Should You Write a Fantasy Trilogy?

trilogyI recently came to a part in my Work in Progress (WIP) when I said, “Huh, this doesn’t look like it’s going to be a standalone after all.”

While I believe there are a lot of important decisions to make about your book (awesome characters, coherent plot, enough giant roach mutants, traditional vs. self-publishing), one may be the decision to write every fantasy writer’s dream: the Great (Insert Nationality Here) Fantasy Trilogy.

Many of my favorite books of all time were part of trilogies, but the thought of beginning one myself brings thoughts of both excitement and apprehension. Is it the best choice for the story I want to tell? If I don’t write a series, am I cramming too much into one book? After some writers squeak out, “I’m writing a book,” the next question from curious minds may be “Will it be a trilogy?”

Well, will it?

Before, After, or Somewhere in the Middle: When to Decide

When I was younger, I’d sit down at my desk and one of the first things I’d write on a new manuscript would be something like Drunk Dragon Mothers: Book 1 of the Blow It All to Hell Trilogy. I’m not sure why I had the propensity to do that, but I’d already made the decision to write a trilogy before I even came up with the first smidgen of actual writing. However, while barreling toward finishing the first draft of my WIP recently, I had a moment of, “Well, I guess this being a standalone just flew out the window.”

For me, there are pros and cons of deciding when and if you are going to write a trilogy:

1. Before (or the Hopeful Trilogist Method)

Pro: Allows you to anticipate a much longer overall story arc

Con: Can overwhelm you or overshoot your goals, when the main priority should be finishing the first book

2. In the Middle (or the Fence-Rider Method)

Pro: Allows you to weigh your options once you’ve actually started getting into your story and put off your decision

Con: May confuse or disrupt an otherwise complete standalone by falling into “Unnecessary Trilogy Syndrome”

3. At the End (or the Oh Crap, This Just Became a Series Method aka Hell Yeah, This Just Became a Series Method)

Pro: Enables you to go with a less final ending and therefore expand on your story and characters that you love so much

Con: Could cause your head to explode Scanners style when you realize your standalone novel can’t be completed in under 200,000 words

I’m at the point now where I have to come to this decision. I think I’ve become the “Hell Yeah, but Oh Crap This Just Became a Series” writer. My WIP has gotten bigger and bigger. Some people have suggested that means it’s sequel time, but does it have to be? Couldn’t I just cut some of the bulge and see where that leads me? Questions, questions.

Is Three the Magic Number?

But is writing a trilogy the only way? Sure, there are lots of successful fantasy trilogies out there, but why a trilogy? Is it because three is the loveliest number that you’ve ever known? What makes three books so appealing for fantasy authors specifically? Is it because Tolkien set the standard for modern fantasy with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? (Everyone knows The Hobbit is a trilogy, that’s why they made three movies. Duh.)

…OK, that was a joke. Don’t kill me. And as an aside, I love The Hobbit movies so far. I’m glad there are more than one because movies based on Tolkien’s books are like potato chips: I can’t eat just one. Wait…what?

I do think a trilogy can be a great choice for authors. There’s a reason so many writers choose to tell their stories this way. Is it just a marketing technique or is it a way to tell a complete story? If you look at it as a marketing technique, that can very well be successful. As a reader, I have “must buys” from certain authors. If they write a series, I’m most likely going to buy the whole series. As a story-telling technique, it also serves you well because you can keep expanding your world and your characters. Especially if you love them and you don’t want to let them go. The hope is that readers feel the same way.

Let’s look at a sample trilogy, something I call The Stampede of Undead Unicorns Trilogy. Catchy, right?

Book 1: The Dread Unicorn Rears Its Shaggy Mane: The first book usually introduces some kind of major conflict brewing. Undead unicorns riding down from the frozen wastes, for example. Our hero (reluctant or no) must rally forth the courage to face this onslaught of horseflesh head-on. Perhaps he faces off with several smaller villains (hyena-people, a maniacal druid, and a demon possessed chicken) and attains his goal of becoming an 18th level ninja warlock.

Book 2: The Plight of the Minotaur Princess: The second book may have the hero wading into the fray and making significant discoveries about himself, his friends, and his enemies. Maybe he makes a love connection with a minotaur princess and gets his butt whooped by a giant wolf made up of many significantly smaller wolves. This book may end with the hero looking to give up on his quest after significant set backs. Despite this, he rallies his allies and defeats Wolf-Made-of-Wolves. He is now ever closer to stopping the horde of undead unicorns from trampling his homeland, but maybe the minotaur princess is kidnapped before he can do so.

Book 3: A Storm of Hooves: The third book brings the story to a thrilling conclusion with our hero saving and marrying the minotaur princess, smiting the undead unicorns, and uniting the kingdom of Trilogosis together. Hooray. “Trilogy Complete” achievement unlocked.

However, could you still tell the stories you want to tell in different ways? I think so. Let’s look at some healthy alternatives to the sometimes blessing, sometimes curse of trilogies.

Standalone

Wait a minute, buckoo. I don’t want to do a standalone! Well, OK, but maybe it’s something to consider for your particular story. If it feels like you’re stretching and stretching to get enough material to necessitate a trilogy, maybe it’s best to focus on the key aspects of your book. Cut extra characters, trim sub-plots (damn, no more hyena-people…), and boil it down to what’s needed to tell your specific story.

So maybe get rid of the sub-plot to impress the minotaur princess’s family by hunting down the assassin that killed her uncle’s friend’s sister’s brother. There are loads of standalones that are doing well in the fantasy genre at the moment, so it’s worth considering cutting, editing, killing some darlings, and seeing what bubbles forth from the depths of your mind.

I personally have to decide if I’m stretching just to stretch or does my WIP need sequels to tell the story I truly want to tell.

Shared World

Many authors have decided to write standalone books that all take place in the same world, but with a different focus on characters, setting, etc. I like this approach a lot, because it allows you to keep the world you’ve spent a load of time developing, but has the added bonus of letting you see your world through the eyes of new characters or characters who were previously minor ones.

Using this approach, you can write multiple books in the same world, but still keep it fresh by honing in one new conflicts and new developments. So you can have one book all about your hero slaying an amorphous psychic blob made of strawberry jam and then another book about the hero’s cousin fishing for leviathans in pirate infested waters only two hundred miles away.

Same world, new stories. Limitless possibilities. (That sounded like a commercial…)

Longer/Ongoing Series

Some writers are even going a further step by creating longer series of six, ten, twenty, or more books. This is also a good approach as it allows you even more breathing room than a trilogy would. However, it also poses dangers. Some readers may not take to such long investments. They want completed works that they can finish in a lifetime.

On the flip side, this allows a lot more opportunity to build a loyal fan base since you’re constantly providing them with new content. Contrary to what some others say, I think many readers would love to see their favorite writer keep cranking out books about their favorite characters.

Short Stories

You may say, “I thought this was about novels?” That may be, but short stories are a great way to continue writing side-quests and stories of your favorite characters without the investment a trilogy or series might take. Many authors have taken to writing short stories in the down time between publication of their novels to keep interest going. I think this is an excellent approach to give readers a taste of the worlds and characters they love, but with a lower cost and time investment. With services like Kindle Singles or blogging, you can also share your short stories in a variety of ways. By writing short stories in your world, you can create new storylines that may even play a part in future novels. Exciting, right?

With all that said, perhaps writing a trilogy is what is best for you. However, I’d largely consider the other options you have before you and see how they pan out. Perhaps a trilogy is best for one story while a standalone may work better for a completely different one.

So let’s turn the discussion to all of you. Why did you decide (or will you decide) to write a trilogy? If you don’t want to write a series, why did you choose a different path? I’d love to hear from you all in the comments!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

28 Responses to Should You Write a Fantasy Trilogy?

  1. A very engaging article. It left a lot to ponder. For example, when can we read that unicorn trilogy of yours, Phil? XD

    Jokes aside, trilogies have always seemed…. how do I put it…. cool? Maybe they’re convenient because they’re the perfect length, long enough to give ample breathing space for your plot and characters and satisfy your readers but not too long that the plot gets winded and story starts getting sucked dry. But I agree with the others that trilogies definitely don’t have to be the norm. Personally, I feel that if- or rather- when I start a series, if I let it flow naturally, it would probably stretch longer than three books. 

    However, the type of trilogy I would want to write is one in which each book would a standalone but still be tied to each other through through a major arc. They would probably be spaced far apart in the timeline, allowing the readers to see how the world changes and is impacted by the events of the previous book with more subtler connections and tie-ins between the three books that one would only be able to fully perceive after he has read the entire trilogy. So though each book is a standalone and provides closure, piecing together the backstory and the curve of the story arc that binds the books would add more depth and be like a bonus. That’s the type of intricate trilogy I’d want to write someday…. someday…. (sigh)

  2. I’m currently writing what I *believe* will be a trilogy, though after around 40k words, it’s looking more and more like it may go even longer. I basically had a general idea for a story and knew I wanted it set in a fantasy world, but as I’ve gone along, I’ve added sub-plots and new characters and scenes and it’s becoming a pretty big thing. And it’s a blast!

  3. My first fantasy novel was supposed to be a stand alone, but, like many others, half way through I realised I couldn’t tell the story in one book. After considering the full story I wanted to tell, I’ve determined it is a trilogy, and with book four that will be a stand alone in the same world to tie up a side story that appears in all three books.

    I also began writing what I called character sketches for the main characters in the books. These became stand alone short stories. I have published two so far. I offer them for free at the moment, so readers can get a taste of my writing and the novels. I have several others written, and when the trilogy is complete, I will package the short stories in one book and sell them too.

    Thanks for sharing your insight. It’s important to remember we have many options.

  4. Philip_Overby Mike Cairns  
    Hi, cheers for the reply.
    I rarely plan ahead, so I don’t tend to suffer from the overwhelm!
    With regards to the trilogy I just finished, I actually really enjoyed writing it in one big go. I felt the tone and characters remained consistent throughout. I write pretty fast, about 30K words a week, so it’s very doable. 
    My first trilogy, the first of which is already out and the second of which is coming out in a few months, was written over a couple of years and in the edit I’m finding big discrepancies in voice and so on. They were the first books I wrote so it’s not surprising, but I think with the new set, the edit will be much easier.

  5. StorytellerGRL That’s a good strategy I think. I’m hoping my series will have the same appeal in that readers will feel like the story came to a logical conclusion in some way, but will also want to see what happens next to the same batch of characters.

  6. As I was finishing up the first draft of a stand-alone fantasy novel, I realized that there was more story I wanted to tell, so it became a trilogy. I wanted each book to be sort of stand-alone, though – I wanted a reader to feel satisfied by reading just one book and to get a complete story. Book two and book three feed off of the previous ones, though, so starting with book three is probably not the best idea. ;-) I like to read stand-alones, trilogies, and series, so when writing this story, I decided to let the plot and characters dictate how long it needed to be. I’m now revising book one, writing a first draft of book two, and outlining book three.

  7. Mike Cairns I agree that I’m a big fan of series, but I found that I’d start what I thought would be one and never finish the first book because I’d become overwhelmed. I decided to just take one book at a time and see what evolved out of it. So for me, instead of planning a series or trilogy, I just see if the story I want to tell needs expanding. 

    I’m also a fan of the Dragonlance books and the other series you mentioned. I know for sure that the next book I write is most certainly going to be a standalone as I want time to give the “Book 1s” in my series I plan to do some time to breathe before jumping back in.

  8. aford21 Thanks! Glad you found it entertaining. I’m also hoping to do more standalones than series if possible. I have a lot of favorite trilogies myself (The First Law, many of the old Dragonlance trilogies from when I was a kid, etc.)

  9. What an entertaining read! This article certainly made me think through my fantasy world. I certainly didn’t want to let it go which is why I’m focused on standalone’s in the same world….or worlds rather.
    However I love trilogies though right up there with The Hobbit :) and The Lord of the Rings!

  10. Hi Philip
    Great questions. I’ve just finished my zombie vs assassins dark fantasy trilogy :)

    It wasn’t going to be a trilogy, but as with you, I got halfway through the first and thought ‘okay, this one needs to be tad longer’. Then I got halfway through the second book and became convinced it was going to run for about five books. Then one of the main characters died and the invasion came quicker than I thought and it wrapped up neatly in three!

    I love the idea of a series, but my books almost always feature around a main character or characters and once their story’s told, that’s the end of it. It would feel disingenuous to keep going at that point. 

    I’m a huge fan of the Malazan books and Game of Thrones and I love a good series, but I’ll only write one when the characters demand it. 

    I do think there is something magical about trilogies. All my favourite fantasy series as a kid were trilogies (I started with the dragonlance books) and as Tony says in the comments, as long as you have a strong three act structure, there’s something wonderful about spending so long with a set of characters. 
    That for me is the reason to write trilogies. I want people to really live with my characters and want to spend time with them and the longer format gives me the chance to explore and expand them. 

    cheers
    MIke

  11. Thanks everyone for the comments so far. It’s interesting to see all the different approaches to writing a series. After I finish what I”m currently working on, I’d love to do a more open-ended series next. That way I can write in the same world and have different characters focused on in each novel a la Joe Abercrombie’s books.

  12. Erin,
    I believe it’s better to stretch out your story to another book than feel rushed. That’s why I decided to start writing a series when I had planned not to, because I don’t want to rush something just for the sake of calling it “complete.”

  13. Keanan,

    I like the idea of a cycle. It gives the option to work in the same world with standalones without feeling the need to carry on the same storyline over multiple books.

  14. Hi Tony,

    If you’re planning a series, do you feel like you’ll just write it until it comes to a logical conclusion? I guess that’s what GRRM is doing now with A Song of Ice and Fire. It started out as a trilogy and just got bigger and bigger so he decided to make it seven books instead.

  15. Matt,
    That’s interesting to note because I’m thinking of trying a duology myself. I’m not sure I need to do a trilogy because it might not be necessary. At the same time, I have to determine this probably once I start outlining the second book.

  16. adriandiglio You make some good points. It’s hard to tell if doing one long continuous series is better than doing several trilogies instead. I imagine doing multiple trilogies gives the reader and writer a sense of completion. For example, Trilogy 1 may follow one arc to completion, while Trilogy 2 may follow a different group of characters in the same world. I’m not sure if every reader wants to make an investment for a long series, but they may be fine with making a smaller commitment to a trilogy.

  17. This has always been a topic that I’ve wondered about. Let’s say I wanted to write a series of 9 books. From a business perspective, is it better to write it as 3 trilogies or as a series of 9? Common sense tells me that the first book in a series will always sell more than each subsequent book in the series (as some readers inevitably won’t complete the whole series). So, in that regard, wouldn’t it be better to have 3 trilogies? It gives readers more closure, and to be frank, it might help out the author’s wallet a little. In addition, I think a trilogy is more in line with what a publisher wants (or is willing to commit to in a contract).

    I compare it to Terry Brooks who writes numerous trilogies in the same world, whereas Steven Erikson’s 10 book series: Malazan Book of the Fallen, is a huge investment to a reader (as Philip Overby points out). Both authors are successful, but doesn’t it seem like trilogies are easier to swallow for readers?

  18. I’m writing a four book series. No trilogy because I feel like I’d have to rush if it was a trilogy.

  19. I’m condensing what was morphing into a trilogy back down to a duology. The reason for two books rather than three: The story flows better if divided in half rather than into thirds. I can complete certain portions of the story by the end of book one, while still leading into the rest of the story for the second book. There are two more novels, so some might call it a series, but since the other two can stand alone (a distant-past prequel and a distant-future sequel), I’m calling it a cycle.

  20. You know, I wrote a trilogy. And then after rewriting for six years, I realized that the third book was unnecessary and actually detracted from the story. So I made the super scary choice of publishing a two-book series. And it turned out wonderfully. People think in terms of trilogies because trilogies are the fad, but your story is most unlikely to be a trilogy when you let it guide itself. If you allow the story to progress and find its own ending naturally, it probably won’t come out as precisely three books of equal size.

  21. I’m writing a series at the moment. I decided against a trilogy because, frankly, a trilogy requires a lot of advanced planning. You need a clearly defined first, second, and third act. Otherwise, it feels off balance. With a series, on the other hand, you can keep telling the story, and work your way to the end when it feels right.

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