and the corrupt institutions that have tried to destroy her.
Here the trilogy follows the action, focusing on the unfolding of a quest or mission. These types of trilogies don’t ignore character growth, but that arc sits in a secondary position to the “defeat evil and save the world” theme.
Deborah Harkness trilogy All Souls is high on plot, opening the book with a tale of witches, as one junior witch discovers a book the magical world has been searching across time and the universe to get their hands on. Ironically, in this trilogy, there is a council of (you guessed it) three that rules the magical world, and they determine how to use the book.
One thing you don’t want to do in a trilogy is tell the same story twice. Characters require arcs where they change and grow. For example, in Jenny Han’s popular romance book and movie trilogy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, the main character, Lara Jean, starts out as a single, young adult with a crush in book one. In book two, she has to make a choice between the crush she thought she wanted and the new opportunity presented to her. Finally, in the third book, Lara Jean moves toward adulthood and has to make a decision about what she wants for herself in life, not just in love.
Plot-based trilogies also need to mix up the goals to keep the story from feeling one-note and repetitive. If your fantasy series has an evil uncle trying to steal the throne from the main character in book one, it may not be wise to have him still acting as the central antagonist, trying to steal the throne again in book two, and yet again in book three. Perhaps the uncle is killed in book one, but his death makes him a martyr to people who share his political ideology, and now the main character has a whole bunch more angry people trying to undermine him. This setup allows for new antagonists to take center stage, and the lore to expand. In book two, those new factions succeed in usurping the throne, leaving our hero dishonored and in a dark place. In book three, he puts the villains to justice and restores balance to the kingdom.
Plant a thread
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing a trilogy is finding the essential series-spanning continuum upon which all three books will pull from. This thread is the core element that holds the series together rather than just having a string of inter-connected books.
In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the class structure that separates the Districts is the thread that runs through the book. Breaking down the barriers between Districts and, most importantly, relieving District One of its chokehold on the others is the theme that unites the world, the characters, and the readers. In The Hunger Games, the main character Katniss defies President Snow’s rules with her willingness to die rather than win the games. In Catching Fire, Katniss defies him again by banding together players to break the games. In Mocking Jay, Katniss goes on the offensive and takes on President Snow.
Even more so than in a single book, a trilogy requires plotting. This is because you are not plotting one but four books; the three individual books and the overall story arc. Each book requires its own beats, themes and tropes.
While it’s completely possible to pants a trilogy, the best ones, the famous ones, the most fulfilling ones, hit home with readers because authors have taken the time to plan, research, and develop each book within the trilogy, the individual book arcs vs the trilogy arcs and the trilogy itself.
Pacing is of utmost importance to ensure all three books keep up the tempo. Avoid the mistake of putting too much action into book one as you set up the longer arc. This can leave readers confused and wondering what all the information was about. If you have an event-packed first book, readers’ expectations are now set, and book two and three will have to go above and beyond the first book. Instead control the pace, giving each major plot point to unwind while building intrigue for the next one.
It may be tempting, but try to resist ending your first or second book on a cliffhanger. Absolutely, you can tease the events of the next book, but it’s important to fully resolve the conflict in each individual book. This way, readers experience the full range of emotions and get a complete journey, not just a segment of a larger tale.
Don’t forget about the middle
Since writing a trilogy is like a large three act story structure, many authors get flustered with the muddy middle, the second book, which acts as a bridge between the first and third books. This can be the hardest of the three books to write.
The characters aren’t new. The world isn’t new. The problems aren’t new. The issue authors find themselves grappling with is how to keep the tension and momentum in the second book that was introduced in the first and the fans adored. Surprise your fans. Instead of rehashing what happened in book one, push the story toward the endgame of book three by:
- Moving characters to new locations
- Adding new characters or
- Shifting a paradigm by turning something into the reverse. Write the situation from a new perspective or location, have a good character turn evil, or, a fan favourite, bring a dead character back to life.
In the Red Queen trilogy, Victoria Aveyard amps up the tension and twists the story for book two, Glass Sword, by bringing back Shade, the main character, Mare Barrow’s supposedly dead brother, who is now leader of the resistance. The introduction of this new character, previously mentioned but never seen on the page, shifts the story line from one of survival to one of resistance.
Create a satisfying ending
Don’t leave the ending in book three to chance. If the ending doesn’t hit the mark, release the tension of the three novels, and justify the suspense built up over the journey, readers will be upset. This is a fine line to walk, between surprising your readers enough that their jaw drops in a “that didn’t just happen” way that leaves them scratching their heads and the “oh, I saw that coming a mile away” that has them reviewing the book as predictable. You want that sweet spot where all the pieces come together.
One way to do this is to echo the beginning of the book. Marie Lu’s Legend Trilogy starts with Day breaking into a hospital to save his younger brother’s life. In Champion, the author returns us to a hospital scene where Day is in a coma because of his heroic actions. Marie Lu provides a heartfelt ending worthy of a dystopian novel when the lead character, June, lets Day go after he wakes up with no memory of the last year, believing without her and all the grief she caused Day, he will have a better life. The author compounds this satisfying ending in an epilogue where Day bumps into June at a later date and he thinks he knows her, a scene foreshadowed in the second book, Prodigy.
Set the mood
While you want to keep a certain amount of consistency within the trilogy, each book can have a different mood. For example, in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Trilogy, the first book, The Bourne Identity is an action paced spy thriller with a mystery at the center, and offers a light-hearted ending. The Bourne Supremacy keeps up the action going, but the mood darkens as the story delves into Jason’s murky past. Finally, in The Bourne Ultimatum, the darkest of the books, revenge is the name of the game and the mood is bitter and sharp.
Sometimes it is about the name
Shakespeare famously wrote that a rose without a name is still a rose. But in the case of a trilogy, the naming convention you determine for your book should be purposeful and connected to the theme. However, it’s critical to not give away too much in the name of the books, so as to spoil the plot for binge readers who discover your book and buy all three.
There are two names most books are known for:
- The individual book names
- The trilogy book name
Publish Book One
You’ve planned out the series, created layered characters, and found a great name. Some authors might be tempted to write the full trilogy before publishing. While it’s always a good idea to not leave readers waiting too long between books, don’t be afraid to publish the first book before you’ve written the end of the third.
Use the first book as an opportunity to gather feedback from readers. Read reviews and talk with those that read the book to determine what works and doesn’t work for the storyline. Ask them what their predictions are for the rest of the series. Take that feedback and replay it against your act structure. This gives you the chance to tweak weaker characters, fix potential plot holes and generally amp up the story.
Note: You shouldn’t change something because a few readers have a negative reaction to a portion of your story. A strong response is a good response. Perhaps the character readers dislike is the surprise character in book two that will drive the action forward. Readers won’t see that coming and that’s good.
Trilogies are not limiting
Just because it’s a trilogy, doesn’t mean it can’t continue. If George Luscas’s Star Wars can go beyond the original three movies, so can you. Both Tahereh Mafi and Pierce Brown started with trilogies in mind. Tahereh Mafi’s romance Shatter Me series told the story beyond Juliette’s win over Sector 45, but didn’t stop there. She’s expanded into a six-book series (so far), and Pierce Brown’s science fiction saga Red Rising continues the world of Darrow with another trilogy past the epic Morning Star. Will there be three trilogies of trilogies? Time will tell.
The power of three
It’s hard to say why trilogies are so popular. Some attribute it to the enduring popularity of sagas like Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, whereas others look to the power of three as a natural fit for storytelling. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, creating natural breaks. The number three sometimes just feels right as an author, giving us the time and word count to tell the story our way. No matter the reason, writing a trilogy gives you the option to tell a richer, deeper story for fans to read and enjoy.